Winters in Reno & Navigating the Sierra Nevada Mountains to and From Surrounding Destinations

Winter's Creek next to Mt. Rose

Reno: 4,505ft.
Mt. Rose Highway Pass: 8,911ft.
Mt. Rose Peak: 10,778ft.
Lake Tahoe: 6,224ft.
Donner Pass: 7,057ft.
Truckee: 5,817ft.

During winter, unfavorable conditions - snow, blizzards, slippery roads, sleet, & black ice - can cause accidents, and major delays in Reno.  Our city's elevation is positioned at a lower level in the valley, getting lower levels of precipitation than that of the mountains traveled by tourists and locals to nearby destinations such as South Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Placerville, and the like.

If you frequent South Lake Tahoe (skiers, snowboarders, and tourists), you'll pass Mt. Rose Pass to get there from South Reno.  It's the highest pass at 8,911ft.  This means you'll come across lots of snow during wintry weather.  Checking the weather and road cameras (links below) ahead of time is crucial in planning accordingly. 

Winters in Reno are pretty mild overall, but knowing what to expect can make all the difference in staying cool (more like warm), calm, sane, and safe, while also keeping others safe.  Below is a guide to take the guesswork out of navigating winter and its wintry conditions.

Squaw Valley Aerial Tram
Reno usually gets a handful of snow storms throughout the season that bring a significant amount of snowfall.  Unless the storm lasts for more than a few consecutive days (rare), the snow usually doesn't stick around for too long, especially in the valley.  Either it melts within a couple of days or the city clears it out fast.  

For the past few years, we've had such mild winters that many of my neighbors didn't bother clearing their sidewalks of snow, knowing it would melt the next day.  
Galena Creek Park
There was a year in particular, where we had a significant amount of precipitation that locals were not prepared for.  It was around the time I first moved here, 7 years ago.  I remember visiting Home Depot only to find children's shovels available.  The other locations were sold out of shovels as well.  This was the year Washoe Lake went from empty to full by the end of the winter.  

Road to San Diego
If you frequently journey out of town, I highly suggest preparing for travel in wintry conditions and having some backup plans in place since you will travel likely travel through higher elevations (at higher elevations there's significantly more snow) to get to surrounding areas like Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, San Diego, and the like.  Anything can happen (car breaks down, accidents, road work, hold-ups, road closures) and you can easily find yourself in a sticky situation.

Either way you take to get to and from Reno, you'll likely be passing through the mountains, mainly by Highway 80 past Sacramento or Highway 50 past South Lake Tahoe.  

Bottom line is, I highly suggest being prepared for winter in general, whether staying in town most of the winter or traveling out of town for business and pleasure.

Sparks Marina Park 

How to Prepare for Winter

Most locals own an AWD vehicle due to it's ability to gain traction in slippery conditions such as snow and ice.  Torque is delivered to all four wheels, which gives the vehicle more grip and allows for better acceleration when traction is low (source).

Since winters are mild in Reno, all-weather tires have been my go-to.  They handle all season weather nicely, considering snow is not heavy.  In comparison,  all-season tires are equipped for warm, dry, & mild wet conditions.  With both kinds of tires, you don't need to swap them out.  You do have to swap out snow tires since they chemically wear out at warmer temperatures (source).

When temperatures are consistently at 45 degrees F and below, snow tires are suggested.  There's only  a small portion of winter in Reno where conditions are this way, so I'm never worried about not having them.  Snow tires are used not only in snow, but in colder temps in general due to their flexibility and ability to grip, as compared to the more rigid nature of the all-season tire.

When traveling through the mountains, I wait for a clear day to travel (I've been traveling back and forth this route to SD for many years visiting family), and if I can't avoid traveling in snow, I always use chains (required at the Donner Pass checkpoint 80W).  If you have an AWD vehicle along with snow tires (all 4), you will be able to pass without chains.    

Chains are not required for AWD vehicles with snow tires at checkpoints in the mountains during snow storms, but if your tires don't have good tread on them, regardless of it being AWD, the capabilities of the tires will be compromised (source). 

