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What are Snow Tires?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 23, 2024
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In extreme climates, snow tires have been designed to replace the standard radial tires for the winter season to make driving on snow and ice safer. These special tires have deeper treads that increase traction and a type of rubber that maintains its resilience in cold temperature. They are rated to better handle slippery road conditions like sleet, mud, ice, or flooding.

Even though standard tires that come with a car are often called "all-season," they're not ideal for extensive driving over many months of consistent snowfall or slush, but rather sporadic storms or the odd ski trip. Therefore, many safety boards recommend people living in extreme climates to invest in four snow tires and install them for the winter. Regardless of whether a car has front or rear drive, drivers should use four tires of the same brand that are marked M/S, which stands for mud and snow, and an icon of a snowflake within a mountain.

The reason these tires stick to the road and make for safer driving is their tread and material. In the US, the Rubber Manufacturer's Association will designate snow tires M/S only if they fulfill the requirements of the depth and pattern on their tread, which means the tires have the proper grooves to fling off snow and connect to the pavement. They're also made of a slightly different rubber compound that doesn't stiffen at low temperatures and therefore more evenly distributes the weight of the car on the tires. Of course, driving in hazardous conditions makes it even more important that the tires are always properly inflated so they have the correct footprint, the area where the tire touches the road, for maximum traction.

The increased friction of properly installed snow tires can keep a car on the road, maintain normal steering, and allow the driver to safely navigate in the dark or at higher speeds. These tires reduce the probability that the wheels will spin when the driver applies the brakes. They can also prevent the car from hydroplaning, which happens when there is an even layer of water on the road and the tires slide over it rather than make a path through it. Studded snow tires combine elements of snow chains without the bulk or damage to the asphalt. These specialty tires have small metal studs embedded in the rubber for a stronger grip, but they are not necessary or favorable for all roads.

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Discussion Comments
By OeKc05 — On Sep 05, 2012

I live in the southern United States, and we rarely see a big snowfall here. I don't know anyone around here who owns snow tires, and until I read this article, I didn't even know that they existed.

I've heard of putting chains on your tires to help you navigate across the ice and snow, but I didn't know that there were special tires you could buy. My dad had to drive nearly an hour to work every day, and when we did have a rare snow storm, he put the chains on.

He had to drive really slow even with those on his tires, though. I'm sure that snow tires would have gotten him to work much faster, but it really wouldn't have made since for him to invest in them.

By Glasshouse — On Dec 25, 2010

@ Georgesplane- Hakkapeliittas are the best there is, but they are expensive. If you are looking for a perennially outstanding snow tire for less money, I would go with a cooper weather-master WSC (comparable to the Hakka 5) or the Cooper Discoverer M+S (comparable to the Hakka LT). I have owned cooper tires on every one of my trucks and SUVs for the last eight years that I have lived in Vermont. We have blizzards that will dump up to 2 feet a day, and I never become stuck or go off the road. The tread lugs on the coopers pinch just as well as the hakkas and the tires last almost as long.

Both the coopers and the Hakkas are the most popular choice in Vermont, but whatever you choose, I would recommend stepping down to a steel wheel that is no more than 17-18 inches. Driving nice wheels in the long winters of the northeast is like driving on dirt roads with potholes every day. Nice rims will surely be damaged by the salt, sand, and ice.

By Amphibious54 — On Dec 24, 2010

@ GeorgesPlane- The best snow tire hands down is the Hakkapeliitta by Nokian. I would go with the Hakkapeliitta R for most situations or the Hakkapeliitta 5 for areas where studded tires are a must. The R and 5 series are directional tires that handle extremely well in the winter, and work well with larger rim sizes. Nokian tires are also extremely durable, so they will last for at least two or three seasons.

I often see these tires being sold used online for a few hundred dollars even after two seasons of use. If you need traction, stability, and peace of mind (driving up and down the mountain to the ski resort) then Hakkapeliittas are the way to go. You will stay on the road in the worst weather, and you will never get stuck.

By Georgesplane — On Dec 22, 2010

I just moved to the northeast and I realize that four-wheel drive is not always enough to get around in the heavy snow that we get out here. What are a good set of reasonably priced SUV snow tires that I can purchase? I have big rims so tires are expensive enough as it is.

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