November 25, 2015

Lake Tahoe Winter Driving Tips

After a four year drought with few winter storms here in California, we haven’t had many days where we’ve been faced with winter driving conditions during the past few ski seasons. Even Tahoe locals have been saying that it seems like many of us have forgotten how to drive in adverse conditions. Now that the 4th significant storm of the 2015/2016 winter season has hit Tahoe, we felt it was a good time for a reminder of a few things to help everyone out when driving on snowy and icy roads.

Let’s begin with your trip planning. If you are flying into the area and planning to rent a car, the Reno/Tahoe International Airport, located just an hour away from South Lake Tahoe, is your best option. The highways in Nevada are good roads with excellent maintenance during snowstorms. South of Reno, Highway 50 westbound between Carson City and Stateline goes over the 7,100 foot Spooner Summit where the road is 2 lanes in each direction with a center divider between the two directions of travel on the east side of the pass. Try to rent an all-wheel drive or a 4-wheel drive vehicle but if that’s not possible be sure to carry snow chains!

If you are coming to South Tahoe from Northern California (San Francisco Bay Area, Central Valley, Sacramento, etc.), the most direct route is via Highway 50 eastbound. Once you’ve passed Sacramento and Placerville the road narrows into just one lane of traffic in each direction. This road over the pass here is very twisty and narrow. Adding snow and ice to the mix makes this drive all the more treacherous. If you can avoid driving this route during a snowstorm we highly recommend altering your plans and getting on the road either before or after the storm.

Winter Driving Pro Tips

1.) CARRY Tire Chains

If you do not have an all-wheel drive vehicle or a 4-wheel drive vehicle, buy chains before you head into the mountains and keep them in your vehicle. Be sure to buy the correct size tire chains for your tires. It might not even hurt to practice putting them on in your garage at home, so that if you have to put them on in a pinch you are familiar enough to do so. You just never know when you might need them. Heck – many of us locals even carry chains in our 4-wheel drive cars because you never know. Caltrans even has an extreme chain control condition called R3 where ALL vehicles (including 4-wheel drives) must have chains on. Though rare, it does happen. Especially on Highway 88 between Kirkwood Ski Resort and the Tahoe basin.

2.) USE Tire Chains

When road conditions call for chains OR 4-wheel drive (all-wheel drive is acceptable in lieu of 4-wheel drive), put your chains on if you are in a 2-wheel drive vehicle. There is a reason that NDOT (Nevada Department of Transportation) and CalTrans (California Department of Transportation) make the call to require chains. If you are in a 2-wheel drive vehicle and you have to stop (for whatever reason) chances are good that on an uphill slope you will not be able to get going again. Your wheels will spin and your car will slide sideways, but it will not move forward and up said hill. Not only are YOU now stuck in the middle of the road; all of the cars behind you are now also stuck because YOU are blocking the road.

3.) Clear your windows & side view mirrors of ice & snow and use your defrost:

Visibility is critical here. I’ve got nothing more to say on this one.

4. Use your mirrors:

Speaking of visibility. You need to be aware of more than just what is in front of you. Things are happening behind you and around you. Use your rear-view mirror and use your side-view mirrors. Critical.

5.) Turn on your headlights:

When it it is coming down and the snow is blowing sideways it is always hard (and sometimes nearly impossible) to see other cars. Turn your lights on so that others can see you. This is especially important if you are driving a white vehicle.

6.) Stay on main roads:

The main roads are plowed more frequently and they have more traffic on them to help compact the snow and “clear the way”. You don’t want to be the first person driving through 2 feet of unplowed snow – trust me. And we’ve all read those stories about the person(s) who decided to take a shortcut in the dead of winter and ended up stuck in the middle of nowhere for god knows how long. Even here in town, it is better to stay on the more traveled roads during a storm.

7.) Don’t try to drive through a berm:

What’s a berm? It’s the tall pile of snow created by snowplows either in between the two directions of traffic or on the side of the road between the road and the driveway that you want to get into. Successfully driving through a berm is an art form that takes many, many years of practice. It also takes A LOT of faith in your vehicle. Trust me, it’s embarrassing as all get out to be stuck sideways across a berm, blocking both lanes of traffic. Do yourself a favor and go to the next light or plowed intersection, make a U-Turn there and pull into the desired driveway/street, etc. from the nearest lane of traffic instead. And if the driveway that you’re trying to get into happens to be one that you are responsible for clearing, park somewhere else and clear it (and the berm) before trying to get in. Again – trust me on this one.

8.) Avoid using your brakes:

Throttle control is the way to avoid trouble. Using the brakes will often just make your vehicle slide (usually out of control and resulting in your heart lodging itself in your throat) instead of coming to a stop. Use your transmission to control your speed; downshift and let off the gas pedal as you approach a stop or as you are going down a hill so that you can avoid using your brakes.

9.) The passing lane is for passing:

There is usually someone who is going and/or wants to drive faster than you are. Stay to the right when there are two lanes unless you are actively passing.

10.) Be conscientious of where you stop:

Stopping to a.) clear your windshield b.) put your chains on c.) let the kids get out to play in the snow should not be done in the lane of moving traffic. Make sure that you find a place where you can pull completely off the road and out of the way of traffic. And I personally wouldn’t let my kid play anywhere remotely near a 1000+ pound vehicle that’s sliding around on snow and ice. That’s just me though.

The aforementioned tips are in no particular order of importance. We hope that you find these helpful as you plan your winter trip to the mountains. Most of the time the roads are clear up here and driving during the winter months is no different than it is during the rest of the year. BUT there are times when it can be challenging. Please be careful and enjoy your visit to South Lake Tahoe!

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