Tire chains for snow are absolutely essential for people living in many parts of the United States. And, if the past few years of crazy weather are any indication, people who never imagined they might need tire chains for snowy or icy roads might find themselves in the market soon.
Fortunately, there are lots of tire chain options available, from those perfect for the occasional user to those for drivers who will put them on in October and leave them on until March.
Read on to learn about how you can choose the best tire chains for snow for your vehicle.
What are Tire Chains for Snow?
Tire chains, also called snow chains or tire cables, are metal chains or cables that you affix to your tires to provide traction in snowy or icy conditions. Attachment points throughout the chains allow you to fasten them around your tire, and they span the width of the tire.
Modern tire chains for snow can be attached to your tires while your car remains still (with the engine off) and are meant to be installed by the user–no special professional required. You can even put your tire chains on roadside, if needed!
Some localities require the use of tire chains for snow in certain seasons and in certain weather conditions. In mountainous areas, this often means pulling off the road in a special “chain up” area as the elevation begins to increase and applying your chains. The chains then must be removed at a certain point when you come down in elevation or return to an area with less hazardous road conditions.
Factors to Consider When Buying Tire Chains
Although it’s relatively easy to find good-quality tire chains for snow, there are several factors you must consider before purchasing a set.
Vehicle Tire Size
The most important thing to consider when choosing tire chains is the size of your vehicle’s tires. You can find this information in your owner’s manual or on the sidewall of the tire itself. Amazon also has a great tool that lets you enter your vehicle make, model, and year and tells you what size chains you’ll need. Many manufacturers also provide a compatibility table to help you verify that you’re purchasing the correct size for your vehicle.
Right-sizing your tire chains for snow is vital to ensuring proper fit and safety. The tire chains should fit snugly and securely; improperly sized chains can be dangerous. If you have any questions about what size your chains should be, consult a local mechanic or dealership.
Intended Climate and Typical Road Conditions
If you’re buying tire chains for snow in your local area, you’re probably intending to use them somewhat frequently (though that can vary greatly by location). For places that see heavier snow and ice, heavy-duty tire chains are a wise idea, whereas if you plan to use the chains in a location with intermittent or light snow, a regular-duty set is just fine.
Something that’s often overlooked when people shop for tire chains is how well-prepared their area is for a snow or ice event. For example, you may live in a part of the country that sees several snow days per year but that has an efficient and effective snow treatment operation. In these places, regular-duty snow chains are usually sufficient.
On the other hand, you might live in an area that may or may not get snow or ice each year and where there’s really no good treatment and plow system in place to handle the snow when it does come. If you anticipate having to use tire chains for snow more often, it’s a good idea to lean toward the heavier-duty end of the spectrum to ensure the chains last.
Ease of Use
Another factor to consider when buying tire chains for snow is how easy they are to put on and take off. This is where user reviews can come in really handy if you’re buying online!
You should find tire chains that you can put on and take off yourself. Although you may have family, friends, or neighbors to help you install and doff tire chains when you use them consistently to and from your own driveway, many locations require you to apply the chains–and take them off–in certain geographical areas. This means that you’ll need to be able to put the chains on and take them off at the roadside. (If that sounds like something you can’t–or won’t–do, make sure to check your local road conditions and requirements before heading out so you can avoid areas where chain use is mandatory or restricted.)
What your ideal chains are made out of depends on how you drive and what the typical conditions are like.
Traditional Metal Chains
Most traditional tire chains for snow are made from steel or steel alloys. Although durable and great for heavy snow or ice conditions, steel tire chains can be pretty noisy.
Tire chains made with stainless steel components provide good traction while being rust-resistant, making them ideal for very wet locations. Manganese alloy steel tire chains are extremely durable and long-lasting.
Some high-end tire chains are made from titanium alloy. They’re tops in performance, durability, and weight but come at a high price.
Traction Control Cables
A more modern option for traction control are traction control cables. These are made from steel cables covered in plastic and laid out in a mesh design. They’re lightweight and are less likely to damage your vehicle than traditional metal tire chains.
Traction control cables, sometimes called chain cables, are perfect if you only need to chain up a couple of times per year for mild to moderately snowy or icy conditions. They’re easy to install, too.
Tire socks are tire covers made from durable fabric (usually some kind of polyester blend) that slip onto your tires to add traction. They’re best suited for occasional use in light to moderate snow and ice conditions. Users like them because they’re lightweight and very easy to apply.
It probably goes without saying, but cost likely factors into your tire chain selection. When you’re shopping, consider how often you plan to use a tire traction device and in what kinds of conditions. If you live on a mountain that sees lots of snow and ice in the winter, it’s a good idea to invest in a set of heavy-duty tire chains; however, if you only plan to have to use tire chains for snow occasionally, a lighter-duty option will do.
