How to have a safe and fun trip in the Sierra Nevada Range this Winter
Ok, the snow dances have finally worked and we officially have snow accumulations in the Sierra. People travel far and wide to bear witness to our unbelievable snow conditions, and those plans to visit Reno Tahoe are underway!
Winter driving on roads and the highways in the Sierra can be a bit uncomfortable for some people who haven’t driven in snowy conditions before, but it can ultimately be a pleasurable journey if you are prepared. Always remember, getting there is just the beginning of your winter vacation, and once you make it to your destination, the fun and adventure really starts. Plus, we are incredibly lucky that our road crews in California and Nevada work around the clock to keep our roadways clear and safe.
Before heading into the Sierra or any other snow country here is a list of several things to take care of before you leave the house:
- Make sure your windshield wipers, defroster, heater, exhaust system and brakes are in top condition.
- Check your tires. Make sure the tread is in good condition and they are properly inflated.
- At all times, try to keep your gas tank at least half full to avoid gas line freeze-up.
- If possible, avoid using your parking brake in cold, rainy and snowy weather, as it may freeze up and no longer disengage.
- Check your antifreeze and be ready for freezing temperatures.
- Make sure you have concentrated (non freezing) windshield washer fluid to the windshield washer fluid reservoir to prevent an icy windshield.
- Always carry chains. Make sure they are the proper size for your tires and are in working order. You might want to take along a flashlight and chain repair links. Chains must be installed on the drive wheels. Make sure you know if your vehicle is front or rear wheel drive.
- Carry about $50 in cash (smaller denominations are best) in case you get to a point and need to have assistance putting chains on, and taken off of your vehicle.
- It is also a good idea to take along water, non-perishable food, warm blankets and extra clothing. A lengthy delay will make you glad you have them.
- Weather conditions may warrant you to detour from the main road. It is strongly suggested that you always keep an updated map containing the Sierra area.
- Put an extra car key in your pocket. Many motorists keep their vehicles running when they get out of their vehicle to keep the vehicle warm and have locked themselves out of their cars when putting on chains and at ski areas.
Once you have your vehicle ready to go, think about these driving tips as you get on the road:
- Avoid driving while you’re fatigued. Getting the proper amount of rest before taking on winter weather tasks reduces driving risks.
- Do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface (wet, ice, sand).
- Always allow enough time for your trip. Winter driving in the Sierras can take longer than other times of the year, especially if you encounter storm conditions or icy roads. So, get an early start and allow plenty of time to reach your destination.
- Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly to accelerate is the best method for regaining traction and avoiding skids. Remember: It takes longer to slow down on icy roads.
- Drive slowly. Everything takes longer on snow-covered roads. Normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to ten seconds.
- Don’t stop if you can avoid it. But if you need to stop, keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
- If you can help it, don’t stop going up a hill. There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some inertia going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill.
- Keep your gas tank full. It may be necessary to change routes or turn back during a bad storm or you may be caught in a traffic delay.
- Keep windshield and windows clear. You may want to stop at a safe turnout to use a snow brush or scraper. Use the car defroster and a clean cloth to keep the windows free of fog.
- Slow down. Even if you have a 4-wheel drive truck, a highway speed of 65 miles per hour may be safe in dry weather, but an invitation for trouble on snow and ice.
- Be more observant. Visibility is often limited in winter by weather conditions. Slow down and watch for other vehicles that have flashing lights, visibility may be so restricted during a storm that it is difficult to see the slow moving equipment.
- When stalled, stay with your vehicle and try to conserve fuel while maintaining warmth. Be alert to any possible exhaust or monoxide problems.
Here are a few tips for driving in the Sierra during icy or snowy weather:
- Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly to accelerate is the best method for regaining traction and avoiding skids. Don’t try to get moving in a hurry. And take time to slow down for a stoplight. Remember: It takes longer to slow down on icy roads.
- Drive slowly. Everything takes longer on snow-covered roads. Accelerating, stopping, turning – nothing happens as quickly as on dry pavement. Give yourself time to maneuver by driving slowly.
- The normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to ten seconds (5 car lengths). This improved margin of safety will provide the longer space needed if you have to stop.
- Whether you have antilock brakes or not, the best way to stop is threshold breaking. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
- Don’t stop if you can avoid it. There’s a big difference in the amount of inertia it takes to start moving from a full stop versus how much it takes to get moving while still rolling. If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it.
- Don’t power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads will just start your wheels spinning. As you reach the top of a hill, reduce your speed and possible down shift as you proceed downhill as slowly as possible.
- Don’t stop going up an incline. There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road.
If you end up entering an area that has chain controls;
- You must stop and put on chains when highway signs indicate chains are required. You can be cited and fined if you don’t. You will usually have about a half a mile to a mile between the “Chains Required” sign and the checkpoint to confirm you have installed your chains.
- Control areas can change rapidly from place to place because of changing weather and road conditions.
- In most cases, the speed limit when chains are required is 15 to 25 miles an hour.
- When you put on chains, wait until you can pull completely off the roadway to the right. Do not stop in a traffic lane where you will endanger yourself and block traffic.
- If you use a chain installer, be sure to get a receipt and jot the installer’s badge number on it. Remember, chain installers are independent business people, and are not allowed by law to sell or rent chains.
- When removing chains, drive beyond the signs reading “End of Chain Control” to a pull-off area where you can safely remove them.
In the event you see a snowplow or other snow removal equipment on the road, here are a few simple rules to follow:
- Use care when following, passing or approaching any snow removal equipment, even if it appears to be parked.
- Drive a safe distance behind snowplows. Plows often travel slower than other vehicles to remove snow and to apply sand and liquid deicers.
- Before attempting to pass snow removal equipment, check the direction the snow and debris is being thrown from the vehicle. Also, remember that snowplows are wider than most vehicles and portions of the plow and blade may be obscured by blowing snow.
- Don’t ever drive extended distances beside a snowplow, as they can shift sideways after hitting snow packs or drifts.
- When a plow approaches you, allow the plow room to operate by reducing speed and moving to the right side of the road if there is room to safely do so.
- Make sure to not brake with unnecessary sudden movements when in front of a snowplow – they cannot stop as quickly as a standard automobile.
If you are making a winter kit for your vehicle, here is a short recommended list of what you may want to include in that kit:
- Rechargeable flashlight
- Cell phone car adapter
- Non-perishable food and water
- Tools: jack, lug wrench and collapsible shovel
- Road maps for your trip and the surrounding areas
- Blanket or sleeping bag(s)
- Spare set of warm dry clothes, boots, hat and gloves
- First aid kit, including a couple of days of any prescription medications
- Pocket knife
- Matches or lighter
- Battery jumper cables
- Ice scraper and snow brush
- Paper towels
- Extra windshield washer fluid
If you travel with young children, an infant or baby, pack extra age appropriate food, warm clothes and blankets, toys, and extra diapers (if appropriate) just in case. Most importantly, remember to make sure your child safety seat is installed properly.
Before leaving on your trip, tell a friend where you are going, the planned route, and when you anticipate arriving. Keep them updated on any major route or arrival changes.
Numbers and websites to know before you go:
CALTRANS Highway Conditions:
- Web http://www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi
- Mobile http://www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roadscell.cgi
- Webcams http://www.video.dot.ca.gov/
- Phone 1-800-427-7623
NDOT (Nevada Department of Transportation) Winter Driving Conditions
- Web http://www.safetravelusa.com/nv/
- Phone 1-877-687-6237
- Cell 511 within Nevada