Winter Travel Guide: Navigating Reno, Nevada, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Surrounding Destinations

View at 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.

***Scroll all the way to the bottom for helpful road camera links 

Insights into Winters in Reno
Reno typically experiences mild winters, accompanied by occasional snowstorms throughout the season that result in a notable accumulation of snow.

While the valley in Reno receives relatively low levels of precipitation overall, substantial snowfall occurs sporadically (approximately every 4–10 years). When traveling to nearby destinations like Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, San Diego, Placerville, and others, higher elevations often experience more significant snowfall.

Unless a storm persists for several consecutive days (which is rare), the snow usually doesn't linger for an extended period. It either melts within a couple of days, or the city clears it away.

There was a noteworthy year in particular, around seven years ago, when Reno witnessed an unexpected abundance of precipitation. During that year, Washoe Lake transitioned from being empty to reaching full capacity by the end of winter.

In This Guide:
-Tire Information
-Details on Chain Controls in Mountainous Areas During Snowstorms
-Vehicle Preparation for Emergencies
-Staying Informed About Weather Conditions
-Driving Tips for Challenging Winter Conditions
-Links to Resources Providing Real-Time Road Conditions

During winter, adverse conditions like snow, blizzards, slippery roads, sleet, and black ice pose risks of accidents and significant road delays.

Being well-prepared for travel, understanding what to anticipate, knowing how to drive in snowy conditions, and having back up plans in place can minimize issues and ensure a smoother journey.

Unexpected events, such as car breakdowns, accidents, road work, delays, or closures, can occur at any time. Even if you consider yourself the safest and most skillful driver, unforeseen situations may arise.

Whether you're remaining in town throughout most of the winter or venturing out, it's always important to be ready for the unexpected.
Galena Creek Park
Road to San Diego
Traveling Out of Town & Keeping A Watchful Eye on the Weather
If you frequently travel out of town, I strongly advise checking the weather both around the time of your departure and your planned return.

Personally, I find AccuWeather to be a reliable choice for accurate weather predictions. 

AccuWeather goes beyond basic forecasts; it offers winter advisory notices that provide detailed reports not only for our city but also for the surrounding areas.

Additionally, on AccuWeather, you can find information on accumulations (in inches), wind speeds, UV Index, and Minutecast, making it a comprehensive tool for staying informed about weather conditions during your travels.

Winter Advisory on Accuweather
Constantly monitor the weather as your travel date approaches, as forecasts tend to become more accurate closer to your departure.

When embarking on a journey between Reno and Sacramento (a 2-hour drive), it's beneficial to check the weather in elevated areas like Donner Summit, CA (7057 feet), and Truckee, CA (5,817 feet) to anticipate road conditions.

Adopt the same strategy for other trips. 

For a trip from Reno to San Diego, look up the weather in locations such as Mono Lakes, Mammoth Lakes, Lee Vining, Gardnerville, and Bridgeport.

If heading to Lake Tahoe, look up weather conditions in Carson City, Galena, Incline Village, and Mt. Rose.

Checking the weather at the highest elevations along your route provides valuable insights into what to expect.
Lee Vining During a Major Snow Storm 1/2023

Navigating a Snowstorm on Your Day of Travel: What to Do?

When a snowstorm is predicted, many, myself included, choose to postpone travel plans for safety reasons. Delaying for a day or two allows plows to clear the roads, ensuring safer conditions.

Alternatively, you can explore flying out of town or proceed with travel, equipped with snow chains, a vehicle with or without all-wheel drive (AWD), experience, and a touch of luck.

If you're ahead of the snowstorm, you stand a fair chance of reaching your destination without significant issues. Generally, it takes a few hours of continuous precipitation for snow to accumulate on the roads.

While the initial hours of snowfall usually present few obstacles on the road, accidents can still occur due to factors like bald tires or unforeseen circumstances. In such cases, roads may become blocked, and you might find yourself stranded in your car until help arrives and the road is cleared.

