Snow Chains for Yosemite and Winter Driving Tips

Will I need chains in Yosemite?

Ah. The perennial question: “I’m coming in {Winter Month X} will I need chains?”

The reason this is so hard to figure out is that there isn’t an easy yes or no answer. Chain requirements depend entirely on the road and weather conditions. February with no snow? No chains needed. Early October with a freak storm that drops 2 feet of snow? The rangers are going to want you to have some extra traction in the snow. Better have chains. 

One of our early trips to Yosemite, shortly after we moved to California, was in late October and an early storm left the roads snowy and icy. We did not have snow chains and were turned around at the gate and drove sadly home to Berkeley instead of enjoying a weekend of climbing in Yosemite.

To help you have a smoother trip and increase your chances for success, we’ve put together this comprehensive resource on snow chains for your Yosemite visit. We intend it to be the best page on the web about snow chains in Yosemite and to provide the following information:

Skip the Details. What Should I Do?

If you want our shortest possible answer, it’s this. You should plan on carrying chains November through March. We recommend renting an all-wheel drive vehicle if you don’t have one as it is rare that the authorities require AWD vehicles to chain up. If you do come in an AWD vehicle, remember that you are still required to carry chains and CalTrans and NPS employees will not let you pass a checkpoint if you do not have them.

Really, the above is probably all you need to know. But there is a lot more you could know. If you want a really comprehensive knowledge, read on.

When You Need Snow Chains in Yosemite (Whether You Think So or Not)

The short answer:

If chain controls are in effect, you must have chains with you, whether you are driving a Maserati with race slicks or a Jeep Rubicon with four studded tires. If you’re in the Rubicon, you may not have to put the chains on your tires, but you will be in violation of the law and subject to fines of up to $5,000 if you do not have them.

If chain controls are not in effect and you deem the conditions dangerous, then you either need chains or you need to sit tight and wait until conditions improve. We have chained up a couple of times when conditions did not legally require us to use chains on our 4WD vehicles, but in fact it was so icy that we needed them, regardless of the legal requirement. That is exceedingly rare, however, as chain controls are applied rather conservatively (and frequently in conditions that probably don’t merit them, but you still need them because you don’t want to get fined).

Okay, so when are chain controls in effect?

There are no set dates. Chain controls are in effect when conditions merit.

  • It is rare to need chains in October or May, but it can happen.
  • It is common to need chains December through March.
  • In December and January, when the sun is low in the sky, even a small storm of a couple of inches can result in chain controls being in place for many days even after the sun comes out. The low solstice sun just doesn’t have the energy to melt off the snow. If you don’t have chains, you could be stuck for many days.
  • By late March, however, a foot of snow gets plowed and by the second day, as the sun burns the ice off the road, the authorities lift chain controls rather quickly. We have seen huge late-March storms that resulted in chain controls being in effect for over a week, but typically by the middle of the day after the snow stops, the chain controls are lifted.
  •  Elevation matters. When a storm rolls in, lower elevations in the park are more likely to get rain instead of snow. So, you may be fine driving without chains at 4000 feet in Yosemite Valley, but need chains to go up to the ski area at 7000 feet.
    • Hwy 140 is also called the “All-Weather Highway” because it is the lowest road into Yosemite Valley and therefore is the most likely to be snow-free or have lower chain restrictions on it. When driving in the winter, it’s often faster to take this route even if the mileage is a bit longer.
    • The entrance to our neighborhood, Yosemite West, is at 6000 feet. Being so close to the ski area, we often have some sort of chain requirement during the winter. This weather forecast is specifically for the high point of Highway 41 and gives the best sense of likely driving conditions to arrive at our house.

So if you are planning a winter trip and is more than a week before your trip, you should assume you will need chains.

If you are planning a winter trip for tomorrow, my answer may be different. If the following three things are true, you may choose to forego chains and hope for the best:

  1. The current road report says that chains are not required anywhere along your route, inside or outside the park.
  2. The forecast is absolutely clear with forecasters saying there is a 0% chance of precipitation.
  3. The end of your trip is less than five days away (forecasting accuracy goes way down around the five-day mark).

If any of those things is not true and it is November through March, we strongly recommend carrying chains.

How do I know that chain controls are in effect?

This is easy.

