How to Choose Winter Tires: Answering Your FAQs

Every winter, drivers consider their snow tire options. If you live in an area that doesn’t get more than a touch of winter weather, a set of all-season tires will likely be enough to keep you safe. Or if you get several light snow storms that blanket the roads, all-weather tires could do nicely. But for those who brave ice and snow on a regular basis, choosing the right winter tires (also known as snow tires) can be the difference between confident control and getting stuck on the side of the road. Here are some answers to the most common snow tire questions we get at Les Schwab.

What is the Difference Between Winter Tires and Snow Tires?

There is no difference between snow and winter tires. Those are just two descriptions for the exact same tires. Depending on where you live, people will use one of the terms more often than the other.

Whether you use the word snow or winter, those tires are designed to stay flexible in temperatures below 40º F. This flexibility helps increase grip on snow and ice for added control and braking. In contrast, all-season and summer tires are designed to work best when temperatures are above 40º F. However, these tires will quickly become rigid and lose their ability to grip as temperatures drop. This can cause longer braking distances and loss of control.

Do Winter/Snow Tires Really Make a Difference?

When driving on snow, ice, or a combination of the two, winter or snow tires can make a difference. Winter tires are specifically designed with tread and a rubber compound that stays flexible as temperatures drop below 40º F. All-season and mud-terrain tires cannot offer that kind of traction in freezing temperatures. Get to know the differences between all-season and winter tires.

Do I Need Four Winter Tires or Just Two?

For the best traction, install snow tires on the front and rear. Installing snow tires on just the front or back of your vehicle might not offer the control and braking you need to stay safe. Overall, mixing your tires can cause unpredictable results for safety and performance on winter roads. Read about the dangers of installing just two winter tires.

Do Traction Control or ABS Brakes Replace the Need for Winter/Snow Tires?

The short answer is no. While both traction control and an ABS (anti-lock braking system) can improve braking and traction on dry pavement, they are not substitutes for winter tires in the snow and ice. These systems depend on the traction your tires provide, which means for optimal winter traction and braking, it’s essential you have a good set of four snow tires on your vehicle.

Are Tires Labeled M+S Suitable for Winter Driving?

Mud and snow (M+S) rated tires do have an aggressive tread that can deliver good traction in many conditions. However, they’re not specifically designed for winter driving and might not deliver the traction, control, and short stopping distances provided by a set of snow tires. For safer driving on snow or ice, choose tires with the Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMSF) symbol, signifying they meet specific winter performance guidelines.

Mountain Snowflake certified snow tires

What are All-Weather Tires? Are They as Good as Winter Tires?

While all-weather tires have many of the similar features as a winter tire, including snow readiness with the Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMSF) designation, they are not a match for a dedicated set of snow tires. The benefits of an all-weather tire include year-round use (similar to an all-season tire), including better tread life and a quieter ride. When compared to all-season tires, all-weather tires are a good fit for those who want some control on snow-covered roads and exceptional performance the rest of the year.

Do I Still Need Snow Tires If I Have All-Season Tires?

All-season tires are designed to keep you in control in a variety of conditions, including some light snow. However, all-season tires are made with a stiffer rubber compound that retains its shape on warm pavement. They’re also designed to move water away from the tread to help you avoid hydroplaning in the rain. But this same compound does not provide grip on snow and ice.

Another reason is tread design (seen below). Winter tires have a higher “void-to-lug” ratio when compared to all-season tires. This means there are larger grooves between the blocks of tread (the lugs). The tread blocks also have irregular, sharp edges to cut through the snow and provide added grip.

A side-by-side example of the differences between winter and all-season tires

Do Front-Wheel Drive Vehicles Need Winter Tires?

Yes, Front-Wheel Drive (FWD) vehicles need winter tires for optimal performance on snow and ice. While FWD vehicles can offer better control in snow due to the weight of the engine pressing down on the front tires (in fuel-powered vehicles), even FWD vehicles need snow tires for added control and stopping power in winter driving conditions. Installing a set of four winter tires on your FWD vehicle can deliver increased traction and control.

Do All-Wheel Drive or Four-Wheel Drive Vehicles Need Winter Tires?

It’s a common misperception that All-Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicles and 4x4s will act like a tank in slick conditions. While you can safely drive an AWD vehicle with all-season tires in light or moderate snow, you need snow tires, and in some cases you may need snow chains, when facing severe winter roads.

Should I Get My Snow Tires Siped?

Most snow tires come from the factory with sipes (thin slits in the tread blocks to enhance traction). Additional safety siping can be done for a fee on new or used tires. If you’re regularly traveling on slick roads, custom siping is a good way to improve traction and control.

Can I Just Buy Chains Instead of Snow Tires?

Chains and socks are not a replacement for snow tires in terms of overall safety and convenience. While tire chains and tire socks help provide added traction when winter road conditions are at their worst, you are limited to slower speeds when in use. However, in some cases, traction devices (including chains) are mandatory for safety. Find a set of snow chains for your vehicle at your local Les Schwab. Learn how to install quick-fit chains.

Should I Choose Studded or Studless Snow Tires?

That depends on the winter driving conditions you face daily. Studless tires work great on slush and packed snow thanks to their wide and deep grooved tread and rubber compound that stays flexible at or near freezing temperatures. Studded tires feature lightweight, small metal spikes (studs) that are staggered and inserted across the tread inside 1/8” pinholes. These studs protrude slightly from the rubber tread surface, helping break through packed snow and ice-covered roads to give you better traction.

Les Schwab tip: there are limits to when you can use studded tires. Refer to the studded tire regulations guide for specifics.

Should I Buy Winter Tires with Rims?

To prolong the life of your regular wheels and reduce the cost of seasonal tire changeovers, consider getting your winter tires installed on a set of winter or steel wheels. At Les Schwab, when your tires are mounted to their own wheels, the changeover is free. Additionally, it can take less time to change out a set of tires that are already mounted to their own wheels.

Is it Okay to Buy Used Winter Tires?

Before you jump on that set of “lightly used” winter tires, check three things carefully. Verify they are the right size, that the tread depth is good (or at least adequate for safety and winter performance), there is no uneven wear, and that they are all the same tire (you don’t want mismatched snow tires on your vehicle).

Where to see tire size on sidewall

When is the Best Time to Put on Winter/Snow Tires?

To beat the rush and avoid driving in winter conditions without your snow tires, get yours changed out in the fall when temperatures regularly drop below 45º F. In the spring, get your all-season or summer tires installed when temperatures reach 45º regularly to maximize the life of your winter tires.

Get Your Winter Tires and Snow-safety Advice at Les Schwab

Some all-season tires are marketed as working equally well in summer and winter. That may be true in dry, mild climates where the seasons don’t vary. But for confident traction, braking and control on snow and ice, you need a dedicated set of winter tires featuring the Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMSF) icon. The experts at Les Schwab can help you choose the right snow tires for your vehicle.

Want more tips on winter road safety? See 19 Winter Driving Resources You Can’t Do Without.