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Chain Controls: What to Know Before You Go

Winter in the Sierra can be treacherous and it can make travel unpredictable and unsafe if you aren't prepared. Imagine climbing from 4,400 feet above sea level to 8,000 feet above sea level and doing it in the middle of a snowstorm. It can be incredibly daunting and potentially dangerous for the unprepared. It’s one of the reasons we started Reno Tahoe Rental Car, and it is why we decided to write this article. Here’s what you need to know about chain controls for your winter trip to Tahoe.

The typical snow season in the Sierra Nevada starts in November and usually runs through March. We have outlier storms, a few feet before Halloween, sometimes even a dusting as late as mid-June. But from November through March, you can be sure that there will be snow caps on the mountain tops and nice, tall snow berms on the side of the highway. We like to call this “Sierra Cement” since it will take until June or July to melt.


You can also be sure that Nevada DOT and CalTrans are experts at clearing the roads for travelers. Whether it’s plowing early enough for you to enjoy your powder day or clearing any slides, these organizations are incredibly efficient and effective when it comes to snow removal in our mountains. We find that most road closures are relatively short, and the roads are opened back up as soon as it’s safe. After the roads are cleared, there will still be snow and potentially ice on the roads. Because of this, NDOT and CalTrans also ensure that vehicles attempting to head into higher elevations are equipped with the right tools to handle the job. To do this, they run chain control checkpoints at key locations. Both organizations also provide real-time information on road closures: here is the page for NDOT and CalTrans. These teams will clear the way as best they can, but you’ll need to ensure you and your vehicle are also prepared for snow travel. While we can't teach you to drive in the snow, we can give you enough information on road conditions to be prepared.


We often get asked if our vehicles will be allowed through chain control: they will! We are also asked if our renters will need to put chains on: they won’t! And more occasionally, we are asked what the difference between R1, R2, and R3 chain controls are. Here is a breakdown of what those requirements mean for passenger vehicles:


  • R1: Chains required on 2WD vehicles

  • R2: Chains required on 4WD/AWD without snow tires

  • R3: Chains are required on all vehicles


Our vehicles will make it through any R1 and R2 restrictions thanks to being 4WD/AWD and always being equipped with snow tires during the winter. We do not allow chains on our vehicles, and because of this they will not be allowed through an R3 condition. We have not found any other rental car company that allows renters to put chains on their vehicles; if you find one, send us their information. We'd love to talk to them!


The vast majority of the time, if R3 is ever going to be needed, CalTrans and NDOT will close the road. Conditions will be that dangerous. In our decade of renting vehicles and our lifetime of living in the Sierra, we have not seen an R3 in our area. Even during last year's historic winter, where we received the second most snow we've ever seen in the Sierra Nevada, roads were closed before the R3 designation was used. Closing the pass can be a major inconvenience, but it is a much safer decision for everyone. If a storm is strong enough to require R3 conditions, it means that there is an immense amount of snow, and visibility is extremely poor. Trust us, it is a much better idea to wait.

Another question we often get is, how do snow tires help? Well, we aren’t tire scientists, but the people who designed them are polymer experts. Snow tires have been specially designed to help you keep traction on snow or ice. Their treads have been laid out for that purpose and the material they are made of isn’t always the same as a summer tire (many melt on warm roads and are only intended for the winter season). Reno Tahoe Rental Car equips every single one of our vehicles with snow tires to ensure that our customers can get up to the mountains whenever the roads are open and make it to their destination safely.


The most important things to remember when you’re heading up to the slopes in the snow are preparation and patience. At Reno Tahoe Rental Car, we are happy to help you prepare for your journey and we always track the weather. So, if you have any questions, feel free to reach out. We strive to make your trip as easy, comfortable, and enjoyable as we can, so the next time you’re ready to head up to the lake, let us know!


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