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The Difference Between Winter and All-Season Tires, and Why You Should Consider Buying Snow Tires Getty Images
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The weather outside is frightful, and driving is not delightful. And since we’ve got places to go…it’s time to consider how you’re going to get there safely.

When winter weather makes the road conditions treacherous, many of us aren’t so keen on driving. However, there are many things you can do to make your car as safe as possible in the snow, slush, and icy conditions. Many drivers are aware of how effective built-in features such as all-wheel drive, traction control, and anti-lock brakes can be. But, have you considered adding winter tires to your arsenal of cold weather driving?

Here’s why you might want to consider shopping for winter or snow tires before the winter season blasts us with weather conditions that make for potentially danger driving conditions.

I Already Have All-Season Tires. I’m Good, Right?

All season tires are good, but when cold temperatures strike, you could be better prepared.

All-season tires are designed for year-round use. If you think of tires as being like shoes for your car, your all-season tires are like a good pair of tennis shoes or comfy loafers. They’re good most of the time, but there are times you’d rather have your flip flops, or summer tires. There are also times you’d rather have your winter boots, or winter tires.

Just like shoes for humans, tires are designed to take on certain jobs and conditions. All-season tires are designed to take on warm weather, wet roads, and some light snow, but just as your loafers might get slippery and leaky in deep snow, they aren’t meant for extreme conditions.

What Makes Winter Tires Different?

Back in the day, snow tires were only good for driving on snow. Today, winter tires are specifically designed with features that make them ideal for combating the physics of slush.

If you’ve ever driven in snowy conditions, you’ll know that things get slippery very quickly. The reason for this is because ice tends to have a thin layer of water on it, and snow very quickly turns to slush. This means that the roadways become extra wet, and your all-season tires won’t have anything to grip.

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Winter tires combine a specific rubber compound, biting edges, and tread design specifically for this wet/cold combo.

When temperatures drop, rubber becomes very stiff. If you’ve ever gone sledding, you’ll know that stiff things slide very nicely on top of ice and slush. Furthermore, cold rubber will quickly start to crack, peel, and chip apart. Just as you don’t want your own shoes to fall apart, you definitely don’t want your car’s tires to crumble beneath you.

Therefore, you want a tire that’s going to be more pliant. Softer rubber will expand to provide greater surface contact with the road, even when it’s very cold. For this reason, the tread compound on winter tires is made to stay softer even as cold weather sets in.

In fact, you’ll want to make sure winter conditions are truly upon you when you install your winter tires. While driving on dry pavement with most winter tires isn’t necessarily going to impair your braking, accelerating, and cornering, it will tear up your soft new tires. Therefore, experts recommend waiting until you are regularly able to see your breath outside before you install your snow tires. Likewise, when spring rolls around, it’s time to put them back on your tire rack until next winter. Your tread life will thank you.

It’s All in Your Tread

The tread depth can help siphon the water away from the surface where the rubber meets the road, or in this case, where the tire meets the snow. The tread pattern is intended to prevent build-up of snow or ice within the tread itself, which again provides better traction.

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If you take a peek at a set of winter tires, you’ll notice the tread patterns include a deep main channel, with many thinner channels that help push water and moisture back and away from the car as it travels forward.

“Biting edges” are created by a high sipe density. Sipes are what we call those tiny slits that you’ll see in the tire tread blocks. All-weather tires have a few sipes — they’re super helpful in wet conditions — but the tread of winter tires is etched with sipes. Why is this good? They provide greater snow traction by “biting” through that thin layer of water to find the road below.

Some snow tires even include small holes where you can attach studs if needed for traveling across ice and other very treacherous conditions.

How Do I Know What Type of Tire I Need?

If you do a lot of winter driving in icy conditions, you might want to consider winter tires. If you only see a few snowflakes each year, and temperatures rarely drop below freezing for more than a few days at a time, then all-weather might be the right tire for your situation.

It’s always important to have the right tire for the driving conditions you’ll encounter regularly. Tire manufacturers have made it easy to determine which tires will perform well in winter weather — you’ll usually see what’s known as the “Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake Symbol” on the sidewall, which means that tire is rated to perform in severe winter conditions.

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If you do choose winter tires for the cold season, bear in mind that you will need to install them on all four wheels. Some drivers try to install them on the front or rear only, but that essentially will cause the end that doesn’t have snow tires to slip. Basically, it’s only a good idea if you just want to do endless donuts. Which is certainly your prerogative. Send us video.

While all-season tires are a good choice, make sure you’re making the best choice for your car this winter. Carefully consider the weather conditions in your area before making your investment, and make sure that the tires you purchase meet the specifications for the cold, wet, snow, ice, and slush levels of your area. While you’re at it, be sure to slow down and drive safely so you can get home for the holidays.

Products featured on Alt_driver are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

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