How to: Choose Snow Tires

  1. “Do I need snow tires?”

Winter tires are important for safe driving if you live somewhere that gets snow, ice, sleet or freezing rain and temperatures of 40 degrees or colder. They’re also the right option if you routinely make trips through snow zones or the mountains during the cold months.

Learn about the difference between all-season tires and snow/winter tires here.

  1. “If my tires are marked ‘M+S’ on the sidewall am I good to drive on snow?”

Some all-season tires have an M+S rating. This stands for mud and snow. These tires have a more aggressive tread design to deliver better traction in a variety of conditions using larger tread blocks and wider gaps between them. The purpose of these tires is to achieve optimal tire life along with good performance in most weather conditions.

But it doesn’t mean they’re adequate for winter driving. In slick conditions, they don’t deliver the traction, control and short stopping distance that you get from a snow tire.

If you want safer driving on packed snow or ice, look for tires made with the right compound and branded with the Mountain Snowflake. This means they’ve actually been tested and certified to perform in winter conditions.

Mountain Snowflake certified snow tires

  1. “I have all-season tires, so I don’t need snow tires. Right?”

Wrong. Don’t believe it? See this driving comparison between all-season and snow tires.

If you’re driving on snowy or icy roads, only winter tires will give you good stopping ability and secure handling. This is because they’re built very differently. How?

Different compound. Summer and all-season tires are made with a stiffer rubber compound. This helps the tire retain its shape when it’s rolling on hot pavement. Winter tires are made with hydrophilic (that’s “water-loving”) rubber which stays softer and more pliable in winter weather. This more flexible rubber is one reason you get more traction on snow and ice.
Another reason is tread design. Winter tires have a higher “void-to-lug” ratio, meaning there are larger grooves between the blocks of tread (the lugs). The tread blocks also have irregular, sharp edges.

A side-by-side example of the differences between winter and all-season tires

When a tire with wide grooves and biting edges travels over packed snow, it cuts through and scoops some of the snow into the voids on the tire surface, allowing the tread to stay in closer contact with the road. Then the velocity of the tire ejects this snow from the grooves. This is how winter tires provide more aggressive traction than all-season tires.

  1. “Should I get my snow tires siped?”

Most snow tires are already siped, with small patterned slits on the lugs that create extra edges for better road grip. Additional safety siping can be done for a fee on new or used tires. If you’re regularly traveling on slick roads, the added traction from custom siping is a good way to improve starting, stopping and rolling traction.

  1. “Is it okay to buy used winter tires?”

Before you jump on that set of “lightly used” winter tires on Craigslist, do three quick checks. First, verify they’re the right size. You can look in your vehicle owner’s manual or right on your existing tires’ sidewall close to the rim for the series of numbers. (Here’s a primer on what they all mean.) If you’re not sure the tires you’re considering are the correct size, call a tire dealer and make sure.

Where to see tire size on sidewall

Second, measure the tread depth by using a tire tread depth gauge. You can pick one up at any auto parts store for under five bucks. Or have a tire store tech do it; it should be free. Take measurements in multiple places in the grooves on each tire.

A new tire typically has 11/32nds of an inch in tread depth. A rule of thumb is that if there are 6/32nds of an inch or less in tread remaining on a winter tire, it’s about to lose a good deal of snow performance. So think carefully about whether you’re going to get what you’re paying for.

Third, be sure there’s not a problem with uneven wear. Did your tread gauge measurements show any tread depth difference between the four tires? It’s really common for tires to wear differently over time. If the disparity between any two tires is more than 3/32nds of an inch, pass on those used tires. Driving with mismatched tires or putting the wrong size on your vehicle will NOT save you money in the long run. You’re risking big repair bills for your transmission.

It’s also a bad idea to put winter tires on only the front or back. This creates a big difference in traction between your axles. And this will mean less steering control, not more.

  1. “Can I just buy chains instead of snow tires?”

Tire chains can be important — and are sometimes required — for traction when you’re traveling in the mountains or on icy roads. But they’re not made for driving at highway speed or on bare pavement. You risk damaging your chains if you try this.

Don’t think of chains as a substitute for winter ti

Carlos G. Hill

Carlos G. Hill

Carlos joined TireReview in 2019 after seven years of living and working in Dubai. He has been a journalist for over a decade and has worked for a wide range of publications, including Rolling Stone, Time Out, iQ and Loaded. After starting out on the automotive team as deputy editor of Engine Technology International, Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International and Transmissions Technology International, he has been an editor since 2015, and began editing Tire Technology International in 2018. In 2020, he was appointed editor-in-chief of Tire, Professional Motorsport World, Electric & Hybrid Marine Technology International and Crash test Technology International

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