Driving in multiple conditions often means that a specific set of tires is required. Take winter driving, for example, these are conditions where tires with a specific set of features need to be used.
Unlike summer tires which are designed for driving on warm tarmac, winter tires are the ones that remain “softer” in situations where rubber hardens. Another aspect of these tires is the tread pattern, which helps a lot in snowy conditions.
As good as this sounds, snow tires have some limitations, so people revert to additional tire equipment. The most common thing people use is chains.
There are many discussions about the conditions in which things are getting confused, and I’ll be discussing that in today’s article. Before I dive into the details, let’s define a few things.
Snow Tires vs Chains
The reality of this is that these two things aren’t quite comparable. Snow tires are the ones you’d get for driving in harsher winter conditions. On the other hand, chains are there to help you get improved winter performance in situations where winter tires will struggle.
With that said, things aren’t black and white, and there are multiple aspects that you need to consider. There are cases where chains can damage your tires or not provide the performance you need.
What are snow tires?
You probably already know this, but let’s go over it. A winter tire has 2 important aspects that enable it to deliver performance in winter conditions.
Tire manufacturers work hard on developing rubber compounds that can remain soft in colder conditions. The compound should be able to remain soft and, at the same time, survive getting heated up a bit on longer journeys.
Even though sometimes they are called snow tires, winter tires are designed to be driven in the winter, naturally. This covers dry and wet roads, snow, and ice. Naturally, the performance won’t be equal in each condition, but they’ll do a much better job when compared with summer or even all-season tires.
The performance delivered by a winter tire doesn’t come only from the rubber compound. Manufacturers fine-tune the tread pattern for providing traction if you ever need to drive in snow. Specially designed blocks, zig-zag pattern, and biting edges help these tires dig into snow and offer usable traction.
What are snow chains?
Snow chains are a set of equipment that can be fitted to a tire to improve in areas where “naked” tires won’t be able to perform. In fact, many states like Colorado and Utah have chain laws that require the use of chains on any 2WD vehicle during a snowstorm. This is most often seen in the mountains near ski resorts in states that get a heavy amount of snowfall. A common reason why people would get chains is if they have all-season tires and need an additional performance in snow and ice conditions.
Imagine this: an all-season tire is usable in snow, but it has some limitations. While it can deliver traction in lighter conditions, in harsher ones, it will struggle. This is something that chains can improve on.
Having the chains wrapped around the tires means that the traction will be much better. Chains also help very much in icy conditions.
A winter tire’s performance is limited on ice. Sure, some can offer decent and usable performance, but unless you fit them with studs, you won’t have a great time.
Speaking of studs, this is a good time as any to mention that they are a cheaper alternative to studded tires. They are relatively inexpensive, and it takes no more than 5 to 10 minutes to install them.
Chains are designed to offer better performance in snow conditions, and they do that admirably. A while ago, I tested the performance on Michelin’s flagship winter tire, the X-Ice Xi3, and a few cheap options I managed to get my hands on.
In a direct comparison, the Michelin was better out of all of the others combined. Better performance, more traction, and most importantly, it was the most controllable one, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
I conducted the test in multiple conditions, ranging from light to deep snow and ice. As I mentioned previously, winter tires aren’t marvelous on ice, but the Michelin was still the best option across the board.
I pulled a set of chains and started fitting them to the cheap tires to see if I’d see a difference in performance. About an hour later and I had a different respect for them.
Regardless of the conditions, the “chained” tires were able to deliver more traction and shortened the braking distances. This was especially noticeable when comparing them on ice. Chains generally do the same thing as studs, so, again, this shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In the handling department, the chains did nothing for the cheap tires, and to be honest, they can’t do anything to make improvements. The handling falls on the tire, and the dynamics remain more or less unchanged.
When should you consider chains?
Tire chains aren’t something you should fit on your tires with the first snow and take them off in spring. While they offer improved performance, you shouldn’t rely too much on them.
