Driving to, from and around the Vail Valley and throughout the Colorado mountains in the winter requires extra caution and preparation. Here are a few critical tips for staying safe on the road this winter.
1. Stay tuned to CDOT
CDOT stands for Colorado Department of Transportation, and their website, cotrip.org, is your best friend when you’re planning a trip into Colorado’s high country. You can check road conditions, find out about travel alerts or road closures and more on the website. You can also sign up to receive travel alerts via email or text message. They even have cameras recording live footage of the roads throughout the state so you can double-check road conditions for yourself.
The key to this tip is using this information to plan for safe travel before you even head out the door. When CDOT issues an alert advising people to stay put for the time being, heed that warning. Doing so will mean one less car on the road for emergency responders to worry about and will give the snow plows more room to do their job so you can travel safely once conditions improve.
2. Check your tires
Good tires are imperative to safe driving on snowy mountain roads. In fact, Colorado law requires you to have good tires when traveling through the mountains at certain times during winter months. According to CDOT, “during an active Traction Law (also known as a Code 15), motorists must have either snow tires, tires with the mud/snow (M+S) designation or a four-wheel/all-wheel drive vehicle.” The penalty for driving without the proper tires may be a fine, ranging from $130 to $650.
3. Don’t run on empty
Road closures are common in the mountains during the winter. Vail Pass closes regularly, whether due to an accident or poor conditions. Even when the pass is passable, the sheer number of cars on the road combined with snowy conditions can mean things move at a snail’s pace and may even stop for a while. So it’s critical to keep your gas tank full when traveling through the mountains in the winter.
While you’re at it, check your wiper fluid and consider keeping an extra jug of it in your car during the winter. Between the snow, slush and the de-icer CDOT uses on the roads, you’ll go through much more wiper fluid than normal, and running out halfway through your trip just isn’t an option.
4. Pack an emergency kit
Your kit should have all the stuff you should keep in your car year-round (e.g., jumper cables and a flashlight), plus an ice scraper, blankets, extra warm clothes, nonperishable food and water. If you plan on traveling through the mountains a lot during the winter, it’s a good idea to just leave an emergency kit in your vehicle at all times. This will ensure you’re prepared in case you end up stuck on the road during a closure or if you have to wait on the side of the road for a rescue.
5. Stay alert and drive slowly
There’s no substitute for this one. You can heed travel alerts and drive the best car with the best tires and still wind up in a ditch – or worse – if you don’t drive with caution. Leave more room between yourself and the car in front of you than you would when the roads are dry, only drive as fast as visibility allows, give snowplows plenty of room, keep your headlights on and drive slower than you would normally (often this means driving slower than the speed limit).
Also, stay alert and focused. Of course you should never use your smartphone to text, email, make phone calls or use social media while driving, but it’s important to reiterate here. Driving on mountain roads during winter weather requires your full attention. And if you’re feeling groggy, get off at the next exit and take a little break.
Bonus: Don’t forget your sunglasses
When it’s not actively snowing in Colorado in the winter, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be sunny. Sun glare in Colorado is no joke, especially after a big storm when everything is covered in bright white snow. Thus, sunglasses are a must for safe winter driving.