Wintertime in Colorado brings many opportunities to play and adventure, as well as seasonal hazards that require serious consideration. Read ahead for tips on winter driving and learn what Colorado law requires for safe passage in the winter.
Every year, thousands of people across Colorado enjoy the many activities and sights this great region has to offer. Wintertime is a season of great adventures, as well as numerous challenges. And while snow on the slopes is a dream come true, this can also mean that road conditions are more difficult to safely navigate. Particularly at altitude and during snowy conditions, the weather changes quickly from clear and calm to windy and cold in a matter of minutes. Roads might ice over and visibility could drop rapidly, meaning that you need to be prepared for just about anything. It’s just another winter day in the Rockies!
In case this happens during your trip, it is important to know how your vehicle handles the differing variables, and what to do in potentially hazardous situations. Equally, it’s essential to understand Colorado law and how easy it is to comply. And having the right mindset and proper equipment are crucial when the going gets snowy.
ESSENTIAL WINTER DRIVING TIPS:
1. Know Your Abilities
If you are planning to drive during adverse winter conditions, it is vital to feel confidence in your ability to do so safely. Winter driving in snowy or icy conditions requires full concentration. Winter activities take up lots of energy, and many drivers on their way back down from the mountain feel tired. After a day on the ski slopes, you’ll still need to make a safe journey home. So, when roads are slick and it is raining or snowing, make sure your body and mind are prepared.
Since many roadway accidents in Colorado occur when a driver is distracted, tired or otherwise compromised, it is important to prepare yourself for the journey before you get behind the wheel. Getting enough rest is the key, as well as maintaining alertness. Find what works for you— a cup of coffee, a power nap, and a little stretching can all help. Take your time and make sure that safety is your first concern.
Furthermore, Colorado is well known for its many wonderful breweries and progressive cannabis culture. Often, these tend to go hand in hand with winter sports. By all means, enjoy yourself. However, while these things have their time and place, mixing inebriants with driving is a terrible decision. Every year stoned and drunk drivers cause undue accidents. Make sure to have a designated driver or know how long you need to wait before you can safely operate a motor vehicle without compromising on safety.
Get enough rest
Hydrate and have a meal
Don’t drink or use inebriants before or during your drive
Know when to pull over and take a break
2. Know Your vehicle
For safe winter driving, it is paramount that you understand how your vehicle operates and how it is equipped to withstand adverse winter conditions. Ask yourself: what are the capabilities and limits of my vehicle? Do I have the right kind of tires, and do I understand how to traverse poor conditions? Remember- just a bit of planning goes a long way.
THE RIGHT Tires
Whether you operate a 2-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, or 4-wheel drive, the most important factor for safe winter driving is to have the correct tires. While all-season and three-season tires can be great in most conditions throughout the year, snow tires (with the designation m/s or similar located on the side) are the best option during winter in Colorado.
Since weather conditions change so rapidly and often bring ice and snow, having a tire dedicated to winter driving should be a priority. Snow tires are designed with deep treads in a pattern for gaining maximum traction in slippery conditions. No matter what type of tire is being used, the tread needs to be at least 3/16 inches deep in order to maximize grip and to comply with Colorado law for winter driving.
Tip: Before heading into the mountains, check the tread depth yourself with the quarter test: insert a quarter upside down into your tread groove. If George Washington’s head is covered by the tread, your tires should be okay. If not, it’s time to replace them.
Two-Wheel Drive (2WD)
‘Two-wheel drive’ means that only one axle (front or rear axle) is being engaged to rotate the tires so that the vehicle can drive.
Front wheel drive: The front axle turns the two front tires. In general, vehicles with front-wheel drive often do a bit better in icy and snowy conditions. This is because the engine sits over the tires that receive the rotation power, giving them better traction. Also, the front wheels tend to pull the vehicle, rather than push from the rear, making it better able to move past an ice and snow patch through torque and forward momentum. If you have front-wheel drive, it is a good idea to rotate the tires with the best tread to the front before the snow season begins.
