Don’t get stuck – Winter trailhead driving

More people seem to get stuck on the way to or from the winter trailhead. Here’s some advice on how not to get stuck…or what to do if you do.



This sign was on the road where people were..wait for it..STUCK! 🙂

Recently, Ms. A and I skied up what was, in the past, a quiet jeep road that makes a nice, quick ski tour with some great scenery of the Continental Divide.

In the three years since I’ve done this tour, it has become more popular with off-road enthusiasts.

The road allows vehicles, so I smile, wave and move on. Most of the off-road enthusiasts gave an equally friendly wave back. They were also very courteous and were kind enough to let us ski around them in tighter situations.  It is not quite the quiet ski tour of the past, but we made do.

A week or two later, I was on a solo ski tour that started at a popular winter trailhead. In the past, most people stopped at the winter gate rather than drive the .5 miles or so open to vehicles on the road. Usually quicker to snowshoe or ski up rather than try to navigate the snowy road.

In both cases, people become stuck in the snow in their stock 4WD or even AWD (with lower clearance) vehicles.

In the first example, almost two miles in the vehicles became stuck.  If the weather was terrible and the snow ended up being deeper or not packed down, a possibly dangerous situation for the ill-prepared might happen. The young twenty-somethings (or perhaps teens) did not look to have warm clothing appropriate for the environment.

In the second place, people were stuck only about .25 miles from the trailhead.  Not as dangerous by any means since it is a short walk to the trailhead, there is an emergency phone at the TH, cell reception is available, and a decent sized town is very close by with a walk or hitch from the trailhead.

But here’s the critical thing. Something that eliminates many of the “getting stuck issues”:  For the sake of avoiding maybe fifteen minutes of self-propelled travel, the snow became all chewed up, the vehicles became stuck, and a very expensive tow (I assume) occurred.

When discussing winter backcountry activities, we often talk about layers, destinations, or gear needed.

But it seems like an inordinate amount of issues happen to and from the activity. People become stuck, lost, and get into a situation they did not expect. The problems can range from a minor inconvenience at best to a dangerous situation at worst.

So here’s my take on getting to and from a winter trailhead.

The vehicle  

The least essential part 🙂 See above simply parking and walking a bit instead…

In general:

No matter what vehicle you have, good snow tires are key. If you do not have room to alternate the storage of snow tires and all-season tires at your place, at least make sure the all-season tires are ones with good tread.

  • An FWD vehicle is, usually, good enough to get to a winter trailhead in normal conditions. With chains, a vehicle can even go down some very well packed FS roads.
  • An AWD vehicle is usually good enough if the roads are iffy or if there is some snow at the trailhead itself. Some have better ground clearance than others. Again, chains can help esp if the snow is not too deep and powdery.
  • A stock 4WD vehicle works well on maintained rougher roads with some, but not too deep, newer/non-packed snow. If the road is particularly rough, snowy or non-maintained…I really would not take your stock vehicle up the road. It will, more than likely, get stuck.  Unless you have aggressive snow tires, or perhaps even chains and good ground clearance, why bother?  Usually quicker to walk, ski or snowshoe than navigate on these snowy roads. Better than an expensive tow if you should get stuck, too!     Plus, you are out there for winter backcountry activities. The ski/snowshoe/walk on the snowy road will get you all warmed up. 😉
  • I drove a 2WD RWD pickup for many years,  in Colorado no less. Rather, ah, interesting at times in snowy conditions. :O More by necessity than by choice!

This AWD car was stuck less than 1/4 mile from the trailhead on a snowy road.

…and that’s the extent of my off-roading knowledge! 😉

Unless you are into off-roading (and have the right vehicle equipped properly) and need to get far up a non-maintained dirt road in winter, it is just easier to park and then head up on your own two feet.

Even the most careful of drivers can get stuck. Sometimes because of bad weather, mechanical issues or even an “oops”.

