Finding the Right Winter Tires: A No-Nonsense Guide


It’s an age-old debate, one as hotly contested as whether the toilet paper should go over the top of the roll or come out from underneath it: should you get winter (or snow) tires for your car? Just as with the TP, it seems that not only does everyone have an opinion, but everyone is completely convinced that their opinion is absolutely correct and the only one that counts.

Of course, when it comes to the toilet paper you use, it doesn’t matter where you live. That cannot be said for tires. If you don’t get a lot of winter weather where you drive, then winter tires are probably going to be a waste of your money. That narrows things down for some folks — but if you’re living life in a Northern town and regularly drive in cold, wet, snowy, or icy conditions, keep reading to get the skinny on snow tires.


Three Elements of a Winter Tire

First, it’s important to understand what makes a winter tire different from its “summer” or “all-season” counterparts. There are three elements involved: tire pattern, tread depth, and tread compound. Let’s take a look at each.

Tire treads, in addition to helping detectives distinguish what kind of car might have been at the scene of a crime, also have patterns that are designed for different situations. It’s actually pretty interesting to read about how certain designs accomplish traction on dry vs. wet roads, snowy vs. icy ones, situations that are prone to hydroplaning, and so on. But for now, suffice it to say that winter tires have a tread pattern that is optimized for situations — snowy, icy, cold — in which traction isn’t great.  

Additionally, winter tires have a deeper tread depth than other kinds, to help them drive through slush or snow. As nice as it would be to have every single street, driveway, and parking lot clear of the white stuff all winter long, we all know that ain’t gonna happen. We’re going to have to drive through fluffy snow, compacted snow, icy slush, that gray pie-crust snow that covers everything come March, and every other kind of winter precip that can stick to the ground.

Tire compound refers to the material used to manufacture the tire. For winter wheels, the compound is designed to be softer and grippier than other tires and to stay that way as the temperature drop. You can think of it like a candy bar: the chocolate and nougat are soft, squishy, easy to bite when temperatures are relatively warm. But if you put that same candy in the freezer and leave it overnight, the whole thing becomes rock-hard, impossible to sink your teeth into, and not very tasty. Winter tires are like having a nice, chewy, satisfying candy bar even when you’re driving in the freezer. So to speak.

Studless Vs. Performance Tires

Next up, you’ll need to understand the difference between studless and performance tires, the two types of winter tire.

Studless tires are best for places and times when winter is doing its best to dissuade us from leaving the warmth and safety of home. If you regularly commute through extreme conditions and have to get where you’re going no matter what Mother Nature dishes out, these tires are what you want. They offer maximum traction on snow and ice, and their performance is ideal in cold temperatures. However, when it gets milder or if road conditions are drier, they’re not as good a choice as performance tires.

Performance tires are the choice for people who generally drive in clear and dry conditions, but might get caught in a storm every once in a while. Say you’re a suburban mom who can usually wait until the roads are plowed and the sun has come out to run errands, and who can also stay home with the kids on snow days. Nevertheless, you want to know you’ll be safe in the event that a freak Nor’easter pops up while you’re coming home from violin practice or Costco.

Performance tires generally feel better than studless to drive on, and their speed rating is a bit better, too. Which version of winter tire you buy depends on your needs, your climate, and to an extent, your preference.

Lastly, How Many Winter Tires to Buy?

You may have heard that you only need to put snow tires on the driving wheels, but tire experts say that’s a myth they want to debunk. Even if you don’t have all- or four-wheel drive, you still want those good, solid snow tires on four wheels. It might seem like an unnecessary expense, but it’ll save your bacon when the weather turns harsh — and since you will swap these out with summer or all-weather tires once the snow stop flying, they’re a bit more of a longterm investment than an annual expense.

Do you opt for winter tires every year? Tell us about the conditions where you live, the car you drive, and the tires you choose by leaving a comment below!

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