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Ice has a very low coefficient of friction. It seems there is a layer of water the perpetually exists on top of ice, especially in situations where objects — such as the tires on your car — come in contact with it. You’re never really driving on ice, so much as you’re driving on top of a fine layer of water, which is on top of the ice.
In other words: water is wet, ice is cold, and it’s hard to drive on both at the same time.
Thus, humans invented snow chains. Also known as tire chains, these handy tools have helped many drivers stay safe when road conditions were at their worst. Still, there are quite a few people who don’t encounter the need for snow chains until later in their driving career.
This article is for drivers who aren’t too familiar with modern tire chains. Whether you’re buying your first pair, or retiring an old pair, consider this your guide for making a good choice when buying snow chains.
First of All…What Are Snow Chains, and Why Do I Need Them?
If your first thought is, “I have all-wheel drive. I don’t need snow chains,” then chances are good that you regularly face driving conditions that would require snow chains. If you’re thinking that the snow tires you bought last winter did a really good job at keeping you snug on the road, then you probably don’t need snow chains. But, if you regularly encounter ice, deep snow, or muddy off-road conditions, or if you’re looking for a miraculous solution with maximum traction, you should take notes.
Snow chains are actual chains that wrap around your tires to increase tire traction in winter driving conditions. For anyone who has lost control of a truck on black ice or slid into a snowbank, this sounds like a great idea. However, chain laws vary from place to place. Some locations legally require tire chains to be at least available to you as you drive. Other locations prohibit them completely. While they’re super helpful on snow and ice, they wreak havoc on asphalt. If road conditions suddenly become dry, you’ll want to pull over and remove your chains as soon as it is safe to do so.
And, if you’re not careful, your chains might damage your vehicle, too. Always double-check your owner’s manual for guidance on using snow chains with your particular vehicle.
In some cases, there is not enough room between the tire and walls of the wheel well to accommodate the bulk of certain chains. Your vehicle may require what’s known as an SAE Class S chains, which are regular (non-reinforced) passenger vehicle tire chains or cables intended for vehicles with restricted wheel well clearance. Don’t worry if that’s a new term for you — your owner’s manual should fill in the dimensional details.
Naturally, there are different ways to shop for snow chains. Size is actually the easiest part, since your tire size is generally printed on the tire itself. The next thing you need to consider is use. What type of terrain or conditions will you be driving in? How often are you going to be using them? What type of metal are they made of? What type of chain and chain pattern do they have? How easy are they to get on and off? There are different strokes for different folks, as they say, and snow chains are no exception.
Types of Truck Tire Chains
The first thing to consider is how often you will be using your tire chains. If you are constantly driving your truck on icy roads, then you’re probably going to be pretty familiar with your chains. That means they’ll see a lot of action, and you’ll become proficient at putting them on and taking them off as needed. You’ll want a high-quality chain, for sure.
But, what if you’re the kind of person who’s going to keep them in the trunk all year, as required by local regulations, and you might use them once or twice when you absolutely need to leave the house during the winter months? In this case, you can probably go with a more economical option, but you’ll definitely want to look for a chain with easy installation.
Next, consider your typical terrain. Cable tire chains are a good choice for rare usage or light snow. Made of rubber cables or hardened steel rollers, they aren’t going to last as long as a more heavy-duty chain, but they’ll also cause less damage to the roads, will have a lower overall price point, and will be easier to use when the occasion calls for them.
If your pickup truck frequently encounters deep snow, then you’ll want chains with larger links. A square link will give you extra teeth against snow and occasional patches of ice, while a twisted D-link will provide a less gritty ride. Look for metals like manganese alloy steel, titanium, and nickel if you want more durable chains.
Then, there are ice tires. These tires actually include icebreaker spikes or studs that basically work like cleats on ice. They aren’t going to provide the smoothest ride, but that’s pretty much the point, right?
Lastly, you’ll choose between automatic, assisted, and manual tensioning. Automatic tensioning is the easiest to apply. Essentially, you fit the chains on the tires, and they automatically center and align themselves as you drive forward. Assisted tensioning can mean a lot of things, from “here’s a ratcheting tool to help you tighten your chains,” to integrated tensioners that you just need to tweak a bit after you’ve installed your chains. Manual tensioning is exactly what it sounds like — you’ll need to invest in a chain adjuster to get them perfectly aligned and tight before you take off.
There are different chain patterns and chain types to consider as well, and each has a different area of specialty. Always read the product description carefully to ensure you’re getting exactly what you need. Furthermore, take the time to peek at the directions so you don’t end up damaging your tires, your truck, or the roads you drive every day. Remember: the damage you cause in the winter will be a construction delay in the spring.
6 of the Best Snow Chains for Trucks
It stands to reason that the best tire chains for one truck won’t be as perfect for another truck. However, there are a few snow chains on the market today that rank very well among a variety of drivers. The following snow chains, presented in no particular order, have some of the highest ratings from real customers on Amazon. While some of these drivers are fellow gearheads, some are just as new to snow chains as the fresh fallen snow, which should give you some perspective on overall quality and usability. Use your own discretion when purchasing, of course, and always exercise caution when driving in wintry conditions.
Primarily for light trucks and SUVs, these are low-profile chains, making them appropriate for Class S requirements. They’re made from manganese alloy steel, and feature a diamond pattern that wraps around the tire. Also of note: they’re self-tightening, which means you connect the cables as directed, and they adjust themselves as you drive off.
Another manganese alloy steel chain, these ladder-style chains are designed to handle the snow-climbing needs of a variety of vehicles, including 4×4 trucks, vans, and larger SUVs. Easy installation is one of the major draws of these chains, as well as their extreme durability, making them a wise investment for people who don’t want to worry about their snow chains.
This cable chain has an extremely low profile, and thanks to its semi-rigid “hoop,” can be stashed away in tight places. Best for light pickup trucks and SUVs, the z-chain construction quickly fits chains into their fasteners for quick and easy installation. No tighteners are required, either.
The flat, fat links on these chains make them ideal for commercial trucks and vans. They come with a color-coded assembly guide, but don’t let that scare you off. They are extremely durable from all accounts, and come at a price point that makes them a great choice for a lot of budgets.
These chains are ideal for drivers who need occasional chain support. They’re not designed for constant use or driving at speeds over 20 miles per hour, but for the average driver who might need extra traction, they’re a nice, easy set to keep on hand. Plus, they’re designed to be kind to your tires, because who wants a flat tire on ice?
These diamond pattern cross chains are constructed of alloy steel, meaning they not only provide a decent ride, but they’re low profile and durable, to boot. Self-tightening ratchets get you up and driving again in no time. They’re designed to be extremely durable with plenty of grip, all while meeting the Class S qualifications.
Remember, even when you have your snow chains installed, it’s a bad idea to drive offensively. As mentioned earlier, water is wet and ice is cold, which means you’ll still need to take care when braking, accelerating, and heading around corners.
Most snow chains are only to be used at speeds under 30 MPH, too, which cuts back on the hooning and drag racing you can do with them. Still, the point of a tire chain is to increase traction and prevent skidding, so you shouldn’t be speeding anyway. Snow chain drag racing belongs on an entirely different section of this site.
Choose your chain wisely, and always drive safely, especially in wintery conditions.