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Hitting the High Country
Laura Gray offers some advice on how to enjoy RVing in Australia’s alpine region this winter
Words and Images by: Laura Gray

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 4.5 tonne 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. So instead of heading north, or throwing a cover over the RV and packing it up this winter, consider a motorhome trip to the beautiful high country!

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. 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.

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. 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 per litre of 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. 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.

Snow chains are an essential item and in some cases mandatory.

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. 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. You may find it more difficult to track down chains for motorhomes than passenger vehicles, due to their size and weight, so make sure you’re organised well in advance of your trip into the mountains. In our case, it took several phone calls to chain hire outlets in Melbourne and the high country to find appropriate chains for the Jayco Conquest Play.

While it’s not a common sight to see a motorhome travelling up the mountain, it’s achievable and best to drive in manual and use the gears

We finally tracked some down at Ray’s Ski Shop in Myrtleford but, when we arrived, we discovered the motorhome (both at Tare and GVM) was too heavy for standard car chains, which are generally rated to 2.5 tonne, and we needed much heavier-duty truck chains which are rated to five tonne. Luckily, they were in stock and we were back in business! It’s vital you check the chain requirements of the areas you plan on visiting to find out if chains are required, and if there are any restrictions on the type of chains you must carry, before you travel.

FITTINGS

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.

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!  The day we ascended Mt Hotham dawned blue, bright and sunny. However, due to the 50-60cm of fresh snow that had fallen in the 48 hours beforehand, we were pretty resigned to fitting our chains and fitting them early. Signage up the mountain directed us to a chain-fitting bay where every vehicle was required to pull in and fit their chains. Vehicles without them were turned around and sent back down the mountain. There were also representatives from local chain-fitting service, Hoys, on hand to help those who needed it.  However, Ash, who is somewhat of a chain-fitting expert, having spent many years driving all manner of vehicles including school buses in alpine areas, got to work fitting chains to the Conquest Play and our crew car on his own. 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

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

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. 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. 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!

Tags: Snow Winter Motorhome Travel Cold Alpine Melbourne Victoria Mount Hotham Jayco Conquest Chain Skiiing Snowfields
Category: Features
Written: Sun 01 Apr 2018
Printed: April, 2018
Published By:

Article Photos
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Journey Details

Mount Hotham, VIC
-36.974579, 147.137504

Summary

GETTING THERE

From Melbourne, take the Hume Highway to Wangaratta then the Great Alpine Road to Hotham. The 380km trip takes roughly four and a half hours.

During peak season, or when visibility is low, there may be delays along the Great Alpine Route, so taking the Monash Freeway and coming up via Bairnsdale, Omeo and Dinner Plain is often a quicker route.

Mount Hotham Alpine Resort requires that all vehicles entering the resort must carry or have fitted diamond-pattern chains. These are available for hire from Rays Ski Centre in Myrtleford, or from several outlets in Bright and Omeo.

Hoys Chain Fitting Service in Harrietville offer free fitting services to all Hoys customers.

MORE INFO

For information regarding weather conditions, accommodation options and planning your trip, visit: http://www.mthotham.com.au/ 

To enquire about chain hire, visit: http://rayskishop.com.au/