When it comes to 4×4 tires, there are a lot of choices. Some would say too many. Choosing the right tire is all about understanding two things:
- How you’re going to use the tire
- What sacrifices you’re willing to make
We’re talking about tires today because many 4×4 owners have been mislead by bad information, dazzled by what looks “cool” for their ride, or a bit too ambitious when it comes to projecting their real world tire use. A set of super aggressive mud and snow off-road tires looks great, but will quickly wear down on a 4×4 that’s primarily used to commute to and from work. Likewise, a traditional all-season “highway” tire is ideal for trucks and SUVs that spend most of their time on pavement, but can underwhelm off-road.
If your 4×4 spends most of it’s time on paved roads – with consistent but still infrequent off-road adventures – this tire guide is for you. We’ll help you select a tire that gives you good day-to-day performance on pavement, without compromising too much trail ability.
How Are You Really Going To Use Your Tires?
Owning a 4×4 gives you the freedom to have an adventure. Want to tackle an old mining trail and see where it leads? Go for it. Need to get to grandma’s house despite the snowstorm? The 4×4 will do just fine.
But with the growing popularity and affordability of 4WD, a lot of Jeeps and pickup trucks that spend most of their time on the highway have 4WD. Manufacturers are equipping these vehicles with aggressive all-terrain tires, and a lot of vehicle owners who commute with these tires quickly learn that:
- Aggressive tread tires wear very quickly – some require replacement in as little as 20k miles
- Aggressive tread tires are loud at highway speeds
- Aggressive tread tires don’t handle corners nearly as well as “street” tires
If you’re mostly using your 4×4 to go to and from work every day, there’s a case to be made for installing a set of all-season tires on your vehicle.Of course, the problem with putting a simple set of all-season tires on a 4×4 is that they just don’t do that well on the trail. This is because all-season tires lack the tread pattern and characteristics needed to maintain traction in mud or on slick surfaces.
But there’s good news here: It’s possible to buy a tire that balances off-road traction with day-to-day pavement commuting.
Different Tire Types – What To Choose
There are quite a few different types of tires (dozens if not hundreds, in fact), but when we’re talking about 4x4s that commute, we really only need to consider three different types:
Highway All-Season tires, which are designed for highway use but still capable in all weather. These tires tend to have ribs and/or smaller tread blocks in tight patterns.
This Firestone Destination LE 2 highway all season tire features “ribs” of tread, which help channel water on pavement and therefore maintain traction in wet weather. Yet because these tires feature small tread blocks, they’re quiet at highway speeds, fuel efficient, and they offer excellent tread life (due to the hardness of the tread and the tire’s lower operating temperatures at speed).
Max Traction tires, which are designed exclusively for off-road use and do exceptionally well in mud, deep snow, etc. These tires have large tread blocks with lots of space between each block.
This Kumho Road Venture MT max traction tire has large tread blocks with a lot of space between rows. This space helps prevent mud and snow from “packing” itself into the tire and reducing traction. However, these types of tires wear very quickly at highway speeds. They’re also fairly loud and don’t handle particularly well when cornering.
Mixed Use “On and Off-Road” tires, which combine semi-aggressive tread patterns with highway patterns
Finally, looking at this Firestone Destination AT mixed on and off-road tire, you’ll see that the tread blocks are larger than a highway all-season tire, but not as large as the max traction tires. You’ll also note that the spacing between blocks is much closer than the spacing on the max traction tires.
Please Note: We are not endorsing or criticizing Firestone or Kumho tires here – just pointing out three different examples of tread block design to help illustrate the options. This imagery is used for educational purposes only.
Tire Construction Differences to Note
In addition to noting the differences between various tread types, it’s also important to note that there are different levels of tire strength, puncture protection, and speed rating (which is a proxy for both heat resistance and tire design). Tire manufacturers express these differences in a few ways:
- Load Range, which describes the tire’s ability to carry weight. A load range of “E” generally signifies a tire that will work well for commercial vehicles and/or vehicles that tow and haul at maximum capacity. A 4×4 that tows a large motorhome or boat, for example, should be wearing load range E tires.
- Sidewall Strength, which pertains to a tire’s resistance to sidewall damage like punctures, chips, bruises, etc. Trail use often results in tires being pinched on sharp rocks, or rubbing up against rock faces, trees, etc, and that can lead to damage. Different manufacturers use different verbiage to describe sidewall strength, but unfortunately there’s no uniform rating system. So you’ll want to check reviews.
- Speed Rating, which in simple terms describes how fast one can drive on a tire without risking a tire failure. Most of the time, 4×4 owners aren’t too concerned about speed ratings, but it can be useful when choosing between options.
How To Buy The Right Tire For Your Commuting 4×4 – Narrowing Down Options
If you’ve decided to buy a mixed use on and off-road tire (which assumes you’re commuting AND doing some light off-roading on weekends), the tips above will help you narrow down your list of options. Still, even if you’re only looking for a very specific tire size AND a specific type of tire, you may find that you have a dozen or so options to choose from. Our suggestions:
- Choose Load Range “E” tires if you can afford to do so. Typically, load range E tires are designed with heavy-duty users in mind. They tend to hold up when subjected to things like potholes and sharp rocks, as well as towing and hauling.
- Arrange tires by speed rating. If you’re looking at two similar tires (in terms of tread pattern and load range), the tire with the higher speed rating will probably be quieter and more fuel efficient, while the tire with the lower speed rating will probably be better off-road (again, probably). Choose based on your most likely use.
- Don’t put too much stock in tread wear ratings. Tire manufacturers set their own tread wear ratings, and since there are no government or industry standards that determine how tread wear is rated, there’s no consistency from one manufacturer to the next. Don’t trust these numbers.
- Comparison shop and hunt for discounts. Tires have a fair amount of mark-up in them, especially if the company selling the tires buys in large quantities. If you’re a Motostew member, you can buy premium quality tires at prices far below what you’d pay at most tire shops.
Tire warranties are important too, only it’s important to understand that a tire warranty can often have numerous exemptions. Be sure to study the warranty carefully – don’t assume that a Michelin warranty is the same as a warranty from an independent tire company.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve got a 4×4 that spends a lot of time on pavement – but that still puts some time in off-roading on the weekends – choosing a tire can be hard. Go with a tire that’s too aggressive, and you’ll see your vehicle’s fuel economy fall. You’ll also be buying a new set of tires a lot sooner than you want to. On the other hand, if you choose a tire that’s just for pavement, you might find yourself getting stuck off-road.
The best advice: make an honest assessment about how often your tires are off-road vs. on pavement, decide what you’re willing to sacrifice (tire life and fuel economy, or off-road traction?), and then choose a mixed use on and off-road tire with a tread pattern that hedges more towards your intended use. If you take care of your tires (rotate them every 5,000 miles, check air pressure every time you fill up the tank), they’ll last as long as possible. The rest is up to you.