How To Choose The Right Winter Tires For Your Driving Needs
Shorter days, dropping temperatures and morning frost on car windshields mean only one thing---winter is coming.
The last of the four seasons can bring many fun activities which include sledding, ice skating and snowball fights. But it also comes with something else–challenging road conditions.
Lower temperatures harden the rubber of normal tires and reduce their ability to conform to the road surface. It also increases the distance it takes for a vehicle to stop when brakes are applied, making it easier for cars to skid and slide.
All-season tires are not ideal for winter driving. Their tread pattern is also less distinct which makes them struggle on uneven road surfaces like patches of slippery ice or deep snow.
As the snowy season beckons, it's important to start thinking about swapping your summer or all-season tires for a set of winter ones.
Winter tires have grooves and small channels that move melting snow away to the sides. They also come with unique tread patterns called sipes that bite into snow and ice for better grip. It helps the tires maintain a clasping contact with the road.
When it comes to short distance braking and safe handling on icy or snowy roads, all-season tires are less effective than winter tires. Winter tires are specifically engineered to provide superior performance on snow and ice.
Here is how to choose the right tires for winter driving.
1. Evaluate Your Tire Size
One of the best practices is to purchase a similar size of winter tires to their all-season counterparts. To find out the size of your tires, check the sidewall of your current tires.
Your tire size is provided in the following format: P215/615R16 93S
Here's how to read tire code.
- "P" stands for passenger. It indicates the tire is designed for passenger vehicles. (There's also "LT" for light trucks)
- "215" represents the tire's width in millimeters.
- "615" is the aspect ratio which is the ratio of the tire's sidewall height to its width.
- "R" indicates the tire has radial construction.
- "16" represents the diameter of the wheel or rim in inches.
- "9" is the load index which converts to the weight the tire can support.
- "S" is the speed rating which is a maximum sustained speed the tire can handle.
Using the exact tire size as your all-season tires maintains your vehicle's balance and handling characteristics.
Different tire sizing affects the suspension geometry and steering response which can be detrimental when driving in winter weather.
2. Studded Compared To Performance Winter Tires
Studded tires come with metal studs embedded in the tread. By digging into the ice, the studs enhance traction on icy and hard-packed snow surfaces.
These types of tires are ideal choices in areas with plenty of snow like Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and portions of Canada including Alberta and Quebec.
Studded tires improve your ability to stop and maneuver safely in extreme driving conditions. Still, they can damage road surfaces and leave ruts or potholes in mild snowing conditions.
On the other hand, performance winter tires are excellent in areas that experience moderate winter weather.
These areas include Chicago, Denver and Boston as well as the southern Canadian cities of Vancouver and Toronto where snow and slush is common.
Ultimately, choosing between studded or performance winter tires depends on your local climate, road conditions and driving habits.
Ensure you check with local agencies regarding studded tire use. Some areas allow them during specific winter months, while others have banned them outright.
3. Pick the Right Depth and Pattern
The basics of picking a tread pattern are straightforward—the more rugged the design and broader the channels between the tread, the better the grip on ice and snow.
New snow tires generally have between 10/32 and 12/31 of an inch in tread depth---distance from the top of the tread blocks to the bottom of the channels between each tread block.
In other words, the deeper the tread depth, the less snow is likely to build and impact its grip on the road.
This type of tread pattern may create more road noise at high speeds. But, if you drive through areas frequently clogged with snow, good grip remains the most important consideration.
For drivers using roads cleared frequently of snow, they can opt for a smoothed-out tread design which generates less road noise.
4. Three Peak Mountain Snowflake
Finding the right tires for winter driving is not a simple task, and drivers should also consider the Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake symbol on the side wall.
The 3PMSF symbol indicates the tire meets specific performance standards for winter traction and is suitable for use in snowy and icy conditions.
An M+S badge on the tire means it also is engineered to perform well in moderate winter conditions.
All 3PMSF tires are built with specific tread patterns and rubber compounds optimized for slippery surfaces. They are pliable in freezing temperatures and significantly reduce a vehicle’s stopping distance on snow-covered roads.
Use of 3PMSF tires is required for some snowy regions of the US and Canada. Check local regulations before mapping out your next visit.
5. Insist on More than One Option
Ask for more than one choice before selecting tires for your snowy travels. There are a lot of trade-offs when it comes to selecting the best winter tire for your style and location of driving. Explore them all including: grip, noise, amount of seasonal snow, mileage, where you expect to travel, annual mileage and warranty.
Winter varies depending on where you live. While some areas experience heavy snowfall, other places have freezing rain.
Some vehicles may not be compatible with winter tires. Factors like tire size, load capacity and speed rating must align with a vehicle's specifications. Looking at multiple options helps ensure you find a tire that matches your car's requirements.
Before taking your new tires out for a spin, secure your vehicle for the cold season by scheduling it for a vehicle inspection. Driving in winter weather can be perilous as the weather brings many hazardous conditions even the most experienced motorists find challenging.
Proper maintenance ensures your vehicle's vital components like brakes, lights, battery and heating system are in optimum working condition. It also saves you money by fixing minor problems before they become expensive repairs and also prevents your car from breaking down on your next winter road trip.