NOTE: This article is for informational purposes only, and should not be misinterpreted to suggest
or imply that anyone should use a power wheelchair in snow or adverse weather conditions. Every user
should strictly follow the instructions, cautions, and warnings in his or her power wheelchair's owner's
manual, and this article is not a supplement or substitute to such formal, absolute instructions. |
One of the most common questions from power wheelchair users at the beginning of each winter is,
"How well will my powerchair work in the snow?"
The answer is more subjective than most realize,
dependent upon our own expectations and, of course, exact weather and terrain conditions.
Beginning with our expectations, it's important to recognize power wheelchairs for what
they are: Small, castered vehicles, with very limited ground clearance, and small drive wheels, designed
for indoor and hospitable outdoor use. They're not 4-wheel-drive SUVs or ATVs. Therefore, for all intents
and purposes, power wheelchairs aren't designed for snow beyond a cleared path (there are a few specialty
products like TracAbout and the Extreme 4x4 that the manufacturers market toward use in deeper snow,
but they're not the compact, everyday wheelchair models that you and I typically use in our homes, vans,
and offices for full-time mobility).
Despite most power wheelchairs having inherent limitations
toward use in snow, the fact is, many of us must use them in and around snow, if merely to get from the
front door of our homes to our vans, or such. The question, then, is, how deep of snow can a typical
power wheelchair realistically operate in?
Again, there's a huge subjectivity to the answer. A
full-size, high-end power wheelchair might be able to drive through up to 3" of very light, fluffy, powdery
snow on a level, paved driveway. On the other hand, if the water content of the snow increases, the power
wheelchair may have a much tougher time, even in only 2" of slushy snow, where the casters bog down,
and the drive wheels can't maintain traction. Of course, on adverse terrain, even an inch of sleet may
leave a power wheelchair immobile, slipping and sliding, void of traction. And, any time a power wheelchair
backs up in snow, pivoting the casters, the likelihood of getting stuck skyrockets (straight lines and
sweeping turns are the best way to negotiate snow). Therefore, the answer is in most cases, power wheelchairs
have limited capabilities in the snow, handling up to around 3" under the best conditions, and even that
may not be accomplished in some situations.
A Powerchair is Still a Powerchair
question that's common is, which power wheelchair platform performs better in the snow - rear-, center-,
or front-wheel drive? In my experience, they all perform about the same in the high-end class (Invacare
Arrow, Quantum Q6000Z, Permobil C500, etc.). The foremost limiting factors are ground clearance, pivoting
casters, and small drive wheels - and those characteristics are common among most Group-3 and Group-4
power wheelchairs - so limitations remain no matter where the drive wheel is placed.
Although most high-end power wheelchairs perform about the same in snow, drive tire size
and tread pattern does make a big difference toward handling. As small vehicles, with very limited ground
clearance, power wheelchairs easily sink into soft surfaces, high-centering (as with when snow packs
under the power wheelchair, and the drive wheels spin, unable to get enough ground contact to achieve
traction). As a result, larger, wider tires help keep the power wheelchair atop the snow, reducing the
likelihood of sinking (again, though, relative to operating in only a few inches of snow). Additionally,
standard 14"x3" power wheelchair tires don't have an aggressive tread pattern, so moving up to a true
14"x4" knobby treaded tire can increase traction. Larger, wider tires are an option on some power wheelchairs,
but it's important to recognize that they may add cumbersome width, detracting from indoor maneuverability.
Don't Believe the Hype
Now, surely you'll see people posting outrageous claims on message
boards: "We got 16" of snow last night, and my powerchair blew through it like nothing!" Of course, such
claims are either mistaken or exaggerated, where maybe the user drove down a plowed driveway after a
big storm, but no everyday power wheelchair can drive through snow deeper than just a few inches (typically
a maximum depth that's less than half of the caster's height). An unfortunate consequence of such exaggeration
is that when others find that their wheelchairs get stuck in 3" or 4" of snow, but then read users claiming
to easily drive through 8", 10", or 15" of snow, they become frustrated that their mobility is so seemingly
limited by comparison. However, it's important to recognize that the reality is that most full-size power
wheelchairs are only capable of handling approximately 3" of snow at best, no matter what outrageous
claims are made.
Avoiding Salt and Slush
In some parts of the country, salt goes hand-in-hand
with snow and ice, used on walkways and driveways, and it should be negotiated carefully by those using
power wheelchairs. Salt is extremely harmful to metal, and can quickly rust a power wheelchair's components.
Further, built-up snow and slush on a power wheelchair can also prove destructive, working moisture
into sensitive area. Therefore, it's important to recognize that as harmless as snow can seem, its moisture
and the ice-melts used to treat it can prove harmful to power wheelchairs.
See and Be Seen
rolling around town in snow in a power wheelchair, another important aspect is visibility. Unfortunately,
curb-cut ramps and sidewalks are often blocked by plowed snow, forcing wheelchair users into the street,
a definite danger. While we all wish to avoid such situations, we can't always; however, we can make
ourselves exceptionally visible. A tall, orange safety flag allows a wheelchair to be seen among snow
piles, and a blaze orange jacket dramatically increases visibility, alerting drivers with a known color
The Truth Sets You Free
Surely, if you're new to wheelchairs and snow, the
reality check that most power wheelchairs aren't designed for snow, only functional up to several inches
at best, isn't something that you want to hear. Yet, there are limitations within all of our lives, to
all products, and I'd rather that you know the limitations of your power wheelchair, and remain safe
rather than believe someone else's hype and find yourself in danger - that is, stuck out in the cold,
wheels spinning, in a truly hazardous situation. (And, for good measure, you should never venture out
into winter weather alone if there's even a remote chance that the conditions may be beyond your wheelchair's
This winter, if you find yourself in snow country, neither fear snow nor try
to defeat it, but take an educated, practical approach by operating within the realistic capabilities
of your mobility product, staying safe.
Published 12/07, Copyright 2007, WheelchairJunkie.com