It's advisable to avoid snowstorms whenever possible, as breaking down in freezing weather in the middle of nowhere is a situation worth avoiding at all costs.
Sparks Marina Park 

Preparing Your Vehicle

Most locals own an AWD vehicle due to its 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).

Given the mild winters in Reno, I prefer using all-weather tires as they handle a variety of weather conditions well. Since heavy snow is infrequent, I find no need to switch to snow tires.

All-season tires are suitable for warm, dry, and mild wet conditions. However, when temperatures consistently drop to 45 degrees Fahrenheit and below, I recommend considering snow tires. 

Living in higher elevations presents a different set of challenges, especially in areas like Galena, Lake Tahoe, and Truckee. Given the substantial snowfall in these regions, investing in snow tires is essential for safe driving.

When traveling through the mountains, I plan my trips on clear days, especially on the route to SD, a journey I've made frequently over the years to visit family. In snowy conditions where snowfall is significant, I always carry chains (often mandatory at the Donner Pass checkpoint 80W). However, if you have an AWD vehicle with snow tires, you can bypass the chain requirement. (source)

It's important to note that even with AWD, if your tires lack good tread, their capabilities are compromised. There's nothing worse than driving is challenging weather with bald tires as you'll have little to no control, even with chains since they will have little to grip onto. 

Additionally, for those frequently traveling through snowy mountain conditions (say, ski and snowboard addicts, LOL) or with smaller cars offering less control, having snow tires is advisable.

For budget-conscious individuals, Martin of Padilla's Tires offers second-hand tires with various price ranges and quality levels. Martin is a trustworthy mechanic who provides services on Sundays as well.

Alternatively, Discount Tire and Tires Les Schwab offer excellent tire selections, services, and perks. 

I appreciate Discount Tire's convenient free air check service, available for a drive-up anytime. They recommend checking tire pressure monthly, especially during extreme temperature changes.

Tires Les Schwab is noteworthy for providing complimentary services with every tire purchase (note: this is not a sponsored message).

Tire Rack operates a distribution center in Sparks, providing the option to pick up tires that might not be readily available in-store.

In line with Discount Tire, Tire Rack also extends warranties on their tires. If a tire wears down before its estimated lifespan, they refund the prorated amount of service not received and apply it toward a new set of tires. Their service is rad.

 Tip: Always keep receipts for tire rotations and services, as these are typically required by tire companies to honor warranties.

Tips for Driving in The Snow
I always use a phone holder with Google Maps displayed to assist in assessing road conditions and the shape of the roads when visibility is low.

Maintaining Control in Winter Driving Conditions

Navigating snowy, icy, and wet roads demands heightened attention to speed and control.

When driving in snow, concentrate closely, approach with caution, and maintain a slow pace while ensuring a safe distance from other vehicles. Emphasize smooth movements (steering away from sudden movements)—picture driving as if you were transporting a pot of grandma's Chicken Noodle Soup, delicately avoiding any spills.  If you need to make a wide turn, do it (with caution, of course)!

Start your journey early, allowing ample time for arrival. Rushing often leads to mistakes. When slowing down, ease off the gas gradually instead of abrupt braking to prevent skidding. Anticipate stops by decelerating in advance, and ensure you have sufficient time to come to a complete stop.

Drive within your comfort zone, and let others pass if needed.  The more you drive in winter conditions, the more skills you'll gain.  When first learning how to drive in snow, I always practiced driving in low traffic areas to build condifence and skills.

In case of skidding on snow, refrain from slamming on the brakes. Lift your foot off the gas, gently steer in the direction of the skid, and let the vehicle regain control. If your tail swings out to the left, turn your wheel to the left with proportional pressure to counteract the skid.  It's human instinct to want to slam on the breaks,  but with low traction, it can be a recipe for disaster, causing you to spin out of control.

In freezing temperatures with snow or precipitation, maintain a reduced speed, and exercise caution, particularly when driving over bridges, which tend to freeze over faster due to their structure.