  • Chain Control Sign below Yosemite Falls
    Chain Control Sign below Yosemite Falls

    If you’re driving along and see a sign that looks like this, you need chains. Again, whether you must put them on our not, you must carry them. It makes no difference whether you have 4WD, whether it violates your rental agreement or violates the warranty on your vehicle. If you want to drive past that sign, you must have chains.
  • The NPS or Caltrans road report tells you that you need chains.
    • For conditions inside the park: Call the park roads hotline at +1 (209) 372-0200, then 1, then 1. They will tell you which roads, if any, have chain controls in effect.
    • For conditions outside the park: Call CalTrans at +1 (800) 427-7623 and enter the highway number you’ll be coming in on, or check conditions on the web for Hwy 41, Hwy 140 and Hwy 120.

What Does R2 Mean?

No, it has nothing to do with Star Wars. Generally, all road conditions reports will simply state what types of vehicles need chains, but occasionally they will use the “R” system where conditions are rated R0 through R3.

  • R0: no restrictions. A dry road is R0. Nobody is required to carry chains.
  • R1: All cars without snow tires with at least 6/32″ of tread depth and all vehicles over 6,000 pounds must have chains.
    • Mud and snow rated tires will have an “M+S” on the side. This is not the same thing as a true “snow tire” in the Midwest or Northeast where Tom and I learned to drive, and comes standard on most rental cars.
    • The amount of traction your tires have makes a big difference. If your car has road slicks, bald or significantly worn tires, put chains on. If you have less than 6/32 inches of tread depth on your mud and snow rated tires, they are no longer legally mud and snow rated. You’ll need to put chains on.
  • 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).
    • Pro-tip: Put your chains on at the pull-out by the chain control sign even if the road doesn’t look very snowy. The reason the rangers have changed that sign is that it will GET snowy before the next place you can safely pull off the road to put your chains on. The last thing you want to do is crawl around on the ground in the middle of the road with cars skidding by (on the slippery road) because you didn’t put chains on when there was a safe wide place to do that. Some of our scariest moments have been trying to avoid killing people lying on narrow, icy roads trying to put chains on.
  • R3: Everyone needs to have chains on. Unless you have a big red sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, the rangers will make you put on chains. Have them, and put them on.
    • The rangers rarely use this chain control level. One scenario would be if it were snowing all day or it’s warm and the road turns to a sheet of ice when people at the ski area need to get home. It’s the end of the day, so there are a lot of cars all leaving at once, and if one car goes off the road it impacts a lot of people.
    • Pro-tip: If there is a storm forecast for the day there will be a ranger check-point on the road to the ski area making sure everyone has chains. Do NOT lie to the ranger and say you have chains when you don’t. One long-time ranger we know, now retired, took perverse pleasure in turning people back at the R3 checkpoint and saying “Well, when I asked you this morning, you said you had chains in the car.” Those people do not get to leave the ski area until the ranger deems it safe to do so. Some people have spent the night on the floor of the ski lodge (usually, around 6pm when all the traffic is cleared, they’ll change it back to R2).

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. If you do not, the CalTrans or Park Service employee at the checkpoint may stop you or possibly even fine you.

Why does Yosemite have such weird rules regarding snow chains?

Alpine Escape driveway after storm on March 27, 2011
Alpine Escape driveway after storm on March 27, 2011

It doesn’t. We get this question a lot about chain regulations and traffic laws in general. Yosemite follows California traffic law, so everything regarding snow chain laws and their application applies both inside and outside the park.

In Yosemite, as all along the West Coast, tire chains are much more common than in the frigid north where we grew up. At first this seemed ridiculous — we had driven all our lives in snow without needing chains. But conditions in California in general and Yosemite in particular are a bit different:

  • Sierra storms are intense. Tom grew up in Vermont and Theresa is from Minnesota. We thought two feet was a big storm. In California, we have seen over ten feet fall at our house over the course of a few days. It is impossible to keep up with that volume.
  • Sierra storms are wet. The storms often come in wet and warm and then get colder. Means that as the snow falls and people drive on it, the surface compacts to a slick, icy surface that is rare in places where winter storms come in cold and dry. Early on, Tom saw someone off the road and said “What is that idiot doing?” and got out of the car to help. He didn’t even take a single step before slipping and landing hard on his butt. It was a wonder our car stopped at all.
  • They use no salt and little sand in Yosemite. If Vermont, they throw down salt and when temperatures climb to where the road would be getting really slick, it melts off. Not so here. Quite often they don’t even sand the roads and depend on drivers to put their chains on.
  • Sierra drivers are mostly from California. People here have little experience driving in the snow. They tailgate in the slipperiest roads you can imagine, just like they are in Bay Area commute traffic. They believe AWD makes them invincible and speed along like they’re on dry roads. Quite frankly, it’s insane out there some days. Chains help keep the speed down and and decreases braking distance. We’ve come to feel that even if we don’t think we need chains, we’re glad to see chain controls in place in order to slow down the other drivers.

