Let’s face it: if you live in an area that sees more than an inch or two of snow every winter, all-season tires just aren’t up to the job of getting you around safely. Tires that have the rubber industry’s M+S rating are a little better, but even they can start slipping when the white stuff starts getting a little deeper.
A generation ago, about the only option you had (unless you had a 4WD truck) was the heavy, noisy, clunky “snow tires” or “mud grips” that your dad might have had on the back of a beater Ford wagon. Winter tires have come a long time since then, with rubber compounds that are designed to stay flexible at lower temperatures and get the traction of a rubber boot rather than a hard hockey puck. They also feature grooves that shed snow so there’s always a clear section to dig in as the wheel turns, and a network of sipes, razor-thin slits that multiply your tires’ biting edges for traction in snow or slush. Fun fact: sipes were invented by a butcher named John Sipe, who was tired of slipping on wet floors and added hundreds of tiny slits to the soles of his rubber work boots to boost traction.
Modern winter tires have noise levels, ride quality and handling that rival the best touring tires, and are a real improvement from older types of snow tires.
The down side of winter tires is that the flexible tread formulation will also wear pretty quickly when temperatures are above about 40 degrees F, so when things warm up you’ll want to change back to all-season tires, pronto. That means finding a place to store the winter tires, and of course there’s also the added expense of buying them for a few months’ use every year. If your winters aren’t that harsh, it can make it a little hard to justify special winter tires.
But what if you still have to deal with snow, just not for weeks at a time? Here are some possible solutions:
Tire Socks: These are rather a new development; they’re about the same type of polyolefin fabric as pantyhose, except much heavier, and can be installed directly onto the tire (with a little bit of elbow grease). The idea is for snow and slush to stick to the tire sock and actually provide its own jagged, rough surface of ice that can help dig in and boost traction. Tire socks are a pretty inexpensive way around the problem of winter traction, and are surprisingly effective.
Studdable Tires: Studdable tires come pre-drilled with a network of holes about ¼” across, making it easy for a tire tech to screw metal or plastic studs directly into the tread surface. With the protruding heads of the studs, your traction is enhanced even on ice, and then it’s simple enough to remove them again when winter weather is over. Studded tires do have their downside, though; they’re extremely noisy and are illegal in many states due to pavement damage from them. If you’re considering studded or studdable tires, check your state’s laws first; while some states outlaw them completely, others limit the months of the year when they can be used.
Snow Chains: This is pretty much what it sounds like: a harness of chains that can be mounted directly onto the tire and secured. There are several different designs for snow chains on the market; some use a hard plastic grid that prevents the buildup of snow and slush, some use cables and others use a traditional chain link, with various systems for installation and tightening for the right fit. Some even have an ingenious self-tightening system that ratchets the chains tighter as the wheels spin. Snow chains provide reliable traction but are obviously really hard on pavement, and shouldn’t be used except in the most severe conditions. Snow chains do have the advantage of easier installation than tire socks.
The disadvantage of all of these is that they shouldn’t be used at speeds higher than about 30 or 40 mph. Then again, if the snow’s that deep you don’t really have any business driving at highway speeds anyway.
So you’ve got a few options for upping your traction; now, here are a few other hacks for winter driving;
- Add some weight over the wheels. If you have a truck or a RWD car, consider sandbags in the trunk (or snow in the truck bed) to give those rear wheels a little more reason to dig in.
- Keep your speed down, lengthen following distances, anticipate curves and hills and brake slowly. Should you start to skid, turn in the direction of the skid to correct it.
- If you’ve got all-season tires, make sure they have plenty of tread depth and are properly inflated. A tire shop can add a network of sipes to your tires if they’re not so equipped already, with a process called microsiping.
- Keep a sandbag or bag of kitty litter in the vehicle; should you get stuck, it can give you enough grip to get going again.
- Make sure your vehicle is fully winterized, with a coolant flush if necessary, good lights all the way around, new wipers, plenty of washer fluid and a fresh oil change.
- Follow in the tracks already made by other drivers, but be mindful of the fact that hardpack snow can easily develop a crust of ice over it and make driving that much more treacherous.
- Always have an emergency kit in the vehicle, with a sweater, blanket, gloves, knit cap, high-protein snacks, first aid kit, flashlight/strobe, flares or a triangle and an auxiliary power bank for your cell phone.