Driving Mtn Passes in Winter



Alright…I have to commute between Eastern WA and Boise this winter, and our neighbor’s been telling horror stories about how bad the passes can get. They aren’t particularly high or long, but for some reason, he thinks they’re awful to get thru. There are some steep stretches that scare me, but it is still interstate the whole way. So the question is…

Chains or no chains? I have a 4WD Tacoma, and know the snow routine (getting started isn’t the problem, so slow down). I’ve used cable chains on the front before, but because of the economics of those past trips I didn’t put chains on the back. And in most cases I wouldn’t drive if it was so bad that I started out with chains. What about studded or winter tires? The tires that are on there now are Wilderness ATs or whatever came with the off road package.

Any thoughts?



Mountain passes are KNOWN to get a LOT OF SNOW. I know a few in NH that average 300" of snow annually. I don’t know HOW anyone can live in this area (but they do).

You may need more agressive tires then the Wilderness AT’s. And I’d definetly get a set of chains for ALL 4 WHEELS. In some area’s of the country you are not allowed to travel in these mountain passes without chains.


You need chains to get over the Donner Pass in California, but only because the government says so. A 4WD or AWD with good winter tires is all you nedd. Buy the chains and keep them in a bag in the trunk. When the pass is “impassable”, the Highways Dept will close the road anyway.


Forget the chains. If your 4wd can’t make it, the road will be closed anyway. They will literally COVER the road with salt.


Do you have a locking rear diff? If not, that would be the first thing I would add. For $300.00 or less you can get a Lock-right.


Just one note. With chains on the front and not the back, if you hit the brakes, you will have good stopping power on the front but far less in the back so the back will want to go around and become the front. In short you could well end up looking where you have been and not where you are going. If you are only going to have one set of chains, put them on the back. Also keep your best tyres on the back.


Get a full set of chains and carry them. They are cheap insurance. Put them on to avoid a tow job. Drive with good sense. Invest in studded tires if you have a lot of ice miles.
Enjoy the white beauty.


IMHO, anyone driving fast enough with chains so that end-swapping is a problem has got to be nuts or stupid.


I used to drive that section of I-84 pretty frequently during the winter. None of the passes are too bad, and they are all very proactively maintained. Unfortunately, this can be a bad thing for you and your part-time 4wd vehicle, since both chains and 4wd are designed for slogging through deep snow. If they’re doing a good job plowing the road (which they do), it’ll be mostly bare so you don’t want to use your 4wd, but it can still be icy. Small trucks like yours can really be awful in slippery on-the-road conditions where you can’t use 4wd. A good set of tires is very necessary-- if your AT’s are in good shape they should be okay, but you may consider replacing them with more aggressive tires or getting a good set of snow tires and spare rims. Also definitely throw some traction sand or something else heavy over the back axle.


frist of to every one who reads this studded tire are banded from all public roads!!! it you were stoped with studded tire it would have been cheaper to buy a new set of tire mad for snow!!!

so if i were you i would go and get some bilssak tire they are the best snow and ice tire i have every seen and the they work very well.

oh and by the way snow chains are not worth it, they take some much time to put on that a tow or wait it out would be better.

mopar man

ps it dose not snow all the time so if it look like it is going to snow hard move your trip back a couple of days.


That’s only true in a very small number of states-- most states have a range of dates that studded tires are banned from public roads. In my state it’s April 30 through October 1-- both days were crazy at the tire shop I used to work at.

I’m suprised I wasn’t able to find a concise chart of which dates for which states, but you can google something like “your state name + snow tires”.


Didja ever USE tire chains? Remember “monkey-links”? Man . . what a pain! And when they break, slap-slap slpa against the fender until you crawl underneath to fix it? I suggest four good snow tires and as already stated . . . stay home if they close the roads! Last Spring I was on my way to the university and listening to the weather news, and turned around and went home 'cuase the interstate was closing. Thousands of motorists were stranded on 78/22 in Eastern Pennsylvania for almost 24 hours! The tire chains, snow tires or Hummer type whatevers were stuck because the semi truck jackknifed or some bald tire Escort was stuck 100 cars ahead of you. Stay home. Rocketman


Like GreasyJack said, studs are legal during cold months in the Pac NW, and just recently became “in season” in Oregon.

You can bemoan chains all you want, but it’s a legal requirement that you cary them in some areas, and “wait it out” might have you sitting for 3 or 4 months.


As others have mentioned, the various DOTs that take care of your route do a pretty good job. That said, if you HAVE to make the drive, you should carry chains for all four. Two reasons: 1) when it is posted “chains required”, that means you have to have them if you want to drive the route. 4WD willl not appease the state patrol & arguing with them will do no good. 2) chains on only the front will lead to spinn-out if you brake hard while going down hill. You do not have to be moving very fast to do this if it is icy enough. Having done this (once!), it is disconcerting at best.


Thanks for everybody’s advice (espc greasy and dm). In WA, studded tires are legal and are a really good investment in the winter, especially in the desert areas (we get freezing fog often), and most mountain passes have times where chains are required. One of the reasons I asked this question is because I’ve seen times when Snoqualmie and Steven’s pass are open with no traction requirements, but there’s still snow on the road. Traffic keeps moving, and I think major shutdowns are uncommon. The passes back east on I84 are lower, but longer or steeper, and even if they keep them plowed to the degree that they plow the west-side passes, and I don’t want to get up one and find out I’m not prepared for the trip down.

So, I’m going to be getting another set of chains for the rear as a back-up, invest in some traction sand, and scope out hotels in Pendelton, LaGrande, and Baker City.