Snow Plowing For Newbies
I’ve been handling snow removal on 1 to 3-mile roads in a heavy snow area for many years. It’s almost second nature now, but it wasn’t always that way.
I didn’t grow up in snow country and can remember a time when dealing with northern winters was a huge question mark in my mind. That first winter was scary at times, not because of the winter itself but because of the unknown and the lack of experience in dealing with its challenges.
In this article, I give you the head start I wish I had when this southern boy moved north. Oh, and by the way, I have no plans to ever move south again! There is life in snow country.
This article will deal with
- Snow blowers on tractors
- Snow blowers on a variety of vehicles
- Snow blower pros and cons
- Tractor mounted blades
- Truck mounted snow plows
- Straight blades vs V-plows
- Snow plow brands
- Snow plowing tips
- Conclusion: snow plows vs snow blowers
When I started plowing snow, it was a baptism by fire.
For years I used a tractor with a rear mounted snow blower on 1+ mile of road in a “snow belt”. It was slow, but I had a good experience with it. However, when I moved to a new location with no tractor, I switched to a truck + plow and discovered this plowing thing was going to be a VERY different experience!
Here’s the deal…I don’t have a tractor, and I have 3 miles of unmaintained road to deal with in the winter. Oh, and I do have a sturdy pickup truck. Faced with those three facts and a small budget, I opted to buy a cheap plow that mounted in the trailer hitch on the back of my truck.
To make a long story short, during that first winter I was perpetually getting stuck. And on top of that, the snow and ice kept building up on the road until we had a foot or more of it just waiting for the weather to warm and begin an impassible melting nightmare.
Thankfully, a neighbor decided to start logging that winter and the loggers used a dozier to plow the road down and bail us out.
The next summer we decided to bite the bullet and purchase a “real” plow that mounts where a plow should go—on the front. Seems common sense now, but at the time, I was so new to plowing that I didn’t know which end was up. Does that sound like you?
If so, I’m hoping this post will save you some tuition payments to the School of Hard Knocks and point you in the right direction.
Snow Blower Basics
Snow blowers are great for roads or driveways that are closed in with trees or other obstructions on either side. In other words, if you don’t have space on either side of the road for large snow berms to pile up, then a snow blower may be the best option for you since it shoots the snow well off the road and creates no snow berms. However, snow blowers are generally a much slower option than a plow, so it could take you forever and a day to blow a couple miles of road.
One thing I should clear up at this point…Lots of folks picture a walk-behind snow blower, but that is NOT what I’m generally referring to here. A little walk-behind model works great for a tiny driveway on a postage stamp lot in town. But once your driveway gets to be more than a few hundred feet, a walk-behind blower becomes impractical. It would take too much time, and most of them are not built to handle the wear and tear of blowing a lot of road for years.
Larger (as in plus or minus 5’ to 6’ or larger) snow blowers are available to mount on all sorts of vehicles—from tractors to UTVs and many other things in between in between.
Snow Blowers On Tractors
The most common (and probably cheapest) configuration is a simple snow blower that mounts on the back of a tractor (using the 3-point hitch). With this setup, the snow blower is powered by the tractor’s engine, using a shaft that hooks into a PTO (power takeoff) on the back side of the tractor’s engine or drivetrain. If you already own a tractor of sufficient size (20-40 HP is sufficient for some common 6’ blowers), this could be a great route to go. The main disadvantage is that it’s slow and you have to blow your snow while moving backward, so steering isn’t as easy and you end up with a crook in your neck :-). But a rear mounted PTO blower is one of the least expensive solid options for snow removal if you already own a 4x4 tractor. I’d recommend putting chains on at least the back wheels, if not all 4 of them.