Chains are something that you should consider only if you’re driving on ice or very deep snow. This is regardless if you have summer, all-season, or winter tires.
For the most part, a good set of winter tires will be fine even in harsher conditions. It means that chains are something you should fit in the most extreme winter conditions.
When should you avoid chains?
Every situation that isn’t mentioned in the previous section is one where you should avoid chains. Yes, while the cheaper tires may not deliver traction in light snow conditions as good as the premium ones, that’s not a good enough reason to fit them with chains. The same goes for all-season tires.
Light snow conditions mean that there’s an inch or two of snow, which more or less gets compressed when you drive over it. Fitting a set of chains in these conditions means that they will dig into the snow without an issue and reach the tarmac, something that will be an issue.
Driving your car with chains attached on pavement will damage the blocks very quickly. As the tire rotates, it won’t roll evenly as it would without them, and with each passing of the chains, the blocks get quite warped. This can lead to uneven wear, punctures, balance issues, etc.
The reason why this won’t be a problem in deeper snow, packed one, or ice is because all 3 are softer than tarmac. As packed or thick as the ice can be, the chain can either dig in or make a hole in it, so the tire won’t be stressed too much.
A few considerations
Installing chains on your tires seems like a piece of cake, and most people probably don’t worry too much about it. With that said, things aren’t as simple as that, and there are a few things you should be aware of.
Pick the right size
Like with choosing the right size for the tires that would fit on the rims, the size of the chains is also essential. Regardless of where you purchase them, make sure you get ones in the size that will fit your tires.
In most cases, the chains can be “adjusted” so they cover a wider range of sizes. With that said, one set of chains won’t fit anything from 13 to 20 inches, so double check before purchasing.
Also, if you’ve recently upgraded your wheels and tire setup, and you already have a set of chains, make sure the new size will fit.
Practice the installation
Chains usually come with a small pamphlet outlining the process of fitting them to your tires. While this comes in handy if you’ve never installed them, knowing the process beforehand helps fit them more quickly.
The best way to do this is to try a few test fittings. Open the chains and try to fit them in your garage or wherever your car is parked. The reason why this is recommended is that it’s not time-sensitive, and you can take your time and learn the process.
While you shouldn’t expect to get the hang of it on the first try, you’ll figure things out after a few times. It’s a great way to save some time if you need to fit them in an emergency situation.
Do you fit them to the right tires?
There are some debates on the internet about which tires should be fitted with chains, and I’m here to settle it. Some people think that the chains should be fitted to the wheels responsible for steering, which is wrong. You should fit the chains to the wheels that do the driving.
If you own a front-wheel-drive car, then you fit them upfront to the wheels that do the driving and steering. On the other hand, if you’re a drift king with a rear-wheel-drive car, then you fit them to the back wheels.
This brings me to another common discussion involving cars with power sent to all 4 wheels. Regardless if it’s 4×4 or AWD, it is recommended to have chains fitted to all 4 wheels so that the car can have optimal performance as it is designed. This means you’d need to have 2 sets of chains because the universal ones are usually sold for 2 wheels only. With that said, there may be some “packages” available that sell 4 chains for these kinds of vehicles.
Try before you drive
While I’m the type of person that advocates being cautious, I did something stupid this winter, so it’s something that I have to mention.
Once you have the chains fitted, do a short drive. Keep in mind that this is in situations where you’d need to use them immediately. Allow the tires to do a few rotations and see how the chains fit. They shouldn’t be super tight, nor super lose, so it’s a matter of doing it by the touch. Going for one of the other risks is the chains getting unhooked, causing additional problems.
A few months ago, I was in a situation where I needed the chains, but since I was in a hurry and fitted them and didn’t double-check them. Around 100 yards into the drive, I noticed that the car pulled to the left. To my surprise, the chain got unhooked and got stuck between the rim and the brake caliper. Imagine jacking a car in the middle of the road to remove the wheel, praying that no damage is done. I can promise you that it’s not fun.