Snow Tire Chains Explained

Snow Tire Chains Explained

How Tire Chains Work & When You Should Use Them

If you've ever white-knuckled your way through snow or over ice, you know how harrowing it can be. Or maybe you're planning a trip to the mountains and you know that those conditions await you. Even 4WD vehicles can struggle in winter weather . . . and that's where tire chains come in.Tire chains work by wrapping around your tires and biting through snow and ice, providing additional traction. But if you've never used tire chains, you may be unsure about how they work. How much do tire chains really help? When should you use them? Are they even legal?Below, we'll go over all the basics of tire chains, so you can decide if they're the right solution for you.
In this article:
  • Do Tire Chains Help in Ice, Deep Snow, and Mud?
  • How Much Are Tire Chains?
  • Which Tires Should I Put Tire Chains On?
  • How Do I Drive with Tire Chains? Are Tire Chains Safe?
  • When Do I Use Tire Chains?
  • Snow Chains vs Snow Tires (Studded and Studless)
  • Tire Chains vs Cables
Snow Tire Chains

Do Tire Chains Help in Ice, Deep Snow, and Mud?

Yes! Although tire chains are often referred to as "snow tire chains," they're also good for ice and mud. Chains handle deep snow better than studded tires or winter tires, and they do just as well at cutting through ice. There are also "mud service" tire chains built for off-road use to help keep you from getting stuck in the mud. Are tire chains a foolproof solution to winter weather? No, and there are reasons not to use them. They're clunky to drive with and they limit your speed, so if you live in an area with frequent snowfall and have to commute, chains will slow you down. Consider snow tires if you'll be driving often on snowing roads, and stick with tire chains as a backup or emergency option.
Snow Tire Chains on Pickup Truck

How Much Are Tire Chains?

There's a huge range in tire chain prices. You can pick up an economical set of chains for about $30, but for the best quality and all the bells and whistles, you can spend $300 or more. The higher price tag will buy you a higher quality chain as well as convenience features like automatic or assisted tensioning, quick-release functions, and easy-installation designs. Also be aware that the price tag depends heavily on your tire size. Even with the same brand and model tire chain, the price can vary up to several hundred dollars between the smallest and largest sizes. Convenience features may not initially seem worth it, but trust me — once you spend ten minutes fumbling in the cold with a tangled tire chain and swearing under your breath, you'll appreciate all the help you can get.
Snow Tire Chains on Pickup Truck

Which Tires Should I Put Tire Chains On? How Many Tire Chains Do I Need?

Tire chains need to go on your vehicle's drive wheels. This means if you have front wheel drive, the chains go on the front tires. For rear wheel drive, chains go on the back tires.For 4 wheel drive vehicles, the primary drive axle is usually the rear axle (you can confirm this in your owner's manual). Chains are only legally required on one axle (two wheels), but you can put them on all four tires for even more controlled steering.Tire chains are not permitted on many all wheel drive vehicles, so check your owner's manual to make sure chain use is allowed. If it is allowed, your owner's manual can also confirm which tires to use chains on.
Infographic - Which Tires Should My Chains Go On?
Snow Tire Chains on Vehicle

How Do I Drive with Tire Chains? Are Tire Chains Safe?

How do you drive? Slowly. Very slowly.Seriously, though, you should keep your speed under 25 mph when using tire chains. If you hear or feel anything off (like a chain hitting your vehicle, for instance), immediately pull over and address the issue. Also avoid sudden starts and stops, which can cause your wheels to spin or lock up.Tire chains are safe, provided your vehicle is compatible with chains (check your owner's manual to be sure), you don't drive like a NASCAR racer, and your chains are correctly installed. The majority of issues arise simply because drivers don't make all the necessary chain connections, don't sufficiently tighten down the chains, or don't check the chains following a "test rotation" after installing.
Snow Tire Chains

When Do I Use Tire Chains?

There's a time and a place for everything, and that includes tire chains. There are three criteria to consider when deciding whether to use tire chains:
  • Is it legal in this location/during this time of year?Usually when tire chains are brought up, someone will scratch their head and wonder, "Are those legal here?"And the answer is yes, in certain circumstances. Sometimes it's actually illegal not to have them.For this reason, it's important to always check the tire chain laws for any location you'll be traveling in. Some areas outlaw chains altogether, some only allow them during certain times of year, and some outright require them. For instance, if you're planning a ski trip in the mountains, there's a good chance you'll have to keep tire chains in your car, and in fact, you may be asked to show them at one of the regular checkpoints before you'll be allowed onward.
  • Do the road conditions call for tire chains?Tire chains get a bad rap for destroying pavement, but this is usually only a problem when you drive tire chains over dry, bare roads. Ice and deep snow will create a sufficient barrier between the chains and the road to prevent damage to the asphalt. Tire chains are particularly common in mountain territory or rural roads that don't get treated during snow storms.It bears repeating: you should never drive tire chains over bare pavement. Even if you don't care much about wrecking the road, keep in mind that you can also damage your tires, chains, and car when doing this.People who have driven with chains over the bare road usually describe it feeling like driving with square tires. So, you know, it's not like you'd enjoy the ride anyway.
  • Is your car compatible with tire chains?Always check your owner's manual to make sure your vehicle is compatible with tire chains. Some vehicles aren't, and some are only compatible with what's called Class S Compatible chains (as designated by the SAE). These are chains designed for vehicles with limited clearance between the tire and wheel well.Tire chain restrictions are particularly common on many compact and front-wheel-drive vehicles due to their limited wheel clearance. Vehicles must have sufficient clearance around their spring clips, fenders, braces, splash pans, fuel lines, brake lines, and brake controls in order for tire chains to be used safely. It's crucial to make sure your tire chains fit your tires. The easiest way to do so is by using our fitguide.

