Everything You Need to Know About Winter Tires and Snow Tires

All-season tires don't cover everyone's winter needs.

Blue 2016 Ford Focus RS in snowFord


You don't need to live in a place that sees freezing temperatures or snow for winter tires to be worth your while. If the mercury regularly dips below 45 degrees Fahrenheit where you drive, consider shopping for a set of cold-weather rubber.

What Is a Winter Tire or Snow Tire?

Winter tires are meant for colder temperatures. They use a specially formulated rubber compound that will stay pliable and grippy in the cold, which can be important even in dry conditions. They also have large-gap tread patterns and little tread block slits called sipes to help the tire's grip and provide traction on snow and ice.

An all- or four-wheel-drive system may be enough to get your vehicle moving from a stop on a slippery surface, but it likely won't help you when stopping and turning, unlike winter tires.

Is There a Difference Between Winter and Snow Tires?

Winter and snow tires are largely interchangeable. What many people refer to as snow tires the industry categorizes as winter tires, as you may need these tires regardless of your region's snowfall. Many folks tend to think of snow when they think of winter and hence use the terms interchangeably.

How Long Do Winter Tires Last?

Compared with a standard all-season tire, a winter tire has a softer rubber compound, and because of that, it generally wears out quicker in terms of mileage — lasting about 40,000 miles as opposed to around 60,000 for an all-season. Keep in mind, however, that your vehicle should wear winter tires only during the cold part of the year, so you'll spread out those miles over three to five seasons, depending on how much you drive. Plus, any amount driven on the winters is mileage you aren't putting on your rest-of-the-year tires, extending their usability.

How Are Winter Tires Different From All-Season and All-Weather Tires?

Despite what their names might suggest, all-season and all-weather tires don't actually perform as well as winter tires in colder temperatures. It's not really feasible to create one tire to rule them all, as every tire has just one compound and tread design. But tiremakers nevertheless try.

All-seasons, then, are inherently a compromise, using a compound that works reasonably well across a wide range of conditions but falls short at the extremes. They're great for those who don't see cold winters but aren't ideal for low-temperature driving.

How Much Should You Inflate Snow Tires?

As long as your snow tires are the same size as the tires that came with your car, you can go by the pressures listed on the label in the driver's-side door jamb. Some manufacturers recommend upping the pressure in winter tires by around 3 psi to help offset some of the squirminess caused by the larger and deeper tread blocks. Check your car's manual for specific recommendations.

Can You Use Winter Tires in Summer?

While there's nothing stopping you from using winter tires out of season, it is not advisable. (The same goes for using summer or all-season tires in snow and ice.) Winter rubber compounds get too soft in warm temperatures, leading to excessive wear, reduced grip, and increased stopping distances.

How Should You Store Snow Tires?

Winter tires prefer the cold, and that applies to storage too. Good places to keep your winter tires in the warmer months include a basement or insulated garage. Some tire shops offer off-season storage for your extra set of rubber; just make sure their warehouse is climate controlled.

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David Gluckman
David Gluckman has over a decade of experience as a writer and editor for print and digital automotive publications. He can parallel park a school bus, has a spreadsheet listing every vehicle he’s ever tested, and once drove a Lincoln Town Car 63 mph in reverse. When David’s not searching for the perfect used car, you can find him sampling the latest gimmicky foodstuffs that America has to offer.