Winter Tire 101: What You Need to Know

February 12th, 2021 by

A snowy tree-lined road is shown through the windshield of a vehicle.

Cars and cold weather just don’t compliment each other- at least, not without some extra equipment. Nearly every driver in a cold climate has had some adverse driving situation caused by freezing temperatures and a little precipitation. Whether the roads in your area get icy, snowy, or a little slushy, the onset of cold weather often has drivers wondering, “where can I buy winter tires near me?”

Of course, there are many options when it comes to winter tires. Unlike in previous decades, we’re no longer wrapping chains around our tires when severe weather is in the forecast. Today, winter tires provide traction and control even on ice, with technology bringing more and better weather-beating technology each year. Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about winter tires, from what makes a winter tire a winter tire, to tips and tricks to ensure your car performs well all year round, regardless of what Mother Nature may throw at the roads near you.

Winter Tires: Aren’t They Just Like Snow Tires or All-Season Tires?

Years ago, drivers in colder climates invested in snow tires. These tires came with a very deep, almost aggressive tread, which was intended to carve a path through snow and provide a greater sense of grip to icy or wet and slushy roads. The truth is, they didn’t really live up to the hype.

Those super-deep treads made for a super-loud ride and also made accelerating, braking, and taking turns even harder than it needed to be. Driving these tires on dry or wet-but-not-freezing roads could result in handling that’s best described as “squishy,” and hard braking would rip the tread right off the tires. Drivers who found themselves in a skid were best left to ride it out. Today’s winter tires are designed not to aggressively attempt to plow through the snow but to work with the basic physics of snow and ice. The characteristics extend beyond the tread and into the tire rubber itself.

Typically, tire rubber becomes very stiff in cold weather, which means it skims on top of slippery surfaces rather than providing any sort of traction. The rubber used in winter tires remains flexible even as the temperatures drop. The weight of your vehicle causes this soft rubber to splay on the road surface, which means the rubber surface comes in contact with even the smallest bumps and rubbles of an icy road. That contact provides a better grip.

The tread depth and patterns of a winter tire also differ from other tires. The tread itself is typically deeper, which is meant not to plunge deep into snow and slush but to prevent the snow and slush from building up in the tread, thus reducing friction. The tread pattern is usually a single directional pattern, which helps push away moisture. Think of it this way: when your tires press on snow or ice, the very top layer melts on impact. This is what causes hydroplaning. The grooves on winter tire tread are designed to push the water out and away instead.

Winter tires also include a greater count of biting edges and sipes, or tiny channels, that help move melted snow, slush, and water to the side, increasing traction even on ice. As drivers, we may think of road ice as a perfectly flat, solid substance, but tiny imperfections in the ice surface and in the road itself can actually provide small areas where these tiny sipes can grip.

A red vehicle is shown from a high angle driving down an empty road, covered in snow.

But What About All-Season tires?

Isn’t ice and snow part of the “All-Season” deal? All-Season tires are what most passenger vehicles have installed when they leave the dealership, and they’re fantastic for dry and wet roads. They’re quiet, they handle well when accelerating, braking, and cornering, and they’re durable. All-season tires are perfect for most driving conditions.

However, they are designed to be an all-purpose type of tire, meaning they aren’t catered to extreme conditions. Many car experts compare all-season tires to a good tennis shoe. They’re great for everyday wear, but if you’re going where it’s muddy, rugged, super hot, or super cold, you want something that’s specifically designed to deal with those conditions.

The Right Time for Winter Tires

Just as all-season tires aren’t ready to deal with the more harsh conditions, winter tires aren’t designed for all year use. So when is the right time to do the big switch? One popular rule of thumb is to switch from all-season tires to winter tires as soon as you can see your breath outside in the daytime. This can vary from location to location, so most experts recommend waiting until the weather is consistently in the 40-degree Fahrenheit and below range, or around Thanksgiving, for those who live in the northern and midwestern United States.

Remember, winter tires are designed first and foremost for cooler temperatures, with a pliable rubber that will hug the road. You don’t want to be caught without your winter tires when the snow flies, so pay attention to the upcoming forecast and note when temperatures start to dip dramatically. That same pliable rubber is exactly the reason you can’t leave winter tires on all year, too. The softer splay, along with those tiny sipes, will wear down very quickly on warmer weather roads, which will impact your car’s overall performance.

You’ll burn through winter tires very quickly on warm roads. Plus, that flexibility that kept you hugging the road when temperatures were low will feel soft and non-responsive in warm weather. Therefore, experts recommend taking them off on a similar schedule. Once temperatures are steadily above 40F, it’s time to put the all-season tires back in their places.

A popular set of winter tires near me are shown in close up driving through the snow.

Winter Tire Tips

When it comes to caring for winter tires, the standard rules apply. You’ll want to check them frequently for even wear patterns, as well as any cracks or holes. In fact, winter tire pressure should be checked regularly. Though they are meant to be flexible, they aren’t meant to be flat! Make sure your tire pressure is where it should be for your vehicle. Usually, this figure is posted on the inside of your driver’s side door or in your owner’s manual. Colder temperatures can cause lower air pressure inside your tires, and lower air pressure can make tires more vulnerable to punctures and flats.

If you choose to mount winter tires, always mount a full set. If you only put winter tires on the front, your rear tires can skid, and vise versa. Just as you wouldn’t put bald tires on the front and brand new tires on the back, you want to have even traction and control on all four wheels.

Additionally, keep an eye on the treads of your winter tires. Most versions will come to you brand new with an 11/32 inch deep tread. Once they reach 6/32 inch depth, you’ll want to get new winter tires installed right away. At 5/32 inch depth, they’re actually going to be dangerous for driving in any condition. Keep a tire tread gauge handy, or stop by an automotive or tire store to have the tread depth measured.

Winter Tires Are a Great Resource

Winter tires are a great addition to the garage of any driver who is likely to spend the colder months of the year slipping and sliding on slushy, snowy, or even icy roads. While driving carefully is always imperative, and listening to your local news and weather for Snow Emergency alerts can keep you out of a lot of trouble, navigating less-than-ideal roads is much easier with winter tires. These tires are specifically designed with wet, cold roads in mind.

Install them when temperatures are consistently below 40F, and be sure to remove them when temperatures start to rise. The same technology that keeps winter tires on the road when it’s cold will create additional wear and tear when Spring arrives, and temperatures climb. Keep an eye on your winter tires to ensure they’re in great shape, and enjoy the extra grip and protection they can provide when others start to slide! If you need new winter tires put on, stop by our service center and let our team handle your tire change and maintenance.