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Choosing Tires for Wintertime Driving

Winter's inclement-weather conditions mean that traction tires are probably necessary -- but which type are best?

By Peter D. duPre

When it comes to installing tractive tires for wintertime driving, most people automatically assume that they need snow tires. Certainly, snow tires are an excellent choice for wintertime traction -- if you live in the Snow Belt states of the upper Midwest and New England or in the Rocky Mountains. For the rest of us, however, the choice of a traction tire for wintertime driving can be somewhat more complicated because winter conditions in our various regions can vary. There may be snow one day, sleet the next, and heavy rain after that followed by dry weather and a little black ice. And while a snow tire may be great for negotiating the six-inch-deep white stuff, there may be better choices within the traction tire category, such as all-season and all-season performance tires.

All-season tires

In fact, you may already have the best tire type on your vehicle for winter conditions. Many manufacturers install all-season and all-season performance tires on their vehicles as original equipment, so you may not need to make a winter tire change if you live in a temperate clime. So how do you tell if you've already got all-season tires on your vehicle? Simple, just look at the sidewall for the letters "A/S."

All-season and all-season performance are currently the most popular tire types for general use and are installed by most auto manufacturers. These tires are designed for year round use on dry or wet surfaces and also do well in light snow (two inches or less). If you live in an area where winter driving conditions consist of rain, light frost, some sleet, and the occasional light snowstorm, all-season tires may be all you need.

If your region sees a lot of heavy snow, however, the all-season tire will not provide adequate wintertime traction. Because of their general-use design, all-season tire tread is not as aggressive as a snow tire and the tread is not as flexible in cold weather. This means that in deeper snow, the treads get packed solid with snow and the tire cannot self-clean. Once the treads fill up, the tire can no longer gain traction and begins to spin uselessly.

Snow tires

For driving in full winter conditions a snow tire is called for. These tires have different construction and tread design intended specifically for severe inclement weather conditions. If your tires look kind of aggressive, they may be snow tires. Look at the sidewall for the letters "MS," "M&S" or "M+S." These letters indicate that the tire is designed specifically for use in mud and snow.

You'll notice that tires carrying a mud and snow rating look a lot different from the low-profile tires most vehicles generally use. These tires are designed to provide optimum grip on snowy surfaces and are constructed from specially formulated rubber that stays pliable in the cold and gives better traction on icy roads. The tread had deep, heavy lugs cut in a zigzag pattern that grips snowy, icy roads. In areas where there is a lot of ice buildup under the snow, studded snows -- tires imbedded with metal studs -- are used to provide better traction. Both types of tire are noisier than normal tires and produce an audible hum on dry roads at highway speeds.

Generally snow tires are mounted in pairs on the driving axles (whether front- or rear-wheel drive) and on all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles, four tires are required. When studded snow tires are installed on front-wheel drive vehicles, you'll need to install them on the rear axle also, to maintain proper handling. If you normally run high performance tires on your vehicle, you need to be aware that installing snow tires dramatically affects the vehicle's handling. Never mix snow tires with performance tires. Instead, make sure you install snows on all four wheels.

Tires for trucks and SUVs

For light trucks and SUVs, traction tire choices are much broader. In addition to snow tires and all-season highway tires, there are also all-terrain (A/T) and mud-terrain (M/T) tires. These are designed for all-season highway use and for light- to medium-duty off road use. Both have an aggressive tread pattern that bites into soft earth and snow while still providing a reasonably quiet highway ride and good traction in wet weather.

Light trucks and SUVs tend to spend more time on unpaved roads and off road than cars do. Many truck and SUV owners install A/T or M/T tires for everyday use even though they never go off road, because their large lugs and wide channels make them excellent for use on rain soaked highways. Pickup truck owners, particularly, say they notice fewer hydroplaning incidents when using these tires for everyday driving.

Traction treads only do so much

Whatever tires you decide to install for winter use, there can come a time when the snow is too deep or the road too icy for them to do an adequate job of maintaining traction. When this happens you'll need to increase your tractive ability by installing tire chains or cables.

Use common sense to determine when it's time to put on chains or cables. If your wheels begin spinning and the car starts to fishtail or become difficult to handle, it's time to chain up. When deciding whether to put on chains, it is wise to err on the side of caution; the few minutes spent installing the chains can save you the hours of lost time you'll incur if you slide into the ditch -- or worse, get into a wreck.

When there's snow on the roads or in the forecast, it's wise to contact the local highway patrol. They put out travel advisories during inclement weather and even close roads to non-chained vehicle when conditions deteriorate to unsafe levels. This is particularly true in mountainous areas, where sudden, heavy snowfalls are common. If you plan on venturing out into such conditions for a winter holiday, stop by an auto parts or hardware store and purchase a set of chains or cables for your vehicle. Your owner's manual should tell you which of the two your vehicle requires.