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The Semi-Annual Winter Tire Swap

Installing Snow Tires

There is no better time than now, while you are simultaneously digging Christmas decorations out of the garage and installing them, to swap on your snow tires. If you live in the northern half of the country, or anywhere in the mountains, the next few weeks promise to deliver freezing temperatures and possibly snow. The last thing you want is to get caught trying to get home from a Christmas party on a pair of worn out, underinflated, all-season tires.

With modern traction control, anti-lock brakes, and all-season tires many people may think they don’t need dedicated winter tires. But investing in a set of inexpensive steel wheels and tires specially designed for cold, ice and snow, can not just save you a big repair bill, but possibly your life. Stopping distances on snow or ice with all-season tires can be easily 50% more than with winter tires, even at low speeds, and the difference in cornering grip is substantial too. Still not convinced? Read What Are Winter Tires? (Why You Need Them). And unless you drive something exotic, the cost of four dedicated steel winter wheels is likely the same as paying a tire shop to swap winter tires on and off your current rims a few times.

Even if you don’t live somewhere that sees snow, this is still a great time to rotate your tires to make sure they wear evenly. In order to keep track of which tire was on which corner of the car last season, either number them and keep a cheat sheet in the car or write RF, LF, RR, LR on the tires themselves with chalk. When you are ready to install them again, roll them out to the corners they came off of, then follow the chart.

proper tire rotation chart

It used to be every car had the same tire on all four corners, and everyone rotated the tires in a criss-cross pattern (or a slight variation if using the spare tire as well). Modern cars, and modern tires, don’t always allow that, what with uni-direction tread patterns and staggered sizing. Obviously, if your front and rear tires are different sized you can only swap them side to side. However, if the tires are labeled with an arrow they are only meant to roll in one direction, so you swap front to back on the same side of the car.

  • Break the lug nuts loose with the car on the ground.
  • Jack up both ends of the car and set it on jack stands.
  • Remove all four wheels, mark them, and set them aside until next year (unless you are just rotating, not swapping).
  • Move the driver’s side front (LF) winter tire to its new home.
  • Proceed around the car repositioning all four winter tires.
  • Install and tighten the lugs on all four wheels.
  • Relearn the TPMS system (if equipped).
  • Check and adjust air pressure as needed.

While you have the wheels off it is a great time to have a look at the brakes and gauge how long until you need new pads. Also, before the salt and snow can do much damage, check the CV boots, tie rod ends, and ball joint boots for signs of tears and leaking grease. If your car has grease fittings, now is a great time to lube the chassis too, because grease will keep out water and prevent rust. There is a whole list of pre-winter maintenance you should probably do before the snow flies here.