If you would rather blow your snow while going forward (rather than backward), it may be more expensive and there will likely be more to go wrong. On a tractor, if you are blessed with a forward facing PTO, then it may be relatively easy. I’ve also seen a setup that included a heavy high-flow hydraulic pump assembly that mounts on the rear 3-point hitch of a tractor and powers a hydraulically-driven snow blower on the front (unlike a drive shaft from the PTO, hydraulic lines are flexible and can make the journey from the pump on the back to the blower on the front. But I’d hate to see the price tag for that particular setup.
For farm tractors that don’t have a front-facing PTO and that don’t have the special high-flow hydraulic setup mentioned above, your only option for a front-facing snow blower will likely be one that is powered by its own small engine (which is mounted on top of the blower). That means more fuel, more complexity, and more to go wrong. But it does provide a lot of versatility so you could run the snow blower on an SUV, truck or UTV (provided it was an appropriately sized blower).
Snow Blowers on Skid Steers
If you own a skid steer (for instance, a Bobcat), there are some hydraulically powered snow blowers made specifically for your rig. I don’t have experience with this, but from what I understand, you need to make sure your skid steer has enough hydraulic flow to power the blower. If this is an option for you, it could be a nice setup since it would be forward facing. Just make sure to chain up all for wheels or you might try running tracks instead.
Snow Blowers on Other Vehicles
I’ll be honest…I have no experience with snow blowers that are mounted on other vehicles, but they look like an interesting option for SUVs, trucks, or even side-by-side UTVs. Since none of these types of vehicles have a PTO (at least not on the front), the blower has it’s own small engine that powers it. Here's a UTV model that has a self-powered hydraulic pump that powers the hydraulic snow blower. That’s a disadvantage as it adds another engine to maintain and another mechanical device that could break. But using a truck or UTV could provide a more comfortable climate controlled environment to blow in, and you would be driving forward (as opposed to a lot of tractor blowers which are facing back). I’d be sure to chain up at least two wheels (if not all four).
Because of the extra engine and all that, you can expect to pay more for this type of blower than you would for a comparable PTO powered blower. But if you don’t own a tractor, the extra cost will likely be less than purchasing a 4x4 tractor of sufficient size.
The other factor to consider is durability. Since I have no personal experience with this type of blower, I can’t speak to its durability. But I will say that from the looks of some that I have seen online, I was a little skeptical. In other words, they didn’t have the appearance of being heavy duty. But you would need to check that out in person and talk with others who have used it for a while to be sure.
Snow Blower Brands
As far as brands, my main experience is with the 6’ Allied / Farm King brand and it has proven to be very tough for us. I have friends who are happy with their small Kubota snow blower as well, but it doesn’t seem as heavy duty to me. This could be due to its smaller size. Perhaps a larger Kubota blower would be of equal quality to the Allied / Farm King.
Snow Blower Pros and Cons
PROS: In my mind, the most important advantage of a snow blower is the ability to shoot the snow well off the road and avoid creating snow berms. This is great for super heavy snow areas and for roads that are closed in on each side with nowhere to push the snow.
A quality snow blower that is powered by a tractor PTO will typically cost less than a quality snow plow. But that’s only if you already own a tractor.
This may seem trivial, but snow blowers leave such a clean smooth appearance on the side of your road, compared to the berms left by a plow.
CONS: If going with the much more common tractor-mounted blowers, the obvious drawback is that you must have a tractor. And not just any old tractor. You would want it to be a 4x4 tractor of sufficient size and power to handle a sizable blower. If your driveway is relatively short, then you could do okay with a small tractor using a 4’+ blower, but those with lengthy roads will want as large a blower as possible so they don’t have to make as many passes each time it snows.
In addition, snow blowers don’t handle wet or slushy snow very well. They tend to clog up frequently under those conditions, which can mean multiple times to get off the tractor and unplug the shoot with a stick or something similar.
Also, as alluded to above, snow blowers are slow as molasses if you have a long driveway or road. In my experience, blowing a 1+ mile road with a 6’ blower can easily take a couple hours. That isn’t bad if you only get a few snowfalls per year, but if you are in a location that requires snow removal once or twice a week for months, you are looking at a LOT of time investment—especially if you have to work an 8 to 5 job in town every day.
