Winter delivers the kind of harsh weather that can make driving dangerous. Slapping a set of winter tires onto your ride before the going gets rough is a smart move, especially if you live in an area where snow and ice are a part of your daily routine.
For many drivers, winter tires will alleviate those white-knuckle rides in bad weather, but they won’t do the trick if you’re navigating extremely snow- and ice-covered roads or pushing through mountain regions. If, like me, you live in milder climates like the lowland parts of the Pacific Northwest or California, and periodically drive up to ski areas or through mountain passes, then buying winter tires and switching them with summer or all-season tires at the start and end of winter may not be worth the expense, time, and trouble.
Tire chains and other traction devices offer a less costly (if not more convenient) alternative, and it’s even mandatory in 11 Western states to at least carry them in your vehicle in certain areas and weather conditions. Here’s how they work: By increasing the friction coefficient between a tire’s rubber and slippery surfaces, tire chains add an extra layer of traction and protection when taking on sharp turns and steep inclines.
Even so, tire chains can be a bit of a nuisance to mount. Since they shouldn’t be used on pavement that’s not covered in snow and ice, it typically means you’re putting tire chains on in cold, snowy, and miserable circumstances. For that reason, it’s advisable to give your tire chains a run-through prior to actual use. By pre-fitting, you’ll have a chance to familiarize yourself with the installation process, which hopefully minimizes the time needed when you’re installing them in averse conditions. There’s also a speed limitation with tire chains—you can’t drive more than 30 mph with chains on without risking damage to your wheels, tires, and chains.
Tire chains should go on all drive wheels of your vehicle. If you have a 4WD or AWD vehicle, put tire chains on all four tires which means you will need to purchase two sets as these typically are bought in pairs.
The Best Tire Chains
- Best All-Around: König XG-12 Pro 235
- Best Budget: Security Chain Company Radial Chain SC1032
- Best for Trucks and SUVs: Peerless 0232105 Auto-Trac Light Truck/SUV Tire Traction Chain
- Best for Passenger Vehicles: Security Chain Company SZ339 Shur Grip Super Z Passenger Car Tire Traction Chain
- Most Versatile: Security Chain Company Z-579 Z-Chain Extreme Performance
What to Consider When Buying Tire Chains
You wouldn’t put just any tires on your vehicle, right? So the same goes for a traction device on your tires. Tire chains need to fit the specific size tires on your vehicles. If they’re too small they won’t fit around your tire, and if they’re too large they will be loose could potentially damage your vehicle. Be sure to check your vehicle owner’s manual because some automakers explicitly state that chains should never be used on certain vehicles, while almost all caution that damage from improper or poorly installed chains may void a vehicle’s warranty.
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Next, you’ll need to decide what type of traction device to use. “Snow chains” is a catchall term for both actual chains and for cables which consist of tightly twisted wire that are usually lower in cost and can be quicker to install than chains. There are also temporary and even easier-to-install options like tire socks and cleats.
Some devices come with or without tensioners to keep the chains or cables tight. In this roundup, I’ve tested several self-tensioning snow chains that come with spring-loaded arms or plastic clips. If they’re not included, you’ll need to separately purchase spider-style tensioners.
How We Evaluated Tire Chains
To test these snow chains, I enlisted the help of my friend Francois Pelletier, who literally grew up on skis, ski slopes, and winter mountains since his family ran resort restaurants (and his sister Monique is a two-time Olympic skier). We met at Oregon’s Mt. Hood Meadows and tried out several snow chains and other “traction devices” using a 2017 Honda CR-V.
Testing was done after a week of snow. The roads up to Mt. Hood Meadows and the ski area’s parking lots had been plowed and featured a variety of conditions ranging from several inches of relatively fresh snow to ice-covered asphalt to almost bare pavement.
We drove up to the ski area on Oregon Highway 35 and then did laps around the Mt. Hood Meadows parking lot and on some of the resorts’ private roads. Our test routes included an assortment of flat surfaces, snow-covered grades, and tight turns. We gauged the recommended devices for their overall traction proficiency, the road feel and driving comfort, stopping distance under hard braking, and how difficult they were to take on and off the CR-V’s front 235/60R18 snow tires.