Some things to keep in the vehicle just in case:

  • First, always check your fluids before the trip. Oil level OK? Transmission fluid looks good? Windshield wiper fluid topped off? Battery terminals clean? Keep extra windshield washer fluid stowed in the car too. Nothing worse than running out of windshield washer fluid and not being able to see on the busy road. I had one scary moment when this happened. Hasn’t happened since. 🙂
  • Try not to get low on gas, either. When in doubt, fill up before going to the trailhead.
  • Ice scraper and snow brush. Seems obvious..but many people seem to forget this basic item.
  • A shovel!  If you do any backcountry winter activities, your avy shovel works beautifully. Small, compact and good enough to dig you out of minor “oopsies.”  A similar utility snow shovel can be purchased that works well for winter camping and stowing in your car. (Note: they are not avalanche shovel rated. Just a heads up. )
  • When I drove my 2WD pickup, I kept a small plastic bucket of ice melt. Came in handy with the shovel to get me out of the occasional small incline that was icy. Could work well for FWD cars, too. (I really did not like driving my 2WD truck in the snowy areas if I could avoid it..even in town!)
  • Just in case your battery is weak from cold (or leaving lights on): Jumper cables.  Better yet, invest in a battery jumper. A good one with an adequate CCA rating, depending on your needs, is ~$100+/-.  Good if you go solo or to more remote trailheads. There may not be someone to give you a jump.  With an adapter, can even charge your phone and power a camp light, etc. for when the power goes out at home.
    • And if you have a low tire, it is pain to swap in a spare esp. for some trailhead conditions. A $30 air compressor makes a major PITA a minor inconvenience.
  • Basic tools. A vise grip and a basic screwdriver set at the very least. And duct tape. (‘Natch)  That loose battery connection that is preventing your car from starting up is not as big a deal if you have a simple socket set. A Home Depot sells a basic set at the checkout aisle for less than $10. Be sure to get SAE or metric depending on the car you drive. Or splurge and get one that does both for $30!
  • You should already have a headlamp on you if you are going into the backcountry (even for a day), but a spare headlamp in the car is a good idea, too. Home Depot, Costco, etc often sell inexpensive headlamps in three-packs, with lithium batteries. Keep one in your car, one at home for when the power goes out, and have a spare to boot (or your other vehicle if you have one)!
  • A car GPS or your phone is good. But seems to have limitations on FS, BLM or similar roads. And a larger overview is handy.  I keep a backcountry Colorado road atlas  (and swap in others as appropriate) in the car because getting lost sucks!


If the weather turns or your car dies, and you REALLY get stuck

And sometimes, bad things can happen. Best to be prepared.

If you are on an outdoor trip in winter, you should already have some warm clothing, water, and a bit of food. Perhaps even a sleeping bag and pad if on an overnight trip. Still, some extra things to keep in the car if things get nasty (again, esp in a remote area)

  • I have an old pocket knife and a lighter in my vehicle.
  • Likewise, an extra charger cable and possibly a cigarette lighter adapter for the phone in the car is expedient.  We also have a 10k MaH battery in the car, too.
  • A space blanket is light, does not take up much space, and is inexpensive.  A good thing to have.
  • Again, you probably have one already in your outdoor supplies, but a first aid kit of some sort is not a bad idea to keep in the car either. Many vehicles seem to come with them now.
  • An old rain suit, warm hat, an old fleece, gloves, and an umbrella also have a permanent place in our vehicle.
  • Many people will also stash a sleeping bag in the vehicle esp if they are in remote areas.
  • I know people, again, esp in remote areas, who told me they keep a small amount of canned food, granola bars, etc, and bottled water in their vehicle “just in case.”
  • And if it is REALLY bad – stay with the vehicle. It could be better in the morning. A somewhat uncomfortable night’s sleep is better than getting lost in whiteout conditions.

Photo courtesy of National Institute of Fire and Safety Training.

So there are some tips on getting to and from the trailhead. Use some common sense,  be prepared if something should happen, and have fun when you arrive!

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments