Six simple tips to prepare for a winter road trip in and around Oregon

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

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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 taking for years — or maybe for the first time — can quickly turn dangerous. We’ve got some tips to help you travel safely to meet family and friends to celebrate the holidays. This is all advice you’ve probably heard from your dad before, but take it from a new dad: you can never be too prepared.

Know before you go

Whether you’re going through town or over one of Oregon’s several mountain passes, it’s always better to know what’s in store than to blindly get caught up in a massive buildup or winter storm. Fortunately, the Oregon Department of Transportation maintains one of the best websites for checking traffic conditions. If you’re taking a road trip to visit family this holiday season, do yourself a favor and give TripCheck a quick look before you leave the house and when you get back in the car. Washington and California also have websites to check in terms and conditions.

Wear chains or use traction belts

Those bright orange flashing signs on the highways leading to the mountains aren’t just advisories. You must wear and use chains if your car does not have them snow tires. It’s the law, and in Oregon, for whatever reason, poor preparation seems like one 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 Meijer, and just about any other big box store you can think of to pick up a set. They cost about $120 on average, and only take 10-15 minutes to install. When you lay them down, make sure there are no twists in the side chain before carefully laying them over your tires. Make sure the fasteners are facing out and try to keep them from moving under the tire as you roll forward to set them in place before tightening them in place. It can be tricky to find a good place to put chains on, but please don’t stop in the middle of the road or on a runaway truck ramp to install them, for the love of all that is good in this world. Be sure to keep a pair of work gloves with your equipment, as trying to put on metal chains in cold weather can be a problem. Having chains in your trunk this winter could mean the difference between being stuck for hours and getting to grandma’s on time. Or even to protect you and your family from harm.

“Kick the Tires”

Having enough air in your tires is crucial for optimal safety when driving in winter weather. On most vehicles, you can check how many pounds per square inch (PSI) your car needs on the sticker affixed to the inside of the driver’s door jamb or on the bottom of the door itself. Most gas stations carry it pocket-sized tire pressure gauges. If you need some air, that same gas station probably has a compressor that will last you a few minutes. Checking a battery is a bit trickier. Unless you’re one multimeter– and even then, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be confusing and somewhat dangerous – you’ll need to enlist the help of your friendly neighborhood auto parts store. Almost every auto parts franchise will help you verify that your battery is working at full capacity. That’s especially important in the winter months, as the cold can accelerate the death of cells in your battery and reduce the number of crank amps supplied to your starter motor – which gets your vehicle started. You don’t want to get stuck somewhere in freezing weather with no way to restart your car. Taking this step and having your battery checked can save you a huge headache later on.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

Packing an emergency kit may seem excessive, but it can go a long way when you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere with no traffic to stop. Flares or a warning triangle, jumper cables, essential tools (such as multiple types of screwdrivers, pliers, a set of metric sockets and a ratchet, a pair of wrenches, duct tape, and work gloves), and a first aid kit are important items to carry with you at all times. A shovel for when it’s really dumping is always handy, and a bag of sand for grit in icy conditions can be a lifesaver. You can find all of these items for less than $60 at your local hardware or auto parts store. It’s also a helpful tip when it’s cold and wet outside to keep your AAA membership or your automaker’s built-in roadside assistance up to date. Taking these precautions should give you some peace of mind as you head out for your winter adventures.

Keep a thick coat in your car

You never know when you might need to get some help or reach out for help. If you break down somewhere with no service, you may be stuck waiting with no heating until you can flag someone down or keep walking until you get service. That waiting or walking becomes much more pleasant if you have a good coat stored somewhere. Perhaps an old ski or snowboard jacket you forgot in the back of your closet could find a new home in your car.

Drive slow, homie

You don’t need to pump your brakes – your car probably has anti-lock braking system (ABS) if you end up in a slide. But you seriously need to slow down if there’s snow or ice on the road. Keep an eye on the digital thermometer in your car; when it’s wet and temperatures flirt with the 32-degree Fahrenheit mark, ease off the throttle a bit and take an easy pace. Even if you are in a hurry, the safety of you and your family should be paramount on the way to your destination. Put the phone down, let your passenger choose the bad holiday music and keep your eyes on your speed and the road ahead.

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