Are Snow Tires Right For Your Car?

Wondering if snow tires are right for your car? Learn all about them here, how they work, and if purchasing a set makes sense for your situation.

If you live in an area that gets lots of snow, staying safe on the roads should be a top priority. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports more than five million traffic accidents in the U.S. each year, around half million of which can be directly attributed to winter weather.

Clearly, winter driving needs to be taken seriously, and that starts with making your vehicle as unlikely as possible to slide off an icy road or get stuck in snow. That’s where snow tires can help prepare your car for winter.

Any passenger vehicle can be equipped with snow tires, and installing them before the snow flies could mean the difference between avoiding and experiencing a winter traffic accident.

What Are Snow Tires?

Snow tires, also called winter tires, are vehicle tires designed to perform in snowy and icy driving conditions. Usually marked with a snowflake symbol to distinguish them as snow or winter tires, they’re different from all-season and summer tires in several important ways.

Snow tire treads feature deeper, wider grooves than all-season tires, making it easier for snow to pass through without building up in the treads and reducing traction. Snow tires are often made from hydrophilic rubber, which is softer than all-season tire rubber and makes it easier for the tires to stick to wet, slippery surfaces.

In addition to deeper and wider grooves, snow tires also usually have thin, shallow slits called sipes cut into the rubber, allowing them to stay more pliable and grip better than all-season tires on cold, wet surfaces.

Do I Need Snow Tires?

If you live in an area where snow and ice is on the roads for more than a month or so each year, snow tires are a wise investment. Not only will they give you noticeably better control (which keeps you and your family safer), snow tires keep vehicles around you safer, too.

One common misconception about snow tires is that they’re unnecessary on four-wheel drive vehicles. Although you’ll probably notice a bigger difference in a two-wheel drive car with snow tires versus without, four-wheel drive vehicles with snow tires are still considerably safer than those without.

How to Choose Snow Tires

Like all tire shopping, the first step to purchasing a set of snow tires is to identify the size of tires best for your vehicle. The easiest way to do this is by reading the sizing information stamped on the sidewall of your current tires.

Once you’ve noted the size, look for tires with the internationally recognized three peak mountain snowflake symbol stamped on the sidewall. Tires bearing this symbol have passed inspection by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, deeming them acceptable as snow tires. Stay away from any tires marketed for use in the snow that don’t have this symbol.

Once you have your set of snow tires, inspect the wheel studs (the bolts that hold your wheels to the vehicle) and rims (the round steel part of the wheel onto which the tire is mounted) to make sure your current lug nuts (the nuts that thread onto your wheel studs, locking the rims in place) will seat properly when tightened up.

Some rims require a different shape of lug nuts to tighten down properly, and if your current set doesn’t fit, you’ll need to purchase a set that does.

Studded vs. Studless Snow Tires

If your winter driving experience includes lots of hard-packed snow and ice, consider choosing a set of studded snow tires. Featuring all the benefits of regular snow tires, studded tires are built with small metal studs protruding from the rubber, acting like soccer cleats to give the tires more bite on snow-packed roads.

The benefits of studded tires are certainly noticeable to anyone who’s tried them, but keep in mind they’re not permitted everywhere. Some U.S. States, Canadian provinces and countries in Europe and Asia forbid studded tires because of the damage they do to bare pavement. That’s why you should be sure to check for local restrictions before investing in studded snow tires.

Do I Need to Get Snow Chains, Too?

For an even greater winter traction boost than snow tires alone, consider a set of snow chains. These metal or plastic wrappings are designed to fit tightly over your tires, allowing them to bite into deep snow or slippery ice even more aggressively than studded tires.

That said, they’re not meant for long-distance use, and are only necessary in extreme winter driving situations. If your area doesn’t get massive amounts of snow and you won’t be driving on any unplowed roads, snow tires alone will probably be sufficient.

Can I Use Snow Tires All Year Round?

As tempting as it may be to leave your snow tires on all year and avoid the dreaded job of changing tires, this isn’t recommended by vehicle experts. The wider treads and softer rubber of snow tires causes them to wear out faster than all-season tires on dry pavement, which will cost you more in the long run, since you’ll have to replace them sooner. They also don’t handle as well as all-season tires on non-snow-covered roads, making it tougher to maneuver your vehicle quickly.

Chris Tonn
A lifelong Ohioan, Chris grew up around classic rusty sports cars from Japan and England. He's been covering the automotive industry for nearly 10 years, and is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). A family man, Chris drives a Chrysler minivan, and uses his rusty old Miata as a shelf, until the day it is uncovered as a priceless barn find.