To carry snow chains or not to carry snow chains–that is not even the question for anyone travelling through the mountain passes of the Sierra Nevada during the winter months. And that's because motorists should definitely have them on hand, according to Liza Whitmore, Caltrans District 3 Public Information Officer–Sierra Area.
"All motorists traveling in higher elevations, above 2,000 to 4,000 feet, during the winter months should carry chains," she said. "Even if the weather is predicted to be sunny, delays can occur and a storm may be on tap for your return over the pass."
Those winter months generally start about October and November and continue through to March or April, but motorists can consider November 1 through April 30 official winter traveling time. People that frequently travel over the summit should be sure to have chains. The potential negative outcomes for being without include needing to turn around, heading back to town to look for chains, or being cited – or even towed in the event that a vehicle blocks a roadway and keeps snow removal equipment from coming through, according to Whitmore.
"… [T]he consequences of traveling in the winter to higher elevations where rain turns to snow without being adequately prepared can be significant," she said. "… Being stranded, without water, food, warm clothing --we see folks in flip flops trying to put on chains, enough gas in the tank or windshield washer fluid/good wipers can lead to very unsafe situations."
When You Need Chains (or Knowing Your R1, R2 and R3s)
There are three levels of chain control that are used by Caltrans: these include the R1, R2 and R3 designations. The first two levels, R1 and R2, require all vehicles, including trucks, to put on chains. The only exception is vehicles that are four-wheel or all-wheel drive and that have snow tires. However, these snow tires should have 'MS' or 'M+S' on the sidewall to indicate their use in the mud and snow. R3 is a different story altogether, however.
"For R3, all vehicles and trucks need to chain up, but that level of chain control is not used on either I-80 or U.S. Hwy 50," Whitmore said. "When storms that intense occur, Caltrans closes the roadway. Caltrans may hold traffic temporarily on either side of the pass when white-out conditions occur, when there are major traffic incidents or too many spinouts or when too many cars on the roadway create increased chances for collisions."
Buying Chains Nearby (or May the Force Be With You)
Motorists who do not have chains on hand at a chain control area will need to turn around and be unable to continue on over the pass, according to Whitmore. While motorists may be lucky enough to find a gas station nearby selling the right sized chains, they also may find the supply short or the chains overpriced. As a result, they may need to head back to the nearest town to see what they can find there.
"Because there are many different types of tires, one cannot assume that auto parts stores or service stations in Truckee, Cisco or Kingvale will have the size you require," Whitmore said. "Additionally, prices there are most likely much higher than one would pay at your local auto parts store."
Purchasing chains in the summer months can be a countermeasure to this. Often, chains can be found on sale during the non-winter months, and summer purchase gives motorists plenty of opportunity to practice putting chains on and off before ever having to use them officially on the roadway, said Whitmore. This experience can be helpful.
"You don’t want to learn how in 22 degree, windy, snowy weather in the dark, on the side of the road," she said.
What to Do if You are a Snow Chain Neophyte
Motorists who are fortunate enough to have chains in their vehicle, but don't know how to put them on or have a car full of kids and just need some assistance, can look for aid at a Caltrans designated chain installation area. How does one find these areas in the midst of a white chaos? Simply keep your eyes peeled for signs up on poles along widened shoulder areas that designate a chain installation area.
As well, permit contractors there should be able to help put on chains – and to help take them off, too, on the other side of the pass. They do not sell chains, however. The approved charge to put chains on is $30 and for help taking them off is $15. Prices do vary, but the installers tend to police one another in this regard, according to Whitmore. To identify a bona fide contractor, simply look for a bib that the permitted contractor should be wearing, which also should have a Caltrans identification number.
"The[se] are permit contractors who sign on with Caltrans for permission to install and remove chains at Caltrans chain control areas when snow conditions require chain controls," she said.
Are Snow Tires Enough?
Snow and mud tires, also sometimes called 'all-terrain' tires, can help to prevent the need for four-wheel or all-wheel-drive vehicles to chain up during R1 and R2 chain control conditions, but sometimes these conditions can quickly worsen, according to Whitmore.
"Conditions can change dramatically with elevation changes, storm activity, temperature fluctuations, or roadway conditions," she said. "While R3 is not used on I-80 or U.S. Hwy 50, county or private roadways may present conditions which warrant the use of chains on 4- or all-wheel drive vehicles with snow tires."
To top it off, driving ‘all terrain’ or ‘snow’ tires during dry conditions usually increases their wear, leading many motorists to remove them during non-winter months. Also, they lead to more road noise and, as a result, are discouraged unless weather or roadway conditions indicate their need for use, according to Whitmore.
Be Snow Aware from the Start
While Caltrans prepares for inclement weather by paying attention from the start, motorists can take the same type of cautionary steps, too. Predictions for rain or cold temperatures in the valley could be a signal of possible snow at the summit. Dark clouds hovering over Donner or Echo Summit could mean questionable weather ahead – keep in mind that both the Interstate 80 and U.S. Highway 50 passes are at high elevations -- above 7,000 feet, said Whitmore. Those who are already on their way up to the pass should pay attention to roads signs that indicate particular weather conditions or what to expect further ahead.
"Overhead message signs alert motorists to chain control miles ahead of the chain control stations so drivers should not be surprised to find controls are in place," Whitmore said.
Also, Caltrans makes it a point to publicize its Winter Driving Tips, including that drivers should be sure to check the air pressure in their tires and their vehicle's antifreeze levels during winter months. For more suggestions, go here. With or without chains, there also is the idea of putting off travel when weather conditions are unfavorable.
"When the weather is nasty over the summits, the best course of action is to delay your travel until weather and roadway conditions improve," Whitmore said. "Most storms do not last more than a day or two and slippery road conditions, even with chains or snow tires, can make driving hazardous. Remember there are other drivers who have never driven in snow before and think they can go 55/65 miles an hour."
And keep in mind that even when the roadway is clear, melting snow or rain can freeze up and result in icy conditions, particularly on bridges or in shady areas, she reminded.
"As the California Highway Patrol constantly informs us, the speed limit depends on the roadway conditions -- slow down on wet, icy or snowy roadways, even when chain controls are not in place," she said.