Snow Tires vs Chains

Snow Tires vs Chains (which to choose for your car & why)

As most drivers know, winter roads present special challenges. This is especially true when it comes to your tires, which form the only connection between your car and the road surface. The ice, snow, wind, and rain of winter can have a major impact. This is why I recommend installing winter tires or snow chains for the winter. Here I’ll bring you my snow tires vs chains comparison, to help you choose the right option for you.

Even with a four-wheel or all-wheel drive car, the power of your vehicle is meaningless if your tires cannot get traction on the road. That is why drivers get snow tires or chains.

In this article I will explain the features of each and help you decide whether you should choose winter tires or snow chains this coming winter.

Are Snow Chains the Same as Snow Tires? (key differences)

No, there are key differences between snow chains and snow tires. Both give you enhanced traction and performance in snow and winter conditions, but there are significant differences.

Snow Chains vs Snow Tires

Here are the differences between snow chains and snow tires.

Snow Chains

Snow chains are sometimes known simply as tire chains. They allow you to keep your existing tires during winter because they install around your existing tire to provide grip on icy, snowy, sleety, muddy, or wet roads.

They remain the best choice if you are in areas where the weather can turn bad quickly, such as mountainous locations.

Snow Tires

Commonly known as winter tires, these are specially designed tires that can be used in wintery road conditions. They provide traction on snow, ice, and wet surfaces.

It is worth noting they are not the same as all-season tires. Instead, winter tires have a special rubber compound, and you can spot them by a “Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake” symbol shown on the sidewall.

Studded Snow Tires

These are ultra-specialist tires that have metal studs embedded into the tread. With the durable spikes, the tire can dig into ice and get traction on even the most slippery of ice.

However, if there is no ice on the road, studded tires will cause damage to the road surface. You can learn more in my article about whether studded tires are worth it.

Quick Comparison: Snow Chains vs Snow Tires

Now let’s dive into a quick side-by-side look at the benefits (and drawbacks) of choosing snow tires vs chains for your vehicle:

Snow Tires


  • Improved grip
  • Better braking distances
  • Work under most winter conditions


  • Despite excellent grip, snow tires do not provide good handling
  • Rubber wears quickly if used on normal road conditions
  • Expensive

Tire Chains


  • Cost-effective winter driving solutions
  • Can be used over multiple years
  • Ideal for one-time or infrequent use


  • Almost unusable on normal roads
  • Limits to how fast you can drive (20-30mph max)

Comparing Traction and Performance: Snow Tires vs Chains

Next, let’s dig a little deeper and give you some detailed information about the traction, grip and safety differences between chains and snow tires.

Winter Tires

One of the biggest dangers to any tire is significant fluctuations in temperature. If it is too hot or too cold, the rubber compound can degrade.

For regular tires, the compound will start to degrade and get hard once the temperature below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter tires are different because the compound is specially formulated to stay flexible and soft in cold conditions.

Winter Tires on a Car

This essentially means they will continue to perform at an optimal level when gripping the road. Winter tires also have treads that are deeper than regular tires, which allows greater traction on ice, snow, slush, and even mud.

You may be worried about what happens if you use your winter tire in hot weather. Well, winter tires can acclimatize to hot conditions, which means if you are driving from a cold location to a hot one, there is no need to change the tires.

However, you shouldn’t leave winter tires on your car for the whole of the warm season. Remember, winter tires are made for cold weather, not hot.

The tread on winter tires can wear quicker than regular tires, so I do not advise using them as an all-season solution.

Speaking of all-season tires, many motorists believe they can use these tires during winter. In many regions, this is true.

But if you live somewhere with especially severe winters, you should change to winter tires for the winter season. All-season tires probably won’t be enough.

Even the California Department of Transportation agency (Caltrans) actively prohibits the use of anything but approved winter tires (or snow chains on all-season tires) during snowstorms.

Snow Chains

Snow chains are definitely a good option, especially if you’re in a major winter storm including snow and significant ice. They’re also perfect if you are caught out by the weather on a long drive.

For this reason, I always recommend carrying a set of snow chains in your vehicle during winter. Snow chains are an ultra-affordable winter driving solution.

Snow Chains on a Car Tire for Winter Driving

If you’re on a limited budget, this makes them a no-brainer over expensive winter tires. Still, there are some major considerations to remember when using snow chains.

In my opinion, these really are only for the most wintery conditions. I say this because driving in snow chains can be a chore at best and infuriating at worst.

For those who like driving at 25mph or lower at all times and with limited handling, snow chains are good. But you’ll also have to contend with the noise of metal scraping across the surface, as well as vibrations on the steering wheel.

For those of us who try to avoid a miserable driving experience, snow chains should be nothing more than an emergency tool or a useful backup to winter tires.

Chains vs Snow Tires Cost Difference

Cost is one of the biggest differences between snow chains and winter tires.

While I’m not a big fan of the driving experience with snow chains, they’re a cost-effective solution.

You can pick up a set of quality tire chains (like these ones on Amazon) from around $50 to $150. A good snow tire, on the other hand, costs around $150 (yes, just for one).

