Lake Tahoe Chain Controls 101

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Visiting or living in the Lake Tahoe region in the winter means coping with chain controls.

If you haven’t ventured to the mountains in the winter, or if you’re used to east coast style winter driving, you may be surprised or confused by chain controls in the Sierras.

Tahoe Chain Controls

CalTrans is the state agency that enforces and implements chain controls during inclement weather.  CalTrans issues three levels of chain controls.

R1 is the first level of chain control, usually issued when the snow starts to stick and those with lesser equipped vehicles will begin having traction control problems.  R1 indicates that vehicles are required to have chains, traction devices or snow tires on the drive axle unless your vehicle has four wheel or all wheel drive.

This is why if you are renting a vehicle for a Tahoe trip it can be worth it to pay extra for 4WD or AWD.  A small snow storm may never progress beyond R1 controls, and unless you are driving over one of the many mountain summits, you may never pass through a chain control area.

You may be looking to utilize your non-4WD/AWD vehicle for mountain travel, and be wondering what will qualify as a “traction device”.  CalTrans has a lovely definition ready for you:

Tire Traction Devices are devices or mechanisms having a composition and design capable of improving vehicle traction, braking and cornering ability upon snow or ice-covered surfaces. Tire traction devices shall be constructed and assembled to provide sufficient structural integrity and to prevent accidental detachment from vehicles. Tire traction devices shall, at the time of manufacture or final assembly, bear a permanent impression indicating the name, initials or trademark of the assembling company or primary manufacturer, and the country in which the devices were manufactured or assembled in final form.”

Generally speaking, unless you are looking to make winter mountain travel a frequent activity, head to your local auto parts store and buy a decent pair of chains that fit your drive axle vehicle’s tires.  This will suffice should chain controls be enforced, and it shouldn’t cost you more than $50.

Now, should the snow really start coming down or if the ice has formed particularly sketchy spots on the roadways, R2 level chain controls may be enforced.  R2 level chain controls essentially still mean chains are needed on basic vehicles, though now if you have a 4 wheel drive or all wheel drive vehicle you have to put on the chains unless you have snow tires on all four wheels.  Meaning: even in that nice 4WD or AWD SUV your buddy let you borrow, if you don’t have snow tires you are SOL and need to get out and chain up.  Also note, even if you have snow tires you are supposed to be carrying chains in your car ‘just in case’ at this point. 

I do have to say, that if you don’t have 4WD or AWD with snow tires I would really caution against travel of any distance during R2 level controls.  The roads are treacherous at this point and unless it’s dire the roads are really best left to those with snow tires and AWD/4WD.

You may be wondering what “counts” as a snow tire.  CalTrans definition is:

“A ‘Snow-tread tire’ is a tire which has a relatively deep and aggressive tread pattern compared with conventional passenger tread pattern”. Snow-tread tires can be identified by examining the sidewall of the tire where the letters MS, M/S, M+S or the words MUD AND SNOW have been stamped into the sidewall.”

Remember that these chain controls are not a blanket enforcement.  If I-80 has chain controls, once you exit into town there may not be chain controls.  Listen to the local radio, read the traffic signs and checks the CalTrans Quick Map for details. Things can and do change quickly.

Now, the third level of chain control, R3, is chain or traction controls for everyone – no matter what awesome vehicle or what supped-up tires you may have.  From experience I can say, this level of chain control is extremely rare.  Locals often say that the roads will be shut down before this will happen.  Meaning: should you head out in a 4WD or AWD vehicle with snow tires, you should be all set for mountain travel in California.

Chain controls are real, and they happen frequently in the winter on Tahoe area roads.  CalTrans will set up chain control stations, where each car is checked before allowing vehicles to proceed.  They can and will turn you around should your vehicle not meet the stated controls.

Being prepared and aware of what the CalTrans requirements are can be beneficial before your Tahoe trip or move.