Rear-wheel drive: The rear axle turns the two back tires to move the vehicle. Rear-wheel drive is just fine in winter conditions as long as you are strategic about parking and navigating. Unfortunately, getting stuck with a rear-wheel drive can be more common when the vehicle is parked in snow or ice, so park strategically and don’t be afraid to put down sand or kitty litter to help your rear wheels get more traction.
Getting stuck in snow is overall more common in 2-wheel drive vehicles simply because there is less distribution of power along the drive shaft to pull or push the vehicle out of a slippery spot. The trick to getting unstuck is to find a way to give the tires that do the pushing or pulling enough traction to get out of the rut. If you have a buddy or some friendly helpers close by, have them push forward while rocking the vehicle up and down (by pushing on the rear truck area) in order to gain more traction.
Tip: Use sand or kitty litter to melt the snow and provide some grip. In more extreme cases, you may need to use a tow strap or even call a tow truck. The key is to remain calm and protect yourself from the elements while becoming unstuck.
All-Wheel Drive (AWD)
All-wheel drive vehicles are a popular choice in Colorado for many reasons. Essentially, AWD vehicles use a computer system to determine traction and wheel speed for all four tires, sending the appropriate amount of power to each tire in order to maximize performance. If, for example, one tire is spinning on the ice, the computer will send more power to the other tires that do have traction so that the vehicle can move forward. Essentially, AWD vehicles utilize smart technology to ensure maximum traction and torque.
All-wheel drive vehicles are a great option for winter driving since they are designed to amplify traction without a lot of input from the driver. While some systems do offer manual engagement of the AWD, they most often operate by gauging the road conditions and making decisions based on their programming.
Four-Wheel Drive (4×4)
Four-wheel drive is the quintessential and often the best option for winter driving. Vehicles equipped with 4×4 usually come in two options: full-time and part-time engagement. Usually, 4×4 vehicles normally operate as rear-wheel drive until the 4×4 is manually engaged. When this happens, the four-wheel drive system sends equal torque to all the tires in order to maximize power and traction. These are a very popular choice in Colorado and other mountainous states due to their rugged, powerful capabilities to traverse tough terrain.
The major benefit of four-wheel drive is the ability of the driver to manually engage the 4×4 when they choose to do so, rather than letting the computer decide. Overall, 4×4-equipped vehicles are often more rugged vehicles—trucks, SUVs, and Jeeps— which tend to be used for off-highway exploration. 4×4 also comes in a wider variety of transfer case settings, meaning that they can be used in both High and Low settings.
4×4 High provides better traction and can be used at higher speeds including on the highway during icy and snowy conditions.
4×4 Low is commonly used during off-highway or off-road conditions, requiring a slower speed. When you really need to get up a steep hill, through shallow water, thick mud or snow, 4×4 low is your best bet.
Learn how to put a Jeep into 4-wheel drive here.
Overall, whether your vehicle is 2WD, AWD, or 4×4,, make sure you understand how it operates and handles in a variety of conditions. Having the right tires is the number-one key to success, as well as making sure the vehicle is well-maintained and working properly.
Special Note on Snow Chains: If you need to use snow chains, do so only in situations that require it. Using chains on a road without an ice or snow layer can cause damage to your tires and the road.
2WD: Front Wheel Drive- place chains on the front two tires / Rear Wheel Drive: rear two tires
AWD: place chains on front tires, or all four if you have enough chains
4WD: place chains on front tires
Additional Winter Driving Tips:
Slow down, and ensure plenty of space when following another vehicle
Do Not engage cruise control in snowy or icy weather so that you can maintain maximum control over the vehicle at all times!
