Winter Travel

Six Easy Tips to Prepare for a Winter Road Trip in and around Oregon

Preparing for winter travel can be tough sledding. Here are some essential tips to keep in mind as you head out on the road for the holidays.

By Sam Stites

An illuminated chains required sign mounted on a highway department pickup truck on the Santiam Pass in Oregon.

Over the river and through the woods? That's just a typical Sunday drive in the Pacific Northwest. But as winter approaches, that easy road trip you’ve been doing for years—or maybe for the first time—can get dicey fast. We’ve got some tips that will help keep you safe en route to meet family and friends to celebrate the holidays. This is all advice you've probably heard before from your father, but take it from a new dad: You can never be too prepared.

Know Before You Go

Whether you’re heading across town or across one of Oregon’s various mountain passes, it’s always better to know what lies ahead than blindly head into a massive pile up or winter storm. Thankfully, the Oregon Department of Transportation maintains one of the best websites for checking traffic conditions. If you’re road tripping to visit family this holiday season, do yourself a favor and give TripCheck a quick look before you leave the house, and anytime you get back in the car. Washington and California also have websites to check in on conditions. 

TripCheck provides travelers the ability to check in on conditions in real time, with hundreds of cameras placed in strategic transportation links throughout Oregon. 

Carry Chains or Use Traction Tires

Those bright-orange flashing signs on the highways leading into the mountains are not just advisories. You must carry chains and use them if your car doesn’t have snow tires. It’s the law, and in Oregon, for whatever reason, ill-preparedness seems to be a running theme lately on roads such as Highway 26 over Mount Hood. Do everyone a favor—especially yourself and your family—and stop by your local tire store, auto parts store, Bi-Mart, Fred Meyer, and just about any other big box store you can think of to pick up a set. They cost about $120 on average, and take just 10-15 minutes to install. Make sure when you lay them out that there are no twists in the side chain before carefully placing them over your tires. Ensure that the fasteners are facing outwards, and try to keep them from moving under the tire when you roll forward to set them in place before tightening them in place. Finding a good spot to put chains on can be tricky, but please, for the love of all that is good in this world, please do not stop in the middle of the road or 0n a runaway truck ramp to install. Be sure to keep a pair of work gloves with your kit because attempting to put metal chains on in cold weather can do a number on your hands. Having chains in your trunk this winter could mean the difference between getting stuck for hours and making it to grandma’s on time. Or even keeping you and your family safe from harm. 

"Kick the Tires"

Having enough air in your tires is crucial to maintaining optimal safety when driving in winter weather. On most vehicles, you can check how many pounds per square inch (PSI) your car calls for on the sticker plastered to the inside of the driver's doorjamb or on the underside of the door itself. Most gas stations carry pocket-sized tire pressure gauges. If you need some air, that same gas station probably has a compressor you can use for a few quarters. Checking a battery is a little trickier. Unless you have a multimeter—and even then, if you don’t know what you’re doing it can be confusing and slightly dangerous—you’re going to need to enlist the help of your friendly neighborhood auto parts store. Nearly every auto parts franchise will help you check that your battery is operating at full capacity. That’s particularly important in the winter months, because the cold can accelerate the death of cells inside your battery and reduce the number of cranking amps delivered to your starter—what kicks your vehicle on. You do not want to be stuck somewhere in sub-freezing weather without the ability to restart your car. Taking this step and getting your battery checked can save you a massive headache later. 

Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best

Packing an emergency kit might seem like overkill, but it can go a long way when you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere and there’s no traffic to flag down. Road flares or an emergency triangle, jumper cables, essential tools (such as multiple types of screwdrivers, pliers, a set of metric sockets and a ratchet, a few wrenches, duct tape, and work gloves), and a first-aid kit are key items to carry with you at all times. A shovel for when it’s really dumping is always handy, and a small bag of sand for grit in icy conditions can be a lifesaver. You can find all of these items at your local hardware or auto parts store for less than $60 or so. Keeping your AAA membership or your car manufacturer's built-in roadside service current is also a helpful tip when it’s cold and wet out. Taking these precautions should give you some peace of mind when you set out for your winter adventures. 

Keep A Heavy Coat in Your Car

You never know when you might need to hoof it a ways, either to get some reception or flag down some help. If you’re broken down somewhere without service, you might be stuck waiting without heat until you can flag someone down or walking until you’ve got service. That wait or walk will be much cozier if you’ve got a good jacket stashed away somewhere. Maybe an old ski or snowboard coat you forgot about in the back of your closet can find a new home tucked inside your car. 

Drive Slow, Homie 

No need to pump your brakes—your car likely has an anti-lock braking (ABS) system if you get into a slide. But you should seriously slow down if snow or ice is present on the road. Keep an eye on the digital thermometer in your car; if it’s wet out and temperatures are flirting with the 32 degrees Fahrenheit mark, let off the gas a bit and take an easy pace. Even if you’re in a rush, keeping yourself and your family safe on the way to your destination should take precedence. Put the phone down, let your passenger pick the bad holiday music, and keep your eyes on your speed and the road.