Snow chains on tire in Big Bear Lake California

FAQs on Tire Chains

Posted: 01/29/24

Caltrans Says I Need Tire Chains…Now What?

Hooray! A new storm has brought fresh snowfall to the mountains. Opportunities abound for skiing, snowshoeing, and tubing making a getaway to Big Bear a must. While you’re planning for fun, it’s important to consider safety mandates when traveling in winter conditions. Keep reading for rules and information on tire chains when travelling to Big Bear in the winter.

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1. Do I really need chains? It’s not even snowing.

Yes. You will need to carry tire chains in your vehicle from November 1 to April 30 whether or not you actually use them. When CalTrans calls for chain restrictions, you will need to adhere to chain requirements. See Question 12 for levels of chain control.

"As defined in Section 605 of the California Vehicle Code (CVC), tire traction devices are designed to improve vehicle traction, braking, and cornering upon snow or ice-covered surfaces."

Road conditions and chain restrictions can be found on the Caltrans Quickmaps website. It is recommended that you stay up to date with road conditions as they can change quickly and without warning. Check all boxes under Options then Road Conditions for complete info.

2. How do I find the right chains for my tires?

Check your vehicle's owner manual and your tires for specifications on tire chains. It’s important to buy chains or other traction that are the correct size for your tires. Link-type chains that are too big will bang against the body of your vehicle causing significant damage. Chains and other traction that are too small won’t fit around the tire at all.

3. Where can I find tire chains and traction devices?

Chains are sold at most auto supply shops, hardware stores, and some convenience stores. Call the store ahead of time to check the type of chains they carry. Stock sells out quickly when snowy conditions exist and a vast majority of stores only sell chains and will not rent. Purchase chains before heading to mountain regions!

4. What kinds of traction devices are there?

Apart from link-type tire chains, Alternative Traction Devices include metal cable chains, plastic or vinyl hub cap anchored devices, and other synthetic materials like AutoSocks. It’s important to refer to your vehicle’s manufacturer guide for guidance on chain/traction sizing and specifications. Caltrans and California Highway Patrol reserve the right to prohibit any vehicle from entering a chain control area if it’s determined that traction devices do not meet CVC, Section 605 requirements.

5. Which tires do I put chains/traction devices on?

Chains and traction devices need to be installed on the wheels of your drive axle. Refer to your vehicle guide to determine if your vehicle is front axle or rear axle drive. All-wheel drive vehicles and 4-wheel drive vehicles may have chains installed on either drive axle, but the rear axle is preferred unless the vehicle manufacturer recommends the front axle.

6. How do you put chains/traction devices on?

The instructions in your tire chain kit will give you a step by step. However, if you’re a visual learner, YouTube has some great, easy-to-follow, tutorials.

7. How fast can I drive with tire chains?

Generally, 20 to 30 mph is the recommended speed limit for driving with snow chains. This helps prevent chains from breaking and from potentially damaging your vehicle. Do not drive on dry roads with chains as it can significantly wear down both the chains and your tire tread.

8. Can studded tires and snow tires replace the need to carry/install chains?

No. Though studded tires are legal in California from Nov. 1 until Apr. 30 each year, studded tires are not considered tire traction devices and may not be used in lieu of chains. Snow tires have the designation “Mud & Snow” or an abbreviation such as “M-S,” “M+S,” or “M/S” marked on the tire sidewall. Tires without this designation are not considered snow tires. Snow tires must also have at least 6/32-inch (3/16”) of tread depth (about 1/2 of the original tread depth). Same as studded tires, snow tires may not be used in lieu of chains.

9. My car rental company won’t let me put chains on. Am I excused?

No. Some car rental companies may not allow chains on their inventory for various reasons, however this does not excuse you from carrying them or installing them if Caltrans requires it. The best bet if you’re worried about snowy roads is to rent either an all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive vehicle for your journey.

10. The manufacturer of my vehicle recommends that chains not be installed on it. Do I still have to carry/wear chains?

Yes. Many vehicles that don't accommodate conventional link-type chains may accommodate Alternative Traction Devices. Bottom line, if chain control is in effect, you must comply for your safety and the safety of others.

11. I have a 4-Wheel or All-Wheel drive vehicle and I’m towing a trailer. Do I need chains?

You need to use chains if you’re towing a trailer. If the trailer has brakes, you must have at least one axle chained.

12. What do the chain control statuses mean? R1, R2, etc.?

  • R1: Chains are required on all vehicles except passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks under 6,000 pounds gross weight and equipped with snow tires on at least two drive wheels. Chains must be carried by vehicles using snow tires. All vehicles towing trailers must have chains on one drive axle. Trailers with brakes must have chains on at least one axle.
  • R2: Chains are required on all vehicles except four-wheel-drive vehicles under 6,500 pounds gross weight and equipped with snow tires on all four wheels. Chains for one set of drive wheels must be carried by four-wheel-drive vehicles using snow tires.
  • R3: Chains are required on all vehicles without exception.
  • R4: Road closure

Things to Remember

  • It is recommended that you carry extra supplies in your vehicles such as a jack, a shovel, kitty litter, and ice scrapers to help manage snow/ice conditions.
  • Carry extra food, water, and blankets in your vehicle as traffic can cause severe delays at any time of day.
  • It is best to travel on a full tank of gas in case you need to reroute, and it is recommended that you keep your phone charged in case you need to find directions or call for help along the way.