As winter approaches, drivers may wonder whether their tires will be sufficient to get through the upcoming snowy months. There are three main factors that influence performance in snow: tread compound, tread pattern and tread depth.
Compound is the most basic consideration. If you have a summer tire, you should not run it in snow. If you have an all-season tire, they can be adequate in snow. If you have a winter / snow tire, that is ideal for winter driving.
When it comes to tread pattern, a tire with more biting edges, whether it be in the form of numerous separate tread blocks or sipes molded into the larger blocks, will be best in the snow. Smoother, straighter tread patterns will tend to be less effective in the same conditions.
Tread depth is the most variable factor. Excellent tread depth can be the saving grace for an all-season tire in the winter. Conversely, if the tread is too shallow, even the most carefully designed winter tire will struggle. As a general rule, a tire should have at least 6/32" of tread depth to give good winter service.
Some winter / snow tires have a taller treadwear bar (snow platform) that indicates when the tread is too shallow for proper winter performance. If you're not sure how to read the tread depth of your tires, take a look at "Measuring Tire Tread Depth with a Tire Gauge."
See the image below to get an idea of what a winter tire looks like as it wears down. The left photo shows full tread depth, usually between 10/32nds and 12/32nds of an inch. The middle photo, 6/32", still looks pretty healthy, but this is the point where winter performance will start to degrade. The last photo shows a tire just above the wear bars, still legal for road use but not sufficient to give meaningful winter traction.
Full Tread Depth Tread at 6/32" Barely legal tread
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