Are Snow Chains Right for Your Vehicle?

If you live where winter brings snow and ice, snow chains on your tires can make driving safer. Here's what you need to know.

Even on well plowed roads, winter driving is a serious business. If your vehicle is only equipped with all-season tires and you’re braving deep snow or smooth ice, it’s fairly likely you’ll get stuck or slide off the road.

Even snow tires, although definitely better than all-season ones at dealing with wintry roads, won’t help you much once the snow becomes more than a couple inches deep. That’s where snow chains come in.

Invented by New Yorker Harry Weed in 1904 to improve vehicle traction in snow and mud, there’s a reason his invention is still on the market. They help you prepare your car for winter.

What Are Snow Chains and How Do They Work?

Snow chains, also called tire chains, are webs of metal or plastic designed to fit over tires to improve traction in slippery driving conditions. Sold in pairs, snow chains come in two main styles: link and cable. Both are available in a variety of sizes to match tire sizes according to tread width and tire diameter.

Snow chains can be installed by carefully pulling them all the way around the bottom of the tires, and then pulling them up and around the wheel. Then, you pull out the slack and hook the ends together.

For front-wheel drive vehicles, chains should go on the front, only. Rear-wheel drive means chains go on the back. If your vehicle is four-wheel drive, you’ll get best results buying and installing chains on all four tires.

Once the chains are installed, slowly drive forward a few feet to let the chains settle, then park and pull out any more slack that’s appeared in the chains. If your chains are the right size, they should fit snugly over your tires without much slack.

A set of properly installed snow chains allow your tires to bite into deep snow or ice much more aggressively than rubber alone. The smoothness and relative flatness of rubber tires means they often end up spinning uselessly on snow- and ice-covered roads. Snow chains, on the other hand, act like bumpy extensions of the tire, increasing traction in the same way a soccer player’s cleats allow them to move over the field with less chance of wiping out.

How to Choose the Right Snow Chains

Choosing the right snow chains for your vehicle comes down to three things: size, performance and ease of installation. Start by finding the size of your tires to determine what chain size you need. Tire size includes diameter and tread width, and both are vital when choosing a set of chains. Most snow chain manufacturers offer their products in a wide variety of sizes to suit the most common tires on the road.

Once you know what size you need, it’s time to consider performance. Chain designs vary by material, weight and pattern.

Link-style chains are the most heavy-duty, and because of their thickness and texture, usually provide the best traction boost. That said, they’re considerably heavier than most cable chains, making them harder to install and remove, especially if you’re doing the work alone.

Plastic chains are lighter and easier to install, although they’re much less robust than their metal counterparts and probably won’t give you as much traction improvement. Beyond that, read customer reviews and ask people in your area who have snow chain experience.

How to Drive with Snow Chains On

Installed correctly, show chains will massively improve your vehicle’s ability to move steadily through or across snow and ice. Once your chains are on, it’s important to not drive faster than 30 mph or so to avoid chain damage.

It’s also important to only install chains when you need them. They shouldn’t be used on dry pavement, because they’ll damage the road. For best results in snowy conditions, purchase two pairs of chains, and install both when the weather demands it. In extra-thick snow drifts, keep your speed slow and steady, using 4-wheel drive if you have it.

How to Pack and Store Snow Chains

Unhook your chains when you’re ready to remove them, carefully pulling them down and out from under your tires.

Many chains come with storage bags, but before putting them away, it’s a good idea to lay your chains out flat in a garage and let them dry. This will prevent rusting and allow road debris to run off, minimizing the chances of dirt in your vehicle.

With the chains dry, fold them neatly from one end, making sure not to tangle them, until they’re compact enough to fit in their storage bags. Put the bagged chains in your trunk, ready for their next use.