tl;dr version (too long; didn’t read)
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 are expensive. The last thing you’d want to do is add another $100+ to the total cost of the trip, for very 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 even more 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 having warm clothes and an extra blanket in the car, water, snacks, and a flashlight in case you have to wait on the road. 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.
A few days before the trip, I would make sure to check your 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) and the windshield wiper fluid to clear ice/snow from your view. It may even be helpful to have an extra jug in the trunk. If your windshield wiper blades have been “streaking” on the windshield a lot, we recommend wiping them clean with an alcohol wipe, or purchasing new ones if they look worn.
Chains or Cables? – The lowdown for uphill or downhill.
With either one, the speed limit drops to 25-30mph, so everyone will go slower. The great majority of the time, CalTrans alert levels (R-1, R-2, R-3) are set to R-1, which exempts passenger cars from needing chains on the tires (not too much snow, it’s getting plowed, everyone’s moving along, just slow…) but you are still required to carry them and may be fined or cited by CHP if you get to a chain control area and 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.
That being said, cables do have a place – the reasons to choose cables are 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. Tire chains can be heavier, while cables are lighter. Cables are also more gentle on the road. Think about cables 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 do it for me” – but you’re not, because you’re reading this since you’re coming to this wonderful, beautiful, mostly unexplored rural area.
On the topic of roads, it is rare that a snow storm stalls ski resorts and access to these locations, or they wouldn’t make any money during the 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.
The further from “civilization” that you travel, the fewer the people, and fewer taxes for infrastructure, so this also means that you are more likely to encounter areas with only road-base (similar to gravel), gravel, or dirt roads to access residences/areas. Surprise! The USA has very large swaths of rural areas. Plumas county has only 5 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 do employ local area people to remove snow, and 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 and have different geometry – they “bite” into ice for grip, and when it’s softer they crunch it up, getting grip down into the road, while cables cannot do this well. They are durable, typically for larger vehicles (4x4s, trucks, etc.) and somewhat more difficult to find for sedans or smaller vehicles, with smaller tires. They can also be heavier (10lbs, 20lbs) and less intuitive to put on if they have “fancy” self-tightening mechanisms, or tensioners included as part of the chains. I have seen diagrams for these that looked very confusing, but hey, at least I had a flashlight! (a headlamp works even better!).
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 goes behind the wheel, and the other in front, pretty easy, right? Unfortunately, you may need to get down on the ground for this, as chains are not usually “slipped on” like cables. That being said, they can be pretty quick to put on once you’ve done it a few times.
One additional benefit of chains over cables is that they are repairable. Cables rip, get frayed, and usually cannot be repaired as they would end up losing length. Chain links can break, but they can be replaced. We recommend having a small shovel and gloves, since clearance between the road and the tire sometimes can be reduced by bunched up snow, which makes it harder to get the chain to fit. You’ll know what I mean if you have to slide the chain closer to the tire, underneath it, where the snow will get in the way unless it’s cleared.
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 here 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.
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:
Knowing how to drive in snow really takes practice and a lot of focus. It is difficult even on a good, clear day after it’s snowed, and very challenging during a storm.
The best tip is: SLOW DOWN. Car stopping distance triples with regular tires (see tires section) and without chains, it is possible to have an uncontrolled slide, into oncoming traffic, or down the mountainside and to your death. 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.
The best way to drive through snow is to keep the car steady, and if it slips do not overcorrect – turn your wheel slightly in the direction of the slide, then straight, then correct gently. If possible, don’t stop moving, as it may end with your vehicle stuck on the side of the road, in a snowbank. This is why it is important to drive slowly – so you do not slide for such a long distance that you end up in the ditch, or worse.
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 two-lane road between Truckee and the Sierra Valley. It is steep and mountainous in some areas, and fairly flat but 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.
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 a bit more challenging 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, 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.
I would consider chaining up by the mailboxes at the entrance to Grizzly Road from highway 70. Slow down, especially around shaded areas and curves, as snow accumulates here and thaws, then refreezes, making for an icy patch.
I am ALMOST to your house but it looks like it snowed a lot…
The best place to put on chains when you get up to our area is when you turn off 70 and into Grizzly road. Immediately after the turn there will be mailboxes on the left, that’s a decent place to stop. It’ll be slower going (25-30) but safer.
When you head uphill the best advice I can give you is to keep the car steady even if it slips (not overcorrecting) and if possible don’t stop moving! Get a little bit of speed (30) especially right before the turn heading up on Valley View. It’s been plowed a few times, but ice still forms on it.
Do I really need snow tires?
Just as you would wear 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 but not particularly great at any of them, except for your daily-paved road commute. They are made of a hard compound, so they are durable and may be OK in rainy winters.
All-weather tires – these are an improvement, as 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. Your stopping distance is improved somewhat.
All terrain tires – these are great for off-roading, and have a use for winter driving conditions too. They will improve traction in snow, as they are also made of a softer compound, have aggressive tread to grip terrain, and will definitely improve your stopping distance in snow. The con is that they are significantly more expensive, and not very durable for regular driving, so they must be rotated out unless they’re on a car dedicated for off-road adventure
Snow tires / studded tires – as their name implies, they are the ultimate “hack” for snow driving. Their stopping distance is significantly improved because the tires are designed to “spread out” snow that they encounter while maintaining grip on the road below. Studded tires are significantly more difficult to get. 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.
Last updated: Jan 5 2022
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