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Winter Driving Tips for Lake Tahoe: Tire Chains, Snow, and Mountain Driving

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A Tahoe local with miles of experience on the snowy and icy roads.

Driving to Tahoe doesn't have to be stressful with a little knowledge, skill and patience. And LOOK at that view- it's always, always worth it!!

Driving to Tahoe doesn't have to be stressful with a little knowledge, skill and patience. And LOOK at that view- it's always, always worth it!!

Winter Mountain Driving: How to Drive in the Snow

As a South Lake Tahoe local, driving on the snow and ice is just a part of life. Most people who live here do this pretty well as driving in the mountains safely is a learned skill and we get plenty of experience with winter driving. The overwhelming majority of locals have four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles, while visitors are more likely to need tire chains.

If you are not familiar with driving in the snow, here are a few winter driving tips to keep you safe and driving in the mountains safely.

1. Do Not Drive During a Big Storm

Check the weather in South Lake Tahoe or your mountain destination near the time of your trip and get well ahead of the storm, or wait for it to pass and the roads to be cleared. If you are trying to beat the storm, you need to be many hours ahead. Mountain weather is unpredictable and things may be much worse as you try to go over the summit of the pass.

2. Go Slow

This seems obvious, but it's surprising how many people don't heed this advice. It's not always easy to tell where the slick spots are when driving in the mountains. If you wait until you are on top of one and try to brake then, it will be too late. Do not panic going over slick spots. Try to maintain your course and do not brake hard.

3. Downshift to Save Your Brakes

Use the lower gears in your car to slow down, especially on the downgrades of the passes when driving in the mountains in the winter. If you shift down to 4th or even 3rd gear, your engine will slow you down, decreasing use of your brakes and decreasing the risk of sliding or skidding.

As I am reminded by a fellow writer, downshift carefully on snow or ice and do not do so at high speeds. Shift down only one gear at a time to keep your wheels from locking. And be prepared, your car will handle differently, especially in turns. Be cautious and prepared for these differences.

4. Brake Slowly and Gently

Slow down over a long distance. The harder you hit your brakes, the more chance you have of sliding. If you have anti-lock brakes do NOT pump the brakes. Apply gentle steady pressure. Let up a bit if you start to slide, then gently reapply. If you DON'T have anti-lock brakes, gently pump the brakes. Let off if you feel yourself start to slide instead of braking harder. Steer out of the slide and pump again.

5. Accelerate Slowly From a Stop to Prevent the Tires From Slipping

Sudden acceleration causes the tires to spin. In the right conditions, this can get you stuck. It also causes the back of your car to slide sideways, putting you at risk of collision with another car if starting at a red light.

6. Don't Make Hard and Fast Turns.

When you drive through a curve, slow down BEFORE the curve. Braking while turning is a great way to slide off the road into the snowbank, guardrail, or another car. I see this happen several times every single winter here. Usually, it's someone turning right at a green light who didn't slow down enough before the turn. They start the right turn, brake and slide to the left into the car or cars sitting at their opposing red light. Every single winter, this happens countless times.

Emergency Preparedness

When driving in the mountains, you need to be prepared in case you get stuck somewhere. Driving in the snow in town is one thing. A cell phone may be all you need to get out of trouble. Driving over a dark, desolate mountain pass in a snowstorm requires a whole different set of winter emergency equipment and potentially, survival skills.

Driving over mountain passes is a daily requirement for some of us. We don't take chances with the weather. Some of these roads don't have guardrails, don't have cell phone reception and don't have other cars pass by for quite a while.

Here's what you need in your car if you are driving over the mountain passes.

YouTube video that shows what it looks like to drive over Echo Summit

Tire Chains

It may be different in other mountain areas such as the Rocky Mountains, but here in the Sierra Nevada range around Lake Tahoe, we often have "chain control" checks. These are stop points along the road monitored by the state highway patrol. Usually you aren't required to use both 4-wheel drive (or all-wheel drive) AND snow chains, but often you will be stopped and asked if you have one or the other. During a storm, you will not be allowed to pass unless you have 4-wheel or AWD or chains ON your tires. Very, very rarely you are required to have both.

