Winter at Lake Tahoe: Snow chain and gear considerations to get you ready for the slopes
Get ready for the season with tips about snow chains for tires and gear prepping tips
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — As the snowfall slowly begins to mount, so does the temptation to rush out the door — skis and snowboards in tow — hop in the car, and head for the slopes.
Not unlike a restless middle schooler counting down the seconds until recess, everyone in the Tahoe-Truckee region is amped to get outside on the snow-covered mountains.
Sure, you might be emotionally ready for the skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing Lake Tahoe offers, but is your gear prepared? Moreover, with winter coming to Lake Tahoe, snow chains and snow tires are an important consideration to get you to the slopes.
“I think it’s always good to start with an inventory — what do I have, what don’t I have?” said Ben Fresco, a manager at Village Ski Loft in Incline Village. “I think a lot of people get through the end of a season and misplace, throw out, or retire some equipment.”
WAX ON, WAX OFF
After the skis, snowboards, bindings and boots are accounted for, you need to slide into the waxing department. The waxing process can be done either at home — if one has the time, tools and space — or various equipment shops like the Village Ski Loft can do it for you.
“It can be a pretty messy project and a time-consuming process,” Fresco said. “You can’t do it in the kitchen over the rug; you need room temperature atmosphere for the most part.”
If you’re in the DIY spirit, though, the first thing you need to do is scrape off the storage wax used to keep the ski and snowboard bases sealed during the summer. Make sure to use a plastic scraper, not a metal one, as you remove the wax from tip to tail.
Next, a proper glide wax needs to be applied.
“This time of year, you have a mixed bag of conditions,” said Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City. “Basically, the snow can be pretty drastic temperatures, so you have to wax your skis accordingly.”
The most common waxes are temperature specific, engineered for optimal performance in a particular temperature range.
Purely recreational skiers might opt for the universal wax, which offers decent results and minimal hassle, or even a rub-on wax that can be swiftly applied with a sponge.
However, as Fresco notes: “Some rub-on waxes have a tendency to dry the bases out over time.”
To melt and apply the wax, a heated iron is required. It’s best to use ski waxing irons as opposed to standard home irons, which have a lot — arguably too much — temperature fluctuation. Notably, don’t hold the iron in one place for too long; otherwise the base could blister.
Also, “using a candle is not appropriate,” added Fresco with a laugh.
Now, what exactly is taking place when one spreads wax across the ski or snowboard base?
“Think of your ski base as kind of a membrane,” Madigan said. “When it’s heated, it has pores that open and will take wax into the membrane — into the ski base — and that’s what keeps you gliding as opposed to having resistance.”
When finished, scrape off the excess wax and then thoroughly brush the base to bring out the texture.
OK, so your ski and snowboard bases are covered and are ready for skiing Tahoe. What else?
“Putting on your boots and getting your feet conditioned for the season,” Fresco said. “I use the analogy that when bike season rolls around, you can’t just jump on your bicycle and go on a 75-mile ride around the lake without expecting your butt to hurt.
“The same thing holds true for ski boots; they’re confiding — you need time to bond with them.”
READY FOR THE ROAD?
Even with waxed-down skis and broken-in boots, you won’t get very far if you’re vehicle isn’t ready for the slick, snow-covered roads.
“Tires is the most important thing,” said John Lamoreux, owner of the Auto and Tire Doctor in Truckee. “Making sure that you have plenty of tire tread and also that there are a snow-type tire, a winter tire.
“Even if it’s four-wheel drive, you definitely need a snow tire. If you’re running summer tires on a four-wheel drive car, it’s not going to run.”
In the last week, Lamoreux’s crew has been slammed with customers rolling in for that very reason: snow tires.
Getting snow tires isn’t the only option, though. When traveling around Lake Tahoe, snow chains can provide added traction as you need it, or you can have metal studs inserted into your tires.
“I’m not a big chain driver myself,” Lamoreux said, “but for some people that’s the way to go. For instance, my dad used to drive a two-wheel drive El Camino and he’d chain that thing everywhere he’d go and that’s how he got around.”
But, before you go running out the door on your trip to Lake Tahoe, snow chains in hand, consider that times have changed — and tires have evolved. Just ask Dan Lee, co-owner of Incline Village Tire Department.
“The snow tires are so much better now that we don’t even recommend studs,” Lee said. “Studs are meant to grab into ice, but on a dry road, they are actually holding the tire off the ground. Those little metal studs are not good on the dry.”
Added Lamoreux: “I’m not a big stud fan. When there is no snow, those things are noisy and tear things up.”
Meanwhile, studless snow tires, made from softer rubber compounds, have tread patterns designed to dig down and bite into the snow and ice. Simply, they are more efficient and, in turn, safer to ride on.
What’s more, “snow tires are designed to run below freezing,” Lee said.
Bob Stone, owner of Stone’s Country Tire and Auto, even recommends getting a feel for driving on your snow tires — or studs or chains — before getting on the open road.
“Get out in a parking lot and try to drive on something for awhile,” Stone said. “We haven’t had snow in a long time so people who’ve recently moved up here don’t know what it’s like driving. Get on the parking lot so you know what’s going on.”
The winterizing-your-vehicle checklist doesn’t stop at the tires, either.
“Check your windshield wiper fluid,” Lamoreux said. “Making sure that you got the right type (of fluid) and that it doesn’t freeze. Wiper blades, that’s a huge factor as well. If you lip up your wiper blade and run your finger down it and it feels hard and stiff, or it’s curling, then those are no good.”
Lee also offered this sage advice for the winter drivers.
“You might want to have emergency food and blankets in the back of the car,” he said. “Even the best cars, people swerve off the road … It’s always good to keep emergency supplies and warm clothes in your car.”
Originally published in the December 9, 2015, issue of the Tahoe Daily Tribune and regularly vetted for accuracy.