Good news – there’s snow in the forecast for your mountain trip!
Bad news – there’s snow in the forecast for your mountain trip!
Traveling to the Sierra Nevada to play in the snow is a huge perk of being in California, so snow during your trip can be both, a wonderful addition to the picturesque winter landscape, and also a dangerous nightmare.
And we get it – chains can be expensive. The last thing you’d want to do is add another $100+ to the total cost of the trip, for specialized car equipment that will most likely just sit in the back taking up space and be heavy during the trip, then get thrown into a corner of the garage after, “just in case” there’s ever a need for them again, hoping that they’ll even be found if and when that opportunity ever comes again.
We wanted to share with you what we think helps the most with the drive during snow: being informed/prepared, having the right equipment, and experience.
The experience thing we can’t help with – but if you have a 4×4 or AWD car, you’re already ahead in equipment. It is possible to drive here and back with a regular 2FWD or 2RWD car, but it depends on the two other factors we discuss in this post.
Being informed / prepared:
A few days before your trip, you can look at the weather, and at the road conditions using the CalTrans website Quickmap, or their app. It has the most up to date road conditions. Of course, in a snow storm, those can change quickly.
We also recommend keeping warm clothes and an extra blanket in the car, water, snacks, and a flashlight in case you have to wait on the road. Definitely keep waterproof gloves, a towel or waterproof blanket in case you need to get down on the ground to install chains/cables on your tires. CalTrans may decide to temporarily close the road to plow if it’s snowing too much and make you wait in the car or reroute you altogether. They may even send you back, if safety is a real concern! Normally, this only happens with big, once-in-ten-years or once-in-a-century types of storms.
Changes in snow patterns:
While we cannot predict the weather, it is a fact that the higher in elevation you go, the more snow you might see, but “lake effect” is significantly important. When you go above 5k feet that’s considered the “snow” line. We’re at 5.6k, and Truckee is at 7k. Both of these places receive more snow than usual due to the “lake effect”, in which cold air picks up moisture from the surrounding water, and dumps it back down as snow. As we border Lake Davis, we see more snow than surrounding areas.
Fun fact: most snow falls at… yup! Between 5-7k feet. Just where you’re traveling through!
A few days before the trip, I would make sure to check the car’s tires to see if they have good tread, and are inflated properly.
I would check all fluid levels, especially the coolant (constant accelerating/stopping at slow speed taxes the engine more as you climb at altitude) and the windshield wiper fluid to clear ice/snow from your view. I’d plan to keep an extra jug in the trunk if heavy snow is predicted. If your windshield wiper blades have been “streaking”, we recommend wiping them clean with an alcohol wipe, or purchasing new ones if they look worn.
Alternative route? Chains or Cables? – The lowdown for uphill or downhill.
During a storm/snow the speed limit will drop to 25-30mph, so everyone will go slower. This is also why staying on a main highway is better than looking for alternatives. Smaller roads get less attention, so we don’t recommend “Googling” a different route. This isn’t about finding “a hack” – it’s about keeping you and your passengers (if any) safe!
The great majority of the time, CalTrans alert levels (R-1, R-2, R-3) are set to R-1, which means that passenger cars don’t need to put on chains on the tires, but are still required to carry them. A typical situation is when it’s snowing, but it’s getting plowed and cleared – everyone is moving slower, but is still moving. If you do not have chains and conditions worsen, at chain control areas or checkpoints, you may be fined or cited by CHP if you do not have them. The average cost of a ticket is $100 to $200, which is about the cost of an average/good pair of chains. Cables tend to be cheaper, for a reason.
Why should I choose chains and not cables? – Because chains are simply better at their job.
Cables do have a place – they’re appropriate if you travel only to areas with light snow / paved roads, with continuous plow use/ice removal crews, and/or if you have an impairment that doesn’t allow you to lift weights heavier than 10lbs. Cables are lighter than chains and more easily available for smaller tires. They are also more gentle on the road. Cables work if you are “going to a Tahoe resort with all the other bro-skis” or “I’m over the hill and would pay someone else to install them for me” – but you’re most likely neither, because you’re reading this since you’re coming to this wonderful, beautiful, mostly unexplored rural area, where it can snow a lot. You’re a bit of a trailblazer!
On the topic of roads and bro-skis… it is rare that a snow storm stalls ski resorts and access to these locations, or they wouldn’t make any money during their most important season! I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to ski in rocks and dirt in the summer! The great majority of roads in these areas are paved with concrete or asphalt, paid for with people’s taxes. The more money the area has, the better the roads usually will be. This is why Tahoe in neighboring Sierra county has a lot more money – more people, more taxes, more equipment for dealing with snow.
