Circle J Club Resort, Park City, Utah / photo by © Jennifer Booth
We’re already creeping up on the end of January, and here in Park City that means the Sundance Film Festival is fast approaching. Each year, film enthusiasts from all over the world flood our tiny town to watch, relax, eat, shop and party – and over the next week, I’ll give you the inside scoop on all the best places in town to do those things in the Unofficial Visitor's Guide to Park City + Surviving the Sundance Film Festival.
Although I’ve never been to any official Sundance events, the area-wide circus it creates does play a huge role in my life every year – and the traffic in particular is a nightmare. Combine the crazed winter weather with the vast amounts of people that are crammed into a relatively small mountain space (people who may or may not have experience driving in winter weather), and things can get pretty hairy. Even with minimal traffic, driving on our snow-packed streets can be downright terrifying - even the best drivers can freeze up, which spells doom on an icy road at 70 miles an hour. With that in mind, I've collected some tips for surviving roads that can turn scary when the snow starts to fly.
DO drive slowly
I’d like to think that this one falls under the DUH category, but I’ve seen plenty of cars fly off the road recently just because they were driving too fast. If it’s snowing – even if the road looks clear – slow your ass down. There are a lot of hills and mountain passes up here, and you never know when you’re going to zip over the top to find the other side packed with snow. The lower your speed, the less likely you are to slide – and if you do slide, it’s much easier to maintain control if you’re going 45mph or less (depending on conditions). More speed also equates to more damage to your vehicle and its occupants in an accident. It’s SCIENCE.
DON’T slam on your brakes
When you hit a slushy patch or start to slide, your first instinct is probably going to be to slam on your brakes – but as soon as those tires stop spinning, you lose control of the vehicle.
If your car is equipped with an anti-lock breaking system, you can step on the brake as you normally would (NOT slam, step. Slowly.). The ABS is supposed to prevent your wheels from locking up (which would cause a skid); most newer cars come standard with such a system, but check your car's owner manual to be certain. If you drive an older vehicle that doesn't have ABS, you should pump your brakes (tap, release, tap, release, tap, etc.).
If you drive a stick shift or have a manual mode option, try downshifting to reduce your speed instead of braking. It's the perfect alternative for slowing down when you're not in imminent danger (i.e. flying toward a light post or another vehicle - these would be situations for braking).
DO keep the defrost on
This is probably one of the first buttons you hit when you slide into your frozen car, but eventually it gets shut off – allowing the windshield to get cold and fog up again (it’s cold outside, and your windshield is in constant, direct contact with that cold, so yes, it’s going to get cold again, even if your car is an oven). Keeping the defrost on will help improve your visibility, which is kind of necessary when it’s dark and scary and stormy outside.
DON’T make any sudden movements
Just like hiding from a T-Rex in Jurassic Park, don’t make any sudden movements when driving on snow-packed roads. Jerking the wheel, turning sharply or braking too quickly can start a slide that you may or may not be able to get out of (see tip #1 / re: Newton's laws of motion). Unfortunately, driving in a stick-straight line isn’t really an option up here with all of our winding mountain roads, but if you drive slowly and make gradual turns, you’re less likely to end up hood-first in the snow.
DO invest in a vehicle that’s equipped to deal with the snow
Whether you’re a tourist renting an SUV for the week or a local looking to beef up your auto for the season, this means a front-, all or 4-wheel drive vehicle with good tires that have lots of tread, preferably of the snow variety with siping. Rear-wheel drive is the absolute worst in the snow (and keep in mind that there is a difference between all- and 4-wheel drive).
If you’re renting a vehicle for your visit, make sure you check the tread on the tires before you pull out of the lot, and request a different vehicle or new tires if the current ones are looking bare. The absolute most important thing on a vehicle in a snowstorm is the tires; the better your tread, the less likely you are to slide or get stuck.
It's important to note that most of the vehicles we see off the road are trucks and SUVs that are equipped with AWD/4WD; these drivers tend to be overconfident, thinking their drivetrain can handle anything Mother Nature can throw at them. In truth, all- and 4-wheel drive only decrease the chances of getting stuck; they don't improve the car's handling on the roads. These features do provide an advantage, but you still need to be cautious and use common sense.
Also note that the heavier your vehicle is, the easier it will be to get it going (and less likely it is to get stuck) – but it also means it’s harder to stop. If you do get stuck, clear the snow from around your wheels and put something under them to help them gain traction (kitty litter is the best, but the floor mats from your car will do in a pinch).
DON’T be an idiot
You can have the best, most well equipped vehicle with the best, newest snow tires in the whole entire world, and still end up on the side of the road. There’s just no substitute for an alert, focused driver with two hands on the wheel – so turn the phone off, turn your butt warmer on, slow down and pay attention to the road. Driving in a blizzard can be utterly petrifying, and it's easy to panic when your car starts to slide towards a cliff, but you're much more likely to make a wise decision about what to do if you've been paying attention and are aware of your surroundings.
and if you do start to slide...
The most common "tip" you'll hear is that you should "steer into the skid". Not only does that lack sense, it's not very accurate either. The key to maintaining control of a vehicle in a skid is to maintain control of yourself. We tend to steer in whatever direction we're looking, so lock your eyes on your target (not where the skid is taking you, but where you want to go) and do your best to point the car in that direction - and while it sounds counterintuitive, you should definitely not brake; in fact, you should tap the gas just a bit. The extra power will help the car overcome the skid and get back on track. The worst thing you can do is panic, overcorrect and brake - this will throw you right off the road.
If the idea of driving in a blizzard scares the daylights out of you (as it does me), or if you find yourself on a wintry road and on the verge of blind panic, try taking a few deep breaths. My winter driving mantra is "stay calm, go slow, no sudden movements", and so far I've managed to survive eleven Utah winters as a driver by repeating it to myself any time I feel the anxiety start to kick in. It's terrifying, sure, but it's also doable. That said, when it's really bad out, stay home or call a cab. Don't put yourself at risk on icy, unsafe roads without damn good reason.
It's better to drive slowly and take the extra time than to risk an accident that could affect your life and the lives of others.
Have something you'd like to add? Shout it out in the comments below! And don't forget to check back daily for the rest of our Surviving Sundance/Park City Visitor's Guide - still to come: a carry on check list, day-to-night-freezing-temp-appropriate-movie-festival-worthy outfit inspiration and an in-depth guide on where to shop, eat, relax and get your party on while visiting Park City (better yet, subscribe to M&K to get the entire series sent straight to your inbox every morning so you don't miss a post; subscribers will also receive a gorgeous e-book version of the Surviving Sundance/Park City Visitor's Guide series in PDF format for handy reference on the go!).
*Keep in mind that I’m not a driving expert – just someone who drives in winter weather conditions on a pretty regular basis. These tips are based on my own personal experience, combined with advice from actual professionals and sprinkled with common sense based on the laws of physics.