Of course, you can go more affordable and more expensive for both chains and tires, but on average you’ll pay around four times more for tires than you would for chains.

When you consider longevity, chains are another wise investment. Chains can last for years, and if they break they’re relatively easy to fix.

Winter tires are good for around 15,000 miles, but exactly how long they last depends on how much you drive during the winter.

Either way, you’re probably going to be swapping out your tires every 3 to 4 years.

Do I Need Snow Tires If I Have Chains on my Tires?

In most situations no. Winter tires are an alternative to snow chains that let you drive in winter conditions like snow, ice, mud, and slush.

However, some states offer guidelines about using chains depending on the severity of the snowstorm.

Car With Snow Chains on Tire

California is a good example, with Caltrans listing the following requirements for tire care during snowstorms:

  • Snow tires or chains must be installed.
  • Chains are required on all vehicles except four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with snow tires on all four wheels.
  • Chains are required on all vehicles, no exception.

For the most part, you’re unlikely to see conditions that lead to the third requirement in your state. Still, it is worth checking with the laws in your states regarding the use of snow tires or chains.

About Using Chains Instead of Winter Tires

Snow chains aren’t suitable for everyday driving. That is because of the hampered driving experience mentioned above.

They don’t work on dry roads and limit many aspects of your driving, and they can damage roads.

Winter tires are a better option if you’re driving in conditions that frequently change. Here are the reasons why:

No Need to Swap Tires/Remove Chains Day-to-Day

One of the downsides of snow chains is that you have to take them off when they’re not needed. That is a big hassle when the conditions change.

Do Not Damage Driveways or Roads

One of the many disadvantages of chains is that they’ll damage driveways and roads. Winter tires, on the other hand, will not cause this kind of damage.

Are Much Safer on Dry Roads

It can be dangerous to use chains on dry roads. That is another reason why winter tires are a better bet.

Allow You to Drive Normally

With winter tires, you can drive normally even if the weather changes and the roads get dry. That’s not the case with chains.

Is it Worth it to Use Chains on Winter Tires?

The only time you might consider adding chains to winter tires is if there is a particularly dangerous snowstorm. They’re ideal in mountainous regions during the winter months where you may encounter constant snow and ice.

However, in all other scenarios winter tires are a better option because they deliver excellent traction on snowy/icy and dry roads.

If you’re in a region that requires winter tires then that means you can expect snow, ice, slush, and wet driving conditions.

If the weather takes a turn for the worse, you may need the backup of snow chains. While they’re frustrating in normal conditions, chains are helpful in severe snowstorms.

Do Snow Chains Ruin Tires?

They can, but only if you misuse them. Snow chains should only be installed on top of a tire if there is ice and snow on the paved road.

If you run chains on a dry road, they can dig into the tire rubber and cause damage. They also cause tire wear under braking and accelerating if you use them on normal roads.

Whether it is dry or snowy, if you exceed 30mph, you can wave goodbye to the front fender of your car.

Tips for Driving in Snow with Chains on Your Tires

If you need to install tire chains, there are some things you can do to ensure the best results. When you hear a slapping or metal-on-metal sound, a broken chain is likely the cause.

Below are some of my other top tips for driving with snow chains.

Stay at 25 mph or Slower

Stick to 25mph or under to avoid vehicle damage

Never Drive on Dry Pavement Without Snow or Ice

If you have chains on your tires, you cannot drive on dry pavement that doesn’t have any snow or ice. If you do, you’ll end up damaging the pavement and causing problems with your tires.

Avoid Sudden Braking and Don’t Spin or Lock Wheels

When you have chains on your tires, it’s extremely important to avoid sudden braking as much as you possibly can. It’s also crucial to avoid spinning or locking your wheels.

Tips for Driving in Winter with Snow Tires

Snow tires are much more low maintenance than tire chains, at least during normal driving conditions. Still, there are some things you can do to ensure you stay safe.

Even with snow tires, you should follow these winter driving tips:

  • Drive Super Smoothly
  • Look Far Ahead
  • Remember the Importance of Traction
  • Monitor Your Speed

Do You Really Need Winter Tires or Snow Chains?

Not everyone lives in an area where winter tires or snow chains are a safety requirement.

Winter Tires Compared to Snow Chains

So how do you know if you can get by with all-season tires rated for snow instead of investing in a second set of tires, or in chains for your vehicle?

If your location never gets snow or ice, you can drive through winter on all-season tires.

If the temperature in your area regularly drops below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius), you may have to install winter tires and carry chains for emergencies.

In many states that have severe winters, laws dictate that you must install winter tires during the cold season.

Final Thoughts: Snow Tires vs Chains

While many people debate about whether snow chains or winter tires are best, the reality is they serve slightly different purposes.

A winter tire will be your everyday driving tire during severe winter conditions. They give a normal driving experience with added traction for winter.

Tire chains, on the other hand, are a more bespoke product. They’re perfect in extreme snowstorms and are worth carrying in your vehicle in case you get caught out by severe winter weather.

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