So if you think, as we did when we first got here, that chains are really unnecessary, trust us. It’s different here than in Minnesota or Vermont or wherever you’re from.

Chain Types: Two Good Options and Two Options You Must Avoid

Short answer:

  • AWD or 4WD vehicle: get cheap chains or “traction devices”. You’ll almost never have to put them on, so they are mostly just to meet the legal requirement.
  • 2WD: get good chains. You’re likely to put them on and the difference between good chains and bad ones is huge when you’re struggling to put them on in a cold, wet snow at night (it’s always cold and wet because the chain control areas are usually at the altitude where it’s changing from snow to rain).

At this point you might be asking “What’s the difference between cables, chains and socks from a functional point of view?”

Sizing

Before we get into that, remember that chains, like tires, come in sizes. You must get the size of your tire from either looking at the tire or checking your manual. Look for a number that looks like 215/65R16. We’re American. We like things complicated, so those numbers are in three different units: millmeters, percentage and inches. So in that example, the tire is 215mm wide, the height is 65% of the width and it goes on a 16-inch wheel. The “R” means it’s a radial.

Of course, you don’t need to know all that. You just need to write the number down and make sure they chains you buy fit that size tire.

Now let’s look at some of the major chain options along with the pros and cons of each. First, so you know what we’re talking about and since an image is worth 1,000 words…

Different kinds of “chains”

Security Chain ladder style true chains
Security Chain ladder style true chains
Security Chain Z-style cable chains
Security Chain Z-style cable chains
Peerless Auto Trac Snow Chains
Peerless Auto Trac Snow Chains
Autosock snow chain alternative
Autosock snow chain alternative
Security Chain ladder style cable chains
Security Chain ladder style cable chains

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

True, Classic Chains

For really rough conditions, I think these give the highest performance. With an aggressive set of chains, I once drove the wrong way up the highway and up the on ramp in 18 inches of snow in a Ford Escort. I made it to a hotel while 3,200 cars were stuck on the road. With four chains on a 4WD, you’ll feel invincible.

Pros

  • Excellent traction on ice (good penetration)
  • Excellent traction in snow (because they bite deep).
  • Diamond-style chains are among the easiest to apply (while ladder-style chains are among the hardest).
  • Field-repairable with “rapid links.” That is chain links with a ferrule that lets you link a broken chain, like this:

Cons

  • Roughest ride (especially ladder style)
  • Requires a lot of clearance. Not compatible with low-clearance vehicles
  • Can void the warranty on some AWD vehicles
  • Ladder-style chains are usually the toughest to apply (while the diamond-style are among the easiest).

Ladder vs Diamond Pattern Chains

  • Diamond chains have better starting, braking and steering, because you are less likely to end up between the “rungs” and sitting on plain tire.
  • Diamond chains have a smoother ride, because you only drop to the ground every other set.
  • Diamond chains are usually easier to install, not because there’s anything inherent in the diamond pattern, but because these are typically “deluxe” chains that are designed for quick and easy install.

Examples

This is just a sample. Of course, you must make sure you get the one that is the right size for your tire.

Cables

Like chains, cables come in a variety of patterns, generally ladder and “Z” style (see photos above). And, as for chains, the Z-style outperform the ladder style in starting power, stopping power and steering control. Even more than with ladder chains, I see people all the time with ladder cables where they turn the wheel, but because they are in between “rungs” the cables don’t grip.

Compared to chains, most cables have terrible performance. This is because most of them protect the cables with round tubes. I constantly see people spinning their wheels on ice as the round tubes just slip and slide. Ladder-style chains are acceptable if your goal is merely to meet the legal requirement, which may be the case if you have an AWD vehicle. Generally, with an AWD vehicle and cables, you’ll be good to go. That said, we have gotten stuck in our Subaru with cables in a situation where our old Ford Escort with true, diamond-style link chains would have easily powered through.

Peerless, who makes all styles of chains and cables, claims that their most aggressive lines of Z-Chain cables are equal to diamond-pattern link chains. I’ve never tried them, so I can’t say, but the rest of their comparison chart rings true with my experience. These chains have a lot of small rings, rather than fewer, longer tubes. If you want traction and safety, get the Z-Chain cables, but they may be hard to find at a local retailer.

Examples

  • Peerless Z-Chain, the highest performance cable chain
  • Peerless Super Z6, has almost the performance of the Z-Chain, but is designed for vehicles with very limited clearance.
  • Basic ladder-style cable chains. Cheaper than dirt, but without the performance advantages of dirt (which is quite good on icy roads). Basically junk and suitable only for meeting legal requirements.

