For most of you, visiting South Lake Tahoe means driving up and over our mountain passes. If you are visiting Tahoe any time between November and March, you will most likely experience some winter driving conditions. Winter driving conditions will occur during or after any precipitation when temperatures hover around freezing. Roads will be covered in snow, or even with black ice that sometimes goes unnoticed until your car starts to slide. If you are driving up to Tahoe and it is snowing, there is guaranteed to be traffic, fellow powder-hounds wanting fresh tracks on the mountains. During storms you can experience poor visibility and decreased traction. After storms, you might think the roads look clear, but even a thin layer of snow packed down by plows can be dangerous. The best thing to get through your Tahoe holiday safely, is be prepared!
Know the Roads
Being caught in a snowstorm off guard is a sure way to start your vacation off on the wrong foot. We suggest that you check the weather a few days before you leave and again the day of departure. See what time the storm is going to hit your route, and plan your departure time accordingly. You can even find out what the roads look like in real time by viewing traffic cameras. Below are some useful resources, including road condition updates and live traffic cameras. The live traffic cameras are a great way to see what is ahead of you on your drive.
Live Traffic Cameras:
Call Caltrans: 1-800-427-7623
Call Nevada DOT: 1-855-878-6368
Prepare Your Vehicle
Even the little things you do for your car will help if the situation changes from bad to worse. Here are a few minor things to check before you leave your house.
- Tire Pressure: Tire pressure drops by about one pound per ten degrees of temperature, so remember that temperatures will decrease as you make your way up to the mountains.
- Fluids: Antifreeze is your best friend in the mountains, and making sure you have coolant in your engine is very important, you don’t want your engine block to crack. Trust us.
- Windshield Washer: Fill this up before you leave, all the way up. You might even want to throw in extra fluid in your trunk (make sure it is rated for low temperatures). Your windshield will be covered in salt, sand and spray from other cars and from snow on the road, the only way to clear this is with your wiper fluid.
- Working Lights: California requires your lights to be on if your wipers are going, this is both for your own visibility but also so others can see you. When visibility is reduced to under 20 feet, you will be thankful the car in front of you has their tail lights on.
- Working Brakes: This one doesn’t need much explaining, just make sure you get them checked before you leave. The last thing you want is for your brakes to go out while on a steep downgrade.
- Windshield Wipers: Invest in some good winter wipers, they are heavier than normal wiper blades and will sufficiently clear your windshield of snow. You won’t get very far without them!
- Battery: Don’t get stuck on the side of the road because you have an old dead battery. Have this checked by a mechanic before departing. Remember that it will take more power to start your battery when it is cold, so make sure it is up for the task.
- Full Gas Tank: Your drive time might double from normal due to poor road conditions, if this is the case you will want enough gas. When you get stuck in traffic that is not moving (think: chain control checks), idling your car might be the only way to stay warm when traffic stops.
- Additional Packing List: Snow shovel, snow brush and ice scraper, blanket, bag of abrasive material (sand, salt or cat litter), extra gloves or mittens, cloth or paper towels, flashlight, booster cables, warning flares and a phone.
Snow Tires or Chains
Knowing your vehicle is extremely important when driving into uncertain conditions. Do you have an all-wheel drive car? Rear-wheel drive? Snow tires? These are all important to making it safely up to Tahoe without any slides. If you are going to visit snow country frequently, snow tires might be a good investment. If you do not have four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive you will be required to put chains on your tires during snow storms. Tahoe has Chain Control stops that are mandatory for everyone. Have chains in your trunk, and practice putting them on. Most of the chain control stops will have a crew available to put the chains on your tires for you. Bring an extra $30 and you wont even have to get out in the cold!
Snow Driving Tips
Here are just a few driving tips to keep in mind while you are on the road. Remember, to be aware not just of your own driving, but also others around you. Even if you are an over-confident-snow-driver, be courteous to those that are not (and vice versa).
- Snow Removal: Keep your car clear of snow, and this includes the roof. You can go online and watch countless videos of windshields being smashed because someone in front didn’t clear off the snow and and ice from their roof. Don’t forget to clear off your headlights and taillights too.
- Slow Things Down: To be able to maintain absolute control over your car, keep your speed slower than you would on clear roads. Accelerate slowly (avoid skidding tires), turn slowly (avoid a 360 degree spin), and brake slowly (avoid slamming in to the car in front of you). Keep extra space between you and other vehicles so that you can react to any changes in control. AAA says there should be eight to ten seconds between cars when following.
- Hill Safety: When going up a hill, do not stop in the middle of it. It will be difficult to get traction under your tires to start moving again. Instead, keep your speed slow and steady as you climb. Once at the top, reduce your speed and go down slowly. Do NOT slam on your brakes when descending a hill, gently press on the brake if needed.
- Be Courteous: If you are going slower than traffic, find a safe place to pull over and let others pass you. Do not stop in the middle of a road and block traffic if you get nervous. Just slowly make your way to a safe place to stop and regain control.