Driving the I-80 corridor or anywhere around Lake Tahoe in the winter months is no joke. Before heading out, get in the habit of checking chain controls in California and Nevada. Here’s a rundown on snow tires and chain requirements, plus my recommendation for the best places in San Francisco and Reno to get your tires ready for winter.
California highways have three levels of chain requirements based on a storm’s severity:
- R1, or requirement one: Chains are required on all vehicles under 6,000 pounds unless they have snow tires.
- R2, or requirement two: Chains are required on all vehicles except four-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles with snow tires.
- R3, or requirement three: Changes are required on all vehicles, with no exceptions.
Once you know the chain controls, here’s how to determine if your tires qualify. An M + S symbol on the tire sidewall stands for mud and snow, and means you have an all-season tire, which is considered acceptable as a snow tire in California and Nevada. Winter tires with a deeper treat and a mountain/snowflake icon on the sidewall means a true snow tire. A summer tire will have neither designation.
Here’s my pro tip — in San Francisco, Wheel Works on Franklin Street installed my tires for less than Costco was going to charge with free lifetime wheel balance and alignment. Ask for Cheuyon (think Chewbacca from Star Wars — I promise, he won’t be offended). In Reno, you have two options. Start at Costco to see if they have the tires in stock. If not, Les Schwab is your best bet.
And here’s another pro tip about tires in Reno. The Reno Costco has two tire-filling stations that look like parking spaces just outside the tire shop. They’re for Costco members, but you don’t need a card to use the filling stations, which auto detect your tire pressure and fill your tires with nitrogen instead of standard compressed air. Nitrogen helps keeps tires inflated longer and because it’s dry, with no humidity, it’s more stable at all temperatures. That’s a benefit during the winter, when temperatures are more extreme.
Did I mention it’s free?