Tractor mounted blades
The majority of the plows discussion below will deal with powered snow plows mounted on a truck or SUV, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a tractor mounted blade. If you already own a tractor and don’t need a blower, this would be your cheapest option, since most tractor blades are quite reasonably priced. They are usually very sturdy and may allow you to extend them well beyond the edge of the tractor (which is very advantageous when pushing back snow berms).
On the other hand, plowing with a tractor will likely be slower than with a truck-mounted plow, so not only will it take more time, but you won’t be able to get the “blowing” or “rolling” effect that may be obtained by plowing with a truck at higher speeds. This means your snow berms will build up very quickly. But if they do, your tractor will be better able to push them back than a truck mounted plow. Another disadvantage would be that some tractor blades don’t have a spring system for tripping when the blade hits an obstruction (rock, stump, etc.). This can be hard on the blade and on the whole tractor, especially if you are going any faster than a crawl.
So if you don’t have a lot of snow to deal with and don’t mind it taking longer to plow, or if you own a tractor and are on a tight budget, this could be the best route for you.
Snow Plowing With ATVs
In short, please don't go this route unless you get very little snow or have a ridiculously short driveway. ATVs lack the weight of a truck and because of that, they have a hard time with traction when pushing snow. Also, an ATV snow plow is very light and tends to ride up rather than plowing the snow down to the solid ground/ice. It can work in a pinch (I have friends who do it because they have to) but it is NOT an ideal option.
Snow Plowing Basics
Snow plows are the old standby of the snow removal industry. A quality model is strong, efficient, and fast. Plows can be mounted on almost any SUV or truck, but they work best on heavier duty trucks (3/4 ton or larger) due to the extra weight on the front. Plowing is my go-to snow removal method that I default to unless circumstances dictate that a blower is needed.
Snow plows come in tow main varieties…front and back plows. Front plows are far more common, and I highly recommend you stick with a front plow. I started out my plowing career with an inexpensive back plow and was constantly getting stuck. I also had great difficulty keeping the road plowed close to ground level, and the buildup of compact snow and ice would become so great that when melting started, it was a big slushy mess. Stay with the tried and true front plow.
As you probably know, a front plow will consist of a blade, a mount that attaches everything to your vehicle, a hydraulic pump and pistons to move the plow up and down or left and right, and finally an electric motor that powers the hydraulic pump. Your vehicle provides the electricity to power that electric motor. Oh, and there is a remote control of some sort inside your truck that controls the plow.
Some blades are connected to the up/down hydraulic piston via a chain, while others have the piston connected directly to the blade. There are a couple of things to be aware of with the chain varieties (such as Western, Meyer, etc). When you want the plow to go up, the piston extends, which picks up the chain. Since the chain is connected to the top of the blade, it picks the blade up. But realize that the blade is hanging there from a chain all the time except when it is resting on the ground. When traveling with the blade up, you may feel the blade bounce up and down quite a bit when hitting bumps. Also, when picking up the blade off the ground, it may take a couple seconds for the piston to take up the slack in the chain and start picking up the blade. These two “issues” are not present with a piston with a piston direct setup such as BOSS or Hiniker (and perhaps others) employs. Not major problems, just little things to consider.
Weight your Rear
When plowing, it is extremely important to make sure you have plenty of weight on your rear end, since an already front heavy truck is made even more so by adding hundreds of pounds off the front end. Preferably you’d like to have some weight that doesn’t easily shift around. I’ve seen everything from a huge spool of large cable, to cement blocks, or a load of gravel or wet firewood used. Almost anything that is really heavy should work. You’ll need the traction that weight provides your rear end. If you feel your rear end shifting around a lot while plowing, you probably don’t have enough weight back there.
