Sure, the tread looks different. But that’s not all that separates summer and all-season tires from their heartier winter relatives. We’ve compiled and answered all of the most commonly-asked questions about winter/snow tires and the traction benefits they provide.
Chains & Traction
Unless you live in higher elevations or are frequently going over our mountain passes, most North-westerners can go for years without using their chains to add traction. But conditions have become a bit more unpredictable, lately. Here are some tips for chaining up this winter.
Find supplies at your local AAA Travel Store.
Chains & Traction
If applied traction devices are required, here are some basic guidelines for their use.
Tire chains should be installed on the drive wheels of the vehicle following the chain manufacturer’s instructions. To retain as much of the normal handling characteristics of 4WD/AWD vehicles as possible, tire chains should be installed on all four tires, requiring the purchase of two pairs of tire chains.
Select chains that are the correct size for the tires. A proper fit is key to receiving the desired performance and durability. Do not deflate tires to install tire chains. A correctly sized tire chain will fit over a properly inflated tire. Additionally, because there is typically no source of compressed air to refill a deflated tire, driving with low tire pressure may cause permanent damage to the tire. Snow chains may not be available for all tire sizes.
Types of Chains
Use only SAE Class “S” chains. The restricted wheel well clearance in most of today’s down-sized and front drive vehicles require tire chains to operate in an envelope that is no greater than 1.46-inches vertically and .59-inches laterally around the tire. These minimum clearances must be maintained between the tires and the vehicle’s fenders, suspension, struts, brake lines and braces.
It is important to pre-fit chains prior to use. Not doing so could result in damage to your vehicle or you may have to abandon your anticipated journey all together. Since tire chains are only really required when weather is at its worst, it’s a good idea to get familiar with chain installation before there is snow and ice on the ground. You may want to buy a tire chain installation helper. These small ramps are designed to prevent slipping and allow you to lay a cross chain in a pre-formed indentation. Once you drive onto the ramp, the chains are positioned under your tire for easier installation following the manufacturer’s directions.
Tire chains should always be carried in the trunk during the appropriate times of the year and only mounted on the vehicle when warranted by driving conditions or required by law. Chain requirements can change depending on the region and severity of the snowstorm, so it’s best to be prepared. For additional details and up-to-the-minute chain requirements status, please visit our Winter Prep Road Conditions resource page.
When highway signs indicate tire chain requirement, a driver will usually have about one mile between the “Chains Required” signs and the passage checkpoint. However, these control areas can shift rapidly from place to place because of changing weather and road conditions.
After Chaining Up
After initial chain installation, all of the tire chains should be re-tightened after the vehicle has been slowly driven forward or backward at least 15 feet. Failure to do so may allow the chains to remain loose, risking damage to the vehicle and reducing chain life.
- Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Avoid overconfidence in your grip on the road; starting or stopping too quickly can cause your wheels to spin or lock up, even with traction devices.
- Limit the vehicle’s speeds to within the recommended range provided by the tire chain manufacturer.
- Do not drive with a broken chain. If a cross chain should fail, stop immediately and make necessary repairs.
Remove all aftermarket traction devices as soon as the vehicle reaches clear roads. When removing chains, drive beyond the signs reading “End Chain Control” to a pull-off area where you can safely remove them.
While it sounds like snow chains are considered a last resort for when the conditions get really bad, preparation before driving into snow country in winter is important because it helps control a potentially frustrating and tiring driving experience.
A Note About Tire Socks and Traction:
This relative newcomer to the traction device market has advantages and drawbacks similar to those of traditional chains. Ranging in price from $70-$200, there are two main types: a full-coverage textile sock, and a low clearance chains. Their manufacturers call out lighter weight, easier storage, and high reusability as chief benefits. Being less bulky than chains, they may also be a better option for vehicles with a tighter wheel well clearance. According to Consumer Reports testing, tire sock performance is comparable to that of chains, with the more expensive woven cord style performing best among the tested options. However, they were all similar to chains in terms of installation effort, and none were more effective than a quality winter tire. Assuming you limit use in both speed and distance, the tire sock can be a practical alternative to chains in most winter emergency kits.
