Frigid temperatures are heading our way sooner than later. There are many things to consider when it comes to buying (or not buying) winter tires, including:
- Do you need special snow tires, or are all-season or all-terrain tires OK?
- What if you buy an extra set of wheels, and then mount your snow tires on those wheels?
- Instead of buying snow tires, would it make more sense to buy chains?
For someone looking to buy their first set of winter tires, finding the answers to these questions can be rather daunting — not to mention how easily you could fall into internet misinformation! Here’s information to answer those questions for most tire buyers.
Snow Tires, All-Seasons, or All-Terrains?
Some tires shops (which, for the record, are in the business of selling tires) will tell you that all-season tires are pointless, and that all-terrain tires struggle on ice. While this can be true, it isn’t always true.
- Most all-season tires are not designed to help you drive over ice or snow with maximum grip. Instead, they’re designed to give you good grip on most surfaces – from ice and snow to rain covered roads and dusty trails. They’re the quintessential “jack of all trades, master of none” tire.
- All-Terrain tires do a good to great job in ice and snow, but they’re not the same as snow tires. Snow tires feature softer, “grippier” compounds that function better in cold weather.
For most people in the USA, however, all-season tires are a good year-round option. That’s because most people in the USA live in area with light winters (or no winters). Infrequent winter weather (ice and snow) make it hard to justify investing in a set of dedicated snow tires. All-Terrain tires are a step-up from all-seasons, so they’re pretty great everywhere.
Still, if you live in an area with long, snowy winters and/or cold weather that leads to lots of ice, dedicated snow tires are still your best option.
Mixing Snow and All-Season or All-Terrain Tires
An old trick – one that saves money but can potentially cause problems – is to mount snow tires on the vehicle’s “drive” wheels, and leave the “regular” tires on the non-drive wheels. If you have a RWD truck (for example), you can put snow tires on your rear wheels to increase traction, but leave the regular tires on your front wheels. Instead of buying 4 snow tires, you just buy 2.
You save money by only buying two snow tires – and you improve your vehicle’s performance in bad weather – but it’s not ideal. The problems are:
- If you have an AWD or 4WD, you really shouldn’t put different tires on one axle than you have on the other. Different tires can cause issues with driveline binding and wear.
- If you only put snow tires on drive wheels, you create an unbalanced vehicle. The drive wheels have good traction, but the non-drive wheels may not (depending on the road). One half of your vehicle can flounder to maintain control while the other half seems “planted.” This discrepancy in vehicle balance can cause vehicles to spin/rotate while turning or stopping. It can also make vehicle handling harder to predict.
Still, mixing a couple of snow tires in with a couple of “normal” tires is an option if you don’t have a 4WD, and if you’re comfortable driving a vehicle with some unpredictable behaviors in snow.
The Value of a 2nd Set of Rims
One popular “trick” used by people in cold weather climates: Buy a set of snow tires, then mount them on a set of cheap wheels. When winter comes, you swap out your existing wheels and tires for your dedicated “snow” tires and wheels.The advantages in the 2nd set of wheels approach:
- You don’t have to pay to mount and balance the same tires over and over, mounting snow tires for the winter, then re-mounting summer tires for the summer, etc.
- You don’t have to buy anything fancy for that 2nd set of wheels. You can buy a simple set of steel rims, mount your snow tires on those, and then drive around without fear of curb damage, pothole damage, magnesium chloride or salt eating away at your fancy wheels, etc.
- You don’t have to visit a tire shop to swap out your “summer” rims for your “winter” rims – once you get the snow tires mounted and balanced on the 2nd set of wheels you can swap them out yourself with a lug wrench and a jack.
If you have a vehicle with premium alloy rims (like a new Platinum F-150, for example), a set of snow tires mounted on a set of inexpensive wheels is a great idea. You can still drive your F-150 in the bad weather, but you don’t have to worry about the rims (which are expensive to replace) getting damaged. Even if you don’t have a vehicle with fancy rims, a second set of wheels with snow tires is a convenience. If you buy the 2nd set of wheels used on Craigslist or eBay (search for take-offs), this option is surprisingly affordable as well.
Picking Out Snow Tires
If you want optimal grip and handling in winter weather, you want a dedicated snow tire. There are some different snow tire designs, but most of them tend to fall into one of two categories:
- Studded or “studdable” tires, which feature metal posts or “studs” that stick out of the tires. These studs will dig into ice and provide incredible traction.**
- Stud-less tires, which use special rubber tread patterns and features to maximize grip on ice an snow
But whether you go studded or stud-less, make sure you buy a tire that meets your vehicle’s needs (size, load index rating, etc.). Also, be sure to understand that studded tires are fairly loud…you definitely hear those studs touching the roadway.
What About Tire Chains?
Finally, let’s talk about tire chains. While they’re most commonly used by commercial truck drivers, tire chains are incredibly effective in ice and snow. They provide even more grip that dedicated snow tires (even studded tires), and they all but guarantee that your vehicle won’t get stuck.
If there’s a problem with chains, it’s that you have to install them (which can be no fun when it’s cold outside), and that you have to follow a speed limit whenever you use them (most chains have a 25-40mph maximum speed). Still, chains are great for vehicles that are only occasionally driven in bad winter weather, not to mention that a set of chains is often much less expensive than a set of tires (chains can sometimes cost less than one tire).
In fact, if you’ve got a good set of AT tires mounted on your 4×4, you should seriously consider skipping snow tires and buying chains.
**Many cities and states have laws regarding the use of studded tires, so be sure to check local laws before you buy them.