I HIGHLY recommend chaining up two (if not four) wheels when plowing. If your road is paved, you might try without chains or be sure to not use v-bar or spiked chains (which could damage the pavement). I run probably the most aggressive truck chains you have ever seen on all four wheels when plowing, but I do have more extreme conditions than many (heavy snow area, deep ditches on either side that I can’t afford to slide into, and 3 miles of road to plow). Also, my truck is a dedicated plow truck in the winter, so I don’t have to unchain it very often. If it was our primary means of transportation and had to be unchained every time we went into town, I might try plowing chainless sometimes when the conditions are right. But I can’t say enough good about the security that good chains afford. My favorite chains are made by Trygg and have long studs welded on for amazing traction. When plowing with chains on, you really want to use heavy duty chains with hardened steel as the stresses of plowing are hard on chains and lesser varieties don’t seem to hold up as well.
How Wide & Heavy?
The width of the plow is another important consideration. I have an 8’ plow which is a nice size for a full-size pickup. Sometimes I wish I had gone with the 8.5’ model, as it would be nice to have the plow extend beyond the edge of my truck further than it does and I seldom drive around town with the plow on (if I didn’t I’d definitely stay with the 8’). But if you go with a wider plow, you’d better have a powerful engine, since you’ll be pushing more weight. Smaller SUVs will want a 7’ or 7.5’ plow which weigh less and push less snow.
Since my truck is a full-size heavy-duty model, I wanted a heavy duty plow, but that comes at a cost—weight. Lighter duty vehicles may need a lighter weight option. I’ve seen some Hiniker models that have a heavy duty plastic blade with metal on the places where it counts. That cuts down on weight and they seem to have it worked out for durability.
And speaking of weight, bear in mind that hauling all that weight off the front of your truck will create some extra wear and tear on the front end. And plowing itself can put extra strain on the transmission and drive train and perhaps other parts too. But while some people claim that plowing with a truck will destroy it, my neighbor with decades of experience says not so, as long as you don’t abuse it. Like anything, it will put wear and tear on the truck, but nothing excessive as long as you are nice to the truck and not ramming into things and not "gunning" it all the time.
Straight Blade vs V-Plow Snow Plows
This is probably the most obvious question to many. I chose a straight blade for several reasons.
1 - It was less expensive
2 - It weighs less
3 - There is less to go wrong (fewer pistons and hoses and the blade is solid—not hinged)
4 - I didn’t anticipate needing the additional features that a V-Plow would allow
What are those additional features that a V-Plow allows you to do? When both sides are folded back, you can plow through deeper snow and the pressure exerted on the truck is symmetrical. When plowing with a straight blade plow, you’ll generally have it turned to the left or the right, and in deep snow, it exerts a lot of pressure on one side of the truck and can push it around. Also, when plowing a large open area, you can adjust both sides of a V-Plow to be partially forward which contains the snow in front of the plow rather than pushing it off to one side, which can be useful. There are probably other advantages I’m not thinking of, but you get the general idea.
What I can say is that after plowing 3 miles of road in a heavy snow area, the straight blade has worked well for me. But if I were plowing commercially or needed the added flexibility of a V-Plow, I would have no problem going that route (as long as I had the extra money).
Snow Plow Brand
This is a hotly debated topic, but I assume you are reading this to get my opinion, so I’ll give it.
Don’t, I repeat, DON’T buy a cheap plow!
You will likely live to regret it. I did, and I don’t intend to ever do that again. Thankfully, I connected with a neighbor who sold snow plows for decades and currently operates a plow truck for the state. He was able to give me some good advise and steer me in the right direction.
He told me to avoid the cheap plows like Meyer (the brand he specifically mentioned). He said that he has a side business of repairing snow plow hydraulic pumps, and almost everything that he sees is made by Meyer, since they are so popular and they are so poorly made. He said that you don’t want a plow with a metal hydraulic fluid reservoir—it should be made out of plastic. The metal ones collect condensation and introduce water into the system, which causes premature failure of the hydraulic pump.