Learn how to install tire socks
Winter Tire FAQ
What Is The Difference Between Winter Tires and Snow Tires?
In every practical respect, they’re the same. But the term ‘snow’ tire implies that winter tires are exclusively for snow, which isn’t the case. The compounds in all-season and summer tires are designed to withstand the higher temperatures and road conditions of warm weather. They perform best at 50-90 degrees, but begin to get brittle as the temperatures drop. When temperatures start hanging at 45 degrees and below, winter tires offer better traction that allow for safer braking and accelerating. For these reasons, we prefer calling them winter tires.
How Many Winter Tires Do I Need?
For best results, you should install winter tires on all four wheels. This is true for every vehicle type. Previous generations of winter tires were little more than an all season tire with an aggressive tread design. With today’s advancement in temperature-sensitive rubber compounding, having fewer than all 4 tires installed not only impedes the tires’ ability to do their job – it may lead to handling and traction imbalances.
Do I Need Winter Tires If My Vehicle Has Traction Control?
Traction control does not actually provide you with more traction. Traction control limits your wheel spin, making it easier to stay connected to the surface you’re driving on. If your tires aren’t connecting sufficiently, there’s nothing for your traction control system to control.
Do ABS Brakes Eliminate The Need For Winter Tires?
ABS brakes are a vital safety feature. They pulsate your brakes in order to keep your tires from locking up. While very helpful, ABS brakes do not eliminate the need for winter tires. Your brakes, even with the anti-lock function, do not provide traction. In fact, your braking ability directly relates to the traction provided by your tires. The best winter traction is when you have four winter tires installed on your vehicle.
My Car Has Front Wheel Drive, Do I Need Winter Tires?
Front wheel drive vehicles do have an advantage when it comes to accelerating, because of the added weight on the front end. However, this does not help when braking, and it makes steering and cornering more dangerous in winter driving conditions. The best way to maximize your front wheel drive’s winter performance is to install four winter tires. Rather than losing the performance advantages of your front wheel drive vehicle, you can increase your safety and performance with winter tires.
Do I Need Winter Tires If My Vehicle Is AWD or Four-Wheel Drive?
All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles are great at delivering the correct amount of power and control to the wheels. But if the tires aren’t gripping the driving surface, that power and control isn’t as effective. Without winter tires, accelerating, braking and turning can be just as dangerous for all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles as it is for a two-wheel drive vehicles.
When Should I Install My Winter Tires?
At AAA, we recommend you change your tires when you change the clocks. When we ‘fall back,’ it’s a great time to mount your winter tires, check your battery, and do a whole winter tune-up to ensure you’re ready for Old Man Winter. If you prefer to wait, keep an eye on the average temperatures: When they start to dip below 45 degrees and before the first snow fall, it’s time to swap. When we ‘spring forward’ and temps are consistently warmer than 45 degrees, you are ready to reinstall your all-season tires. Winter tires tend to wear faster in warm temperatures; changing them before it gets too warm will help you extend their life over to 3-4 years.
Aren’t Winter Tires Noisy And Uncomfortable?
Historically, winter tires have been louder and rougher-riding than their summer/all-season counterparts. However, advancements in tire technology have significantly improved rideability as well as performance. You may hear or sense a slight difference when changing from an all-season to a winter tire. However, in most cases the noise levels are much lower than what they used to be. Of course, studded winter tires are noisier than those without studs, but the increase in safety is well worth any incremental increase in noise.
Do I Need Winter Tires If I Drive Carefully?
AAA recommends always driving with care and consideration, and employing safe driving techniques can make a big difference in winter conditions. However, even the most conscientious driving will not help your tires connect to the road. Adding traction to your tires and winter tires is a way to provide you with an added safety advantage.
What If I Simply Don’t Drive When The Weather Is Bad?
Yes, it would be ideal to avoid driving when conditions get unruly. However, even with modern weather technology, it’s still very difficult to know exactly when, where, and how bad the weather will be. Rather than gambling with your safety, be prepared with winter tires that are ready to handle the weather, no matter when it strikes.