Snow tires: How to outfit your wheels for winter

Justin Stoltzfus

For many drivers who have to deal with icy precipitation and other elements of wintry climates, snow tires are almost indispensible.

What are winter or snow tires?

Winter tires are made with special rubber compounds that improve traction, handling and braking during in snowy or icy conditions. They also improve your car's safety and performance in temperatures below 45 degrees (not just in the snow), according to tire retailer Discount Tire. That's because they are able to refrain their flexibility when the temperature drops.

Do I need special winter tires?

If heavy snow and lots of ice are the norm in your area, AAA recommends getting winter tires. Yet all-season tires should work sufficiently in moderate snow conditions, as long as your tires have enough tread depth.

If you do choose winter tires, be sure to get four of them, Discount Tire warns. If you don't, only some of the tires will have increased traction, causing the others to slide. For example, if you don't have winter tires on the back wheels and you hit a patch of ice, the front tires will grip the road while the rear ones will slide, causing your car to spin.

Types of winter tires

A variety of winter tires are available, with differences in structure and design. For example, some winter tires have studs -- metal posts that protrude slightly from the tire so that your tires can "bite" into the road.

Consumer Reports conducted a test that pitted studded winter tires against un-studded winter tires. It found that in the snow, the studs didn't make much of a difference -- but that they allowed the car to stop significantly sooner on ice.

Keep in mind, however, that because of the damage they cause to roads, studded tires might be banned in your state or restricted to certain times of the year. Oregon, for example, allows studded tires only between Nov. 1 and March 31, according to the state's Department of Transportation.

Other features of winter tires include stiffened tread blocks, micro-pores (small openings in the tread), angled grooves and zig-zag tread patterns.

What about tire chains?

Instead of buying winter tires, some motorists opt for tire chains, which fit over the tire and improve traction in severe weather. Like studs, these accessories are also illegal in some states. Oregon's Department of Motor Vehicles offers the following advice for using tire chains:

• Keep an eye on the weather reports, and put tire chains on before a storm hits. Practice putting them on before you need them. Drivers who pull over in the middle of a snowstorm and struggle with the chains can increase the chance of winter car accidents. • Check your vehicle owner’s manual to make sure you're using chains that are the correct size. • Always add or remove tire chains in a safe place. • Make sure that tire chains are tight on the wheels. • Do not deflate tires to put chains on. • Drive more slowly when using tire chains.

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