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Truck Snow Chains:
Preparation for Winter Driving


Certain states require truck snow chains to be carried on commercial motor vehicles even if they are never installed. Chains are more commonly used in the western and northern USA than in the east. Since snow is more likely to fall in higher elevations, that is where some laws require that they be used. If you are traveling in snow-prone areas, you would do well to familiarize yourself with the chain laws for every state and Canadian province through which you travel.

We drove for two trucking companies that had traffic lanes that required us to have chains: Swift and U.S. Xpress. So what follows is our background and experience in using them, an overview of truck tire chains, and some helps.



Our Background and Experience with Truck Snow Chains

Having lived in the Midlands area of South Carolina for many years and having attended truck driver training school in the state's Lowcountry, we had no real exposure to driving in snow, let alone using snow chains.

On some large trucks, a bank of tire snow chains hang from the frame between the fuel tank and front drive tires on the passenger side, as shown in this photo. They can hang there year-round.

Such was the case when we drove for Swift. We chained up a truck only once when we drove for them and vowed we'd never do it again, as our inexperience in chain installation was more like flying by the seat of our pants. (We tell most of the story on our flashlight page.)

Being under-educated on chain installation, we had no idea that we were supposed to stop a short distance from the installation point to recheck and tighten them if necessary. Back then, we had no bungee stretch cords or rubber tie downs with which to secure them. In case you're wondering, yes, it is possible for tire chains to come off of truck tires if they are not securely fastened!

So that you won't be caught unprepared, below the table on this page, TruckDriversNews.com provides a guide to the use of tire chains, which we recommend.

Truck tire snow chains.


The Paradigm Shift

One thing we didn't think about at the time that we left Swift and began driving for U.S. Xpress was the change in traffic lanes. (We address traffic lanes on our recruiters page.) Most of Swift's traffic lanes were I-40 and south. However, U.S. Xpress had traffic lanes farther north; it was not uncommon while in their employ for us to drive on I-80 and north.

All of the trucks we drove for Swift had snow chains on them year round. However, the policy of U.S. Xpress was that if a driver encountered weather so bad that snow chains were required, he/she was to park and not risk travel. One winter, we parked three times to wait out the weather. The company was not going to risk the trucks, freight and drivers. All we had to do was call and let them know our situation. On one occasion when we parked, we encountered two other USX trucks also parked, one of which was driven by another team who wasn't going to risk crossing Wyoming in heavy snow at night.

In those days, U.S. Xpress was so opposed to chain installation on their trucks that they arranged for their drivers who were going over chain-required ranges to pick up bags of chains on one one side and drop them off on the other. These locations were called "chain banks." We did the chain pick-up and drop-off more than once when going over Donner Pass between Reno, Nevada, and Sacramento, California.



Carrying Snow Chains on Your Truck Versus Using Chain Banks

One problem that can occur with using a chain bank, of course, is that there could be an abundance on one side of the range and not enough on the other! Or, one can run across a range where there is no chain bank at all.

Vicki recalls the day she drove for USX going west on I-90 from Montana into Idaho. It was a few hours before sunrise. The kind of snow that was falling was what we described as "big fat fluffy flakes" or "BF cubed" (BF3). It lay thick on the road, which didn't even look like any snow plows had plowed. She remembers one section of the interstate where the east- and westbound lanes were separated only by a narrow median. (There wasn't much room for error!)

She carefully and slowly plodded up the hill, grateful that we had just had new drive tires put on the tractor -- because at that point, we had no snow chains on the truck. She heard the velcro closure on the sleeper curtain behind her open as Mike peaked out, having just awakened. He encouraged her to keep making progress -- something Vicki was only too happy to do.

She passed a truck pulling doubles parked on the westbound side of the road and knew that if she ever lost traction, there would be no way to regain it! As soon as she crossed over into Idaho, the situation was much different. On the west side of Lookout Pass, the roads were clear! Hurray!

But it was tenuous not having chains on the truck at that time. Donner Pass is not the only place where it is wise to have chains on a truck in the winter.



Be Prepared Ahead of Time

In the days when we team drove from coast-to-coast, we recall that there were specific dates when trucks had to carry chains in California, like from October to April. Evidently, that situation has changed.

Information on the California DOT's website says, "California does not have any specific dates when vehicles are required to carry chains. When the road is posted with a sign requiring chains, all heavy-duty vehicles (over 6,500 pounds gross weight) must be equipped with chains mounted on the tires in order to proceed." (emphasis added)

We specifically recall going through a checkpoint near Donner Pass where we had to demonstrate having snow chains before being allowed to take the grade. If we did not have chains, we could not proceed. 

There might not be a really high cost of turning around and getting snow chains at a chain bank, but any doubling back is money straight out of your pocket (or your company's pocket). So plan ahead.

TireChainsRequired.com is a commercial website with whom we have no affiliation, but which has a list of tire chain laws by state.

Although laws may vary by state, California DOT has a helpful resource on chains for 18 wheelers as well as a very helpful set of chain requirements illustrations showing which tires must be chained on different vehicles.

Truck tire snow chains.


Snow Cables

California DOT states furthermore regarding cables that they

"are not as effective as link-type chain under severe conditions at higher elevations and steep grades for 'big-rigs' and may not be permitted depending on local conditions as determined by Caltrans. Whenever chain controls are posted over Donner Pass on Interstate 80, heavy trucks are usually required to have link-type chain on at least the main drive axle."

Truck tire snow chains cables.