Autosocks and other alternatives

Autosock is actually a brand name. Other brands with the same concept include ISSE and the Peerless Supersox. These are all basically fabric covers that go over your wheel and improve traction either through textile fibers that grip the snow and ice (Autosock and ISSE) or embedded studs (Supersox). Another intriguing alternative is the Michelin textile “chain” which is basically a rope net that goes over the wheels.

These company make lots of claims, including the claim that these products have better stopping power than chains, as verified by independent testing labs. I find this hard to believe and Consumer Reports testing backs that up. They found that these socks had traction similar to a good set of winter tires. They did not make a direct comparison to chains, but having driven with good winter tire and good chains, I can say that the grip chains provide is vastly superior to good winter tires (which are vastly superior to mud and snow rated all-season tires, by the way).

That said, they do have some serious advantages:

  • Work with all vehicles from very low clearance to semi trucks
  • Much better traction than all-season tires alone and probably at least as good as the junky ladder-style cables.
  • Smooth ride
  • Easy application

And some disadvantages

  • Can be expensive, but so are decent chains
  • Probably less traction than decent chains, but that may be open to discussion.
  • Poor durability if driven on dry pavement.

The last point is the killer for me in Yosemite. On our narrow roads, there are only a few chainup points. That means that the rangers will sometimes force you to chain up many miles before the snow. So if there’s two miles of snow at Chinquapin, you may have to chain up at Mosquito Flat and keep your chains on until Grouse Creek. That’s roughly 10 miles and, according the manufacturer, not good for the textile traction devices.

That said, for occasional use, they are probably pretty good and I do know one person who used them and gave them the thumbs up.

There are lots of other systems too. Some screw into your hub and reach around like claws (brand name: Spikes-Spider). Some come in several pieces and you attach them at intervals around your tires. Lots of these are legal, but honestly, I see so many people have issues with these. I usually notice the ones that attach to your hub because they are broken and creating a racket. I’ve seen many people stuck because as the wheel comes around, the “arms” just bend out of the way rather than gripping. Unless your vehicle allows you no other option, we do not recommend these

Examples

  • Autosock
  • ISSE
  • Supersox
  • Spikes-Spider which are the claw type. We do not show these above because based on what we have seen, we do not recommend them, but they look like this:

And finally, let’s be honest. These are a joke:

Don’t kid yourself into thinking those will work.

Decisions, Decisions! Which should I buy?

  • If you have a two-wheel drive passenger car or truck with normal clearance and you’re pretty sure you’ll use them eventually, get the diamond-pattern chains with all the easy-attach bells and whistles. They’re just better. You might also consider the Z-Chain though.
  • If you have an all-wheel drive vehicle or you think you’re unlikely to use them, go cheap.
  • If you have a car with very low clearance, get the Super Z6 from Peerless, but you might also be a candidate for one of the sock style traction devices.

Snow Chains on Rental Cars

We often get questions from guests who say they checked with the rental car company and their company does not allow chains on their vehicles. This is quite common and it’s why we recommend reserving an AWD vehicle for winter visits. Thought you still have to carry chains, it’s rare to be forced to put them on an AWD car. Barring that, your option is to take your chances. You may violate the rental agreement and, thus, be bound for any damage the chains do. 

Most damage chains cause is the result of the chains being installed incorrectly, usually simply too loosely or with loose ends rattling around which take the paint off around the wheel wells. We have also seen chains that were not fastened on the inside of the wheel and which come off and wrap around the brake lines. Needless to say, that is not only expensive, but super dangerous.

The best thing to do is to put snow chains on correctly. Simple as that and you shouldn’t have any damage to the car. 

Buying or Renting Chains for Yosemite

First off, you can buy them in most cities in California. Alternatively, all the links and photos above are from Amazon. You can find almost every size and style on Amazon and get a sense of prices.

As for renting, we don’t know of anywhere that still does this. There may be places that still do, but the problem with chain rentals is that many people find it hard to get back to the rental shop during regular hours and chains frequently break, so the shop doesn’t get many rentals out of set. More common these days is to offer a 50% refund if you bring them back unused. You can look at it as a rental that costs about half the cost of the chain as long as you don’t use them. Given the lifespan of chains and how people use and abuse them, this seems reasonable to me.

Finally, you can buy them en route to Yosemite in a gateway community.

Every gateway route has an O’Reilly and Oakhurst and Oakdale have NAPA stores. On Highway 41, Sullivan’s Tire Pros has chains and Autosocks (and have been really, really good to us as customers since 2003), but they are open regular business hours only, Monday through Saturday, so maybe less convenient.

