Why are Narrower Tires Better for Winter Driving?

As you're shopping for winter wheels and tires, you'll likely come across the recommendation of going to a narrower tire. This is the exact opposite approach that you would take for summer traction, where wider is better. If you're likely to drive through deep snow this year, you'll want winter / snow tires and wheels in sizes that help put the laws of physics on your side.

The reason for this is that traction is achieved in winter by cutting through the ice and snow. With wider tread, you're more likely to start snow plowing or floating on top of the surface instead of pushing down and through. This floating will result in loss of traction sooner than with a thinner or narrower option. A good way to picture this is imagine a pizza cutter slicing through a pizza.

Another way to think about this is from the perspective of the contact patch. A tire's contact patch or "footprint" greatly influences its performance. On the same vehicle, the area of the contact patch essentially remains the same with different width tires. When the footprint gets narrower as it will with a narrower width tire, it has to get longer. And the mechanics of the longer footprint help with the longitudinal traction for acceleration and braking. 

You can try to achieve a narrower solution for your vehicle in different ways:

  • Shop by vehicle in the winter section of our site and we'll list alternate sizes if applicable. You can also refer to the owner's manual found in your vehicle. Sometimes you will find recommendations there on different tire sizes. For example, it may list the alternate size for the base model of your vehicle.
     
  • Most vehicles will allow for minus sizing, too. Minus sizing is where you purchase both a wheel and tire by dropping the wheel diameter by an inch. This will typically lead you to a narrower tire in the process. Build a Winter / Snow Tire & Wheel Package for optional minus sizes after entering your vehicle's year, make, model and trim level on our website.

For more information on selecting a narrower tire, read "Size Selection of Winter / Snow Tires."

Comments

Friday, September 27, 2013 by Hal Homer

I thought it was importnant to maintain the OEM tire size? My local vendors won't mount non OEM size as referenced on the door tag. What gives? Is it a liability issue? I talked with ford and they recommended only the OEM size.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013 by Hunter

Hi,
The industry allows a 3% variance in overall diameter. We usually get much closer than that.
Saturday, November 18, 2017 by Pramod

I just bought nissan rogue with tire size 225/65r17 can I use my old rogue winter tires 215/70r16 for winter.
Friday, November 24, 2017 by Tire Rack Team

Pramod, you would 16-inch wheels and even then you would be a bit small for the new Rogue.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017 by Brandon

I agree wholeheartedly and with personal experience, that running a narrower tire in the snow is a benefit. However the article above is incorrect in its explanation of contact patch. The size of the contact patch is almost entirely dependent on the tire pressure. Changing tire width will not change the "pounds per square inch" at the road surface. 35psi in the tire means 35psi at the contact patch (generally speaking... it will actually be higher than 35psi at the treadblock surface). Going to a narrower tire ELONGATES the contact patch, which fits with the rest of your explanation. The only way to change the size/area of the contact patch is to change the tire pressure.
Thursday, November 30, 2017 by Tire Rack Team

Brandon: Great catch. Sorry for the error in saying footprint pressure changes with shape. Pounds per square inch in the contact patch won’t change. What does change is the shape becoming more narrow and longer when you use a narrower tire. And having a longer footprint shape helps with acceleration and braking traction.

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