Snow Chains or Snow Tires: Which Do You Need?

 Few things are more heart-pounding for a driver than applying the brakes and discovering nothing is happening. A very common cause of this is inadequate tire traction in winter weather. After all, no matter how good the car is, if your tires aren't suited for the road conditions, driving on ice and snow can be treacherous.

Many drivers have been conditioned over the years to believe the best solution for this issue is to install tire chains. Although chains are still a good solution for some, advancements in tire technology have given drivers a viable alternate solution.

Today's Studless Ice and Snow tires utilize the latest tread designs and compounds to provide excellent traction in severe snow and ice conditions. These tires also perform well on dry roads, which is the primary downside to using tire chains. Tire chains are good for temporary use only but for everyday driving, winter / snow tires are a better solution for the following reasons:

  • Safer driving on dry roads
  • Proper fitment for each vehicle
  • No need to remove tires on clear days
  • Will not damage roads and driveways

Tire chains provide good traction in deep snow, but they severely diminish handling and traction on dry roads. Also, late model sedans and coupes have limited fender clearance compared to older vehicles which can prohibit the use of chains on many cars. Tire chains are generally antiquated for most conditions, however, there are still some useful applications such as mountain driving. For example, tire chain requirements in California depend on the severity of the snowstorm and are as follows:

  • Requirement one: Snow tires or chains are required.
  • Requirement two: Chains are required on all vehicles except four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with snow tires on all four wheels.
  • Requirement three: Chains are required on all vehicles, no exception.
Note: According to California guidelines, requirement one and two are the most common conditions because the highway is usually closed to traffic before the third requirement is imposed.


Thursday, November 24, 2011 by Joe Parks

I have fairly new 255/70R 18 M&S on my 2008 Tundra. I drive from Sparks, NV to Truckee, CA once or twice a month. Hate to get snow tires just for that. I'd rather get some wear out of these tires, then replace them with studless ice and snow tires for year-round use. Good idea or bad?
Tuesday, November 29, 2011 by Logan

This is a great question. The M/S tires for winter use, as long as the tread depth is at or above 6/32", you should be OK for one winter in the snow, but they will not have the soft compound like the winter tires to give you good ice traction.
As for the winter tires year-round, you can do it, but they will wear extremely quickly in warm/dry conditions. I recommend getting the winter tires now and saving your M/S tires for spring/summer/fall use. This will allow you to have the best performance and split the time that they are on the car thereby maximizing treadlife on both sets.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012 by Cole Robinson

What do you think of using snow chains and studded tires at the same time? I was told recently that studded tires can damage chains and create an unsafe situation if used together. What do you do if you are driving with studded tires and encounter deep snow?
Thursday, December 20, 2012 by Tire Rack Team

We believe you're getting good advice. Combining studded tires and snow chains runs the risk of both devices damaging the other.

Additionally, studded tires are to be used in all wheel positions, whereas snow chains are typically only temporarily placed on the drive axle and restricted to low speeds. Trying to combine them may make the vehicle's traction and handling capabilities unpredictable.
Friday, December 28, 2012 by Mark Brown

Excellent advice noted above. I am traveling to British Columbia from Ontario this January. I already have snow tires' without the studs, but have purchased tire chains as well for the mountains fm Alberta to BC. The note on the tire chains instructions says that "These are not to be used with snow tires". What is the reason for this warning? Tks. Mark Brown
Wednesday, October 30, 2013 by Karl

I am considering snow tire or chains for a winter trip in my 2wd SUV. If I go w/snow tires, do I need 2 (drive axle only) or 4? I remember my parents putting snow tires only on the rear wheels back in the 70s/80s. Thanks
Thursday, October 31, 2013 by Tire Rack Team

Karl, four winter tires is the way to go. This tech article will help explain why we recommend going with four winter tires instead of two.
Wednesday, November 29, 2017 by Grant Snyder

I am a Michigan driver who is moving in January to Oregon and I will be driving I-80 which crosses multiple mountain ranges. I have an 02 Subaru Forester with AWD. Ive gone through many winters and never had a problem with all season tires even in 22 inch of snow in my forester. I know the mountain passes require traction tires or chains. I was wondering what is the better move. All four winter tire or just chains? Even if i just get chains how many do I get?
Thursday, November 30, 2017 by Tire Rack Team

Grant: Winter tires are the best for the worst conditions and have a significant advantage on ice over all-season tires. But if you are experienced with taking your time and giving space you can stay with a good all-season tires. Mountain passes will have varying restrictions regarding chains and/or all-wheel drive and winter tires. These can change; so we would recommend checking for current conditions as you go. If using chains they should be on all four tires.
Thursday, December 21, 2017 by Steven Mathis

I live in Georgia where it doesn't snow often, but we had 12 inches tall where I live and it's becoming a frequent enough hazard. I have a 2wd 2003 Yukon and I am considering snow chains. I have to leave a town up north to get back home from work with a 15 minutes trip on the interstate. Will I need to take the chains off for the interstate drive? The roads are usually a mess off the interstate, but I see chains with a speed limit of 20mph or so. How does that work? Any other recommendations?
Tuesday, January 16, 2018 by Tire Rack Team

Steven, chains are generally used in mountain passes where they are required during certain winter conditions. We do not sell them but they are restricted to very slow speeds so you would generally need to remove them to get on the interstate. I would recommend a set of snow tires for the best winter traction. However, for areas that do not get much snow like yourself, a good all-season with at least 5/32nds of tread depth may be the way to go.

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