He told me that while BOSS is very good, they are absurdly expensive—overpriced. He highly recommended Hiniker, as it has most of the advantages of a BOSS, is very high quality, and is more reasonably priced. Based on that recommendation, I purchased a Hiniker several years ago and have been plowing 3 miles of road with it ever since. I’m very pleased with it and continually amazed at the abuse it takes without flinching.
This is not to say that Hiniker is the only good plow. Not at all. I’ve heard some good things about Western and of course BOSS and probably others. But I have no regrets from purchasing our Hiniker plow.
When I say “reasonably priced”, I don’t want to lead you on. A good truck plow is going to be expensive. Expect to pay at least $4,000 for a brand new full-size straight blade model (small SUV models may cost less). A high-end V-plow could be $6-7,000 or more. So it’s not inexpensive. But if you start out as I did with a cheap model, you’ll wish you had saved your coins and waited for a quality plow. You can sometimes find a used plow in reasonable condition for a lower price, but just make sure you do your homework and if possible take an experienced person with you to look it over. Buying someone’s worn out plow at a “cheap” price can quickly become an expensive project.
Other Snow Plow Features
One important feature is how easily the plow comes off the truck. I’ve heard that some are a real pain to get off and put on. That’s one thing I really like about my Hiniker. I can take it off in literally about 2 or 3 minutes and I can put it on in about 5 minutes. Pretty amazing! And when the plow is off, there is almost nothing left on the truck. I believe the BOSS mount is similar. The mount for some other plows is a rather large and clunky piece of steel to leave on the truck all summer, but it’s too much of a hassle to take it off each year. So be sure you look into that as well.
Also, I recommend putting a rubber snow deflector on the top of your plow (you know, the 8” strip of rubber that runs along the entire top of the plow). This helps to keep much of the snow off your windshield when plowing fast, as I do.
And finally, lights. Sometimes you may get a really heavy storm that is going to dump a ton of snow overnight. In that situation, it may be good to make a pass or two late that night or super early the next morning. If you let too much snow pile up, plowing can be challenging and hard on the equipment. That’s where lights come in. When it’s dark out, you want enough light to turn that road into daytime. I can’t speak for other brands, but I’m really happy with the lights on my Hiniker plow (it’s the newer upgraded lighting system from several years ago). If you’ll be doing much plowing, it’s also a really good idea to install some spotlights on the rear of your truck so you can clearly see when backing up. I actually wired my lights into the backup light wire so they come on automatically when the truck goes into reverse, but I can also flip a switch to make them stay on all the time if needed.
Snow Plowing Tips
I may put together a DVD with tips on how to plow snow, but here are a few of the top things that I’d like to pass on to you quickly.
- Start wide. The first 2 or 3 plowings of the season are the hardest and the most critical, as they set the tone for the entire winter. Please, start out plowing as wide as you reasonably can, even if you have to do 4 passes to make it happen (that’s what I do). As winter progresses and the snow berms build up, they will also start moving in. If you get enough snow, the berms will eventually reach the point where you can’t get any more snow over them. At this point, the road narrows very quickly. You’ll be thankful for every foot you plowed in the early winter.
- Plow fast. We were talking about snow berms building up. Some folks deal with that by plowing a little trough diagonally off the road periodically (I’ve seen it done every 10-15 feet sometimes). That can work if you have a short road to plow, but it’s a LOT of back and forth and takes a LONG time. I can’t do that for 3 miles of road! So I plow fast. Why? Have you watched a state or county snowplow on an open highway before? What happens to all the snow on the road? Does it just pile up right at the end of the plow and create a windrow? No, that’s what happens when the plow truck is going slow in town. But out on the highway, the plow truck picks up some speed and the snow curls around in the blade and ends up shooting out the end of the plow. Sometimes you’ll see the snow shoot out 15 or 20 feet! That’s what I do too. I plow as fast as I safely can, and my plow creates that same effect, and I’ve been known to shoot much of the snow 15 feet off the road! And when I say fast, I’m talking about 15-20 MPH. You wouldn’t want to go much faster than that. But you would be amazed how that simple tip keeps my snow berms from growing very quickly. If there his a stretch of road where you cannot go fast or where there is no shoulder, you may have to create those diagonal troughs I mentioned earlier and pile up the snow there. But only do that if you MUST.
