When it’s time to head off-road through sand, mud and whatever else the unrelenting desert can throw at you, tires are kind of a big deal. The right tires ensure you’ll have to work very hard to get stuck, while the wrong tires ensure you’ll spend a lot of quality time digging out or asking friends for help.
Today, we’re going to focus specifically on tires for desert wheeling, and we’re going to address ALL the options available to 4×4 vehicle owners. Finally, we’re going to offer some suggestions on choosing the right tire for your vehicle.
Available Tire Types
When it comes to selecting the perfect tire for your driving habits, it is important to remember that each choice has advantages and disadvantages. Massive bias ply tires are great for a dune racer, but they wear quickly when driven on pavement. Serious AT radials can do surprisingly well in many situations, but they might be overkill if you mostly use your vehicle for commuting. Here’s a list of options, with pros and cons for each.
Standard Radial Tires, aka “Highway” Tires
First, let’s talk about the difference between “regular” tires (often called “highway tires” by off-road enthusiasts) and “off-road” tires (a nebulous term, as you’ll see). Standard, regular radial tires are designed for the daily grind of typical highway usage, so the rubber is made of a hard compound that will wear slowly over time. The tread patterns are also designed for everyday driving to give you a solid balance between grip, handling and performance, which helps keep your vehicle in control even in challenging roadway conditions. Most cars, for example, have “regular” standard radial highway tires. However, trucks and SUVs can also wear standard radial tires, and in some cases they’re a very smart choice because:
- Standard radials are incredibly fuel efficient compared to any sort of ‘off-road’ tread tire, even an all terrain (AT) radial
- Standard radials are quiet, which makes them more comfortable for long distance driving
- Standard radials ride very smoothly, again making them a comfortable option
- Standard radials can last 50k, 60k, even 80k miles depending on tread design, making them a frugal tire choice
For the casual desert dweller that will use their vehicle mainly for commuting – but who may occasionally find themselves on an unpaved road that may be something like gravel or packed dirt – a standard radial/highway tire is adequate. While the tread on a standard radial tire is not designed to throw sand and mud like a specialty off-road tire would, it’s not as if it will leave you stranded (especially if you’ve got 4wd). Still, if you’re doing any sort of off-roading beyond driving improved roads, it’s not a great choice.
Highway Tire Pros:
- Good traction on wet/dry paved surfaces
- Top speed ratings for larger tires
- Generally the most affordable
- Great for vehicles that do a lot of commuting
Highway Tire Cons:
- Limited traction off-road
- Sidewalls are not reinforced, so they can puncture on some terrain
Off Road Radial Tires
Off-road radial tires (often described as “AT” or “All Terrain” tires) are manufactured exactly the same way as their standard counterparts, except that the tread patterns are made to increase grip and traction. The only real sacrifice comes in the form of a lower speed rating, which is usually not a factor for a dedicated off-road desert dweller anyway. Off-road radials also tend to have good lifespans on any type of terrain and they perform well on pavement. Off-road radials are available for all terrain and specialty conditions (mud crawls, snow, rock climbing, etc.) and they are also produced with maximum traction variations for extreme enthusiasts. They are a solid solution for drivers who want superior grip without sacrificing the overall lifespan of the tire.
Generally speaking, you can think of a solid off-road radial tire as the 95% choice, as in it will do just fine for 95% of users 95% of the time. Most of the tires you see on the road are going to be some sort of AT radial, either a standard AT tread or a Mud and Sand (M+S) tread.
AT Radial Pros:
- Decent to great off road traction in most situations
- Good overall lifespan on/off road
- Available in Max Traction for M+S (mud and sand), only with some sacrifice in lifespan
- Extra sidewall puncture protection
- Max Traction variations good at low PSI, only they can’t go below 15 PSI without potentially coming off the rim
- More expensive than standard radials
- Depending on design and rating, can wear out in as little as 20k miles
- Still not a great tire for serious desert adventures
Bias Ply Tires
Bias Ply tires, sometimes referred to as “big wheel” tires, are made from a much softer rubber compound and they wear quickly when used on pavement. The trade off is extreme grip and performance in off road terrains since:
- The tread is designed to be self-cleaning while on the move, and
- Sufficiently large bias ply tires offer a tremendous amount of ‘flotation,’ which means you can drop the tire pressure down to few psi and really spread the weight of your vehicle out with a wide tire footprint, maximizing traction in sand (or mud).
If unmatched grip in deep sand is your primary concern, a bias ply tire is an excellent option.
Another huge benefit of bias ply tires is their durability and resistance to damage. Most serious off-roaders who are tackling desert sands or rocky trails prefer bias ply tires for their proven reliability in extreme conditions. Of course, most serious off-roaders do not use their off-road vehicles for commuting either.
- Extreme grip variations for mud/sand/rock
- Very good sidewall protection against punctures
- Excellent performance even at low PSI levels
- Solid off-road lifespan
- Generally expensive and harder to find
- Wears quickly on pavement
- Not particularly stable or comfortable at highway speeds, especially on short wheel base vehicles
- Install requires a wheel upgrade (assuming your vehicle isn’t fitted with beadlock wheels)
Ideal Tire Size – How Big?
Now that you have an idea about what type of tire would probably be best for your off-road journeys, let’s take a moment and talk about tire sizes. The main reasons to consider larger tires are:
- You’re trying to increase your vehicle’s overall ground clearance, or
- You’re trying to accomplish some ‘flotation,’ which is to say you’re looking for a tire that has a large footprint for use in mud or sand
The first reason – increased ground clearance – is by far the most common reason that tire sizes are increased. Flotation is an important concept, however, and larger, wider tires are great for keeping your vehicle “floating” above the sand dunes rather than driving down into the sand.
However, bigger does not always mean better…there are numerous disadvantages to increasing your vehicle’s tire size:
- Increasing your tire size is effectively the same as decreasing your axle ratio(s), meaning that you’ll lose some acceleration if you place bigger tires on your vehicle.
- Increased tire size usually requires some sort of suspension modification (aka lift kit), which has pros and cons (we’ll discuss lift kits in greater detail in future posts).
- Increased tire size generally means a decrease in vehicle fuel economy. Many 4×4 owners see a 1-2 mpg mileage decrease after installing a set of oversized tires.
- Increased tire size also changes the ride and handling of your vehicle, sometimes significantly. These changes are usually only noticed at highway speeds.
The best general advice for increasing your tire size is to seriously consider either a) going with the largest tire you can fit on your factory suspension system (e.g the largest tire you can install without doing a lift) or b) install a set of tires (and perhaps wheels) that are paired with a lift kit and upgraded shocks, and selected with the help of someone who knows what they’re doing.
NOTE: We’ll go into the specifics of suspension/lift kit options in future posts. Suffice to say, this is a complex topic, and there’s a LOT of misinformation out there. If you’re selecting a lift kit for your vehicle, make sure to get a lot of opinions and understand why you’re choosing something before you buy.
Unless you’re doing some very serious desert off-roading, you probably want to avoid bias-ply tires. They’re expensive, not terribly practical for on-road use, and only available in sizes that require serious suspension modification. Likewise, if you’re reading this article, odds are good that you’re doing too much off-road driving to justify a set of highway tires.
Therefore, we suggest most 4×4 owners look at a set of AT radial tires, with some choosing more aggressive M+S treads and some not. As far as size, you really can’t go wrong sticking with the largest size that will fit under your factory suspension system. However, if you want to go bigger, you’ll need a lift kit, and it’s important to understand that selecting a lift kit isn’t as easy as picking a name out of a catalog.
Good luck and happy trails!