• Dec 4, 2010

Do you live in the “Snow Belt,” that part of the U.S. where a few inches of overnight white stuff is considered a light snowfall? Then it’s time to buy your snow tires. What’s that? You don’t use snow tires? Then let’s bone up on why these specialized tires should find a place on the wheels of your vehicle.

Who Needs Snow Tires? You

Perhaps you drive a vehicle that has all-wheel-drive and consequently you assume that you don’t need snow tires? Or maybe the all-season tires that came on your front-wheel-drive sedan have always served you well? Think that the stability control of your rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan will keep you out of trouble? You might want to rethink your position after hearing my argument for snow tires.

The bottom line is that anyone who routinely drives in snowy, icy winter weather can benefit from snow tires. Modern winter tires are totally different animals from the summer tires or all-season tires fitted to most cars when they come from the factory. Simply put, they are designed for winter conditions, without all the compromises that get made in designing an all-season tire. But what does this mean?

Special Rubber And A Different Design

Typically, winter tires are made of a rubber compound that does not lose its flexibility below 32 degrees. This is important because the rubber compound in a winter tire must be able to move and flex in order for the special tread design to effectively clear the road surface of snow, ice, water, and slush, as well as bite through that muck to gain traction.

This sort of rubber compound is only found in winter and all season tires. It is not found in summer tires, which is why they’re not for use in temperatures under about 40 degrees.

The tread design of snow tires is also different. This makes them much more desirable because they can self clean, channeling water out from under the tire’s footprint, while also biting into ice for better traction. This is accomplished by designing the tread pattern to move as the tire rolls down the roadway. The special rubber compound allows for this flexing, while an ingenious design element called “siping” is utilized on snow treads.

Siping is a semi-segmenting of each tread lug to make it flexible and movable while the tire rolls down the road. It looks like little slits have been carved into the tread blocks. This allows for the tread lug to open and close, causing a pumping and squeegee action, moving water away from the tire’s surface while the tread lug squeegees the road surface.

Some snow tires even have ice cleats built into their tread lugs. These cleats, or “studs,” are sharp metal edges that bite downward into the icy road surface giving you maximum traction on ice covered roadways. They’re not legal everywhere, however, as they contribute tearing up road surfaces much more than normal tires.

Buying The Right Tires

Now as much as this article is written to convince you that winter tires are a good thing, depending on where you live, all season tires might be fine for you. If winter is just a few light dustings of snow in your neck of the woods, then I would say that all season tires would probably work, especially if you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

One of the other big questions drivers have is whether they need snow tires for all four tires? The answer is yes. Ideally, you should put four snow tires on the vehicle because the axle set that has the regular tires on it will not be able to maintain the same level of traction and consequently those wheels will slip and slide.

If the snow tires are on the front, the rear of the vehicle will tend to spin out, which is the worst case possible. If the snows are on the rear, the front will tend to push or slide, instead of turning. So four snow tires are best.

Once you have your snow tires, you’ll have to remember to take them off in the spring. Since snow tires are made of a softer rubber compound with a softer, more flexible tread design, driving them on warm, dry roadways will wear them out prematurely. The siping or semi-segmenting of each tread lug is usually at about a 50 percent depth (sometimes slightly more) of each tread lug. Driving them constantly on dry roads would wear out the tread lugs in a short time.

A Word Of Caution

Lately, there has been concern that some tire dealers are selling tires that have been in stock a long time and the rubber has dried out, making them unsafe. For peace of mind, ask your sales person to show you the date code on the tires. It is usually found on the sidewall close to the rim bead area.

When tires sit for a long time in a dry, warm environment the oils in the rubber dry up. This causes a condition called “dry rot,” causing the rubber to crack, usually close to the rim bead area or in the sidewalls where there is more flexing. This condition compromises the structural integrity of the tire's sidewall and makes it vulnerable to blowout.

Tires are one of the most important safety features on your vehicle. It is vital that you choose the best tires for the roads and climate conditions where you drive.


