While there are plenty of risky — and fun — activities to do during the winter months, icy roads undeniably present one of the greatest dangers of the season. Tire traction chains are a time-tested way to improve your grip on slick roads.
The editors at GearJunkie are spread throughout the mountain towns of Califonia, Wyoming, and Colorado, where at a certain point every year, carrying tire chains is as natural as the changing of the leaves and the first snowfall. We’ve used, abused, and broken dozens of chains over multiple winters, and installed more than we can count on the vehicles of visiting lowlanders and hapless tourists. We’ve compiled this list of effective and high-quality tire chains so that your next adventure in a winter wonderland can be safe and fun. Nothing ruins a ski trip like dangerously careening into a snow bank.
It’s worth noting that special winter tires are highly recommended in the snowiest and most mountainous environments. And no matter where you are, there are certain things to avoid when driving in winter. Beyond safe driving practices, it’s also wise to keep a winter driving emergency kit in your vehicle for worst-case scenarios. Always check the local weather forecast and road conditions. A lot can change between Pasadena and Mammoth Lakes, and in many cases, highway patrol will not let you proceed if you can’t prove you’re carrying a set of tire chains.
Of course, the ultimate goal is safe winter travel in all conditions, and buying the best snow chains available for your vehicle is an excellent way to ensure this. If you are new to purchasing tire chains, be sure to check out the buying guide, comparison table, and FAQ toward the end of this article.
Editor’s note: This article was updated October 19, 2023, to include detailed information on how we tested tire chains and developed our list of recommendations.
The Best Tire Chains of 2023-2024
- Best Tire Chain Overall: Security Chain Company SZ143
- Best Budget Tire Chain: König CB-12
- Best Tire Chain Runner-Up: Peerless Auto-Trac
- Best Tire Traction for Easy Installation: ISSE Shark Snow Sock
- Snow Chains Best for Low Clearance Vehicles: Glacier Chains Tire Cables
- Best Snow Chains for Trucks: Security Chain Company QG2228CAM Quik Grip Model
Tire Chain Comparison Chart
How We Tested Tire Chains
Putting on a pair of tire chains can be downright miserable. Imagine rolling around in slush puddles with frozen fingers, blindly grasping around your tires for a metal clasp. Maybe you’ve been on the road for a few hours and you’ve got a restless 3-year-old in the back seat. Needless to say, the family ski trip isn’t feeling much like a vacation yet. Our testers are all too familiar with this scenario, and we’re happy to show you another way.
We’ve combed the market to identify tire chain models that actually work.
Tester Matt Bento has lived and worked in the High Sierra for over a decade, spending slushy winters in Yosemite Valley, shoveling snow in Mammoth Lakes, and commuting daily from Reno to South Lake Tahoe for a brief and grueling stint. Every winter he’s needed to put on and take off chains on a daily basis as he moves from higher snowy elevations to the warmer, snow-free valleys.
He’s owned different tire chains for everything from a low clearance Subaru Impreza to a lifted F150 and helped other motorists install and variety of snow chain styles on their cars. All this winter “fun” gives him a solid foundation to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each style of tire traction device.
The best tire chains for you are the ones that work well, fit your tires, match your clearance requirements, and are easy to get on and take off. Secondary considerations include durability and price. Our list of recommendations includes good options for a wide range of vehicles and drivers. As new and innovative models hit the market, we’ll be sure to test them to ensure our list always includes the best of the best.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose Snow Chains
Like any other piece of outdoor gear, the closer you are to purchasing, the more little details emerge that differentiate one product from the next. Choosing the best snow chains for your specific situation is especially important. It can spell the difference between a safe commute and getting into an accident on an icy road.
When deciding between different styles of snow chains, here are a few essential things to consider.
Tension Adjustment and Self-Tensioning
Many modern, higher-end chains on the market offer self-tensioning technology, which can help the installation process. As the vehicle moves and the tires rotate, self-tensioning chains will center and adjust with built-in ratchets.
In turn, this eliminates excess slack in the chain, which increases their overall performance on the snow. If you anticipate using your chains often and need to install and remove them multiple times in a week self-tensioning chains are the way to go. The Peerless Auto-Trac is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a self-tensioning set of chains.
