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Mark's Tips: How To Install Tire Chains For Winter Snow

Mark's Tips: How To Install Tire Chains For Winter Snow

Winter adventures are an absolute blast. If you are a native to Southern California like me, there’s a different kind of excitement that rolls around this season. When skies turn dark here and it begins to rain cats and dogs, that is usually and indicator that the mountains nearby are getting hammered with many inches of snow. As soon as the skies clear up after the storm, it’s no surprise to hear of people getting stranded in a ditch because they were ill-prepared for their winter excursion. That’s why it’s always important to pack the right winter gear, and expect the unexpected- Like getting stranded in the cold or having your tires easily lose traction. When one thinks “winter preparation”, tire chains or cables are #1 on the list for a reason. Those of you living in the Midwest or Canada, I must be explaining what is already well-known to you in your sleep, but bear with me…

Tire Chains

What kind of tire chains do I need for my vehicle?

Fortunately, there are many online tools you can use to determine the size of chains you need for your tires. The last thing you want is to be stopped mid-storm at a mandatory chain checkpoint, only to pay a premium price for the road maintenance crew’s selection of stock (provided they are still equipped) or be turned around.

Etrailer.com is one of the many online services that should point you in the right direction when making the choice. There are a couple apps in the mobile app store that provide a similar user experience.

Here’s how to determine the right size chains that are a required fit for your vehicle:

  • Write down or take a photo snapshot of the tire size on the side of your tire. The number/letter combination such as “P205/45R17” is an example of what this looks like
  • Determine whether you want cables or traditional chains (or what your vehicle will even allow in terms of wheel well space)
  • Use the recorded tire numbers to choose your chains-
    • In the example above, “P” is the general classification of the tire, in this case being a “Passenger” car tire
    • “205” is the tire width in millimeters
    • “45” after the slash is the aspect ratio as a percentage – “45” means that the height of the tire (from the lip of the rim) is 45% of the width
    • “R” is the construction type of the tire (how durable it is made) – In this case the R stands for Radial tires, which is the industry standard
    • “17” - Last but not least, is the wheel diameter in inches (from where the bead of the tire seats on the rim)
    • Some tire manufacturers include more numbers after these indicating load and speed ratings, but generally aren’t used when selecting chains
  • Once you have an understanding of your tire size, use these numbers to choose your correct chain type – this can be done online or at an auto parts supplier
  • Determine the drive type of your vehicle- you’ll want to order the correct amount of chains (2 or 4) and place them on the correct tires-
    • For Front-Wheel Drive (FWD) cars- You’ll at least need chains on the front wheels. Putting them on the rear wheels will assist with braking and lateral stability.
    • For Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD) cars- You’ll at least need chains on the rear wheels (go figure). Putting them on the front wheels will assist with braking and lateral stability.
    • For All-Wheel Drive (AWD) cars- You can choose to install them on the front or rear wheels (or both [recommended]) – although often times it’s commonly accepted that installing them on the rear wheels is the way to go, because when you’re heading downhill and apply the brakes, there’s less of a chance of fish-tailing your car (tail end of the car swinging outward) due to excess front wheel traction.

Types of tire chains

Unless you reside in an area that commonly snows, chances are slim that you opt for studded tires when having your tires changed. Studded tires often negate the need for tire chains or cables in some cases, however installing chains is by far the most effective way to plow your way through the snow.

There are two main types of tire chains commonly found on the road. They are:

  • Twist-link chains (most effective, but more costly)
  • Chain cables, commonly called just “cables” (most convenient, cheaper)
  • Twist-link chains are by far the costliest over cables, but if you’ve ever had the opportunity to compare the two, you’ll understand why they are king of the snow. They typically take longer to install, especially if your wheel wells have limited access. Cables are quicker to set up and can be installed easier on vehicles with limited wheel well access. They still provide significant traction over standard, snow, or even most studded tires (granted they are built well and stay in-tact).

