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Winter Driving Tips Colorado

9 Winter Driving Tips: How to Travel Safely in the Mountains During Snow Season

Winter in Colorado and other western mountain states in the U.S. transforms the landscape into a snowy wonderland. While it’s a season of beauty and outdoor sports like skiing and snowboarding, winter also brings its share of challenges, especially when it comes to driving. Navigating icy roads and sudden snowstorms requires skill and preparation. 

Here are some essential winter driving tips to help you travel safely through mountainous terrains during the colder months.

Table of Contents

1. Vehicle Readiness

Before winter hits, get your vehicle ready. Switch to winter tires for better traction on snow and ice. Ensure your battery is in good condition, as cold weather can reduce its power.

Keep your lights, heating, and defrosting systems operational. Check antifreeze levels and ensure wipers are winter-ready.

2. Carry an Emergency Kit

Always have an emergency kit in your vehicle. Include items like blankets, extra clothing, water, non-perishable snacks, a flashlight, a first-aid kit, a snow shovel, and sand or kitty litter for traction if stuck. Don’t forget a car charger for your phone.

This is especially important in the mountains where passes and highways sometimes close for several hours or more due to heavy snowfall or dangerous avalanche conditions.

3. Plan Your Route

Before setting out, plan your route. Check weather forecasts and road conditions. Colorado’s Department of Transportation website is a great resource for current road conditions.

Avoid back roads and stick to main routes, as they are more likely to be cleared and treated. 

Drive Slowly In Winter

4. Drive Slowly and Smoothly

Speeding is a no-go in winter conditions. Drive slowly to maintain control and prevent spin-out’s and sliding on icy or snowy surfaces. Avoid sudden stops and sharp turns. Accelerate and decelerate slowly to prevent skids.

I generally drive anywhere from 10-20mph below the speed limit during active snowfall to provide an extra margin for risk.

5. Increase Following Distance

Increase your following distance to at least five to six seconds. This extra space will provide you with more time to stop. When driving in the winter, downhill, it make take you that (or more) to fully come to a stop if you are driving at highway speeds.

6. Be Aware of Black Ice

Black ice is nearly invisible and can be very dangerous. It often looks like wet pavement. Be extra cautious when driving on bridges, overpasses, and shaded areas, as they freeze first.

7. Know How to Handle Skids

Skidding is when your vehicle begins to slide out of your control, often in a side direction. It is one of the most common causes of winter driving accidents in Colorado.

If you skid, stay calm. Steer in the direction you want to go and avoid slamming on the brakes, as this could lock up your wheels and make the situation worse.

Low Gear in Winter

8. Use Lower Gears on Steep Roads

In hilly or mountainous areas, use lower gears to maintain traction, especially when going downhill.

9. Stay Informed and Updated

Listen to weather and traffic updates. In Colorado, radio stations often provide regular updates on road conditions in mountain areas. You can also use a satellite radio, Garmin device with weather reports, or a smartphone (if you have a signal).

What To Do If Stranded While Driving in Winter

Even if you take all nine of the winter driving tips and best practices listed above, it is still possible to get unlucky and end up stranded in winter. You could get caught in a closure and run out of gas, skid off the road and into a snowbank, or get stuck on a patch of ice or snow. 

Here are some additional winter driving tips on what to do if you get stranded.

  • Stay With Your Vehicle: Your vehicle is a shelter that can keep you out of the wind and is much easier for rescuers to find than you alone.

  • Call for Help: If you have cell phone service, call 911 or roadside assistance immediately. Provide your location and situation as clearly as possible.

  • Use Hazard Lights and Emergency Signals: Turn on your vehicle’s hazard lights. If you have them, use road flares or emergency signals to make your vehicle more visible.

  • Keep Warm: Use whatever is available to keep warm. This includes extra clothing, blankets, or even floor mats. If you have them, use hand warmers or body warmers.

  • Conserve Fuel: If you’re running your engine to keep warm, do it sparingly. Turn on the engine for about 10 minutes each hour. Ensure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Avoid Overexertion: Don’t try to push or dig your car out of snow if it’s too strenuous. Overexertion can make you sweat, leading to faster heat loss.

  • Stay Hydrated: Drink water if available to avoid dehydration. Avoid eating snow directly as it lowers your body temperature; melt it first.

Remember: The most important of all these winter driving tips is to plan ahead and be prepared: it makes a big difference in a worst-case scenario. 
Now, let’s dig into the various Colorado traction laws you should be aware of for winter travel.
Colorado Traction Laws

Winter Driving Traction Laws in Colorado

When driving in Colorado, especially during the winter months, it’s crucial to be aware of the state’s traction laws. These laws are designed to ensure safety on the roads during snowy and icy conditions. 

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Traction Law (Code 15): This law comes into effect when conditions require it, typically during or after a snowstorm. Under this law, all passenger vehicles must have either snow tires, tires with the mud/snow (M/S) designation, or a four-wheel/all-wheel drive. The tires must also have a minimum of 3/16 inch tread depth.

  • Passenger Vehicle Chain Law (Code 16): This law is the final step before a highway is closed. When it’s in effect, every vehicle on the road must have chains or an alternative traction device (like AutoSock). This law is often implemented on roads leading to ski resorts and mountain passes.

  • Commercial Vehicle Chain Law: For commercial vehicles, chains are required on the drive wheels when this law is in effect. This law is typically enforced on Interstate 70 in the mountains.

Failing to comply with these traction laws can result in fines. If you’re caught without proper equipment when the Traction Law is in effect, you could face a fine of over $130. If you block the road because your vehicle isn’t properly equipped, the fine can exceed $650.

How to Drive in Winter

Winter Driving Tips: Now You Know!

By following these winter driving tips and being prepared, you can safely enjoy the stunning winter scenery of Colorado and other western mountain states. 

The best defense is a good offense; Be proactive in your travels by planning ahead, bringing the right supplies, and being an informed traveller. 

If you enjoyed reading these winter driving tips, you can learn more in our comprehensive mountain safety guide to continue your education. Safe travels this winter!


If your questions hasn’t been addressed yet below, leave a comment and we will reply with more information as soon as possible.

Q: How should I prepare my car for winter driving in Colorado?

A: Ensure your car has winter tires, check the battery, keep the gas tank at least half full to prevent fuel line freeze-up, and ensure your heating and defrosting systems are working correctly. If you have not recently had a tune-up, autumn is a great time to make sure everything is ready for the winter ahead.

A: Your kit should include blankets, warm clothing, water, non-perishable food, a flashlight, a first-aid kit, a snow shovel, sand or kitty litter for traction, and a car charger for your phone. If you have a satellite communicator or personal locator beacon, you should bring that too.

A: It’s best to avoid driving during severe winter storms. If travel is unavoidable, drive cautiously, stay on main roads, and keep an eye on weather reports. Always let someone know your route and expected arrival time.

A: If you start skidding, gently steer in the direction you want to go. Avoid oversteering and do not slam on the brakes, as this can make the skid worse.

A: No, avoid using cruise control on snowy or icy roads. It’s important to maintain full control of your vehicle and manually adjust your speed according to the conditions.

Additional Resources

These websites and resources have a number of additional winter driving tips and information to help you plan ahead and prepare.

If you have a suggestion for a website or resource to add to the list below, leave a comment or email us and we will add it in our next update if it makes sense. 

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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