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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.

Snowmobiles, They're Not
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
Another 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.

When Bigger is Better
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
When 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 of caution.

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 capabilities.)

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,