In my never-ending quest to build the ultimate expeditionary vehicle, a good portion of my focus has been spent analyzing various trail and weather conditions, and gauging the FJ’s capability under said conditions. I am once again breaking away from the modding time line in order to get feedback on a more recent experience, one involving the FJ and its performance in two plus feet of snow.
The mid-Atlantic region was recently blanketed with what the meteorologists dubbed, “an epic winter storm.” The fallout of this event was more than two feet of snow and ice, and now they’re calling for another 20 inches on top of that. Marylanders are used to getting snow in the winter, but it rarely accumulates with such ferocity. Thankfully, we were well prepared and decided it would be best spent holed up in the house for a few days rather than venture out too far. But by mid-afternoon the next day, the snowing had ceased, leaving us with a wonderful landscape of frosty goodness.
I spent a few hours digging out the sidewalks but left the main drive for after I had a chance to play a bit with the FJ. It’s not too often we get this much snow in one sitting so it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I threw the FJ into four-wheel-drive (4WD) high gear, and backed it out of the garage. I felt immediate resistance but the Nitto Terra Grapplers began to dig, forcing the FJ backwards. This continued until I was about 12 feet out of the garage and then things drew to a standstill. Mind you, the tires were not aired down and in two feet of snow, my odds would have been much improved if they had been. But I didn’t feel like hassling with firing up the compressor or wasting CO2 for a quick test drive so I left them at full pressure. Shifting to 4WD low gear made no difference. I tried various combinations of the A-Trac and rear locker only to be met with utter defeat. So I turned off the engine and got out of the FJ to review my predicament more closely.
Upon closer inspection, it was pretty easy to tell why I was going nowhere. With two plus feet of snow to push through, the lowest points on the vehicle, mainly the differentials, were acting is mini plows, creating a lot of resistance. On top of that, the same flat-belly skid plates that are designed to protect my under-components, were now behaving as a giant compress, packing the snow into a giant wedge that would eventually result in high centering. Since I was moving in reverse, and the snowline was above the frame rails, the snow was being forcefully compressed under the belly of the vehicle with no place to exit. As more snow built up underneath, weight on each of the tires was slowly reduced, and likewise my traction. With no substantial weight on the wheels, the tires began to spin, fusing the once powdery snow into perfect little ice cups under each of the tires. It was quite the eye-opener. I consider the belly skids to be of prime importance for most trail conditions, protecting vital components in the harsher elements. But in these particular conditions, the skids actually proved detrimental, effectively stalling all progress. So the question is, where do I go from here?
From a purely percentage point of view, the skids are bound to see much more trail than they will deep snow. And even in deep snow, there may still be obstacles present that could damage belly components. So all in all, it doesn’t make sense to remove them. What is the solution then? What alternate means do I have to ensure that the FJ will be fully capable when Frosty comes a-callin’? In my own interest, I began researching again, to see if there weren’t some easy-to-implement solutions out there that would enhance the FJ’s snowshoe survival kit.
One of the first and most impressive (READ: expensive) results I discovered is a company named Arctic Trucks, based out of Reykjavík, Iceland. This company has spent the last several decades customizing and modifying vehicles to withstand the harsh conditions of sub-zero environments. For those of you who might have missed the Top Gear Polar Special where they traversed the Arctic Circle in a Toyota Hilux, you can view the entire episode here. It’s over an hour long but really quite entertaining. For a quick teaser of what an Arctic Truck vehicle can do though, check out the following video:
While my wife was unimpressed by the above, I was left awe-inspired and pumped plum-full of testosterone. To be realistic though, it’s highly unlikely that the FJ will ever see conditions as harsh as the Arctic Circle. Running 44″ shoes (tires) like those seen in the video would no doubt affect my mileage a bit and is obviously overkill for a vehicle that lives 80 percent of its life on the pavement. But the modifications performed to the Toyota Hilux in the video go a long way to proving that traction is indeed possible in deep snow. So putting the skid plate issue aside for the moment, I decided to focus on the traction element itself to see how I could improve.
As of this writing (early 2010), Maryland law prohibits residents from using studded tires on state- or county-maintained roadways. It does not, however, prevent vehicles from using approved snow chains during emergency conditions where traction is obviously compromised. Tire chains. This is actually the second time that the idea of tire chains for enhanced traction has come up. A recent trip to Vermont proved to be the FJ’s first encounter with defeat when attempting to climb a rather steep trail heading up to a friend’s mountain cabin. The combination of incline, mud, tree roots and loose sandy gravel proved to be too much for the Terra Grapplers to handle. Clearly this was not the fault of the skids. This was obviously an issue of traction, or the lack thereof. So the snow proved to be strike number two against the Terra Grapplers. Don’t get me wrong, for daily commuting and general off-road playtime, the Nitto Terra Grappler is an outstanding tire choice. But the more adverse mud and snow conditions I encounter, the more I believe a more aggressive tire is in order. And in the event that a more aggressive tread pattern doesn’t do the trick, tire chains should provide an alternative means of sinking teeth into the more slippery surfaces.
I just returned from yet another snow-storming session in the FJ. Since we’ve still got virgin snow a-plenty, I figured I’d see if airing down the tires made any significant difference in traction performance. So I fired up the compressor and popped on the tire deflators in preparation for another round of icy fun. A few minutes later, the tires were prepped and ready for action at an even 15psi. Playing it cautiously I dropped into 4WD low gear and began creeping my way into drifts, reversing the moment I sensed significant slippage. By edging into the deep areas with only one side of the vehicle, the opposite side maintained at least some semblance of traction. I continued this pattern for several minutes, edging a bit deeper each time into new areas, gaining confidence in the process. But my new-found faith was torn asunder when only ten minutes into this routine I found myself slipping a bit more than usual. I had intentionally placed the passenger side into a much deeper snow drift (approximately 4 feet deep), just to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, the FJ’s forward momentum came to a slippery halt as the tires began to spin. All attempts to free the FJ under its own power failed. Resignedly, I placed it in park and headed back to the garage for the snow shovel.
Upon my return, the shovel began to once again uncover compelling evidence that the skid plates were serving as instant igloo generators, packing the snow to the point where the shovel had a difficult time breaking the outer surface. In this particular instance, the front passenger corner was well buried but the rear differential was almost completely free of snow or obstacles. The combination of deep snow on the passenger side and the snow packed so tightly under the belly of the vehicle was a death toll to any movement other than the spinning of tires. Not the best of news but at least I’m learning the FJ’s limitations in its current state.
Unfortunately, at this time, I don’t have a great solution to this problem. For the short- and most likely long-term, the BudBuilt skids will remain in place. I like the protection gained from their silent strength. In the long term, I’d like to design an add-on piece, a specialty snow skid of sorts, that would enable the FJ to more easily traverse deep snow conditions. It wouldn’t necessarily replace the current skids, but bolt directly to them. I do have a few ideas, some of which I’ve already shared with Bud. And maybe some day one of these ideas will make it past the story board stage. I’ll be sure and post up if that happens.
I do have plans to upgrade the Nitto Terra Grapplers some time in the near future, but the deep snow will undoubtedly be long gone by then. And given Maryland’s propensity for “epic storms”, I don’t know that I’ll be able to easily recreate these test conditions again any time soon. Further testing may occur by traveling northward, but this puts me in a bit more of a bind since it’s no longer a controlled testing environment. It’s the real deal. My hope is that my next tire choice will provide that much-needed traction that I’ve been missing in the more slippery terrain, while still maintaining the great road manners I’ve come to appreciate with the Terra Grapplers. Once I get a chance to test out the new shoes, I’ll add another update to this entry or create a new entry and link to it from here.