For people certain they will be traveling through the mountains frequently during snowy conditions and for people with smaller cars that have less control, I suggest using snow tires.  

With all the slopes and vast hills, it's easy to lose track of speed and control.  Being mindful of your surroundings at all times will help to keep yourself and everyone around you safe.  

The trick when driving in the snow is to drive cautiously and slowly and to keep a safe distance between yourself and other cars.  Another big trick I learned while traveling with my kids is to leave early and allow enough time to get to your destination without rushing.  Also, decelerate by taking your foot off the gas as soon as possible as compared to slamming on the breaks, to prevent skidding. 

If you haven't heard of black ice, it's ice you can't see because it's become transparent from melting and re-freezing and blends in with the road.  Driving on black ice can be tricky so watching out for it is important.    

If you're on a budget, the owner, Martin, from Padilla's Tires, sells second-hand tires (gets them from all sorts of situations- owners want different tires, auto breaks down and he buys tires, auto gets into accidents and he acquires tires) with lots to choose from.  I've been going to him for service all these years.  He's a very trustworthy mechanic and is one of the only ones that works Sundays if you're ever in need.  

Otherwise, Discount Tire and Tires Les Schwab have pretty good tire selections and service.  

*Side Note: Tires Les Schwab provides free flat tire repair for any of their tires.

Tire Rack has a distribution center in Sparks where you can pick up tires that may not otherwise be available on hand in store.  Similar to Discount Tire, Tire Rack also offers warranties on their tires.  If the tire wears down before the estimated life of the tire, they will refund the prorated amount of service not received from the tire and apply it towards a new set of tires.  Service is outstanding. 

***Always keep receipts of tire rotations and service, which is required by tire companies for warranties. 

Tire Recommendations 
A neigbor who is an avid skier that has been driving in snowy conditions since 2012 has recommended BF Goodrich TA/KOs.  These mud and snow tires along with her AWD allow her to get to resorts on snowy days without chains.

Squaw Valley Ski Resort Home of Olympics

Always Check Weather Ahead of Time

My favorite resource for checking weather.  Accurate, by-the-minute weather updates, snow accumulations, wind speeds, UX Index, and winter advisory statements/warnings.  

When traveling, I always look weather ahead of time to plan accordingly.  Generally, when a wintry advisory pops up for snow storms, most people (myself included) postpone their long travel plans to stay safe and wait a day or two for roads to clear before they resume travel.  This is usually the amount of time it takes for the snow to be cleared by plows.  

When driving to and from Reno and Sacramento (2 hr. Drive), I like to look up Donner Summit, CA (7057 feet) and Truckee, CA (5,817 feet) to get a good idea of what to expect.  Snow accumulations are greater at higher elevations.  You can do the same process for other trips.  Look up the highest elevations on route and  check for weather there to know what to expect. 

*As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.  The products I suggest are products I use myself. 

Have a Roadside Emergency Kit in Your Car For Unexpected Problems and Other Essentials to Have in Your Car During Winter

Having a roadside emergency kit handy during travel can mean a world of a difference in emergency situations, especially in winter when conditions are pretty rough.
When dealing with freezing temperatures, you can never be too safe.  You can find yourself stranded for hours on end, waiting for help to arrive.  You can find yourself pulling over from an unexpected snow storm to put on chains or stuck in traffic from an accident.  In any scenario, emergency kits are essential, much like insurance.    

I remember pulling over to put chains on my van during a snow storm around the Donner Pass area.  It was like I was on the reality show Survivor.  It was no easy task, with my tingling numb fingers boycotting the cold, but in the end, I completed the task with the help of a flashlight, and a pair of gloves from my roadside kit.  If you grew up with Macgyver (yes, I'm 37 years old), you'll know that the main character always finds ways to use tools to save people and get out of ruts.  You can have your Macgyver moment and feel good about yourself.

I have a kit similar to the one I listed above and I can't mention how many times it has come in handy and even in other seasons.  