    According to data collected by the National Safety Council’s Committee on Winter Driving Hazards through a series of tests, we’re able to tell roughly how much better or worse traction you might expect to obtain from your car’s choice of winter shoes. As a comparison to standard, non-snow rated tires, here are some interesting statistics to consider:

  • Snow rated tires provide about a 6 to 9% increase in traction when driving on snow/ice
  • Studded tires provide about a 11 to 19% increase in traction when driving on snow/ice
  • Cable chains provide about a 33 to 98% increase in traction when driving on snow/ice
  • Twist-link chains provide about a 61 to 183% increase in traction when driving on snow/ice
  • These percentages can also depend greatly on tire size/width, vehicle drive type, tire chain design and quality, road conditions and many other factors.
Types of Tire chains

How do I know when to put them on?

First off, you’ll want to know what your drive wheels are – meaning the wheels that spin to propel the vehicle. This should also have been determined when purchasing your chains.

As you climb in elevation and snow starts covering the road, this can be tough to figure out when it’s time to install chains. Going much slower than the speed limit goes without saying, and taking corners slowly and smoothly is a must. If there’s no one behind you and the road is relatively flat and straight, a helpful test to make is to tap the brakes quickly a few times and “feel” if there’s any slippage. If your car is not AWD or 4WD capable, you’ll want to pull over in a safe turnout to install chains far sooner than later.

How to install

Keep in mind that it’s a good idea to practice installing chains in fair weather before you’re caught in a snowstorm. It may sound easy in theory, but there are many hang-ups you could come across. The instructions provided with the chains should also be referred to, as chains differ in design which in turn affects installation.

Once you’re pulled over in a safe and secure turnout, lay the chains out, railroad-style, in the correct orientation behind the wheels. Once laid out, slowly reverse the car until the wheels are midway over the chains. The help of an assistant is recommended at this step to guide the driver.

Once over the chains, put the vehicle in Park and apply the parking brake. Swing each end of the chains over the tire so the ends join at the top – from here, you’ll want to hook the ends of the chains together.

Finally, there should be a special bungee cord with many slidable hooks attached. These go on the outside of the wheel and take up the slack between the chains and the tire. The bungee stretches across the rim and attaches to the outer end of the chain via the many hooks. Make sure that you attach the chains to the drive wheels, as you don’t want to waste your efforts of installing them on the wrong wheels in the cold.

Installing tire chains

Driving characteristics when using chains

Once installed, you’ll more than likely be on snow that’s not too deep, essentially still on the pavement. You’ll want to drive slowly here just as you would on the snow – Not only do you run the risk of damaging or destroying your chains or car when speeding, but you could affect the quality of the asphalt as well.

Typically you’ll want to keep the car under 25 mph when using chains. Any faster and the risk of something bad happening greatly develops. Once you start hearing the “buzz” sound on the road disappear, this means you’re entering real snow territory – there should now be true separation between the pavement and the chains.

If you’ve installed chains on the front wheels, you’ll also notice that your ability to steer has increased in the snow. If you’ve installed chains specially made with lateral stability in mind (octagonal pattern on tire), this is a major plus, too.

How do I know when to take them off?

You’ve gotten through the ‘blaze’ of the storm, are possibly descending in elevation or snow plows have done great work clearing snow for a good while, this is a nice indicator that it’s now time to remove your chains. Although having chains installed is a nice feeling and can save your life when driving in the snow, the last person you want to be is the one getting honked at driving 20 mph when road conditions are favorable. It is, however, better to be safe than sorry when it comes to removing chains – you’ll want to be sure that the road ahead has in fact been clear (without snow/ice) for at least a few miles and you’re not predicting bad snow conditions ahead. Again, you’ll want to pull over in a wide, safe clearing off the road just as you did when installing the chains.

Installing tire chains

Conclusion

Having chains or cables with you isn’t only convenient when you’re trekking across a winter storm, they may in fact save your life. There are many sources of additional information to read up on regarding chain installation and tires- So be prepared, choose wisely, and know what to bring with you so you can conquer the road and make it a more fun experience.

Also, keep a lookout for our upcoming Haynes Garage series video on YouTube about ~Tires~ – these go hand in hand with today’s topic and covers valuable info you won’t want to miss!

Safe winter travels!