CUV on a winter road driving through snow with winter tires.

Tire buying guides

What makes a winter tire? Here’s your guide.

The winter season can be a difficult one for you and your car, but preparing your car for the winter season is not as tough as it used to be. In today's day and age, vehicles and tires are far more capable of handling ice, slush, snow, and lower temperatures, and that's why most of us do little more than toss an ice scraper in the back seat. Grandpa can keep his tire chain and kitty litter stories for another day.

Being far more capable is far from ideal, though. Just because your car can handle all conditions doesn't mean it's doing it well. If you want to get the best out of your car in the winter season, consider some additional preparation.

We'll leave the discussion of winter tune-ups to the pros in that division. We want to focus on tires.

What's the main difference between winter tires and other tires?

The primary differences between winter tires and all other tire types are the rubber compounds used and the tread. The main qualifiers for winter tires? Compounds that can perform in cold temperatures and tread that can dig into the conditions and provide traction.

That's a really simple way to look at things. What defines winter conditions varies quite a bit. Tires can be built to handle different winter conditions than others, meaning not all winter tires are the same.

In all cases, the compounds used are typically constant. Most winter tires are designed to perform in temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a typical temperature for many places in the United States during the winter months. While they might have variations in temperature ranges that they can function within, it's not something you usually need to read into much.

What you want to pay attention to are the tread features. At the very least, the tires need special grooves that allow them to handle normal driving while rolling through the occasional pile of slush. They also need little squiggles, known as sipes, within the tread that expand as the tire rolls to increase grip on wet and slippery roads.

Moving to a more aggressive tread pattern is advised if you live in an area where thicker layers of snow or ice might sit on the roads. If you are constantly rolling over sheets of ice during your commute, studs would be ideal assuming they’re allowed in your city and state.

While tire manufacturers generally provide tread information, we make it simple, with call-outs to a tire's patterns and other special tread features within our product description, features, and images. You don't need to be a tread nerd or tire diva to survive. Our main point is that you do want to take your time when shopping around to make sure you pick a winter tire that best matches the winter conditions in your area.

Close-up of winter tire tread with sipes

Do winter tires really work?

Yes. Winter tires really work. They're intended for use in the winter, and tire manufacturers are very good at what they do.

How much of a difference you can expect to experience with winter tires depends on a few factors.

Like all tires, winter tires are available in different varieties to cover fitment needs. A sports car, for example, will likely use summer or ultra-high-performance tires for faster cornering so moving to a standard set of winter tires might hinder performance. Fortunately, ultra-high-performance winter tires, like the Pirelli P Zero Winter, are built for sports cars when the temperature is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit so that these drivers can still receive high-end traction and cornering performance. All that’s to say, do your research to make sure the winter tires you’re considering make the most sense for your car, truck, CUV, SUV, or minivan.

Things might be a little more subtle when you move from an all-season or all-weather tire to a winter tire that's simply designed for colder temperatures and slush. In fact, most all-weather tires are Three Peak Mountain Snowflake rated so they could be a good option if you only see moderate ice, slush, and snow, and want a set of tires that can be used year-round. That’s not to say winter tires can’t be used in moderate winter weather; just remember that they can only be used when temperatures are consistently below 45 degrees so they cannot be used year-round.

As with any tire selection, it really comes down to what you’re looking for performance-wise, what your budget is, and what, where, and how you drive.

Three Porsche 911 sports cars driving on a snow field

Is there a huge difference while driving on winter tires?

As long as you match the winter tire to the application and conditions, you should notice a big difference.

A good example is a rear-wheel drive sports car, like a Porsche 911. In this case, even the all-season tires may fail to provide traction when a thin layer of slush or ice is on the road. Rolling over it with all-season tires might not send you spinning out of control, but you can certainly pick up on the lack of traction when the tires glide for a split second.

Driving on a set of winter tires will vastly reduce the likelihood of this occurring.

What if conditions are more severe? Let's say you're driving that same car, and there are thick layers of snow on the road. The car isn't equipped to handle those road conditions. You may fail to gain traction until moving to the most aggressive tire or resorting to studs.

The situation changes when you move to an all-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, or even a front-wheel drive application where the engine’s weight is over the front tires.

In many situations, these applications might not have trouble maintaining traction during the winter with an excellent all-season tire on until winter conditions become more severe. However, if heavy layers of snow are on the roads, a properly-selected winter tire will make massive improvements.

Again, it all depends on the application, the conditions, and what tire you select.

Can I leave my winter tires on all year?

You can leave winter tires on your car all year, but it's not a good idea.

The compounds used in winter tires are specifically developed with freezing temperatures in mind. In other words, the compound performs optimally in the winter. However, anything above 45-degrees Fahrenheit can create issues for winter tire performance and tread life, and lead to a blowout.

How long should I keep my winter tires on?

It depends on where you live. While winter only lasts three months on the calendar, the "winter" conditions in your region can start in fall and last through the spring. In many states, you can expect to drive on winter tires for about four months.

You should only switch from winter tires when temperatures and conditions are consistently above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. That may mean leaving them on for an extra few weeks, but it certainly doesn't mean an odd off-season heatwave should inspire you to return to summer tires.

What happens when I use winter tires in summer?

Driving winter tires in the summer wears them out faster. This is because the compound used features a higher natural rubber content. The additional rubber helps them to remain pliable in colder conditions and makes them softer than all-season tires. The softer nature of the winter tire leads to rapid wear when used in conditions outside of its intended range.

The additional cost of replacing winter tires shouldn't be your only concern, though. The softer compound can overheat much easier, leading to a blowout if they are pushed to their limits.

You also want to keep the tread design in mind. The designs used on winter tires are intended for winter conditions, and you may fail to get the best performance out of your car if you use a winter tire in place of an all-season or summer tire.

Do winter tires wear out faster than normal tires?

Yes and no, but also yes.

As we already know, winter tires wear rapidly when driving in temperatures above their intended range. That same issue will occur whenever you drive on a tire outside of the conditions it's intended for.

Winter tires won't wear any more quickly than a normal tire so long as they’re used in winter conditions and stored correctly when they’re not being used.

Things get a little cloudy when you consider tread depth. Unlike the typical all-season tire, winter tires don't come new with 11/32-inches of tread. Instead, they usually come with around 6/32-inches of tread.

In other words, winter tires won't last as many miles as an all-season tire, even if they are limited to exclusive use in the wintertime.

Should the shorter tread life of winter tires deter you? No. Ultimately, they are the right tire to drive on during the colder months of the year if you want extra traction in tougher ice, slush, and snow.

Does that mean your all-season tires won't get you through the winter? No. It all depends on the application, where you live, and how harsh winter conditions are there.

Yellow Ford Mustang roadside with snow

In short, you do need to do some homework when it comes to picking the right tire for the winter months. That's what we're here for. Our customer service lines are dedicated to providing you with the exact answers you need and can even set you up with an appointment to get the best set of winter tires installed.

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