In wintertime, Californians’ fancy turns to thoughts of skiing, skates, snowmen, relaxing around a cheery fire in a cozy log cabin watching snowflakes float down outside the window…and tire chains. :^(
Yuck. Chains are a fact of life if you drive in California in winter, and not just the north or the better known mountain areas like Tahoe, Yosemite, or Mammoth. Your long-anticipated fun getaway from Los Angeles to quaint and charming Bakersfield could be delayed by snow and ice on the Grapevine. Death Valley, the world high temperature record holder, can get enough snow in its mountain ranges to require chains or road closures, and you’ll need crampons and ice axes to climb the park’s highest peak in winter. In all national parks where snow and ice are possible (not just Yosemite), all visitors must carry chains, regardless of the type of vehicle, and be prepared to show them at the park entrance.
So here is the birds-and-bees talk about safe winter driving in California.:
1. Check the weather forecast using the National Weather Service, Weather Channel, the phone hotline or website for a national park you plan to visit, or other reliable sources.
• Weather Channel - http://www.weather.com/
2. Check with CalTrans for current road conditions on state or US highways.
• Hotline - 1-800-427-7623 (1-800-HAS-ROADS)
• Website - http://www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi
3. Find out if chain controls are possible where you are going, and be sure your vehicle is properly equipped. California has three levels of chain controls, which apply to state or federal but not county or local roads:
• R-1: Chains or snow tires required (either/or, depending on vehicle and road conditions). Tires must have M/S designation and minimum of 6/32” tread.
• R-2: Chains required on all vehicles except 4wd with snow tires on all 4 wheels. For ordinary road travel in snow, use 4-H; use 4-L only to get unstuck.
• R-3: Chains required on all vehicles without exception. This is rare; if conditions are this severe, CalTrans will usually close the highway.
Familiarize yourself with the chains ahead of time; practice installing them in your garage or yard where it’s safe, warm, and dry. Practice with work or gardening gloves, and then pack gloves, a plastic sheet, and maybe a squeegie or window scraper with the chains. In real life, it will be cold and snowy and wet and muddy. At some major chain control points in California, you’ll find state-licensed installers who do the dirty work for a fee. They install only; they are not allowed to sell chains. Hire only someone wearing a state-issued number, get a receipt, and write down his state license number for future reference. Remember that once your chains are mounted, you’re still not done; you need to drive a short distance and then check that they are tightened adequately. The Oregon DMV has a nice clear explanation of how to install chains.
4. Wintertime mountain driving requires extra alertness. High winds are common in the Sierra Nevada and other with road curves and slick surfaces, they can cause drivers to lose control. Black ice is an almost undetectable frozen surface that can form on pavement in temperatures near (not necessarily at or below) freezing. Shady spots under bridges, going through groves of trees, etc., are prone to black ice. Longer following distances are a must in winter, and it’s safer to drive during warmer daylight hours. Don’t forget your sunglasses; in bright sunlight, the glare from fallen snow can be blinding.
Driving in chains is totally different from regular driving. The speed limit in chain control areas is 30 mph or lower—temporary limits will be posted. You will see some idiots in unchained 4wd vehicles tearing along at 50 mph or more because they are dumb enough to think 4wd will save them from anything. Don’t let them spook you, but be alert around them. They could startle someone else into making an abrupt and dangerous move. Stay in the slow lane, let them fly by, and pray they don’t lose control, or if they do, they merely soar off the road without clobbering anyone. Whether chained or not, never make sudden starts, stops, or turns on surfaces with poor traction. Make all your moves gradually and smoothly.
5. On any winter trip, be prepared for delays, detours, having to turn back, or perhaps even staying put in your car for awhile in case of some unforeseen event. Bring along extra food, water, clothing, blankets or sleeping bags, flashlights, and other supplies.
Never rely on GPS, internet map programs, cell phones, or any high-tech marvels; bring real maps, the kind that Marco Polo or Lewis and Clark used. Study them ahead of time, and don’t take unknown or questionable roads in bad weather. Here are two stories of what actually happens when people take the wrong road in unforgiving weather situations.
If you have to stay in a vehicle during a snowstorm, never run your engine. Even if you open a couple of windows a little, the ventilation they provide may not keep lethal levels of carbon monoxide from accumulating. If it snows and you’ve dozed off, your window openings and car exhaust tailpipe could become obstructed and you might never wake up.
Here are a couple of CalTrans websites with winter driving tips.
Have a good time, and be sure to come back and write a trip report for your friends here at TA.Edited: 03 December 2013, 23:25