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Winter Tires vs. Chains – How do I Know What’s Best?

There is a lot of information out there these days, but sometimes it is hard to dig deep enough to understand the “why” behind the products available. When you’re looking at a snowy day, wondering if your all season tires are good enough, or if you really need to get a set of tire chains, I hope to give you some understanding of what works best for your driving needs.

Winter Tires- What are the Benefits?

Okay. You live in an area where it gets cold. You know you want to have an advantage when it comes to winter driving. You don’t want to be the person caught sliding down the hill, or rear-ending the car in front of you because you aren’t prepared. Are the all-season tires on your rig good enough to get by? Or do you need to consider an upgrade?

All-season tires – These tires are the most common. They work reasonably well in all weather conditions, but they fail to perform compared to tires specifically designed for winter traction. These tires also sacrifice some ability to handle wet conditions, and won’t perform as well as a dedicated summer tire in virtually all conditions except for winter.

However, if you need a good all-around tire, these are likely your best bet.

Non-studded traction (winter, snow) tires – These tires have been specifically designed to aid traction on slick surfaces. They are made with features designed to improve the contact area with the ground. Rubber compounds that retain flexibility at low temperatures help with grip. More aggressive tread patterns aid in clearing packed snow. Siping (slits in the tread pattern) increases the number of “fingers” the tire has to bite with on ice.

Winter tires are not a good choice if you see temperatures that are consistently above 45°F. The rubber compound gets very soft, and the tires will wear out very quickly. I ran a set of winter tires on my SUV with regular rotations, but without changing them for the summer months. I only saw about 25,000 miles before they needed replacement.

Studded tires – These have small, metal pegs molded into the tread pattern. This technology is designed to help with traction on ice. The studs will press into the ice surface, giving the tire some bite.

There are drawbacks to these tires, however. Because the metal studs extend away from the rubber tread, they offer a smaller contact patch. Also, the metal does not offer good grip on wet or dry pavement, so your ability to accelerate, stop, and grip in a corner in good conditions will be significantly reduced.

Studded tires work best when temperatures are close to freezing. If it’s too cold, the ice is so hard the studs won’t bite.

Tire technology has seen some significant advances over the last few years. Studded tires are offering fewer and fewer advantages over good winter traction tires these days. They do still offer better traction in specific situations, such as hard-packed snow and clear ice, and they work well around freezing temperatures, but they offer no advantage when in fresh or fluffy snow, and put you at a disadvantage when on bare pavement.

Chains – Overview

The purpose of a tire chain is to bite, and to dig.

Chain Tracks In Snow
Chains Bite & Dig in Snow

They give your tires teeth, and they act as paddles in

heavy snow and mud. They have sharp edges that will grip clear ice, and they dig into packed snow with surprising force.

Tire chains come in several designs, each for a specific task. Some are easy to install, lightweight and inexpensive. Others are heavy, more difficult to fit, and extremely tough, but these cost quite a bit more. To determine exactly what works, you need to understand your driving conditions.

Highway driving – Most drivers only need a set of chains if they spend any time driving over mountain passes, or in areas where there is significant snow fall. Just pick up an inexpensive set from your local tire store to have on hand. If you have a 4-wheel-drive pickup, you probably won’t need these, but check with your local state laws to make sure you’re legal.

If you do put them on- throw them on the front tires of your 4×4. Otherwise, they’re better used on the real wheels of a 4×2.

Off Highway– If you plan on trekking into the woods for the annual Christmas tree it’s wise to have a set of chains with you. They can save you from sliding off a steep bank or getting stuck in the ditch along a road. You won’t likely need to spend a lot on a high-quality set if you are sticking to good roads with just a few inches of snow.

Put them on before you need them. Carry a shovel to clear out snow from under the rig or in front of your tires if you do get stuck.

Severe Off Road – This is where you can really get benefits from a solid, custom-fit, heavy-duty set of tire chains for all four wheels. An inexpensive set from the local Walmart or tire store is not going to hold up, and you’ll likely find yourself stuck deep with busted chains.

There are several “levels” of chains that are available to you here and you should take some time to understand them.

  • Material Thickness: 1/4″ or 9/32″ chains are inexpensive, but don’t have enough strength to stand up to constant four-wheeling with a larger tire- say 33-38″. Look at chains with a 5/16″ material- which are usually found on tractor trailers, but can be custom-fit to a specific tire size and brand.
  • V-bars: These are small, v-shaped bars that are welded to the cross links (they wrap over the tread). The “V” is up-side down, allowing for some significant pressure points designed to bite into ice or dig into packed snow. When your tires spin with these installed, they can dig down to the dirt much more quickly.
  • 2-link vs. 4-link cross-tread spacing: Most tire chains you see have 4-link spacing for the cross treads. This is fine for occasional use, but the increased spacing can allow the tire to be in contact with the ground without any metal touching. 2-link spacing has twice as many chains crossing the tread, which allows the metal to be in constant contact with the surface. With the extra metal they get heavy, and are significantly more expensive.

Things to avoid are “universal fit” chains that come with tensioners. The springs will not hold up to the stresses of hard off-road use, and you’ll find yourself walking the trail behind you looking for missing metal. Cams will hold up better than tensioners, but they will still fail after extensive use. Finally, inexpensive chains are made from lower-quality metals and will break more easily.

Is Four-Wheel Drive Enough?

Depends. The nature of four-wheel drive enables you to start moving, it helps you maintain direction while driving by pulling the front of the truck in the direction you want, but won’t do a thing for you when you need to stop. For most highway and city driving, along with lower snow depths, you can get by just fine without any traction aids, provided you drive smart.

Four-wheel drive won’t help you at all if you are on a side hill and you start sliding toward the edge of a cliff, or if the person ahead of you is running with chains and stops suddenly.

Winter Traction – Informed Decisions

By now you should have a better understanding of the most common types of traction aids. There are more, such as cable chains (mostly for passenger cars), along with other traction aids such as tube sand. If you have any questions, feel free to post them below and I’ll get back to you.


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