Car terms to know: winter tires and snow chains

Winter driving presents its own challenges and it’s easy to get caught unprepared when encountering snow and ice.

These explanations of winter tires and snow chains may give you the knowledge to make some hard journeys a little easier when conditions are tough.

Winter tires (or snow tires)

Winter tires are made to handle low temperatures, ice and snow through a special tread compound that remains flexible in those cold conditions, improving grip. All-season tires, on the other hand, are designed to provide traction on wet and dry roads and in light snow. The all-season tire tread compound will harden in cold weather so it won’t match the performance of winter tires.

TireBuyer provides this rule of thumb to help you decide whether winter tires are needed: “If the winter temperatures where you live are regularly below 45 degrees F, you should invest in a set of four snow tires.” If it rarely snows and winters are mild where you live, all-season tires are “probably fine.”

If you are making the change to winter tires, it is recommended to swap all four together. If you have an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive vehicle, winter tires will still help, says TireBuyer.

When winter passes, revert to your all-season tires to maintain tire performance and save wear on the winter versions.

Snow chains (or tire chains)

If you’re taking a winter vacation or a skiing holiday and plan to travel through mountainous areas where snow’s expected, snow chains, as well as winter tires, will help or even be required by local authorities.

The aim of metal chains that fit around tires is straightforward – to provide extra grip and traction in snow and ice. However, if you’ve not used them before you might not know too much else about them.

Snow chains should be fitted to the drive wheels, front or back depending on your vehicle, and to all wheels of all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Choosing the right size of chains is important not just to ensure they can get around the tires but to achieve the right clearance between the tire and parts of your car within the wheel well. Tire Rack advises: “Use only SAE Class ‘S’ chains. The restricted wheel well clearance in most of today’s down-sized and front-drive vehicles require tire chains to operate in an envelope that is no greater than 1.46-inches vertically and .59-inches laterally around the tire.” The right size will also maximize performance, which is what snow chains are all about, and prevent potential damage to your car.

Chains should be kept in the trunk of your vehicle when snow is expected, and it’s a good idea to practice fitting them rather than leave the first time for the height of a blizzard. Chains should be fitted according to the chain manufacturer’s instructions. provides an easy guide on snow chain installation that may also help. Tire Rack offers further tips on driving with chains on, and remember to check with local authorities for snow chain driving regulations.

Improve your automotive knowledge with more useful car terms to know when getting a service; getting an oil change; filling up at the pump; and when trading-in your vehicle.

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