I've also had the opportunity to help a handful of people at random times throughout the years with my jumper cables.  

Other Useful Tools and Items to Have in Your Vehicle
-Paper roadmaps if your phone were to run out of power or did you know that you can download certain areas on maps to your phone?  Just in case you lose reception, you'll still be able to navigate.
-Phone Charger
- food and water to last a while.  (Granola bars, trail mix, fruits).  Expect the unexpected with traveling in harsh weather.  Your car can break down or there can be a hold up that will have you stuck in your vehicle for hours on end. 
-emergency thermal blankets - these are thin and trap heat nicely.
-Ice Scraper to get ice off windshield (especially handy for people without garages)
-Snow Shovels - These can sell out fast at our local hardware stores (check Home Depot and Lowe's), so buying one ahead of time is highly recommended. 
-extra clothes like beanies, jackets, gloves, extra set of clothes for everyone traveling

Inform a Family or Friend of Your Travel Plans
If you're making a long journey out, your friends and family can be on standby to help should any problems arise.  For example, my mother and father got stuck in Truckee somewhere due to a road closure and I looked up information on road conditions and told them where to stay until the roads opened up again.  

Knowing how to install chains on your tires can remove the hassle of having to find a gas station to do it for you and save you from freezing outside your vehicle in low temperatures and unfavorable conditions.

Chains are required for cars that don't have both AWD and tires that meet M+S requirements(mountain/snowflake, marked on tire).  Many "all-season" tires are rated M+S.  Depending on the type and brand of chains, you can drive up to speeds of 20-35mph.  Driving with chains on when roads are clear of snow will cause damage. 

Check out this full detailed guide with more on chains. 

I bought my set of chains from Tires Les Schwab and they were super helpful and more than willing to help find the right kind of chains and help teach me how to install them.  A side note is that they fix any of the tires purchased from their shop for free.   

If you go to their shop, I highly suggest taking a video clip of how to install your chains since you likely will forget the process when you're faced with the opportunity to put them on.  

Check Tire Air Pressure and Schedule Maintenance
Extreme cold temperatures can cause tires that are outdoors to lose tire pressure.  Having them checked once a month (especially when parking cars outdoors) will help keep pressure consistent and extend the life of the tire by allowing it to wear out evenly.  Low-pressure tires may even be dangerous and are more likely to pop.    

I like to schedule maintenance before long road trips to make sure my vehicle is in tip-top condition.  If I could prevent breaking down in the middle of nowhere with three kids and a dog, I would do everything I could to make it happen. 

Discount Tire does free air checks and you can stay in your car while getting service. 

Keep Your Gas Tank Full
You never know what could happen, so having a full tank is crucial for safe travels.  Also, the tank of gas will less likely freeze at freezing temps.  You can save money when loading gas in Carson City. 

Helpful Links for Live Updates, Camera Footage of Roads, and More
NV Roads-Covers both Nevada and the Tahoe/Donner region.  You can look at live feeds from road cameras.  Call 511 by phone 

Caltrans live traffic cameras- Covers the California side of I-80.  This site is great if you're planning a trip from Reno to Sacramento and want to check out road conditions in the Sierra Mountains.  You can also view cameras that cover the Sacramento and San Francisco areas for traffic.

New to Reno Latest Highway Conditions - A site that puts all links important to road conditions in one place

CHP Truckee (California Highway Patrol)Facebook Page- Always has pass closures and updates on road openings, with a bit of humor added. Chain control information. Call (530)563-9200 

Quickmap California Department of Transportation App- Road closures, openings. Check to see which rest areas are open. 

Magnif-Eye- I-80, 580 and 395 Nevada Cameras. 580 and 395 to check road conditions in Reno.

Tahoe Roads-Chain restrictions and highway 50 Lake Tahoe Basin and 80 Northern California and Sierra Nevada live cameras

Google maps- directions, estimated travel time, traffic updates, accidents, alternate route suggestions.  I also like seeing the shape of the roads ahead to help with driving.

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