Driving in winter

The Alps and Pyrenees are popular places to visit in the winter, particularly the ski resorts that attract so many tourists, both domestic and foreign.

But you do need to make sure you care completely prepared, as differing rules do apply when the temperatures start to fall and snow settles onto the asphalt.


What do I need?

The best place to start is a set of winter tyres. They're not needed in all regions, they are only mandatory in 48 mountainous départements (shown in dark blue in the map below), and only between 1 November and 31 March.

When you enter or leave a region where the use of winter tyres or snow chains are required, you'll encounter these signs:


However, as France as a whole is more prone to snowy weather than Britain, so it is advised to use them wherever you go - especially if the weather forecast says snow is likely.

If you don't have winter tyres, then you will be required to use snow chains instead. In the worst conditions, particularly high up in the mountains, then you'll most likely need both winter tyres and snow chains.


Winter tyres

The reason why winter tyres are mandatory in some areas is because they use a different rubber compound, which means motorists will benefit from their use when the temperature falls below 7C.

They help improve grip when roads are icy or snowy, and channel away slush more effectively, however you'll still need to take it easy.

Tyres must be rated M&S (mud and snow) to be deemed suitable, although the highest quality tyres now feature the new "Three Peaks" rating.

If you prefer, you may wish to consider all season tyres which do the same job without the need to swap when the weather warms back up. Make sure you fit a full set, as it may otherwise affect the handling and stability of your vehicle.


Snow chains

Snow chains must be used on your drive tyres (front only on 4x4 vehicles) where signs mandate this, or should the conditions deteriorate to a point where they need to be used. You may need to use them even if your vehicle is fitted with winter tyres.

The sign mandating their use is this circular panel:

Failure to comply can result in heavy fines, as their use is taken very seriously by the police. You'll also need to make sure you keep your speed down, as you must not travel at more than 50 km/h.

Do not use them on roads that are not covered in ice or snow, otherwise you may cause severe damage to the road surface and your vehicle.

It is strongly recommended that you test fitting snow chains to your vehicle before you set off on your travels. Alternatively, you may wish to consider using snow socks, which are a permitted alternative to chains yet easier to both fit to your tyres and store when not needed (and they are cheaper than chains!).


Studded tyres

These are tyres that feature metal studs within the rubber compound, and can be used in place of winter tyres. Their use is permitted in France, but only between 11 November and the end of March.

Their use does come with a caveat, in that the vehicle concerned is not permitted to exceed 90 km/h. You're also required to display a decal on the rear stating this speed.


 Picture credits
 St Amant entrance is taken from an original by JLPC and used under this Creative Commons license