Getting Across the Mountains in the Winter

SnowyWindscreen

Over the last four years, I have made dozens of trips between California and Nevada, mostly in a Prius. I’ve learned a few strategies and gathered some resources for getting safely across the mountains.

Give Yourself Time

If you have to make a flight or a meeting at a specific time, give yourself a 36-48 hour window for travel. The main highways in the mountains don’t close every time there is snow, but if they close in the 4-6 hours before you need to be in Reno, Sacramento or San Francisco, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having left earlier. After a big snow storm, crews work to get the roads open quickly, but it can take several hours to plow the roads and clear spin-outs.
Watch the Weather
Conditions change suddenly in the mountains. It might be fine at 10 am and snowing heavily an hour later. Check the forecast regularly atweather.gov.  Check the high point on your route frequently and pay attention what it says about snow levels and temperatures. If you are traveling over I-80 between California and Nevada, here’s a link to a point in Donner Pass.
Watch the Traffic
Friday nights eastbound and Sunday nights westbound are notoriously bad times to travel. Avoid them. If you are working remotely, use that flexibility to time necessary travel so you avoid traffic and take advantage of breaks in the weather. The hours right after a major storm can also be slow, just because of backed-up traffic. Caltrans has a wonderful web site where you can check current road conditions and view videos of current conditions. Here’s what Soda Springs looks like. You can also like Caltrans District 3 on Facebook and to get updates.
Prepare Your Car Make sure that your car is in good running condition and that you have the following accessible in the car:
Chains
Food
Water
Warm Clothing and a blanket or two
Window scraper
Washer fluid that won’t freeze (available at auto supply and grocery stores in Nevada).
060/365 Second-hand Snow Chains

060/365 Second-hand Snow Chains (Photo credit: t0msk)

Pack as if you might get stuck and you probably won’t, but you never know when an accident or sudden change in the weather will cause a delay–even if you have planned carefully.
Understanding Chains
Carry the correct tire chains in your car in the winter, unless you have a car with 4-wheel drive AND all-weather/M&S tires. One or the other isn’t enough. N-DOT and Caltrans are absolutely serious about chains. If there’s a chain control notice for I-80, there’s going to be a little booth, with someone checking every car. Just before the booth, you will see chain installers who will put your chains on or take them off (if you’re leaving the chain control area) for a fee. Last year, it was $30 to put chains on and $15 to take them off. Sometimes gas stations just off the highway offer slightly lower rates. I think it’s worth paying a pro to put the chains on. They have the tools, the foul-weather gear, and it takes them about 2-3 minutes per car. I often take my own chains off because it’s easier than putting them on and harder to mess up.
Prepare Yourself
Travel when you well-rested. If it looks like a long drive, share the driving with someone. Winter driving requires more concentration.
Prepare Options
Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, something goes wrong. A bad accident can close 80 for several hours. When this happens, it might be more efficient to take another route over the mountains, or to wait. Check your route ahead of time for rest stops, gas stops, restaurants that are open. Between Kingvale and Colfax, there just aren’t a lot of places to stop. I once sailed through Auburn thinking I would get gas at Kingvale. Driving uphill took more gas (this was in a larger car) than I expected and I was anxiously counting the miles to Nyack. There are rest areas at Gold Run and Donner Summit.
Adjust Your Driving
Slow down, please. Even if you have 4 wheel-drive or chains, it still takes longer to stop on ice or snow. Pull well out in front of trucks when you pass them. Let people pass you if they’re driving faster. If you’re in a chain control area, obey the speed limits. Think well ahead of the car. If traffic is slowing down, gradually ease off of the accelerator, rather than braking. When I’m driving in winter conditions, I try to make the smallest, slowest inputs to the car. I avoid sudden turns, braking, or acceleration. Not only is it safer, but it saves gas.
Safe travels!

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About good2kno

Trained in English Literature, Anglo-Irish Drama, and Business Administration, Kirsten Nelson blogs as good2kno.com. Her content strategy and communications practice includes work for Apple, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, and a host of start-ups. She has served on non-profit boards, is wife and mother to Science Fiction and Steampunk geeks, and is homeschooling a budding actor.

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