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

A Little About Winters in Reno
Reno winters are usually mild, with a handful of snow storms throughout the season that bring a significant amount of snowfall.  

While Reno gets lower levels of precipitation in the valley overall, we do get significant amounts of snow once in a while (about every 4–10 years) and you will likely encounter greater levels of snow at higher elevations when traveling to nearby destinations such as Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, San Diego, Placerville, and the like. 

Unless the storm lasts for more than a few consecutive days (rare), the snow usually doesn't stick around for too long.  Either it melts within a couple of days or the city clears it out fast.  

There was a year in particular, where we had a significant amount of precipitation that locals were not prepared for.  This was around seven years ago, the year Washoe Lake went from empty to full by the end of the winter.  

In This Guide
*Tire Information
*Information on chain controls in the mountains during snow storms
*Preparing your vehicle for emergencies
*Staying up to date with weather
*Driving Tips
*Links to resources for road conditions

In winter, challenging conditions like snow, blizzards, slippery roads, sleet, and black ice can lead to accidents and significant road delays. 

Being ready for travel, knowing what to expect, understanding how to drive in snow, and having backup plans can minimize issues and make your journey smoother.

Anything can happen anytime, such as car breakdowns, accidents, road work, hold-ups, or road closures. Even if you're the safest and most skillful driver, unexpected situations can arise.

Whether you're staying in town for most of the winter or traveling out of town, it's always wise to be prepared for the unexpected.

Galena Creek Park
Road to San Diego

Traveling Out of Town & Keeping A Watchful Eye on the Weather

If you often journey out of town, I highly recommend checking the weather around the time of travel as well as when you plan on returning.  

I love using Accuweather as it's been accurate with weather predictions.  

They also provide winter advisory notices that provide a more detailed report for not only our city, but the surrounding areas as well.  

Also on Accuweather - accumulations (in inches), wind speeds, UV Index, and minutecast.

Winter Advisory on Accuweather
Make sure to keep on checking up on the weather as your trip approaches as forecasts will become more accurate as you approach your time of travel.

When traveling between Reno and Sacramento (a 2-hour drive), I find it helpful to check the weather in higher elevation areas like Donner Summit, CA (7057 feet) and Truckee, CA (5,817 feet) to anticipate road conditions.

You can use the same approach for other trips. 

For the journey from Reno to San Diego, check the weather in locations like Mono Lakes, Mammoth Lakes, Lee Vining, Gardnerville, and Bridgeport.

For a trip to Lake Tahoe, look up weather conditions in Carson City, Galena, Incline Village, and Mt. Rose.

Checking weather at the highest elevations on your route gives you a better understanding of what to expect during your travels.
Lee Vining During a Major Snow Storm 1/2023

Facing a Snowstorm on the Day of Travel: What to Do?

When a snowstorm is forecasted, many, including myself, opt to postpone travel plans for safety reasons. Waiting a day or two allows roads to be cleared by plows, ensuring safer conditions.

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

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

While the initial hours of snowfall usually have few obstacles on the road, accidents can still occur due to factors like bald tires or unforeseen circumstances. In such cases, roads may be 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).

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 and there's no need to make a trip to the shop to swap out my tires for snow tires.

All-season tires are equipped for warm, dry, & mild wet conditions.   

When temperatures are consistently at 45 degrees F and below, snow tires are suggested.  There's only a small part 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, 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.  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 often during snowy conditions, and for people with smaller cars that have less control, I suggest having snow tires handy.

If you're on a budget, owner, Martin of Padilla's Tires, sells second-hand tires, with lots of price ranges and different levels of quality 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, services, and perks.  

I love Discount Tire's free air check that you can drive up to anytime.  They suggest checking tire pressure once a month during extreme temperatures.

Tires Les Schwab provides free services with every tire purchase (not sponsored).

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.  Their service is outstanding. 

