High Country driving: Most car rental companies don’t offer snow tires, can’t guarantee all-wheel drive

Eli Pace
Summit Daily
Ryan's Recovery employee William Singer works to tow a spun out vehicle along interstate 70 Thursday last May in Silverthorne. Most rental companies don't offer snow tires and can't guarantee four-wheel or all-wheel drive on their rentals, which can leave drivers struggling to find traction when winter weather wrecks the High Country.
Hugh Carey/Summit Daily

When the snow falls in the High Country, traction can be the difference between the ditch and making it to your destination.

Most car rental companies, however, can’t guarantee consumers a vehicle that can easily handle the worst mountainous conditions, even though those companies are renting cars to many people who plan on driving up here. According to the companies that do make the guarantee, those other businesses are leaving many drivers ill-prepared for Colorado’s worst winter conditions.

In many ways, the frontend of 2018–19 ski season has been a blessing for Summit County. Resorts are reporting over 100 inches of snowfall since mid-October, tourists are keeping local restaurants and businesses busy, and all that traffic has been a nice boon for the local economy.

But the snowfall hasn’t been all fun and games. With so many early season snowstorms, local and state road crews have been toiling to keep the thoroughfares open, sometimes more successfully than others.

One of the most infamous routes in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains is Interstate 70, which cuts through Summit County, bookended by the Eisenhower Tunnel to the east and Vail Pass on the west.

Both high-mountain passes on I-70 have seen their fair share of slow-and-go snarls, collisions and weather-related closures so far this winter, and when it snows in the mountains, the Colorado Department of Transportation often enacts traction law requirements.

For drivers, this means they must have snow tires, tires with a mud-snow designation, or a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle. All tires must also have at least one-eighth of an inch of tread on them.

Venturing out with an ill-equipped vehicle with rear-wheel drive and bald tires can mean risking one’s life, along with a hefty fine.

That’s because motorists caught driving inadequate vehicles when a traction law has been put into effect could be fined more than $130. However, should that driver block the road, the fine jumps to $650 or more.

Out-of-state drivers are behind the wheels of most vehicles found to be in violation of the state’s traction law requirements, said Tracy Trulove, a spokeswoman for CDOT. Even more startling, many of them seem surprised when they start losing traction and spinning out on snow-covered roads, she added.

“Boy, it continues to be a challenge for us,” Trulove said of keeping all drivers up to speed with the state’s traction law.

At Denver International Airport, all-season tires are standard across the rental car companies’ fleets, but it would seem the rental car companies are of little help when it comes to making sure drivers are well-prepared for Colorado’s worst winter conditions.

The Summit Daily called the Alamo, Avis, Budget, National, Payless and Hertz rental car companies at DIA and Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Summit County. Of the lot, only a representative with Hertz said that he could guarantee a four-wheel or all-wheel drive rental. Getting anything with snow tires on it was a fool’s mission.

With the exception of Hertz, every company representative said that while the vast majority of their SUVs and pickup trucks come equipped with all-wheel or four-wheel drive — up to 90 percent of them in some cases — the rental car companies could not guarantee one with it. Even with Hertz, people had to know which package to pick to ensure four-wheel drive.

Additionally, the rental car companies won’t allow snow chains on their vehicles. One company representative said this rule stems from fear that chains could damage the rentals and the fact many people don’t know how to properly equip chains.

In Summit County, though, there are at least two car rental companies — Mountain High Rentals in Frisco and Breckenridge Rental Car — that can guarantee both snow tires and four-wheel or all-wheel drive on their rentals.

At Breckenridge Rental Car, owner Peter Griff called snow tires “a no-brainer” as he said that every one of the SUVs in his fleet comes equipped with all-wheel drive and snow tires.

“We’re in a different market here,” he said of Summit County’s high-altitude environment. “Everything that we do is based on winter driving conditions, so when we rent these cars out, we’re going to make sure we afford people the best opportunity to get them back to us in one piece.”

How exactly do they do that? They give them good tires and give them all-wheel drive, Griff said.

In fact, Griff had an SUV with four-wheel drive sitting in his parking lot on Monday because one of his customers couldn’t get it up their driveway to the short-term rental the customer had booked in Breckenridge.

With another heavy snow falling and phones ringing off the hook, Griff said on Monday that there’s a good reason he built his rental car company around having adequate traction — specifically snow tires — in Summit County.

“Tires are the difference between a car that can get somewhere and a car that can’t,” he said.