Tire Chains and Snow Tires 101

Category: News. Written by Grant 

After December’s record snowfall that left Seattle drivers stranded for days and even weeks, there is still a continued surge at auto and tire stores for snow traction devices. With so many choices, from chains to studded tires to snow tires, SeattleAuto.net will help guide you through the pros and cons of each device.

Tire Chains – Cheap, Effective but Annoying

Of the most popular items for Seattle drivers are tire chains. Chains can be purchased at just about any auto store like Les Schwab, Sears or Joes and come in almost every fit and size possible. Generic brand tire chains are usually run anywhere from $40 to $60 when not in high demand (like during the middle of a snowstorm). During the peak of December’s winter mess, we reported on price gouging that had retailers selling chains up to $100 for a basic set. Be warned that many of these generic chains come with no warranty and leave consumers stranded financially and literally if they suddenly fail. Tire chains from a brand name like Thule provide a 1-year warranty, however.

Tire chains are the most popular option because they’re the most affordable and also a non-permanent solution: you put it on when it snows and take it off when you’re done. That is easier said than done, as just about everybody hates putting on tire chains, especially out in the snow. Chains also provide the best performance in deep snow and ice conditions.

There are two main types of chains: the classic type you drive onto and the modern type that you can “wrap” around your tire. The classic type provides is often more durable and cheaper, but requires substantial effort to put on and is almost impossible to install once your car is in the now. We don’t recommend this type because in reality, most drivers only put on snow chains as a last resort. Almost all tire cables fall into this category, as they require the vehicle to drive onto the cables before installation, which is why we’re not the biggest fan of cables.

This modern brand of snow chains is usually referred to as the diamond, express or quick chain, which uses a hoop-style system that loops around the tire. This can still be a pain to install, but can be put on while in snow – enabling drivers to store and use in emergency situations.

Important Tip: Do not ignore the manufacturer recommendations of going over 30mph while you have chains on. We cannot stress this enough. Year after year, we see dozens of chains littering the freeways after a snowstorm, because motorists didn’t know or just didn’t care. Not only is it blowing away $60, but when your chains come off, they don’t just break – they whiplash around your wheelwell in a fantastic fashion – destroying anything it comes in contact with. I’ve personally destroyed my ABS sensor because of this, so learn from my mistakes and countless others. Don’t think it can’t happen to you, because countless autobody shops around King county are weeks deep in appointments because of wheelwheel damage from busted chains. Again, do not go over 30mph – otherwise take local roads or take off your chains if conditions dictate.

Also, it’s important to practice putting on your chains before you actually have to. That way, you can understand your chains in a warm and preferably dry environment before attempting it in the wet and freezing outdoors. Even in an ideal environment, chains can be a miserable process. For this reason alone, many drivers have opted for options besides chains, which lead us to our next topic.

Studded Tires – Best for Ice, Poor on Everything Else

Studded tires use tiny metal points in the tread that act as small picks to dig into the road surface. A set of studded tires isn’t cheap and will run about the same as a normal set of tires: anywhere from $300 to $400. The other cost is that you will need to put on and remove your tires each season, as studded tires are by law, only allowed between November 1st and March 31st in Washington State. The reason for the limited duration is that the tiny metal studs while great for ice, also tear up road surfaces, making for expensive road repairs by the state. Washington also only allows “lightweight” studs, which do less damage to roads but are supposedly as effective.

We aren’t fans of studded tires because while the studs work well to dig into ice, research shows that the studded tips are not very effective in snow. In Seattle and the Northwest, it’s far more common to have snow than ice, due to our moderate temperatures and high precipitation. Even though our recent bout with snow had icy streets all over Seattle, the city – after much protesting from citizens – announced that they would indeed use salt in future snow conditions, removing most situations of pure ice conditions.

In addition, due to the infrequency of snow in Seattle, it’s impractical to have studded tires on all the time because it will be overkill for not only the roads, but your own peace of mind. Anyone who has driven with studs on bare asphault can tell you that it creates an headache inducing hum and vibration. Not only that, studs actually perform worse on concrete than normal tires, due to the reduction in contact surface between the rubber and the road.

