Planning tips for a winter road trip to North Lake Tahoe

It's a familiar sight during the winter, when a legion of weekend warriors drive every Friday from the San Francisco and Sacramento areas to North Lake Tahoe for their skiing and snowboarding fix. And for many years now, our family has been among those drivers, making the trek along Interstate 80 regularly from our home in the East Bay to Truckee, Northstar, and beyond. But while the drive can be easy when the weather is clear and traffic is light, it can turn treacherous quickly when inclement weather hits. But I'm here to help! 

First things first, If you are planning a winter road trip to North Lake Tahoe, pack your patience and be prepared for contingencies. The reward pays off in the way of those first turns on fresh powder. Nonetheless, follow these important tips to ensure your traveling crew has a safe and comfortable trip.

Drive a AWD or 4WD vehicle if possible and carry chains. Slick roads covered in snow and ice are a recipe for accidents for the unprepared. As such, you'll always want to carry a set of chains to be prepared for winter weather. All-wheel drive (AWD) and 4-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles handle most winter storms best, while 2-wheel drive cars require chains even in mild storms. Since our family skis often, we bought an all-wheel drive car with our winter road trips to North Lake Tahoe in mind. If your car doesn’t have AWD or 4WD, consider renting one that does for your winter road trip. It'll often save the hassle of installing chains, plus make it a safer trip.

With many Lake Tahoe winter storms, you can expect to find chain checkpoints in a number of places. Thus, it helps to brush up on the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) rules for chain control. At R1 levels, which I've experienced most often for Lake Tahoe snowstorms, chains or snow tires are required on all vehicles except 4WD/AWD vehicles. At R2, chains or snow tires are required on all vehicles except 4WD/AWD vehicles with snow tires on all four wheels. Finally, at R3, all vehicles are required to use chains. Caltrans often closes Donner Pass on I-80 and other major highways if conditions deteriorate enough to reach this level.

If you do not have experience in putting chains on your car, practice at home first. Alternatively, there are always personnel available who are willing to put chains on your car at the major chain checkpoints for a fee. It can definitely be money well spent for the less experienced.

Get your car winter-weather ready. Before heading to the mountains in the winter, make sure your car is ready for the trip. New wiper blades are essential to keeping your windshield clear of snow and ice, while you'll want to fill up with windshield wiper fluid, as you can go through a lot while keeping your windshield clean and unobstructed. My family sometimes even carries an extra container of windshield wiper fluid in our trunk if we are expecting winter storms during a trip. Lastly, check your tired tread and tire inflation to make sure your tires are as safe as they can be for driving through snow.

Pack an emergency kit. While I-80 is well traveled and you aren’t likely to get stranded in a winter storm unnoticed, it never hurts to be prepared with survival equipment in your car. Pack a roadside emergency kit with jumper cables, a flashlight, and flares, at the very minimum. Other important items to have on hand include blankets, water, and food. Additionally, fill up your gas tank regularly, and have an extra battery on hand in case you get stranded and need to keep your car running.

Beat the traffic. Once your car is ready to travel safely, the final challenge is to plan for traffic. The key to having a quicker trip along the busy I-80 corridor is avoiding high-trafficked times. With that said, the best solution are midweek trips to those with the flexibility to do them. But if you are like me and are working around school and work schedules, then there are still some steps you can take to minimize traffic troubles on weekends.

In my experience, I-80 is usually most busy in the afternoon and early evening on Friday afternoons heading east from the coast to the mountains. Similarly, Sunday afternoons present the same challenge in reverse. If you can go earlier or later, you can often miss the worst of it. My family always tries to leave the Bay Area before noon on Fridays to be well past Sacramento before school lets out and rush hour starts. However, we also have friends who consistently leave San Francisco around 7:00 pm on Friday evenings, and usually find that rush hour traffic has cleared by then. For the return Sunday trip, leaving before noon or after 6:00 p.m. seems to work well most weekends.

If traffic gets really bad, be as flexible as you can. Download a few good traffic apps, such as Waze, on your phone to watch for trouble and take alternate routes when available. Sometimes your best bet is just to get off the road and wait it out, or, stop for a meal or activity instead of sitting in stop-and-go traffic for hours. If you drive the route often enough, you’ll find your favorite roadside stops. For a food stop, my kids highly recommend Ikeda’s for delicious greasy spoon in Auburn, while they like Nut Tree in Vacaville for a stop that includes a train and carousel.

Safe travels for your next winter road trip to North Lake Tahoe.

Leslie is a recovering attorney turned travel writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two kids, ages 7 and 3. Her travel passions include all things air travel, wacky roadside attractions, national parks, Disney, and (of course) skiing! Leslie has lived in California for more than a decade, but she still proudly holds onto the last vestiges of her Southern accent, acquired from a childhood growing up in Alabama. When she's not writing for Northstar, you can find her work on her blog, Trips With Tykes. Follow Leslie on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.