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

Tips for Driving in The Snow
I always have a phone holder with Google Maps on the phone to help determine the shape of the roads when visibility is low.

It's easy to lose track of speed and control on snowy, icy, and wet roads.

The trick when driving in the snow is to drive with major concentration, always looking ahead cautiously, driving slowly, and to keep a safe distance between yourself and other cars.

Minimize sudden movements.  Drive like you don't want to spill a pot of grandma's Chicken Noodle Soup and you'll be in a good spot.

Leave early and allow enough time to get to your destination.  We make the most mistakes while rushing.

Decelerate by taking your foot off the gas in anticipation of a stop instead of slamming on the breaks, to prevent skidding.  Looking ahead and allowing enough time to stop is key.

Don't feel pressured by the cars behind you.  Do you and don't leave your comfort zone.  They can always pass you. 

Should you find yourself skidding, don't slam on the breaks.  Take your foot off the gas to decelerate, and ride out the skid, slightly, turning your wheel the same direction your tail skids out.  If your tail is swinging out to the left just a bit, turn your wheel to the left just a bit to correct the skid. 

When temperatures are freezing and below freezing and there is snow and/precipitation, you can encounter slippery conditions at any time.  In this case, you'll want to keep your speed low and drive more cautiously, around 45mph.

Be more cautious when driving over bridges. They freeze over faster because of their structure. 

When driving in lots of snow, I love switching my van into gear mode.  My van pulls better when in second gear and this is also a great way to deccelerate without breaking.  When downshifting, your vehicle will slow down on its own.  Downshifting makes me feel safer while driving in the snow.

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.

If you haven't heard of black ice, it's snow that has melted during higher temperatures of the day and re-freezes as transparent ice during colder temperatures, usually during night.  Driving on black ice can be tricky as it blends in with the road, so watching out for it is important.  Black is like ice skating rinks.  No matter what you're wearing on your feet, it will always be slippery.    

Make sure your tires aren't bald.  There's nothing more scary than slipping and sliding with no control on the road.

Purchase a phone holder for your windshield to hold your phone for directions.  Despite knowing directions to a particular place, I will always have Google Maps on during winter weather as Google always shows road closures, accidents, and is great at providing alternate routes.  Also, it is helpful to know the shape of the roads ahead of time during low visibility conditions to know when to expect turns.

Stay on the main roads.  Our city has limited resources when it come to clearing out roads.  They prioritize plowing main roads.  It may take some time to clear out side streets, so staying on the main roads is your best bet in staying safe.  

Palisades Ski Resort Home of 1960 Olympics

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

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

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.

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 38 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 can't mention how many times my roadside kit has come in handy.

I've also had the opportunity to help a handful of people at random times throughout 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).  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 - 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), so buying one ahead of time is highly recommended. 
-ChainsIf you find yourself scared traveling in harsh conditions, chains 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.

Side Notes: 
Did you know that most people that own homes are responsible for shoveling their sidewalks?

Did you know that if you own a corner lot, you're likely responsible for clearing out the sidewalks of snow on those longer stretches of sidewalks.

Shovel the snow as soon as possible before it melts and freezes into ice.  At this point it becomes hard to manage and get rid of.

Make sure to apply salt after shoveling as the walkways can get slick as they freeze overnight in colder temperatures.

If you know that your streets don't get plowed right away, you may want to invest time into clearing out the street in front of your driveway to avoid the challenge of leaving and returning home in hazardous snow.

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.  

Checkpoint in the mountains in severe winter weather.  You will have to turn back for chains if your vehicle doesn't have a combination of AWD+Mud/Snow tires.

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 for 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.

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.

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 emergencies could happen, so having a full tank is best.  

You can save money when loading gas in Carson City and even more when you load at Costco in Carson City.  
Gas savings are so high that it will pay for your membership dues and then some.  

I LOVE Costco's Executive membership as you get 2% back on all purchases made in store (not sponsored).

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.

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.

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 

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 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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