The benefit to studded tires are that they require little work other than forking over your credit card and won’t lead to harrowing chain ordeals on the side of the road. Less stress and less performance is what you get with studs.

Traction and Snow Tires – Same Stud Benefits, Less Drawbacks

If studded tires are classic technology, then traction tires are the wave of the future. Traction (sometimes referred to as “snow tires”) use specialized compounds and treads to provide better grip in snow. Different tire manufacturers have experimented with various technologies, with big names such as Bridgestone and Goodyear using specialized traction rubber while Toyo uses crushed walnut. While consumers might think that these provide less traction than studs, studies have shown that some studless tires actually perform better than their counterparts on ice.

Like studded tires however, traction tires will suffer in deep snow, as they simply do not have enough grip to pull the vehicle around. As such, owners of studs or traction tires will find driving best after other drivers have compacted deep snow. The benefits of studded tires are a bit better however, as traction tires can be installed anytime and don’t damage the road or cause excessive vibration or noise. Drivers will find that traction tires wear out considerably quicker than normal tires due to the softer rubber compounds so it’s still advisable to use them only when necessary to preserve the lifespan of the tires.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has more information on studded tire alternatives.

Summary

Each item has it’s various pros and cons, so it’s really up to each driver to decide what is best for them. For most occasional drivers who are willing to get a bit dirty, chains are the practical use snow traction device. For drivers who would like to save some headache at the cost of extra dollars, traction tires are a fairly good alternative.

Stay turned for SeattleAuto.net’s feature on snow alternatives that you probably haven’t heard of, such as the SnoBootz and Autosock!

Tire Chains

    Pros

  • Cheap, usually $50 to $60
  • Best snow performance, including deep snow
  • Can take on and off anytime
    Cons

  • Annoying to put on and take off
  • Limited to 30mph
  • Some types cannot be put on in snow

Studded Tires

    Pros

  • Professional installation
  • Good on ice and packed snow
  • Can travel at higher speeds than chains
    Cons

  • High price and yearly installation/removal cost
  • Mediocre deep snow performance
  • Mediocre dry road performance
  • Road damage, interior noise and vibration

Traction Tires

    Pros

  • Professional installation
  • Good on ice and packed snow
  • Highest travel speed, can be used anytime
    Cons

  • High price and faster wear if used on dry pavement
  • Mediocre deep snow performance

Here is a link to a WSDOT video on how to install classic style tire cables.

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Comments

5 Responses to “Tire Chains and Snow Tires 101”

  1. Alex on November 4th, 2009 10:21 am

    I have been complimenting my snow tires with Tire Chains
    for the last 3 years. You are not actually limited to 30 mph, but honestly in bad snow why would you really want to go over that speed limit for safety reasons. They can be a serious pain to remove and put on, after a while though it really isn’t a serious issue. Especially when you realize how useful they really are.

  2. Beth on November 5th, 2015 2:01 pm

    Flex Trax SnoClaws have always got me through the snow even when others are stranded on the side of the road with their broken tire chains. The winter of 2013, I was the only one moving through Atlanta when the interstate was backed up. I wouldn’t trade my SnoClaws for anything

  3. Bradford on November 2nd, 2016 10:21 am

    I have been putting on snow chains sense I was a boy. I have learned to pack the following with my tire chains. A plastic tarp to keep your knees dry, a cloth or plastic bag for your wet chains when you take them off, gloves to keep hands warm and clean for driving, extra rubber straps in case the ones you use breaks, and a small shovel. These items will help in putting chains on and taking them off.

  4. Michael Bol on January 19th, 2017 8:34 am

    With the little amount of snow and ice the PNW gets, and yes I was here in 2004, 2008 and 2016/Jan 2017, chains probably are the most you need in the city. If you live out farther though, I’d go traction tires. If you really want to, and for peace of mind, get traction tires no matter where you live, if you can afford it.

  5. Stephanie on February 13th, 2019 1:04 pm

    I purchased Alpine Sport tire chains from Les Schwab. Absolutely wonderful! It literally takes me a minute to place on and off my tires. I drive a little Nissan, no issues at all in the snow or ice, just love them . Maybe people do not know these type of easy chains exist? I think I paid around $70.00.

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