The further from “civilization” that you travel, the fewer resources/infrastructure, so this also means that you are more likely to encounter areas with only road-base (similar to gravel), gravel, or dirt roads. The USA has very large swaths of rural areas. Plumas county has only 4 plows for the entire county. We are fortunate to have our street plowed up to the house by the county, but in a major storm, the priority for our street will decrease, since highways must remain open for emergency services to work. We employ local area people to remove snow when it gets to be a lot, and still do a large portion of the removal ourselves. By coming to our area, you are supporting true small-businesses and …
So, ok, but, you still haven’t answered – why chains?
Chains are thicker than cables – they “bite” into ice for grip, and when it’s softer they crunch it up, getting down into the road, while cables cannot do this well. Chains are durable, typically for larger tires (4x4s, trucks, etc.) and more difficult to find for smaller tires. They are heavier (15-20lbs) and if they have “fancy” self-tightening mechanisms, can be less intuitive to put on.
Here is where simpler is better. Thick, heavy-gauge chains will stay secure on your tire with tensioners. The chains typically drape OVER and behind the tire, and have simple hook and latch closures. One latch/hook set goes behind the wheel, and the other in front, pretty easy, right? Unfortunately, you may need to get down on the ground for this (tarp time!) That being said, they can be pretty quick to put on once you’ve done it a few times. I highly recommend testing your chains on your tire in good weather before you’re forced to put them on in freezing, wet weather!
One additional benefit of chains over cables is that they are repairable. Cables are thin wire strands basically crimped together – they rip easily or get frayed, and usually cannot be repaired as they would end up losing length. Chain links can bend or break, but they can be replaced. When putting them on while on the road, we recommend a small shovel or brush and gloves, since snow can bunch up right under the tire, which makes it harder to fasten the latch/hook. It’s miserable having to get down on the road while it’s cold, then freeze your hands from snow AND cold metal, don’t make this mistake!
The tensioners that chains use are like a large “rubber band” that wraps around the edges of the chain to create tension, tightening the grip of the chain to the tire. They are usually sold separately for $10-15. Bit of a racket to charge that much for something SO simple, but they have an important function! Newer designs have built-in tensioners, but I have found them to be less reliable (especially for cables!) as they use thin cable/wire material to pull the chains tighter, and they look way more complicated to use!
Think about it again: the cost of a CHP ticket could be MORE than the cost of chains or cables, and if you risked it, you could end up with a ticket, possibly stuck, and have to spend the same amount or more to get towed/rescued, or worse, walk in the snow/get a ride to a location to get chains for your vehicle. Or, you could get lucky.
Other useful info:
Driving in snow really takes practice, calm, and a lot of focus. It is difficult even on a good, clear day after it’s snowed, and can become very challenging during a storm.
The best tip is: SLOW DOWN. Car stopping distance triples with regular all-season tires (see tires section for the why) and without chains, it is possible to have an uncontrolled slide, into oncoming traffic, or down the mountainside to your doom. SLOW DOWN.
“But I have 4 wheel drive”, do I need chains??? YES YOU DO – recently, we rescued an AWD Subaru, and a fairly new Chevy 4×4 Silverado after getting stuck in the snow, uphill. Neither had chains. “It’s 4-wheel drive, not 4-wheel steer-and-stop”. You still need to steer (and brake) very carefully. Just because your car has more wheels that spin doesn’t mean you actually have traction! Fancy “traction control” or “snow mode” won’t save you here: traction will, and you’ll get that with chains, and maybe cables, if there isn’t a lot of snow! Even with chains, it’s still possible to lose traction, if it’s very icy/snowy/slushy out.
The best way to drive through snow is to go slow and keep the car steady, and if it slips/slides do not overcorrect – turn your wheel slightly in the direction of the slide, then straight, then correct gently. You learned this in driver’s ed, but unless you’ve had practice, it’s VERY unnerving and your instinct may be to correct in the opposite way that you should – going slower gives you a chance to safely correct without spinning out!
If you feel that the car isn’t getting enough traction or speed, try not to stop moving and don’t accelerate hard with cables/chains on, as it may end up creating too much wheel-spin and friction and rip your cables that you paid $100+ or so just for this one trip…
Knowledge of the area:
If you haven’t been to the area before, there are some steep descents on I-80 on the way to Truckee (especially a long one by Donner lake). I’d use caution there as the grade can be 5-6%. That’s pretty steep! Everyone usually brakes often here- in snow, it’s best to just go slower and keep your distance from others.
The main roads (80, 89, 70) are usually plowed frequently.