When driving in heavy snow or rain, use your low beams and keep your windshield clean (inside and outside)
3. Know the Weather
Colorado: Land of sunshine, grand vistas, and highly unpredictable weather in the Rocky Mountains. Visitors from other states or regions may not be used to the variety and intensity of winter weather conditions in Colorado. It is important to stay aware of the forecast and to plan ahead in order to ensure that you understand the different possibilities. Before heading out, check the weather and make sure you have the essential personal protective gear to handle these conditions.
Don’t assume that you will be able to traverse every roadway or weather condition without preparation. There may be some locations that are simply too icy or snowy to pass through.
Do anticipate that the weather will change quickly and become potentially dangerous— especially if it looks sunny and calm when you leave the house or hotel room. Don’t assume!
Even if you are simply popping out for a quick trip to the store or gym, bring along what you would need in case you are forced into the elements: a warm coat, hat, gloves, and closed-toe footwear. Nobody ever plans on getting stuck or into an accident, but when it happens and the temperature is below freezing, a little trip to get groceries can turn into a major incident. Being prepared takes just a few moments. Anticipate the worst and you’ll be ahead of the game.
Beyond regularly checking your phone and listening to local radio, below are some resources that provide Colorado-specific in-depth forecasts, interactive maps and good local advice:
4. Understand Colorado Law
As previously mentioned, the most important piece of equipment on your vehicle during winter driving are your tires. Having good tires (preferably snow tires) that are properly inflated with at least 3/16-inch tread is the key to victory. However, it’s not just a great idea— in Colorado, this is the law.
From September 1st until May 31st each year, there are two winter driving laws that need to be followed: the Traction law (Code 15) and the Chain law (Code 16). The traction law ensures that vehicles are prepared for when road conditions become wet, snowy, or otherwise more slick than normal conditions. The chain law goes into effect when conditions are such that the road may soon be closed due to impassable and dangerous driving conditions. Both are designed to reduce unnecessary accidents and road blockages.
The Traction law requires that all vehicles traveling across the Rockies on I-70 between Dotsero and Morrison must always be equipped with at least one of the following:
4×4 or All-Wheel Drive
Snow Tires designated as such with the imprint ‘M/S’, ‘M+S’, or ‘M&S’
Or a traction device such as tire chains or other traction device
The Chain law goes into effect when road conditions really deteriorate. Usually, this occurs soon before the highway is closed, and it will be posted on signs and announced on the local radio. It requires that all vehicles install chains or other traction device (like an AutoSock) while traveling along the stretch of road where the law is in effect. Failure to do so can result in accidents and fines up to $650.
While the traction law (Code 15) applies specifically to traffic along I-70, it’s important to note that every roadway throughout the Rockies can be subject to local closures and vehicle requirements. It’s best to research your trip before heading out as well as heeding local signage and advice. It’s always a good idea to have good tires and personal protective gear.
Essential Winter Driving Checklist
✓ Good windshield wipers and plenty of windshield fluid (-20F rating is the best option for Colorado)
✓ Snow/Ice scraper and brush
✓ Good tires with at least 3/16th of an inch tread (preferably snow or all-season tires).
✓ Snow chains or other traction device for when the Traction law or Chain law is in effect.
✓ Snow shovel and kitty litter or sand for tire traction on ice
✓ Extra layers, warm coats, rain jacket, hat, gloves, boots and anything you need to stay warm and protected
✓ Jumper cables, road flares/warning lights, and a tow rope in case you get stuck.
✓ Snacks, emergency medical equipment, flashlight, and anything you may need in case you get stranded
✓ Patience and a good sense of humor!
Disclaimer: this article is intended for informational purposes only. Please use your best judgement and consult local laws & regulations where applicable.
At Overland Discovery, we take winter driving seriously. That’s why all of our winter vehicle rentals include all the equipment necessary for a safe winter adventure in Colorado. We are one of the only car rental companies in Colorado to guarantee snow tires on all of our vehicle rentals. We also provide snow chains for rent, and are more than happy to provide in-depth information and advice for your winter adventure. Learn more about our winter vehicle rentals.