There are plenty of assisted tensioning and manual tensioning chains on the market, as far as other options go. These chains are often more affordable and easier to install initially. You can get a chain over the tire and hook it together without it being under too much tension, drive a short distance, and then re-tighten. This requires an additional step, but can me less time wrestling to the chains on in the first place.
Many premium tire chains include an automatic release. If you drive over big mountain passes with variable snow conditions or cover many miles that may require chains, the automatic release function can be beneficial.
An automatic release can significantly decrease the amount of time you spend manually removing your chains while exposed to cold and potential hazards on the side of the road.
No matter what style of chain you choose, it’s imperative to purchase the correct size. This is critical for the chains to fit appropriately and function as designed.
Thankfully, it’s easy to identify your tire size. It should be printed on the tire sidewall — giving dimensions for tire width, height ratio of the sidewall compared to width, and diameter.
Don’t worry too much about the size specifics. All you need to do is match the overall number to the model number provided by the chain manufacturer. On this list, all of the chains we’ve recommended are available in many different sizes.
Tire traction chain technology has evolved over the past few decades. Some classic materials are still being used, and some newer innovations have been introduced to the market.
Generally speaking, higher-end metal chains are constructed with manganese, titanium, and nickel steel alloys. This offers superior strength and durability. If you drive a large truck or any kind of heavy-duty vehicle, we recommend chains made with extra burly materials. Middle-of-the-road and economy chains are generally made of hardened steel.
While metal chains typically provide more traction control than alternative materials, they can also cause more damage to roads and vehicles. To combat this, the industry has introduced rubber chains and snow socks. While they may not be the best choice for extreme environments, they’re certainly more friendly to your vehicle and the roads you drive on.
As you shop around for the right set of tire chains for your vehicle, you’ll notice differences in weight. Lighter chains will provide adequate traction and better fuel economy. And they’re easier to install, remove, and store.
While worse for overall fuel economy, heavier chains will provide much better friction and are usually more durable. Heavier chains are more cumbersome to transport, carry, and store than the lighter-weight alternatives.
Seeing as you will likely not be driving for more than a few miles at a time with chains on your tires, don’t get too worked up about fuel economy. Similarly, if you’re buying chains merely as an added winter driving precaution and don’t plan on using them often (or perhaps at all), don’t invest in the heaviest option. Regardless of your choice, safety should always be your top concern.
How to Install Snow Chains
Installing snow chains truly is a practice-makes-perfect type of skill. Every brand and style of the chain will install slightly differently. Each set of chains comes with a specific set of instructions, and there is a general method that all drivers should follow.
First and foremost, purchase the correct size chains for your vehicle. Ensuring that your chains are the correct size will prevent excessive frustration during installation. Once you have your chains in hand, we highly recommend that you practice installing them in dry and favorable conditions.
It will be much easier to throw on your chains in a subzero blizzard on the side of the highway if you’ve practiced! The more practice, the better.
As you make a plan to store your chains in your vehicle, build a quick winter emergency kit to go with them. If you get caught off guard and need to put chains on, it’s nice to know you have a set of gloves, a spare coat, a headlamp, and something to kneel on ready in your car.
When the time comes to install your chains, pull off to the side of the road. Make sure you bundle up in winter layers, put on your four-way flashers, and safely move to your targeted tires.
For front-wheel-drive vehicles, install snow chains on the front tires. And for rear-wheel drives, they will go on the back. If you have an all-wheel or 4WD vehicle, the chains will likely work best when installed on the front tires, but check the owner’s manual to be sure.
From here, all installations will differ slightly. It’s best to follow the instructions for your particular set of chains.
In general, you’ll unpack them, untangle them, and start wrapping them around your tire — attaching the connection points where appropriate. Repeat this process for both tires.
Once the chains are attached, you can slowly drive forward 10 to 20 feet to allow the chains to settle. If you do not have self-tensioning chains, get out, and tension them yourself to remove any slack. After you’re confident they are attached tightly and correctly, slowly pull onto the road and begin your drive.
It’s normal to hear and feel a slight rumble with most chains, but you should stop driving immediately if you hear any loud noises. Unusually loud noises or physical jolts can indicate your chains are not tight enough and are knocking against your wheel well. Pull over safely and readjust them.