Snow Chains vs. Snow Tires (Studded and Studless)

Tire chains aren't the only option for traveling in snowy weather. There are also snow tires (or winter tires), which are tires specifically designed for rough winter weather. These tires can be either studded or studless. So how do they stack up against tire chains, and when should you rely on one over the other?This partially depends on what's legal or required in your area, but it also depends on what terrain you're driving on and how much money you want to spend. If you need a temporary solution for snow or ice, such as for a trip to the mountains or a surprise snow storm, tire chains are your best bet because they don't cost as much and can be easily removed when you're back on dry roads.On the other hand, snow tires can provide a more long-term solution if you'll be driving on snowy/icy terrain often (more than just a few times a year). Snow tires will give you a better ride than tire chains, so they're usually preferable if you live in a snowy northern climate and encounter winter weather on the regular. (Plus, you don't have to keep your speeds under 25 mph when using snow tires.)What about studded vs studless snow tires? Studded snow tires, as their name suggests, feature small metal studs in the tires to provide better traction on ice and compact snow. (Like tire chains, some areas have outlawed these tires during certain times of year due to the risk they pose to pavement, so check your local laws prior to using these.) Studless snow tires lack any metal studs, but they do have features that make them a better fit for winter driving than traditional tires. Their advanced rubber technology, sipes, and deep tread help studless winter tires maintain flexibility and traction in the cold and on snowy/icy roads.
Diagram - Tire Chains vs Winter Diagrams

Tire Chains

PROS
  • Great on ice, compacted snow, and deep snow
  • Easy to put on/remove — ideal in environments where temperatures change often
  • More economical than snow tires
CONS
  • Illegal in some areas or during certain times of year
  • Cannot be used on dry pavement
  • Limited to speed of 25 mph
  • Result in a clunky, uncomfortable ride

Studded Tires

PROS
  • Better than studless tires on ice and compacted snow — not great in deep snow
  • Not limited to slow speeds
  • Longer-term solution
  • Work best in 0-32° F temperatures
CONS
  • Can be pricey
  • Illegal in some areas or during certain times of year
  • Cannot be used on dry pavement
  • Can't easily install and remove them like chains

Studless Tires

PROS
  • Great on ice and compacted snow — not great in deep snow
  • Won't damage dry roads (although they wear faster on dry pavement than all-season tires)
  • Not limited to slow speeds
  • Longer-term solution
CONS
  • Not as great on ice as tire chains and studded tires
  • Can be pricey, and must have them installed
Cable-style chain on tire

Tire Chains vs. Cables

When choosing tire chains, you have the option of traditional link-style chains or cable-style chains. The biggest draw of the cable style is that they're economical and good for temporary use if you don't want to splurge on chains. In particular, they're useful if you're just driving a short distance in light snow and want a relatively smooth ride.If you encounter ice or deep snow, however, you'll want actual chains on your wheels. These offer superior traction and will last much longer than cables. Chains are a much better investment if you'll need them frequently.

Conclusion: Do I Need Tire Chains?

Maybe. If you plan to encounter ice, deep snow, or even deep mud, tire chains will be a huge help as long as they're legal in your area. They're more convenient to install/remove than winter tires, and in many cases they'll provide better traction. Whether you need a set for the mountains or to drive around town in winter weather, tire chains can be a lifesaver.Need help choosing the right tire chains? Check out our help article here. Still have questions?Give our experts a call at 800-298-8924, or contact us online. We're happy to assist any way we can!
Amber S.
About the AuthorAs a content writer for etrailer, I might spend my morning loading and unloading a bike on five different bike racks to figure out which is easiest to use. I might be in the parking lot, taking pictures of an impressive RV battery setup our techs came across in the shop and discussing the benefits of the setup with the owner. I might spend an afternoon in a manufacturer training classes for some hands-on experience with new products, and then sit down to assemble all this information into a coherent article.At etrailer, one of our core values is that we are always learning, and I learn something new every day. I start each morning with the goal in mind of taking all of this information and figuring out the best way to answer the questions people ask us (and the ones they don’t know to ask yet), and helping people get the solutions they need to make their lives easier, safer, and more fun. I’m a DIYer at heart, so it brings me great joy to help a fellow DIYer find what they’re looking for, whether that’s a product, an answer, or a community.
Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated on: 11/18/20

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