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What Is a Snow Tire & How Do Snow Tires Work?

What Is a Snow Tire & How Do Snow Tires Work?

Preparing for icy roads would make a ton of sense if you’re living somewhere that’s got frigid weather. 

There’s a difference between regular tires and winter tires. 

We usually refer to them as snow tires, and they’ve been designed to maintain traction on ice. But what makes snow tires different than regular tires?

Snow tires are different than regular tires in that they are rated to specifically excel in winter conditions. Snow tires are designed to give drivers increased traction and are made of rubber that can withstand colder temperatures than all-season tires.

They’ll improve your traction and wintry conditions by utilizing specific tread designs. 

Engineers built them utilizing wider channels than what you’d find on traditional tires.

How Are Snow Tires Different Than Regular Tires?

Snow tires differ from summer tires and all-season tires in several ways. 

To qualify as a snow tire, they’ve got to pass a specific traction performance test. It’s called the 3PMSF, or Three-Peak Mountain Snow Flake, test.

Tires that pass this test receive a special symbol, displayed on their sidewall. You can identify them by looking for the symbol when you’re comparing tire brands.

Manufacturers can’t display this on tires unless they’ve been designed to drive under 45 °F.

In other words, they’re able to maintain traction when the temperature gets as low as 7 °C.

One of the most prominent design features modern engineers use on snow tires would be studs. They’ve even made them using ceramic studs, a cold-resistant material.

Some brands have embedded them into the tire’s rubber surface. Since ceramic has such a hard exterior, it can punch through icy roads while you’re driving.

There is only one problem with this type of design, though. Driving with studded tires can cause a lot of damage if you’re on bare pavement.

Most roads haven’t been designed for cars to drive on them with this type of tire. So, you’ve got to check your local laws to see whether you’re able to use them on your car.

Areas that usually have frozen roads don’t tend to care if you’ve got them on.

It’s worth checking with the authorities to see if they’ve written laws against them. 

You can call your City Hall to speak with the relevant representatives, directly.

Is There a Difference Between Snow Tires and Winter Tires?

You can distinguish snow tires from other winter tires by looking at their treads. A genuine snow tire will use a trend that’s been designed to compact snow, enhancing grip.

Not all winter tires feature treads that gather snow while you’re driving. Some of them channel it away from your car. 

All-season tires are among the most popular options, outside of snow tires.

Winter tires have wider gaps than regular tires, but they’re not as wide as the ones on snow tires. 

So, you won’t notice as much noise if you’re driving on a road that’s been covered with snow. They won’t provide as much traction improvement when you encounter ice, though.

Snow compaction provides grip enhancement when you’re on icy roads. How much it enhances your grip depends on the snow’s composition. 

The warmer and wetter the snow, the more it’s going to enhance your grip.

Some snow tires even use hydrophilic rubber. They are able to repel water if it’s present on the road. 

So, it can make it safer to drive somewhere that’s got both, water and ice.

Typically, you can identify whether you’ve got a snow tire by examining its tread. They’ve got treads featuring deep pits and high void ratios. There should be enough space between each of them to cover the head of a penny.

You can also check to see whether you’ve got shoulder blocks on your tires. 

This is another future that’s been designed to enhance snow compaction if you’ve taken the car on an icy road. 

Look at the outside edge of your tire to check for short blocks.

You can also measure the tire’s diameter and compare it to the tread’s width. 

Doing that calculation will give you its aspect ratio. Most of the time, snow tires have a narrower aspect ratio than what you’d find on an all-season model.

If you look at its rubber closely, you might see something that looks like a bunch of small slits.

That’s called siping, and it also enhances traction on icy roads.

Even snow tires won’t get the job done if you’re on roads covered with hard, compact snow. 

We recommend carrying either a set of studs or chains with you. In a pinch, they can help you maintain traction when things get rough.

What’s the Difference Between Snow Tires and Regular Tires?

Regular tires don’t have the same chemical composition as snow tires. Tires that have been made to perform in the snow use special rubber. That’s why they’re able to maintain traction better whenever it’s cold outside.