89 is a two-lane road between Truckee and the Sierra Valley. It is steep and mountainous in some areas, and fairly flat in others, at a high elevation. Use the most caution around curves, and go SLOWER than the posted speed limit during snow. I have found the hard way in dry weather that some curves really are supposed to be taken at the posted speed limit, not “5-10” miles over. If it says ’40mph’ curve… it IS a 40mph curve.
After 89, the Sierra Valley roads are mostly flat and straight. Still, use caution here as snow can drift into the road due to the wind and create “snow drifts” that are deeper than you may think if they haven’t been plowed recently. Same advice as “flooding” on the road.
To be honest with you, the “last mile” roads up to our house are the most challenging ones. Grizzly Road and Valley View cover about a 5 mile stretch from highway 70, with Grizzly Road taking about 4.5 of those miles. These roads get plowed, but not as often, and go through pine-covered areas, a few steep ascents and descents, and curves. Shaded areas and north facing slopes will get the least amount of sun, so snow will accumulate there, and as it thaws, ice will more readily form there. Be especially careful around curves.
I am ALMOST to your house but it looks like it snowed a lot… where should I put on chains?
The best place to put on chains when you get up to our area is when you turn off 70 and onto Grizzly road. Immediately after the turn there will be mailboxes on the left, and that’s a decent place to stop. It’ll be slower going (25-30) but safer. The “last chance” place is by the entrance to the golf course. I recommend these 2 over the last place because they are in flat areas, where you haven’t really gone up the mountain yet… you’re just warming up for the climb 🙂
After that, there isn’t really anywhere to safely stop. Don’t go faster just because someone is behind you. If there are 5 or more cars behind you, by law you are required to pull over (safely). The Crocker Mountain RV park parking lot may be the “last-last” chance place to put on chains… if you have managed to make it that far! Here I would absolutely stop to put on chains if your hands have been gripping the wheel very hard and you’re covered in sweat from fear of how slippery the road has been since it hasn’t been plowed in several hours because it’s snowing heavily and the plows are busy with the main roads…
When you turn onto Valley View, keep the car steady and try to get a little bit of speed just before the “up the mountain to the right” turn – it is VERY steep here. If it hasn’t been plowed, or it has iced over, the only possibly clear areas will be the ones where my wife and I have worked to remove ice (no one else does). Try to stay on these areas to get traction, and continue up the mountain. Call/text if you get stuck!
Why are tire types so important?
Just as you would wear ice skates to go ice skating instead of sandals, tires have a significant impact on winter-driving conditions.
All-season tires are the jack of all trades (and not particularly great at any of them) and fine for your daily-paved road commute. They are often cheaper, made of a hard compound, more durable and may be OK in rainy winters. They are absolutely terrible in a snow storm, and ok on after-storm/roads have been plowed conditions and 99% of people have them, since they don’t often go to snowy areas. We keep them on our cars and only use our “stupid-large-vehicle” (a 20+ year old large 4×4) with better tires and chains in winter.
All-weather tires – these are an improvement, but not as well-known. The compound of the tire is a little softer and “spreads out” rain and snow more, clearing it to maintain grip. They may wear out faster than all-season tires. Stopping distance in poor weather is improved somewhat. They are not as widely available, unfortunately!
All terrain tires – these are great for off-roading, and have a use for winter driving conditions. They will improve traction in snow, as they are also made of a softer compound, have aggressive tread to increase grip, and significantly improve your stopping distance. They are also a lot more expensive, not very durable for regular driving, and typically larger. They must also be rotated out unless they’re on a car dedicated for off-road adventure.
Snow tires / studded tires – they are the ultimate “hack” for snow driving. Their stopping distance is significantly better because they are designed to “spread out” snow while maintaining grip. Studded tires are more difficult to get, usually special-order only. Both types of tires are expensive, and must be rotated out when spring arrives. If you have that option, I would recommend them over any other tire.
Or just buy chains, or at minimum cables! Don’t be fooled by “cable chains” – a chain actually looks like… a chain! The others are “posers”.
Chain vs “Cable chain”
A chain will have chain links, a “cable chain” will have metal rings or similar over metal cable. The regular chain is much better, but again, may be unavailable for your tire size!
Help, I’m stuck, even with chains or cables!
This has happened enough times that it bears repeating: when you are trying to climb/move through snow and feel like you’re sliding don’t stop and don’t accelerate hard – keep your speed and momentum – turn the wheel slightly if possible as the tires will try to get grip on a different spot on the road. If you have cables, the faster wheel-spinning from accelerating too much will actually make the situation worse – as cables are made of thin metal linked together, the cables will rip, while the chains may get bent/lose a link (though as they are much harder to break and are repairable, are a better option)
Last updated: Jan 5, 2023
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