Driving in inclement weather is always a challenge, but perils like black ice and snowstorms make driving in winter even more treacherous. This MasterKit will help you hit the roads with confidence, by teaching you how to outfit and operate your car for safer winter driving.
Snow Tires, Chains, and Socks: Which Is Right For Your Car?
Take the worry out of winter weather with the right traction for your tires.
Driving in heavy snow or ice can be a terrifying, white-knuckle experience, even for people who have spent a few winters behind the wheel. Fortunately, drivers have multiple options to give their cars more traction in winter, including snow tires, chains, and the recently introduced snow socks.
Snow tires come in two varieties: studless and with lightweight studs. Lightweight studs are metal studs embedded in the tread to grip the snow and ice. Studless tires use different rubber compounds and tread patterns instead of metal to enhance traction. Either way, these tires stay on your vehicle all winter and cost about $150 to $190 per tire, including installation.
In one sense, snow tires are the easiest and most convenient option as you put them on for the winter and take them off in the spring, and for the rest of the year you don’t have to worry about it. However, that also means that your tires will spend the warmer months taking up space in your garage. Also, if you don't have the equipment or the inclination to make the swap yourself, you’ll need to pay someone to do it.
But, in addition to storing them in the off-season, that convenience comes with a couple of trade-offs. The biggest is that snow tires provide less traction than chains do, particularly in snow. Additionally, studded tires, which are less expensive than studless tires, do real damage on clear streets and highways, with many states estimating $10 million or more per winter in additional road repairs. For this reason, some states outlaw studded tires entirely, and others allow them to be used only during specific months. Check with your state department of transportation before making a purchase to find out when - or whether - they’re allowed where you live.
Tire chains are webs of chain or sometimes cable that you put on your drive wheels (usually the front wheels) once you arrive in snow country. They definitely improve your traction as they work about as well as studded tires on ice, and they're generally more effective on snow than any type of snow tire. In locations where traction aids are mandatory, such as snowy mountain passes in the western United States, chains are often the only device that qualifies. But, you can only drive up to about 30 mph with them on your vehicle. Most chain sets sold today cost between $50 and $100.
Tire chains should only be on your tires when you’re driving in fairly deep snow and ice - you can’t just put them on and leave them on all winter. When you reach a snowy stretch of road, pull the vehicle over, well out of the lanes of travel. You’ll need to kneel in the snow and wrap these devices around tires that will undoubtedly be dirty, wet, and cold, so you’ll need gloves and a tarp to kneel on.
This job is easiest if you have a partner at the wheel. When you've got the chain on most of the way, your partner can pull the car forward a few feet to settle the chains around the tires. Then, you can adjust and tightly fasten the chains before continuing. It's helpful to practice this whole process in the driveway, where it's warmer and drier, especially if you haven't chained up before. When the snow clears, you’ll need to stop again to remove the chains because they'll damage the road surface if it isn't covered in snow or ice.
Pro Tip: You aren't exempt from laws requiring traction devices if you're in a rental. The National Park Service in Yosemite, for example, makes a point on its website of advising visitors to carry chains in their rental cars and know how to use them.1
Snow socks are newer to the market. Like chains or cables, you put them on your drive wheels only when you're driving on a snow-covered road, following the same basic steps. Unlike chains, they're a textile covering that slips over tires. Because they're not as bulky as chains, they work best for vehicles that don't have enough clearance around the tire to accommodate chains or cables. As with chains, you can only drive about 25 to 30 mph with the snow socks in place. A set of snow socks is slightly more expensive than chains, at $70 to $140 per pair.
The choice between snow tires, chains, and socks is a balance between convenience, cost, and the law. Here's what you need to know.
Regardless of which option is best for your car and your wallet, adding some extra traction will take a lot of the worry out of driving in wintry weather.