Lessons From My First Winter Rally

With Rally Sweden only a few days away, I thought I’d take a moment to write down some of my thoughts, observations, and lessons learned after going to my first winter rally. This past weekend, my wife and I rented a car and made the 500 mile trip north from Philadelphia to Maniwaki Quebec for Rallye Perce Neige. This rally piqued my curiosity for two reasons. First, I had never been to a snow rally, and secondly, it was the opening round of both the Canadian Rally Championship (CRC) as well as the newly formed American Rally Association (ARA). Getting to see David Higgins and Travis Pastrana go head to head against the top Canadian teams seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.

First of all, if you’re from Sweden, Norway, Finland, or any other cold country, you may not need to waste your time reading this piece. It probably doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know. However, for the rest of you from slightly warmer parts of the world who might be considering going to a snow rally, I hope that the things I’ve learned might save you some grief and give you a more enjoyable experience. Let me begin by saying that I am not a rally newbie. It’s been several years since I naively attended my first rally in Ireland dressed in sneakers and jeans only to find myself knee deep in a muddy sheep pasture and chilled to the bones. From that point on, I learned very quickly that proper preparation and planning will exponentially improve the enjoyment factor of going to a rally. I now have a pre-packed bag with all of my rally spectating essentials. Depending on what part of the world a certain rally is located will determine what I take out or add to that bag. For example, I’m not going to bring my waterproof boots and waders to Guanajuato next month for WRC Rally Mexico… those can get left behind.

While this bag is a good start, in order to be well prepared for a winter rally, there needs to be a lot more in there than you’d pack for a typical rally. If you don’t plan well for a warm weather event, it might mean that you have a slightly uncomfortable experience. If you don’t plan well for a winter event, it could mean putting yourself in a potentially life-threatening situation. It doesn’t take long for frostbite and hypothermia to set in, and once they do, things can spiral downward very quickly. You should be prepared for having to stay outside in the cold for far longer than you normally would. This means that you need to carry a lot more stuff with you normally would to a typical stage. It may sound like I’m telling you to pack for the apocalypse instead of a rally, but here’s what I’d recommend you bring with you into a winter stage:

Fire-Starting Materials: Not only will a fire make you more comfortable while waiting for the stage to start, it could also save your life if you get stuck. Make sure that at the very least you bring matches, a lighter, and some kind of tinder. Newspaper is nice and light which makes it a good choice. I’d also recommend a small bottle of accelerant since the biggest challenge is getting the fire started. Once you have it going, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding more wood to fuel the fire.

Food and Water: I realized very quickly that when spectating a winter rally, everything is harder. You need to walk longer because your car can’t go any further without getting stuck. Walking in the snow takes almost twice the energy of walking on solid ground. Your body is using far more calories trying to stay warm in addition to everything else you are doing. With this in mind, you need to pack yourself enough high energy food to keep yourself going. In addition, you need to have clean water. You don’t want to chance eating snow and making yourself sick from animal fecal bacteria.

Clothing: You should always dress in layers when going to a rally, but this is even more true when at a winter rally. You should first have a skin-tight inner layer, followed by something fluffy and warm to trap air. Your outermost layer should be light and waterproof to deflect snow and wind. The areas that are most at risk in the cold are your face, hands, and feet. With this in mind, you should pack spare gloves, socks, hats, and scarves when the ones you’re wearing get wet.

Tools: I keep a small hand-held pruning trimmer in my rally bag because there is almost always a situation where there are branches or leaves in my way when trying to photograph. Yes, you can break limbs, but this gets kind of tiring after awhile. I was so glad that I had these because my hands would have been frozen due to my gloves getting wet from breaking limbs. The pruners also did a great job on the green saplings which would have been very difficult to break by hand. In addition to the pruners, keep a small camp knife or multi-purpose tool with a sharp blade. I didn’t end up needing it this time, but it is something small enough that could make a big difference in a pinch. A small folding military shovel might not be a bad idea either.

The next thing that I learned was that spectator safety in a winter event takes a bit more thought. Let me give you an example. We hiked into a stage and found what appeared to be a nice high piece of ground where we could watch the cars go by. It was right before a long sweeping left hand turn that tailed down and away from our spot. I thought I had checked off all of the safe spectating criteria. We were high, not on the outside of a corner, and there were ample escape routes behind us. As it turned out, this was not a solid bank, but instead, a very deep snow drift. When I got to the top, I immediately fell through the snow which was now up to my waist. It took me several minutes to disentangle myself from the drift. If I had been stuck in this spot when the stage was live, I wouldn’t have had any time to move if things went wrong. It taught me very quickly that sometimes in the snow, a seemingly safe location isn’t really that safe. To avoid this from happening again, I paid attention to the height of the trees and bushes to better understand the contour of the land. I was also reminded that in the snow, it is very difficult to move, so the spot you pick had better be absolutely safe.

Once we had found a safe spot, I pulled out my camera and began to set up my shots. Within 3 minutes, my battery life was exhausted even though I had charged my batteries the night before. I thought that perhaps this one was a fluke, but the next one did the same thing. Then it dawned on me… the long walk through the woods had frozen my batteries and absolutely killed their lifespan. Just like a car refusing to start after being left out in the cold, my camera batteries had gone completely flat. To avoid this, either keep your batteries in the pockets of your innermost layer, or use a disposable heat pack to keep them warm during the hike to the stages. As for the camera itself, after a car passes by, protect it from snow just as you would from dust in a gravel rally. Also, be aware that your breath on the lens will freeze immediately and turn to frost which will ruin your photos. Try to keep your lenses as clean and dry as possible, because cleaning it in the cold is far more difficult than I would have imagined.

So that’s what I learned. I hope that this will help all of you going to Rally Sweden for the first time to have a fun, safe, and (mostly) comfortable experience!