When facing heavy snow, consider using a lower gear. Switching your vehicle to a lower gear, provides better traction and also serves as an effective method for deceleration without heavy braking. Downshifting allows your vehicle to naturally slow down without the need for heavy breaking on your part, adding an extra layer of safety when driving in snowy conditions.
S+ - D is where I can control my gears. If you're unsure if your vehicle has this option, I'm sure your dealership will be happy to help.

Black Ice

Black ice is formed when melted snow refreezes as transparent ice during colder temperatures, typically at night.  Snow melts in the day during above freezing temps and freezes at night when temps dip. Detecting black ice can be challenging as it blends in with the road, so paying close attention is crucial. Similar to ice skating rinks, black ice is inherently slippery, regardless of your footwear (tires).

Enhancing Safety

1. Maintain Tire Traction: Ensure your tires have sufficient tread to avoid slipping and sliding on icy roads. 

2. Use a Phone Holder:  Invest in a windshield phone holder for directions. Even if you know the route, having Google Maps on during winter provides real-time updates on road closures, accidents, and offers alternative routes. It also aids in anticipating road shapes during low visibility.

3. Stick to Main Roads: During winter, our city's resources for clearing roads are limited. Main roads take priority in plowing, so staying on these routes increases your chances of a safer journey. Side streets may take longer to clear.

4.  Practive Driving in Snow/ Driving Course: Seek out an empty parking lot to practice driving in snow, or consider enrolling in a winter driving course to enhance your skills and boost confidence on snowy roads.

5.  Seek Nearby Lodging in Harsh Weather:  If you embark on a journey in harsh weather and find yourself too frightened to continue driving (trust me, I've been there), consider seeking nearby lodging and waiting until the roads are cleared and safe for travel.

Palisades Ski Resort Home of 1960 Olympics

*As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you. 

Tire Recommendations 
A neighbor 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.

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

Being Prepared for the Unexpected: 
The Importance of a Roadside Emergency Kit

Having a well-equipped roadside emergency kit during travel can make a significant difference, especially in challenging winter conditions.

I vividly recall an experience of pulling over to install chains on my van during a snowstorm near the Donner Pass area. It felt like I was in a real-life episode of Survivor. Despite the harsh conditions and my fingers protesting the cold, I successfully completed the task with the aid of a flashlight and a pair of gloves from my roadside kit.

If you're familiar with Macgyver (yes, I'm 39 years old), you'll appreciate the character's knack for using tools creatively to overcome challenges. Having a roadside kit allows you to channel your inner Macgyver, providing a sense of accomplishment and preparedness.

Personally, my roadside kit has proven invaluable numerous times. Additionally, I've had the opportunity to assist several people over the years with my jumper cables.

Checklist of Tools and Items to Have in Your Vehicle
-Paper roadmaps if your phone were to run out of power.
-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 or Portable Charger Bank
-Food and water to last a while: granola bars, trail mix, fruits
-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 - If you get stuck in thick patches of ice on the road, you can dig yourself out with a snow shovel.  These can sell out fast at our local hardware stores (check Home Depot and Lowe's), buying one ahead of time is highly recommended. 
-Chainschains can be the one small thing that can buy you lots of control and a whole lot of confidence.
-Extra clothes like beanies, jackets, gloves, and an extra set of clothes for everyone traveling.  Should you find yourself needing to put on chains, it's crucial to be prepared for frigid temperatures with the appropriate outerwear.

Winter Home Ownership Tips: Snow Management
Did you know that homeowners are typically responsible for shoveling their sidewalks? If you own a corner lot, this responsibility extends to clearing longer stretches of sidewalks as well.

Here are some essential tips:
1. Timely Shoveling: Shovel snow as soon as possible to prevent it from melting and refreezing into ice, which becomes harder to manage.

2. Salt Application: After shoveling, apply salt to sidewalks to prevent them from becoming slick as they freeze overnight in colder temperatures.

3. Corner Lot Considerations: If you own a corner lot, be aware of the added responsibility of clearing out longer stretches of sidewalks.