- Fight for every inch of road. You’ve started plowing wide, but it will be to no avail if your subsequent plowings give up territory. Every time you plow, try and keep as close to your original margins are possible and fight for every inch. Come February when the berms are piling up, you’ll be glad you did!
- Chain up. I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. I’ve had to dig myself out of the shoulder a number of times, and it’s no fun. It’s SOOO much faster to put a pair of chains on than it is to get unstuck!
- Knock ‘em back! Do you or a neighbor have a tractor with some sort of blade that extends well beyond the edge of its wheels? If so, that can be a huge help in knocking back your snow berms in late winter (if it’s been a heavy winter). Anything you can do to create some space for additional snow to fit in will help tremendously.
- Precautions on Blind Corners. Sometimes you’ll be plowing on the wrong side of the road, or the road might only be wide enough for one vehicle. Under those circumstances, plowing around a blind corner can be hazardous to your health. Be sure to turn on your emergency flashers whenever plowing, and don't be afraid to honk your horn when approaching the corner. Remember, we don’t want any collisions!
Conclusion - Snow Plows vs Snow Blowers
Neither one of these is “best” for everything…each has it’s pros and cons. And which route you go will depend on several main factors—the length of road you need to plow, how much space you have on the side (shoulder) of the road, how much snow you get at your location, and what equipment you already have.
For dealing with roads in excess of 1/2 to 1 mile, plowing can become a big time saver. For years I used a tractor-mounted snow blower on a little over a mile of road. It would require around 2 hours (plus or minus) to do it all. I now plow 3 miles of road in the same period of time or less! The time factor is not the only consideration, but it is a significant one if you live in an area that gets snow throughout the winter.
Perhaps the most important decision making factor is the amount of space you have on the side of your road. Is there enough space to start out plowing very wide in the early winter (i.e. at least 20-30 feet wide in high snow areas)? Are there places to pile up snow around sharp corners? Does the ground drop off on the edge of the road (providing a place to push snow) or is there a bank rising up on the sides that would create a funnel for the snow to pile up in? If you don’t have adequate space, plowing simply isn’t going to work. On the other hand, don’t think that the roadbed itself has to be super wide. Once the snow flies and ice builds up on it, the shoulders can easily turn into a frozen road bed as long as they don't drop off sharply and as long as there are no obstructions to run into (like stumps). Each spring, when the snow melts, I’m amazed at all the non-roadbed areas I was plowing over while thinking it was part of the road. Just make sure to keep clear of obstructions by removing them or marking them with a long brightly colored stake.
If you find yourself in a “snowbelt” that gets hammered in the winter (say 2+ feet of snowpack for a good part of the winter), then you might consider a snow blower. The problem with plowing is that you are constrained by the width of your initial plowing, and the snow creeps in over the course of the winter. If enough snow flies, your road will become so skinny that you can’t fit a car through it. And then you either have to hire a dozier to widen it up or else you start snowmobiling in and out. Snow blowers throw the snow well off the road where berms are not a problem.
Also, the equipment you already own could tip your decision one way or the other. But don’t base your decision on this factor alone unless your budget dictates it. If you have a suitable pickup truck or SUV (4x4, powerful engine, 1/2 ton can work but 3/4 ton is better) but you don’t have a tractor, then you might lean toward a snow plow. If you do have a 4x4 tractor but have no truck, then you might lean toward a snow blower. And don’t forget, there’s always the option of putting a simple blade on your tractor. It won’t be as fast as a truck-mounted plow. And, in my opinion, it might not be as effective as a truck-mounted plow, but it could be the lowest cost option of all—if you already own a tractor.