Way back in the day, families in colder climates annually switched winter tires (AKA “snow tires”) on their trusty station wagons (with the faux-wood exterior of course). The rise of “all-season tires” ended that ritual for many, but those who drive a lot in serious ski country still make the switch.
Here are three reasons why you should consider switching to winter tires for your ski travel.
1. Rubber composition maintains traction even when temps drop.
One of the tire’s main beneficial characteristics has nothing to do with snow at all. The key difference is actually about temperature. The rubber in all-season tires starts becoming stiffer below about 45 degrees, so traction suffers. Winter tires are made of softer rubber compounds, so they keep their grip even when the temperature drops. Unfortunately, the softer rubber would also wear out faster on dry, warm pavement, so keeping winter tires on year-round is not really sensible.
Most SUV drivers will notice an M + S (“mud and snow”) designation on their tire sidewalls. That label does not necessarily mean they are true winter tires. An actual winter tire will have another symbol of a snowflake inside a mountain.
Drivers of 4×4 vehicles should know that winter tires could actually be more important than the four-wheel drive according to tests by Car and Driver. Acceleration in snow and ice is improved with four-wheel drive, but not necessarily stopping distance or turning control where winter tires matter more.
2. Tread design grips snow and ice.
Along with rubber composition, tread design is the other feature of winter tires to grip the snow and ice. Toyo makes winter tires that are literally a nutty mix of those two features. The rubber has tiny walnut shells mixed into the rubber that act like micro-spikes into the snow or ice. For tread design, winter tires generally have small tread blocks and lots of sipes—the fancy name for those thin cuts in the tread.
Studded tires stand atop the traction pyramid. Studdable tires have optional metal cleats spread across the tread surface. These tires really dig into ice. They also dig into dry asphalt, so many states and Canadian provinces have outlawed them during all or part of the year due to higher road-maintenance expenses. (List of U.S. and Canadian laws here.)
3. Long-term cost evens out.
Winter tires generally cost about the same as all-season tires, but an entire second set of four tires is an investment. However with each set of tires being used only during part of the year, the long-term cost does even out to a large extent. Considering it’s tough to put a price tag on safety, winter tires could be worth investigating for many who drive their own vehicles frequently to ski destinations.
4. Winter tires or snow chains?
While winter tires stay on throughout the cold months, snow chains are meant to be a temporary traction aid in very severe weather. In some cases during storms, chains are temporarily required to travel on a certain highway. Therefore, even when driving with winter tires, keeping a set of chains in the car is a good idea when going where such restrictions are fairly common. (Unfortunately, chaining up a vehicle before going through a mountain pass ranks in life’s top 5 “not-fun” experiences.) After the storm passes and the roads are plowed, the chains should be removed.