4. Street Clearance: If your streets don't get plowed promptly, consider investing time in clearing the street in front of your driveway (in times of signigicant snowfall). This can help you avoid challenges when leaving and returning home in hazardous snow conditions.


Keep Loved Ones in the Loop About Your Travel Plans
When embarking on an extended journey, it's wise to inform your friends and family about your travel plans. Having them on standby can be of big helpful in case of any unforeseen issues.

For instance, when my parents encountered a road closure in Truckee, I was able to assist by researching road conditions and advising them on where to stay until the roads reopened. Keeping your loved ones informed ensures a support network is ready to assist if needed during your travels.

In severe winter weather conditions at mountain checkpoints, turning back for chains is mandatory if your vehicle lacks a combination of All-Wheel Drive (AWD) and Mud/Snow tires. 

Knowing how to install chains on your tires can save you from the inconvenience of searching for a gas station to do it for you and spare you from freezing outside your vehicle in low temperatures and unfavorable conditions. While chain services are available at most gas stations along the mountain, be cautious as chains from gas stations may be low in quality and prone to snapping off easily.

Key Points About Tire Chains
1. Requirement Criteria: Chains are a necessity for vehicles without both All-Wheel Drive (AWD) and tires meeting M+S requirements (mountain/snowflake, marked on tire). Many "all-season" tires are rated M+S.

2. Speed Limit: Depending on the type and brand of chains, driving speeds can range from 20 to 35 mph.

3. Caution in Clear Conditions: Driving with chains on clear roads can cause damage, so it's crucial to remove them right away when the snow is cleared.

4. Detailed Guide: For a comprehensive understanding of chains, check out this detailed guide.

5. Choosing and Installing Chains: Purchase your chains from a reliable source like Tires Les Schwab. They can assist you in finding the right kind of chains and provide guidance on installation.

6. Video Recording: When visiting the shop, consider taking a video clip of the installation process. This will serve as a helpful reminder when faced with the situation to put them on.

Maintaining Tire Health and Preparedness for the Road

1. Check Tire Air Pressure & Schedule Maintenance:
   Extreme cold temperatures can lead to outdoor tires losing pressure. Regular monthly checks, especially for vehicles parked outdoors, ensure consistent pressure and promote even tire wear. Scheduling maintenance before long road trips is a proactive measure to keep your vehicle in optimal condition and avoid unexpected breakdowns. Utilize services like Discount Tire's free air checks.  Simple pull up to their "free air checks" sign and a worker will be out promptly to assist you.

2. Keep Your Gas Tank Full:
   Maintaining a full tank is crucial for unforeseen emergencies. Consider refueling in Carson City, and for added savings, explore Costco in Carson City. The gas savings can cover your membership dues and more. Personally, I highly recommend Costco's Executive membership, offering a 2% cashback on all in-store purchases (note: this is not a sponsored endorsement). 

Helpful Links for Live Updates, Camera Footage of Roads, and More
These road cameras are so helpful in checking out road conditions.  Click the links below to find cameras specific to your route.

NevadaDOT - Covers Reno & Washoe Valley. Call 511 by phone.

Caltrans Live Traffic Cameras - Explore live traffic cameras along the California stretch of Interstate 80. Perfect for travelers mapping out a journey from Reno to Sacramento.  Additionally, you can access cameras capturing traffic in the Sacramento and San Francisco regions.

For further assistance, contact Caltrans at 1-800-427-7623.

Caltrans Road Conditions - Check road conditions by entering a specific highway #

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 | CHP Instagram

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

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

Tahoe Roads- Chain restrictions and road closures on highway 50 and highway 80 

Google maps Access Google Maps for comprehensive navigation services, including directions, estimated travel time, real-time traffic updates, accident notifications, and alternate route suggestions. Furthermore, enjoy the feature of visualizing the shape of roads ahead, aiding in smooth navigation and driving assistance, especially in times of low visibility.

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