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My car has 4-wheel drive and I've been stuck on a side street. I have never put chains on my tires, but I carry them and once used them to put under the tires for traction to get "unstuck" when the snow was too high and the ice too slippery to move without them. So even if you have 4-wheel drive, snow chains may still be useful.

Check a size guide and try them on your tires in your driveway before venturing into the mountains. Plan your trip ahead and buy tire chains for your trip to South Lake Tahoe here, online. If you buy chains on the way to Tahoe, you may not find your size and you will pay two to three times as much for the same set.

There are many designs and brands of these chains. You don't need super-expensive ones, but I wouldn't recommend the bargain basement either. Too many people have had the cheap ones break on first use and end up having to pay a premium to replace them to get out of town.

Avalanche Shovel

You are probably not going to be caught in an avalanche. But these small shovels, some with adjustable handles are necessary and useful if you get stuck in a snowdrift or if your car gets plowed in when the snowplows clear the streets. I have also used mine to clear snow off of my car when the job is too big for a snow scraper or brush.

Buy a good, solid shovel that will not break when lifting heavy snow.

I prefer the avalanche shovel to a regular snow shovel. First, they seem to be of higher quality and able to handle even heavy, wet snow. They either have short or adjustable handles and so are nice since they can accommodate different users and pack away easily in the car. The short handles are also useful because when you are digging out your tires, you are down nearer the ground and a long handle is cumbersome.

Avalanche Shovel- This one is sturdy, lightweight and adjustable.

In Case You Get Stuck

It doesn't happen very often, but once in a while, the road will close ahead or a car will skid off the road and the driver and passengers cannot get it back onto the road. This can be a serious situation in the mountains where cell phone service is unavailable, especially at night when another car is less likely to come along.

Here's what you should have in your car to help you get "unstuck" or to survive a night until you can get help.

  • cell phone - some places on the routes into town have service
  • tire chains - ideally, buy and try ahead of time
  • water
  • emergency blanket - subzero sleeping bag or "space blanket"
  • flares - these should be in your car anyway
  • shovel - avalanche shovels for digging tires out
  • snacks - (granola bar)

The Basics

And don't forget the basics. Don't forget that you might need your winter gear before you reach your destination. Don't pack your coat, gloves and boots deep in your suitcases. If you need to put chains on or get your car unstuck, you will want these things to be accessible. The same goes for water and snacks.

I also keep snowshoes in my car because sometimes I MUST drive through the mountains during a big storm. If I have to trek through deep snow to get help, I plan to use the snowshoes. This may be unnecessary for many people as you may not have to drive during the storm. I like to have the snowshoes in my car anyway, just in case.

Stay careful in dry weather. Sometimes, even in the winter it can go a whole month without snowing. Here are a couple of tips on driving when the road is dry...(hint, still be careful)

If the roads are dry and the temperatures are warm, the snow will be melting. This will result in spots where water is running across the road. These spots can freeze and be very icy in

  • higher elevations where the temps are colder
  • shady spots at any time
  • early morning and nighttime

Do slow down entering Tahoe on Highway 50. If you are driving in from the West (Sacramento, San Francisco, etc), you will be on Highway 50 entering Lake Tahoe. As you come into town, on the 'down' side of Echo Summit, the speed limit is 50 or 55. There are warning signs that the speed limit will drop to 40. Slow down. This is not just a safety message.

At the bottom of the hill, after the speed limit has changed, there is a CHP station on the left. Not surprisingly, highway patrol often are sitting down there with the radar. Don't start your vacation with a speeding ticket. Plus we live here, with our children. You will get where you are going without speeding through our town. What you can't see is that right off these side roads are residential neighborhoods and an elementary school.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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