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Are Snow Tires Worth It?

With winter comes snow, ice, and lots of sliding around. Winter tires can help, but are they that much better than “all-season” alternatives?

Where the Rubber Meets the Snow

Snow packed winter tires
Snow packed winter tires

It’s that time of year again, when you’re subjected to the same unsolicited advice you ignored last year about why you need snow/winter tires on your vehicle. And like last year, you’re probably rolling your eyes and muttering under your breath, “I’ve got all-season tires. They work fine, buddy.”

But do they?

Summer and winter tires
Summer and winter tires

While the name implies that all-season tires work in, well, all seasons, they are in fact closer to three season tires, spring, summer, and fall, and then not even optimal in any of those. As we explored in our article on what to do when you’re skidding and our explainer on oversteer versus understeer, a loss of traction is dangerous and made infinitely worse by having the wrong tires for the current road conditions.

Below we’ll expand on why snow/winter tires perform so much better than other tires in cold and snowy weather and practical advice on purchasing and storing an additional set of tires for your vehicle.

It’s About More Than Tread

Summer tires
Summer tires

There are indeed important distinctions between winter/snow tires, summer tires, and all-season tires. Summer tires are optimized to perform best in dry, warm conditions. They have a distinct tread pattern that is straighter than other tires with a wide outer edge to improve grip in cornering, shallower tread depth, and are smoother overall. Winter tires have more complex and deeper tread patterns. Those squiggles and zigzags are called sipes or kerfs and provide even more grip partly by allowing snow to get packed into the crevices with snow on snow further improving traction. All-season tires feature a mix of tread pattern features seen in both winter/snow tires and summer tires.

Snow tires
Snow tires

Tread isn’t the only factor, however. Just as important are the specific blends of rubber compounds that make up summer and winter/snow tires. Summer tires are formulated to provide their best grip in temperatures above 40°. Cold temps cause summer tires to become stiff and less pliable, loosing their ability to grip pavement.

Winter/snow tires, on the other hand, are formulated to perform better at temps below 40°. They provide their best grip in the cold. All-season tires sit in the middle, not great at cold temperatures but also not their best in higher temps, either. This difference in composition and how temperature affects the grip of tires is another strong argument for separate sets of tires.

Affordability and Logistics

Driving on snow
Driving on snow

Winter/snow tires tend to cost about the same as summer and all-season tires. Most winter/snow tires cost between $100 and $200 apiece or $400-$800 for a full set. This is usually where folks get off the winter/snow tire train. Better traction is good and all but throwing down an extra $600 for a set of winter/snow tires is onerous for most consumers.

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One mitigating factor is you’ll be using your winter tires only during the coldest and snowiest parts of the year. That means far fewer miles on either them or your alternate set of summer or all-season tires. It’s important to note however that winter/snow tires, because of their specific rubber makeup, do tend to wear faster than warmer weather tires. The average set of winter tires, even when rotating for the season, will last about three to four years. Compare that to the four-to-five-year tread life (50,000 to 60,000 miles) for summer and all-season tires. But using winter tires does mean you’re saving your all-season or summer tires a good four to five months of use each year, thereby lengthening their lives.

Tires stored in a garage
Tires stored in a garage

Another important consideration when it comes to winter/snow tires is storage. Having two sets of tires means one set is always sitting somewhere. Finding room in even the most organized of garages can be a challenge, but for those who rent and don’t have a garage, snow tires may be nearly impossible unless you’ve got a friend or parent willing to make space for them at their place.

Despite the hurdles, winter/snow tires offer a major safety advantage over all-season tires during the cold and snowy parts of the year. If you live in parts of the country where snow sits around for months at a time, winter/snow tires are a wise investment and are well worth the hassle of storing them and getting them swapped out twice a year.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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