Winter driving, cross-country
December 12, 2005 11:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm driving from San Francisco to Toronto right before Christmas. I-80 is the most direct route. How are the winter driving conditions? Would I be better off with a more southern route?

I'm not interested in sightseeing, just getting to Toronto in as little time as possible. I will have one week to make the trip (otherwise I miss Christmas!). The drive can be done in 3 days or so in good weather so I think a week is plenty of time even if I get held up by bad weather. But I'm still a bit nervous, especially about the remote high altitude regions like utah and wyoming where I imagine I could easily get snowed in if a storm hit.

It looks like I could take the I-40 through Arizona and New Mexico etc and avoid potentiallly nasty weather, but I haven't done that drive before and it looks like it will take quite a bit longer. plus I could still always get hit by a storm in Michigan so there are no guarantees.

anyone have experience in winter driving along the I-80?

anyone know how long the I-40 route would take?

also any recommendations for checking the weather while on the road?

posted by PercussivePaul to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total)
What kind of car are you driving? 4wd?
posted by mathowie at 11:18 PM on December 12, 2005

I'm glad you're not doing I80 for sight-seeing, unless you consider Elko charming. It's easy to get caught in a hailstorm or snowstorm in the mountains towards the west, and there's lots of wind == potential ice in the flats through WY and such. Still, having lived in MI and that area for a long time before, I think your chances there are probably worse.

I80 will likely have you stop around Cheyenne, Elko, and Des Moines, and there's not a ton else for the first day or two until you start hitting Omaha, IA, IL, etc.
posted by kcm at 11:19 PM on December 12, 2005

toyota camry. not a 4wd.

and believe me I know it's boring. I've actually done the I-80 drive before, although in the summer, so I know what's there. I plan on stopping for food, fuel, and sleep only.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:21 PM on December 12, 2005

Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to fly?
posted by A189Nut at 12:05 AM on December 13, 2005

I've never driven either route at any time of year, but a friend of mine did the SF - Toronto trip on I-40 last year (albeit in the summer). The whole trip took about 7 days of driving, including a few detours along the way to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Chicago. He also decided to go through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri rather than Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa. Bearing that in mind, I'm guessing you could probably pull it off in 4 or 5 days, give or take. I'm just estimating, so maybe someone who has actually made the trip personally could verify this.
posted by Aster at 1:08 AM on December 13, 2005

I'd agree with kcm, except for the part about Elko. First, Elko is charming, and second, it's unlikely (though not impossible) that you'll actually get held up there. Evanston WY and Cheyenne are very likely to be forced stops unless you hit a slot between storms. Des Moines is somewhat less likely, but they do close 80 there about once a year.

If you want to improve your chances of punching through on time, have good all-weather tires and carry chains. Being able to slap on chains can make the difference between being allowed to proceed and having to turn back in some places. (And when you're driving with chains, remember—you can't go that fast. Just be happy you're moving forward at all.) And of course, make sure you've got adequate emergency equipment in the car: blankets, thermos, candy bars, etc., in case you do happen to get stuck along the road somewhere.
posted by bricoleur at 5:09 AM on December 13, 2005

I am repressing with some effort the temptation to go on at great length about my own (nightmarish) January car trip from Minneapolis to SF on I-80 some years back. The morals I drew from the experience include:
a) winter weather is a crapshoot almost anywhere in the central US (my plan to take the I-40 route was derailed by an icestorm that shut down everything from Kansas to Mexico);
b) take chains just in case you get hit by a blizzard in the mountains, and know how to put them on and take them off;
c) make sure your car has been thoroughly checked over, is in the best possible condition, and has no deferred maintenance (because you really don't want to break down in Rawlins, Wyoming on a -43F night);
d) use every resource available to keep informed on the weather, and err on the side of caution in deciding whether to hunker down;
e) actually, the interstate system is pretty well maintained except for the most grisly weather.

For me, the two determinants would be whether you have experience driving in winter conditions, and what the weather forecasts look like as departure date nears. It should, in any event, be an experience; my own trip, for all the years it took off my life, has been a great source of anecdotes ever since.
posted by Kat Allison at 5:11 AM on December 13, 2005

Interstates are always the first roads to get the serious plow 'n' salt treatment. Unless it's actually snowing while you're driving, you'll be fine - I've been on that road hundreds of times in the winter, and the road crews generally did a good job. And if you get stuck somewhere along the way, there are eight million motels and Denny'ses along the way; by the time you get started the next morning, the roads will be clear.
posted by Dr. Wu at 5:46 AM on December 13, 2005

I drove I-80 Toronto-Seattle in January once. It was hell. I rolled my car over (a full z-axis 360). The good news was that it was a New Yorker and once I got pulled out of the snow, I drove away.

My experience was the some of the roads were never plowed - they simply became roads of ice if there was enough snow. It's not smooth - semi's with chains see to that. The worst part was up through Idaho and such, which I assume you'd avoid.

The rest (which is the part you'd be on, looking at a amap now) was unpleasant, mostly plowed and safe enough if you drive carefully. Bring extra windshield fluid with you, as you could very well go through a whole container every day if the roads are slushy.
posted by GuyZero at 6:19 AM on December 13, 2005

Any time I've been on I80 between October and April, it seems llike it had snow on it. Try dropping down to I70, where you at least have a chance. (and if you're still on 70 in St. Louis you can get a free beer from yours truly)
posted by notsnot at 6:30 AM on December 13, 2005

if you do take the i-80 route, be aware that the stretch of i-94 between the michigan state line and kalamazoo is notoriously unpredictable and sometimes dangerous because of lake effect snow ... it could be simply cold in the rest of the midwest and snowing like hell on that stretch of highway ... last week it was predicted that we'd get a foot of snow along there and we didn't get any ... there have been other times where nothing was predicted and we got dumped on

taking i-80 to i-69 and then moving up to i-94 is a bit safer and doesn't add any more miles to your trip ... there are many days where there's just an inch or two of snow around the battle creek marshall area ... and 3 to 6 inches west of kalamazoo
posted by pyramid termite at 6:52 AM on December 13, 2005

I drive I-80 from Des Moines (home) to the western edge of Nebraska at least once a year and always around Christmas. With the glaring exception of Omaha, the road is almost always in good condition, but don't be afraid of Omaha. I can remember only one case where I had difficulty, but I made it anyhow.

When going through Des Moines, make sure to stick to I-80. Don't try I-235 through downtown. It's under construction the whole way through: narrow lanes, bottlenecks, bumpy roads.
posted by kc0dxh at 7:21 AM on December 13, 2005

I agree with notsnot - I70 is more scenic and safer. There's a reason why people live in Colorado and not Wyoming - Wyoming is a trackless wasteland :-)

You can take I-80 to I-15 and then I-70.
posted by lukemeister at 9:27 AM on December 13, 2005

Depending on what time you're passing through, I-80 through Chicago can be hell. Time things carefully, traffic will be especially heavy from that Thursday onward. I believe the construction is at the point where ramps to I-94 are open, but I would second pyramid termite's suggestion and recommend taking 80 to 69, as long as you don't mind taking a toll road.

Take chains, emergency supplies, cell phone, etc.

On preview, I-70 is a decent bit less boring, but that area of the Rockies can be pretty iffy this time of year. I've driven it many times in the middle of winter, my experience on 80 is a bit more limited, but if you take that route and want advice on where to stop shoot me an e-mail.
posted by kyleg at 9:34 AM on December 13, 2005

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