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  • 76 Comments
      Fun White Family
      • 17 Hours Ago
      I like rubber tires.
      • 17 Hours Ago
      A tire shop (in Ohio) told me that "by Law" they cannot mount winter tires onto just one axle, and that you have to purchase a full set of 4 winter tires. I cannot find "That Law" written anywhere. The most info I found was, "Four are recommended". I've been driving since the early 1970's and only placed winter tires on the rear (RWD) and never had a bit of trouble.
      Darren
      • 17 Hours Ago
      snow tires are nothin but a waste of $ and space
      • 17 Hours Ago
      I live near the norh pole and never use snow tires
      • 17 Hours Ago
      The transition from gravel road to state highway was alway a problem with studded tires. I now drive an off-road 4WD pickup with downhill vehicle control using BF Goodrich all-terrain tires, rated M+S. If there is a lot of snow, I put on a pair of premium chains from Les Schwab. There is some good advice in these blogs: Drive a 4WD as if it were 2WD, watch out for black ice and frozen spots at intersections, Always keep your distance. And if you like gadgets, change to a rearview mirror that gives the outside temperature and alerts you to ICE; also, a backup camera so you don't slide into someone in an icy parking lot.
      vlady1000
      • 17 Hours Ago
      eastorbunscrazy1.. Daugher had a used '95 Mustang when she was in high school, college and it even made it thru med school (great car, still going strong when sold at 180K miles!!). I set it up very similiar (V6 so it was 225/16 summer and 205/15 in the winter) and added a little weight in back. It went great in the snow. She never got stuck in 12 years and I drove it to work one day in a bad snow strom to see how it went. Drove right past a couple front wheel imports with all season that were stuck in the unplowed parking lot at work.
      stoneybrooke4u
      • 17 Hours Ago
      Not everyone can afford to change tires - seasonally---Thanks Obomma
      Dave,Cyndy,Sasha
      • 17 Hours Ago
      Sounds like a real great saftey upgrade! To the author of the article who seems very well versed on the subject - The cost of four snow tire on my RAV 4 would be almost $800.00. The Spring and winter switchover with mounting and balancing comes to about $200.00. If I use the spare and buy three new rims, add at least $500.00. I have no place to store the tires in my apartment! In this economy, forget it! Lets get real! Manufacture a tire that can effectively be a combination snow and normal one! The tire manufacturers would rather sell you both than develop an effective all weather tire.
      • 17 Hours Ago
      IT HAPPENED TO ME: No joke, the local tire shop tried to sell me all four tires. I thought I knew better so I told them to just put them on the front, I would manage. Drove to work and spun out in the parking lot. The next day I was at the shop for the two rear snow tires. If you have never owned a set of newer dedicated snow tires you do not know what you are talking about. Sure you can get around with all weather tires, but if you are driving in snow most of the winter they CAN NOT be beat. From snowy Iowa.
      Billy
      • 17 Hours Ago
      I Live in Alaska and I dont have winter tires or snow tires.
      • 17 Hours Ago
      I have an '02 mustang GT, and from what I hear, notoruiosly bad in the snow due to the wider rubber, 245/45 17's it wears, The year I got it, it also bought a set of 225/55 16 Dunlop SP3's, on a nice set of rim's. They go on at the 1st talk of snow and come off in the spring. Not only does the car go great in the snow, the smaller rim and higher aspect ratio (55) makes for a better ride hitting those rougher snow covered roads. Also the narrower tire is less to push through the snow. I only got stuck once, intentionally, driving into a heavy snow bank to test them out, But I shut off the traction control, the tires dug down to the pavement and I shot out. Bottom line, should you get a full set of snow tires? If you drive a car with low profile wider tires and you will be in the snow with it, ABSO-FEAKIN-LUTELY, sizing them down with a smaller rim and narrower tire. Consult a qualified tire seller to make sure that the overall tire circumfrence is proper for your car, you will not be sorry!
      • 17 Hours Ago
      To those people who don't use snow tires during the winter, it's as Darwin would say " just another form of natural selection" Don't try it in Montana.
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