Driving a motorhome in winter

By: Laura Gray, Photography by: Matt Fehlberg, Video by: Anna Pastukhova


Enjoy RVing in Australia’s alpine region – even in winter – with the right gear and some technical know-how.

With their rigid chassis, internal heaters and creature comforts, motorhomes are perfect RVs to travel Australia’s alpine areas in winter. In fact, a lot of the time, they’re the only RV that is allowed into such areas, as many alpine roads are deemed unsuitable for trailers, caravans and campers during the cooler months.

And while taking a 4.5T motorhome up a steep mountain like Victoria’s Mt Hotham and the infamous Great Alpine Great Road is certainly not for faint-hearted, with a bit of forward-planning, some tips and tricks from those with experience, and a lot of common sense, it can be a spectacular and rewarding winter getaway.

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So instead of heading north or throwing a cover over the RV and packing it up next winter, consider a motorhome trip to the beautiful High Country!

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FUEL FOR THE SNOW

If you drive a diesel-powered motorhome, as most modern motorhomes including our Jayco Conquest Play are, it’s very important to use alpine diesel or a winter fuel additive in the fuel tank when you’re travelling in an area that could potentially have sub-zero temperatures.

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Regular diesel starts to thicken at cold temperatures, potentially clogging your filters, affecting the engine’s performance and possibly even preventing your motorhome from starting.

Alpine fuel and winter additives help to lower the temperature at which the diesel starts to thicken, preventing the above from happening.

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This becomes particularly important if you’re camping overnight but it’s even worth doing for shorter trips or stopovers if the temperatures are expected to be very low.

You need to add alpine diesel to a virtually empty tank for it to be most effective (less than a quarter full) so, if you haven’t planned ahead for that, adding winter fuel additive to your existing fuel is the next best thing.

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Both are sold at most petrol stations around alpine areas, so it’s best to get it sorted before you head up the mountain.

We had refuelled the Conquest Play in Yea, so arrived in Bright 236km later with a relatively full tank and not much room for alpine fuel. We topped up with Caltex Alpine Diesel anyway, and added a winter fuel additive at the prescribed ratio of 1ml/L fuel.

SNOW CHAINS

It’s imperative for safety reasons, whether legally required or not, to carry snow chains at all times when travelling the alpine areas of Australia in winter.

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In some ski resorts and alpine areas, you’re not required to carry chains at all times – only when directed or when travelling overnight. However, in other areas, such as Mt Hotham where we visited, snow chains are mandatory all winter long and all visitors to the area must carry diamond-pattern chains at all times. This is to ensure motorists are not ‘caught out’ if the weather changes while you’re on the mountain.

CHAIN SIZES AND TYPES

There are few different types of snow chains available in Australia – the most common are ladder chains and diamond-pattern chains, however, diamond-pattern chains offer a far superior grip and are a much better choice. This type of chain is becoming far more common at hire outlets but, in some circumstances, you may need to request them when you pick your chains up.

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The other thing you need to consider when buying or hiring your chains is the size – different vehicles require different sized chains, so you’ll need to work out in advance what size you need. You do this by finding the tyre size, which is printed on the side-wall of your tyre, and using a chain sizing guide to select the correct size.

WHEN TO FIT YOUR CHAINS

Carrying chains and fitting them are two very different prospects – I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to fit chains to a vehicle over the past few winters. However, it pays to be prepared.

Your chain hire outlet should show you how to fit your chains properly before you leave, so you can do it yourself when required. It’s not a difficult task but may take some practice, so ensure you’re comfortable fitting them before you head up the mountain.

Whether or not you have to fit chains, and how far up the mountain you have to do it, will depend on the weather, so you need to keep an eye on local information (radio, social media, etc) and signage up the mountain.

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Chains aren’t only used when there’s fresh snow on the road; they’re also necessary in slippery or icy conditions. The requirements may also differ between two-wheel, all-wheel and four-wheel drive vehicles. It is quite common for 2WDs to have to fit chains, when AWDs and 4WDs do not. However, if in doubt, always fit your chains – it’s better to be safe than sorry!

Once the chains are fitted, it’s important you drive the motorhome (or car) forwards 10-20m at about 20km/h to allow the chain to settle into place. Once you’ve done this, jump out and check the chains again – they will probably need re-tightening.

You’ll have to drive much more slowly with chains fitted, and you’ll find the drive a lot noisier and bumpier. However, you must leave them on until you descend the mountain or leave the alpine area and pass the designated ‘chain removal’ bay, which signals it’s safe to descend without them.

WHEEL CHOCKS

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There’s a possibility of your handbrake freezing into place if you use it in cold alpine areas. So, when you’re parking your motorhome (or car) for an extended period of time, or the weather is extremely cold, it’s essential that you don’t use the handbrake.

Instead, use the park brake (in an automatic) or leave the vehicle in gear (in a manual) and chock the wheels with suitably-rated, purpose-built RV wheel chocks.

You may have to hunt around for chocks which are suitable for the snow/ice and won’t slip – but don’t be tempted to bring blocks of wood instead, as many ski resorts will not allow it. 

DRIVING TIPS IN ALPINE AREAS

All the gear you need for your mountain escapade is just one part of the equation – the other is how to drive up, and down, the mountain safely. Driving on icy or snow-covered roads is a completely different proposition to regular, everyday driving, so it’s imperative you know what you’re doing.

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The most important thing is to drive in manual, rather than automatic, and to use the gears to slow down the motorhome rather than the brake. You really want to avoid braking as much as possible, preferably at all. Use of the gears to control the speed should be done early, as their ability to slow a vehicle is far less effective than a brake.

On steep descents, keeping the speed and gear very low at the start on the hill will ensure the vehicle is travelling at a safe speed further down.

Many modern motorhomes, such as the Conquest Play, have an automated manual transmission (AMT) which means it can be driven in manual or auto. We found the Conquest Play’s seven-speed AMT gearbox super smooth and definitely capable of handling the steep terrain of Mt Hotham.

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If you do start to skid on ice in your motorhome, you have a split second to work out what is causing you to skid and to stop doing it. If you’re braking, don’t brake harder; if you’re accelerating, gently ease off the accelerator.

If the situation becomes dire and the safety of yourself or your passengers is severely compromised, your last option is to purposely ditch the motorhome into a snowbank or another natural feature to save you going off the side of a mountain!

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #568. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!