The map below shows chain retailers in Oakhurst, Oakdale and Mariposa. If you know of a retailer we should add, let us know.

Retailers

There are countless places that sell chains all up and down every gateway highway. Little general stores, hotels and more. There are too many to list, but these major car parts stores will have a good selection.

Highway 41 Corridor (Oakhurst and Coarsegold)

Sullivan’s Tire Pros
40126 Highway 49
Oakhurst, CA 93644
Phone: (559) 683-5900
We’ve been doing business with these guys for years and they have been great. At last check, they stocked a full run of Autosocks

O’Reilly Auto Parts
40080 Highway 49
Oakhurst, CA 93644
Phone: (559) 642-4644

NAPA Auto Parts
40120 Highway 41,
Oakhurst, CA 93644
Phone: (559) 683-7440

NAPA Auto Parts
35335 Highway 41,
Coarsegold, CA 93614
Phone: (559) 658-5550

Highway 140 Corridor (Mariposa)

O’Reilly Auto Parts
4907 Joe Howard Street Mariposa, CA 95338
Phone: (209) 966-3697

Highway 120 Corridor (Oakdale and Manteca)

O’Reilly Auto Parts
505 East F Street Oakdale, CA 95361
Phone: (209) 848-0310

Tilbury Auto Parts Inc (NAPA)
300 E C St,
Oakdale, CA 95361
Phone: (209) 847-0316

O’Reilly Auto Parts
515 Yosemite Avenue Manteca, CA 95336
Phone: (209) 239-4188

O’Reilly Auto Parts
1200 West Lathrop Road Manteca, CA 95336
Phone: (209) 239-9606

NAPA Auto Parts
840 N Main St,
Manteca, CA 95336
Phone: (209) 823-7107

Using Your Chains

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

Uh Oh! This is a front-wheel drive car!
Uh Oh! This is a front-wheel drive car!
  • Practice putting your chains on at least once in a dry parking lot during daylight. Really. Do this!
  • Put your chains on the drive wheels. Yeah, that seem obvious, but we constantly see people who have their chains on the wrong wheels. Tom had an accident a few years ago when on icy roads when he came around a corner and there was a car stuck in the middle of the road because he had chains on the rear wheels of a front-wheel drive car. Even at 20mph, it was too late to avoid him.
  • 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 and dramatically reduce the chance of damaging your vehicle. There are special snow chain tensioner bungees that have four or more hooks. These are worth it. You can get them on Amazon and in any store that sells chains. If you don’t have those, however, a couple of standard bungees per wheel will be better than nothing, but they can shred, which is not good.
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  • Retighten right away. 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 for a bit farther. This will save your chains and your car.
  • Keep the wheels rolling. 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.
  • Don’t spin the wheels ever. If the wheels spin, let off the gas right away. Absolutely do not gun the engine unless you want to destroy the chains and possibly cut a brake line. I see people ruin their chains all the time this way. It never works.
  • Don’t spin the wheels EVER. Did I mention this? Okay, well, there it is again. And once more: do not spin the wheels. Just don’t.

Winter Driving – How to Drive in the Snow

  • Not too fast: When the roads are slippery, you won’t be able to stop quickly. This makes it incredibly important to stay alert and keep your speed down.
  • Also not too slow: The winding mountain roads in Yosemite have banked corners. This is great in the summer, but if you’re going too slowly on icy roads, you can actually slide sideways down the bank. I’ve seen a car stopped on a slope break all 4 tires loose and simply slide sideways into the opposite lane, or into the near snowbank more than once. I tend to shoot for a very steady and even 15-25mph in difficult conditions. On a banked road, it is dangerous to slow down below 5mph. If the conditions are too bad to drive 5mph, do not drive. Simple as that. At that point, you’re better off with ice skates than tires and chains.
  • Not too close: Give the car in front of you a lot of extra space. If it comes to a stop suddenly (for example, by hitting a snowbank because it’s slippery out), you will need to have plenty of space to stop… because it’s slippery out. Stopping distances can be huge, even at low speeds. We see so many people driving like their in Bay Area traffic. Give yourself a fighting chance and leave at least 4 seconds between you and the vehicle in front. Count it out, 1001, 1002, 1003, 1004.
  • All-Wheel Drive does not make you God. AWD gets people into a lot of trouble. It’s very easy to get going fast, but everyone on the road has all-wheel brakes. Having AWD does not mean you can safely drive faster than someone with two-wheel drive. It just means you get into trouble a lot faster. And remember, the guy with 2WD has chains on his tires, so he is going to have excellent stopping capability. You will not.

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