So a set of truck tire cables like the ones shown here will not work there.

Truck snow cables simply don't provide the "bite" that link chains do.



More Differences Between Traction Devices

This resource spells out the difference between tire cables and chains, two things in particular (probably with regard to passenger cars only):

  • "Snow chains are made of large and heavy steel links while snow cables are made of steel aircraft cable encased in alloy traction coils."
  • "Snow chains are available in the recognizable ladder pattern, while snow cables are available in the ladder pattern or a "z" chain pattern. The latter is supposed to offer the best traction due to the zigzag pattern across the length of the snow cable."

You can see the difference between some styles of cables and chains in these photos:

Dual tire ladder style cables Dual tire zigzag style cables Single tire zigzag style cable Single tire ladder style chain with cam
Heavy Duty Truck Tire Snow ChainHeavy Duty Truck Tire Snow Chain Heavy Duty Truck Tire Snow ChainHeavy Duty Truck Tire Snow Chain Heavy Duty Truck Tire Snow ChainHeavy Duty Truck Tire Snow Chain Heavy Duty Truck Tire Snow ChainHeavy Duty Truck Tire Snow Chain


Snow Chain Installation Videos

Although we do not necessarily endorse them, we have embedded three videos about tire chain installation on large trucks below for educational purposes. By posting these here, we hope to provide more information on the subject than we received as student drivers. Please note that they may feature different kinds of truck snow chains than you have and for that reason your installation may vary. Always follow the procedures for chain installation provided by your trucking company.







This video shows putting snow chains on a commercial motor vehicle when you have a separate fitting or tensioning chain.




This video features a Canadian driver installing chains equipped with a locking device and using a key (or tightening tool) to tighten the cam style adjusters.




This video features a driver installing "double" chains around two side-by-side drive axle tires at once.








Knowing When to Park Rather Than Chain Up

Land Line Magazine published an article about nine-year trucking veteran Cynthia Ferguson who was forced to shut down in Sparks, Nevada, due to bad weather. In spite of reports that the road over Donner Pass had been closed on and off all day, her dispatch manager insisted that she "chain up ASAP." The magazine stated,

No stranger to driving in bad weather, Ferguson said she felt that her life, as well as the lives of her trainee in the truck with her and others on the road, would have been in danger had she driven on Donner Pass during hazardous weather conditions.

A few days later -- out of retaliation -- her lease with Prime was terminated. But it shouldn't have been because, as the article states,

Ferguson's attorney, Paul O. Taylor of Burnsville, MN, told Land Line that he then filed a complaint against Prime under Section 405 of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, "which prohibits trucking companies from firing drivers for refusing to drive in violation of commercial vehicle safety regulations."

Justice was done:

The judge also recommended that the DOL [Department of Labor] order Prime to reinstate Ferguson as a driver; pay $76,600 in back wages and for her emotional distress; and pay $75,000 in punitive damages. The judge also recommended the DOL order Prime to pay her attorney fees and "expunge all information pertaining to (Ferguson's) wrongful discharge from her personnel records."

If there is one lesson to be learned here, it is this: As the person who is driving your truck, you are the one who has to make the determination as to whether or not it is safe to drive your truck in bad winter weather conditions. Your driver manager cannot make that determination for you. In many cases, delivery appointments can be rescheduled. Delivering a load should never endanger your life.

While a professional driver should not be afraid to drive in light snow, heavy snow and ice are another matter. You should never attempt to drive in blizzard-type conditions. In some cases, states may actually close roads if conditions warrant it. Penalties could be issued for those who insist on driving on closed roads. For example, the state of South Dakota reveals:

Crews may use such traffic control devices as road closure gates or barricades, or place closure signs on the shoulder of the road. Never drive around a barricade, ignore a closure sign, or an advisory announced through the media. Doing so is a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.

Should you drive around a barricade or travel on a road that has been announced as "closed" you could also be responsible for a civil penalty of up to one thousand dollars and the actual cost of any expenses related to rescuing you, any passengers, or the vehicle operated by you, up to $10,000.

Other states may do the same thing, to a lesser or greater degree.






truck drivers money saving tip icon

Money saving tip: If you encounter a situation requiring you to install snow chains on your truck, evaluate whether or not it would be best to park instead. Do not risk your own welfare, the well-being of your truck, the freight inside or others on the road.

When you install chains on your tires, make sure that you are properly attired and protected. You don't want to risk getting frostbite or getting hit when working on a road's shoulder. A good pair of work gloves and a reflective vest can help.

Remember to set your truck's brakes properly before attempting to install chains. Don't risk having your rig start slipping or rolling.

If you are installing snow chains on your truck as part of a team, always make certain that both of you are well away from the tires when the truck is pulled forward to finish installation.

Don't forget to stop a little ways down the road to check your chains and re-tighten if necessary. This will help you keep all your chains and prevent damage to your truck. Also, don't forget to take the chains back off when you've cleared the snow zone.

When a road is closed due to bad winter weather, just park. Don't risk a ticket or fine or accident.

The National Weather Service has a page on their website with a listing of all the places in the USA with a winter storm. There are also excellent weather websites that provide detail about snowfall. Although results may be somewhat delayed, this page from Wunderground provides an overview of the snow depth. The fronts moving across the country as well as the precipitation are on another page.








Return from Truck Snow Chains: Preparation for Winter Driving to our Tools and Equipment page or our Truck Drivers Money Saving Tips home page.







Mike and Vicki Simons wish you and yours a blessed Thanksgiving.


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