Snow Wheeling in California

Story & Photos by Rick Russell

Ray Sarkin drives a 1986 4Runner. The second Marlin Crawlers transfer case gives the Toyota a 200:1 low gear for very slow speeds in the snow.


I attended the California Association of 4WD Club"s 26th Annual Winter Fun Fest in Grass Valley, California to talk with participants about how their vehicles were set up for snow and to seek driving tips for our readers. I convinced my daughter, who was home on break from college, to come along. It was easy to convince her to go as I promised she could drive so that I take pictures.
Grass Valley is located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range where snowfall is common in the winter. The scheduled trailruns vary from an SUV trip through historic areas including a stop for your favorite latte at a local coffee shop) to running extreme trails covered in 3-4 feet of snow (lockers required).


Of course you can guess which runs I took: deep snow trails requiring locking differentials, of course. For many of us living in the United States, the snow falls within driving distance only a few months a year. And even then, it melts too quickly to enjoy it. If you have never taken your 4x4 out for a snow run, you"re missing out on an incredible adventure. Whether you"re blazing a trail through the snow, taking the family sledding or traveling across country, there are some driving techniques that will help you, items you should consider carrying and upgrades you may consider adding to your already over-budget 4x4. We talked to four snow-wise participants to get their thoughts and look over their vehicles.

It is important to have a buddy vehicle with you on snow trips. My daughter, Erica, lends a helping hand.

Our first snow run began Saturday morning. Ray Sarkin was the trail leader in his 1986 4Runner. When I asked Ray how often he comes to the snow in the winter, his answer was simple, "Every time it snows." Ray"s Toyota is running the stock engine, transmission transfer case, axles and Birfields. In pursuit of lower gears, Ray changed the differential ratios to 529:1 with lockers and installed a second transfer case. Those modifications give his Toyota a final gear ratio of 200:1 and power at all four wheels. The lower ratio helps slow driving in the snow without spinning a tire. Staun Bead Locks keep the 37x12.50 R15 Goodyear MT/R tires on the rims at low air pressure (just 3 lbs. today) and the

Every one of these snow bashing vehicles has a winch, a front bumper and rear bumper strong enough to be used as an anchor. Each vehicle carries a shovel, air compressor, lockers, tow strap and food. One of our experienced winter trail blazers brings food, water and clothing for 3 days.
ExtremeAire compressor provide plenty of air to pump the tires back up to normal air pressure before returning to the highway. A Warn 9000 winch and a shovel are Ray"s security to get unstuck.
In our group of 35 vehicles on this trail ride were various types of 4x4s, including a well-equipped 2007 FJ driven by John Jeremy and was equipped with 35x12.5 R17 Goodyear MT/R tires on Walker Evans beadlock wheels. John has installed the All Pro control arms and rear bumper, ARB front bumper with a Warn 9000 winch and a Safari Snorkel. The Viair compressor provides plenty of air pressure in the tires once out of the snow and a dual battery set-up for more reserve power to run the winch and 12-volt compressor.

We caught up with Guy Rose and Marc Bregman on Sunday leading the Iceberg Trail ride. Both of these guys have worked hard to prepare their 4x4s for snow trips.

Marc Bregman got his introduction to snow bashing while he was in the U.S.A. military. Now he drives a 2003 Jeep Rubicon.

They led our group across mountain roads to reach higher elevations. After about a 45-minute drive, the pavement disappeared under a pile of snow. There everyone aired down and locked in. The caravan of 4x4s followed one-another over the snow pile and onto the deep snow. At first it resembled a freight train with the vehicles evenly spaced and following the tracks left by the leaders. That all ended when a vehicle attempted to pass another by driving into untracked snow. Then another attempted to drive around and another. Pretty soon it looked more like a train wreck. Before we could finish airing down they had pulled and dug until all of them were back into the tracks and heading toward the top of the mountain. Watching these guys laughing and having fun, emphasized the first rule of driving in the snow, "Bring buddy vehicles." That way if you do get stuck, it just adds to the adventure. Of course a winch can serve as your buddy, but it"s a lot more work. Our trail leaders were there to make sure that every vehicle that drove onto the snow covered road, found their way back. Having pre-run the trail, they were confident that when the vehicles reached the end of their tracks they would not go too much further. And they were right.
Guy drives a Wrangler YJ body bolted onto a 1976 CJ-7. For more power, he installed a throttle body injected 350

After several snow storms the unplowed roads and turnouts made a perfect playground for snow bashing. The only caution was not to dig through the snow crust and into the dirt in the turnouts. On this day, the surface was buried about 2-3 feet under snow.

Chevy motor with a 700r4 automatic transmission. More power requires a stronger drive train, so the axles were upgraded to a Dana 44 front and a Dana 60 rear with 35-spline Dutchman axles. Both are set up with ARB Air Lockers and 4:88 gears. The lockers put power at every wheel for maximum traction in the snow or mud. His Goodyear MT/Rs with just 4 lbs of air pull his Jeep through the snow with ease, until he gets stuck. Then uses his Warn 9000 winch or a buddy vehicle to extract his 4x4. In extreme situations he pulls out a shovel and digs the snow away from the differentials and builds a runway for each tire to get moving again. Running just 4 psi usually requires a beadlock to keep the tire on the rim but Guy likes living on the edge. He"s not running beadlocks. However, he does know how to put the tire back on the rim if it was pushed off the bead. Guy converted York air conditioning compressor to pump air by utilizing mounting brackets, an air filter and oil return system. In addition to installing his own air compressor system, he has a dual battery system and hot water shower.
Our other trail hand was Marc Bregman who drives a 2003 Rubicon. A military Humvee gave Marc his first experience driving in the snow, and he"s been hooked ever since. Like the Humvee, the Rubicon Jeeps are already equipped with factory lockers and a low gear ratio. The Rubicon uses a 4:1 transfer case. But Marc wanted lower gears, so he changed to 4:88s. He"s not sure whether the 5 speed manual transmission has any advantages over an automatic in the snow, but he likes the manual control. Airing up the tires is easy with an Air Rock Suspension system that uses a York compressor and taps into the system for airing his 37-inch tires by using the Smittybilt nerf bars as air storage tanks. He runs Rock Monster beadlocks with 4 psi of air. The most unique feature of his "03 Rubicon is the Exo-cage that"s built with 400 feet of 1/4 inch wall tubing. The 1,000 lb. cage is designed to protect the occupants in all the seats. And yes, he has tested it.


These trail blazing 4 wheelers may have different vehicles but there"s a consensus among them for driving in the snow. Use taller tires (mud terrain type), a winch, an air compressor, locking differentials and solid tow points on both ends of the vehicle, bring a shovel, use the throttle as a last resort to get through the snow, a spinning tire will dig when the vehicle stops moving forward and travel with buddy vehicles.

About the author: Rick Russell has been traveling the backroads of the United States and Baja for over 30 years. His company Sidekick Off Road produces maps and videos of his adventures. You may meet him in Moab or on the trail driving his 1956 CJ-6 or his newly built Jeep constructed completely from aftermarket products. His videos and maps can be found in 4 Wheel Parts Performance Centers.


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