Another way you can distinguish regular tires is by looking at their tread design. Since snow tires have deep treads, they are easy to notice. 

Looking at a regular tire shouldn’t, its treads won’t seem nearly as deep, next one made for snow.

The rubber’s surface isn’t going to have any lines in it if you’ve got a regular tire. 

Siping is something engineers made to enhance a snow tire’s traction when water is on the roadway.

You won’t be able to see this if you’re just looking at the tire. 

But, a snow tire will also have hydrophilic compounds embedded into them. Regular ones don’t have to perform on slushy roads. So, they’re not made with hydrophilic compounds.

Studs are often on the surface of snow tires, too. 

A lot of places let you drive on the roads using studded tires, seasonally. They’re able to punch through sheets of ice when the roads get frozen. 

So, it can prevent you from sliding when there’s a ton of ice and water out there.

How Do I Know If I Have Snow Tires?

The best way to tell which type of tire you’ve got is by looking at its code. Tire codes let us know what conditions they’ve been designed to handle.

Manufacturers place them on the sidewall, so finding them usually isn’t too hard. Take a look at your tire’s sidewall to figure out if it’s got any symbols on it.

A capital S would indicate it’s been made to handle snowy conditions.

You can look at the National Tire Manufacturer’s Association to see their tire code guide. It’ll show you what each of the symbols on your tire means. So, you can figure out which type it is.

Identifying snow tires by their tread design is the simplest way to do it by hand. You can’t know for certain unless you check its codes, though.

How Snow Tires Work

Snow tires utilize a combination of features to enhance a car’s traction on ice and water.

One of the biggest differences compared to regular tires is their treads. The tread on a snow tire is usually a lot deeper and wider than a regular one’s.

A snow tire’s tread design isn’t its only distinguishing factor. 

Extremely cold temperatures tend to make rubber get a lot harder, decreasing its grip. 

Engineers use special materials that don’t harden as much when it’s cold to build snow tires.

Some of them even put studs into the tire’s surface, to enhance road contact. 

Studs are able to remain in contact with its surface, even when there’s an ice layer on top. Punching through it lets them maintain contact, ensuring you don’t lose traction.

Manufacturers also cut small slices into the tire’s surface, called siping.

These let the tire divert water away from the center of the tread. Plus, it can even improve snow compaction while you’re on the road.

Finally, snow tires tend to be narrower than what you’d put on your car in the summer.

Mechanics refer to this change as a narrower aspect ratio. In effect, it minimizes your tire’s surface area on the road.

That might not sound like it would help you maintain traction. But, it prevents your car from floating on top of loose snow by centralizing its mass.

Are Snow Tires Effective?

A snow tire’s effectiveness depends on road conditions, tire quality, and a driver’s ability.

High-quality equipment won’t compensate for a lack of knowledge, especially on icy roads. 

When the roads get covered with snow and water, you’ve got to understand how to properly handle a vehicle.

Still, there’s been a lot of science that’s gone into their design. 

A well-made snow tire is going to make it safer to drive if there’s wintry weather outside. Their treads let snow compact into the center, providing grip on the ice.

They’ve got studs, sometimes. 

So, if you’re driving on a thin sheet of ice, they’re still able to touch the road. That’s why you won’t slide around as much if you’ve got them in your car.

Why Should You Get Snow Tires During the Winter

If you’ve had all-season tires put on your ride, you might not think getting snow tires would be necessary. 

However, a set of all-season gear isn’t going to cut it if there’s a ton of snow coating the pavement.

Snow tires incorporate several design elements to enhance your control during the winter. 

Narrowing the tire’s aspect ratio decreases your car’s contact area with the road.

As a result, it’s able to push through thicker layers of snow without losing touch with the asphalt. If you live somewhere that’s regularly below 7 degrees F, you should get snow tires. They’ll make it safer to get behind the wheel of your car.

Zach Reed

Hi, I'm the founder of! Having owned a wide variety of vehicles in my life, I was astounded at how hard it can be to find answers to common automotive questions. Rather than sit idly, I decided to create this website to help others!