Compatibility with Anti Lock Braking System
Most modern tire chains for snow are compatible with a vehicle’s antilock braking system (ABS); however, make sure your chains don’t interfere with ABS sensors in your wheel well.
Check your owner’s manual for tips on which tire chains are appropriate for your ABS technology.
Self-tensioning (or automatic tensioning) tire chains adjust automatically to properly fit your car’s tires. This means you won’t have to get out of your car to tighten your chains if they become too loose, which is a nice convenience. Self-tensioning chains and cables continually adjust as you drive to adjust for any shifting or loosening, which makes your overall ride less noisy and helps your chains last longer.
Troubleshooting Common Tire Chain Issues
When properly installed, tire chains are unlikely to cause any damage to your vehicle. However, tire chains that are installed too loosely can rub against the wheel well and tire rim, causing damage.
To address loose tire chains, first try tightening the chain tensioners. If the problem persists, try reinstalling the chains, making sure the chains or cables are evenly spread across the tire tread.
Snapped or Broken Chains
On rare occasions, tire chains or cables may snap if you encounter significant debris. This can cause damage to the wheel well and, potentially, to the outside of the car. To avoid this issue, make sure the chains fit snugly but aren’t too tight. Try to avoid debris on the road, and travel at speed much slower than normal.
It’s a good idea to check your chains routinely before heading out to inspect for damage. Replace any broken chains before use.
Excessive Noise or Vibration
Noise and vibration are par for the course when it comes to tire traction devices; however, if you feel like you’re experiencing excessive noise, first check to make sure none of your chain parts is damaged. Then, check the tension on the chains to ensure they’re fit properly, and make sure they’re aligned appropriately across the tire.
If everything checks out, you may want to consider investing in a quieter tire chain model.
Wear and Tear on Roads
Tire chains for snow can damage roads when a vehicle drives too fast or if there isn’t enough snow or ice to cushion the metal gears of the chains. This is why it’s important to observe local laws and guidance on when to use–and when to avoid using–tire chains.
Tips for Using Tire Chains for Snow
The best pro-tip for using tire chains is to make sure you practice installing them before you actually need them! Try to purchase your tire chains and get used to putting them on and taking them off well before you may need to use them. It’s much easier to learn how to get tire chains on and off in dry, clear weather than when lying on the side of the highway in a snow drift.
Keep Other Supplies Nearby
It’s helpful to keep other supplies with your tire chains in your car, like waterproof gloves, a tarp or other waterproof (and padded, if desired) ground cover, a headlamp, and a screwdriver (in case you need to make modest adjustments mid-drive). You’ll be happy to have these tools when you find yourself needing to install tire chains on the roadside.
Be aware of special precautions when driving with chains on. Go slow–most tire chains should be used at speeds 35 mph or slower. Understand that tire chains–especially traditional, all-metal types–are noisy; however, listen for any sounds that may indicate a chain has come loose or that there’s some other issue that needs to be addressed.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are tire chains for snow the same as snow tires?
Although both tire chains for snow and snow tires provide traction in snowy and icy conditions, they serve different scenarios. Tire chains for snow are a temporary, comparatively aggressive method of improving traction for relatively short distances and time periods. Snow tires, on the other hand, are intended to be used all winter season in snow, ice, and slush. They cause far less damage to roads, but provide less traction than tire chains.
Can I put tire chains on if it’s already snowing or icy?
Yes! In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll have to put tire chains on in the snow or ice. Several localities prohibit tire chains until the snow or ice has reached a significant thickness. This means that you may have to pull over to chain up if you’re already on the road when a storm hits. It’s also common to chain up roadside when traveling from a lower elevation into a mountain pass.
Do I put tire chains on all four tires?
That depends on your vehicle. Cars with front-wheel drive should have tire chains on the front wheels only, while rear-wheel-drive cars should have chains installed on the two back wheels. Cars with four-wheel drive should have tire chains on all four tires.
Tire chains for snow are a necessary tool in many parts of the country during the winter months. They make it much safer to traverse snowy or icy roads so you can get where you need to be even in poor weather. With so many options available, you’re sure to find a set that fits your budget and needs.
Now that you’re chained up, it’s time to hit the road for a winter road trip!
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Born in Madelia, MN, to a now 5-generation Minnesota family, Ryan’s MN roots go deep.
A painter by day, Ryan founded Life in Minnesota in 2013 with his wife Kelly to chronicle their musings on everything Minnesota. Ryan and Kelly are raising their 7 kiddos in Maple Grove, MN.
When he’s not shuttling his kids around to hockey practice, you might find him in the shop working on his leatherwork. Undoubtedly, there will be a family trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area every summer, and of course weekends at Grandpa’s cabin up north in the summer.