Tire Chains for Yosemite

In Yosemite, as all along the West Coast, tire chains are a necessity for winter driving. This is for a few reasons:

  • The storms here can be intense. Tom grew up in Vermont and Theresa is from Minnesota, but we never saw massive snowstorms until we lived in Yosemite.
  • The storms come in wet and the snow gets super compacted and slippery.
  • They use little to no salt out here, so a road that would be wet pavement in Vermont is slick, compacted snow in California.
  • People here have little experience driving in the snow and chains help keep the speed down and gives much improved braking.

So if you think, as we did when we first got here, that chains are really unnecessary, that’s not actually true. You will need them if for no other reason than the fact that the Highway Patrol (on state roads) and the park rangers (inside the park) will not let you past a chain control if you don’t have chains.

There are a few different classifications designated by numbers R0 through R4.

  • R0: no restrictions. A dry road is R0.
  • R1: you must have “snow” tires. In California that doesn’t mean real snow tires, it means “mud and snow rated” tires. If you look on the sidewall and it has an “M+S” or an “M/S” marking on it, those count.
  • R2: You must have chains on your wheels if it’s a two-wheel drive vehicle. If it’s a 4WD or AWD vehicle, you must have chains with you, but you do not have to have them on the wheels if you have legal snow tires (must have 1/4″ of tread).
  • R3: All vehicles must have chains on the wheels, 4WD or not.
  • R4: Road closed.

Remember, if it’s R1 or R2 and you have a 4WD, you nevertheless must have chains that fit your wheels with you in the car.

Choosing the best chains

You have a lot of choices from cheap cables to expensive chains with diamond patterns and ratcheting tensioners. To be honest, if you might actually have to use the chains, the expensive chains are worth it. The very day I am writing this, I saw a car with cable chains get stuck in a situation where a car with real chains would have had no issues. It’s up to you how much you want to spend.

We actually have cheap cables for our 4WD vehicles, but back when we had a 2WD car, we always used Laclede Alpine Premier chains (or Alpine Sport for larger wheels). The Peerless Auto-Trac are similar and possibly even better. They are easy to apply and give great traction. Also, if you buy a few rapid links at the hardware store, you can often repair a true chain if it breaks, whereas a cable is just trash once it’s damaged.


These are just a few examples of the chains in the style I mentioned. Of course, you must make sure you get the one that is the right size for your tire.

Using Your Chains

Chains are not especially hard to use, but a few simple tips will help.

  • Practice putting your chains on at least once in a dry parking lot during daylight. Really. Do this!
  • Stay safe — we often see people half in the road on a blind corner putting their chains on. They are risking their lives. The chain control signs are located where they are because this is usually the last safe place to pull over and put them on.
  • Carry a flashlight, a tarp or garbage bag and gloves.
  • A couple of bungees will make it easier too.
  • After you first put on your chains, drive forward a few feet and tighten them again. If you have room, do it one more time and again after you’ve driven a couple of minutes. This will save your chains and your car.
  • You still won’t have great traction on the other two wheels. It is crucial to avoid braking hard. Downshift rather than braking if possible. If your wheels start to slide, pump the brakes rapidly. This is the #1 reason we see people go off the road — they hit the brakes, the wheels lock up and they stay on the brakes and off the road. Only a rolling tire can be steered. Pump the brakes as rapidly as you can, about twice per second, until you come to a stop. Practice a bit if you can. If there’s a snowy parking lot, skid around in it until you get a feel for this.