Brave the Snow: 5 Truths About Winter Tires

Waking to fresh snowfall is a beautiful thing. A new world of adventure awaits—powdery alpine slopes, deep cross-country trails through dusted evergreens and gorgeous vistas from plush snowshoe trails.

Unless, of course, you’re stuck inside because you can’t get your car out of the driveway or you live in fear of braving snow-covered highways on your hockey-puck rubber.

This year, we want you to consider proper tires as an essential part of your winter gear arsenal. If you live anywhere that sees single-digit Celsius temperatures or lower, we want you to swap out your all-seasons and toss on a set of winter-rated tires.

Here are five tips to help you make the switch to soft-rubber:

1. Three Peaks and a Snowflake

Let’s address the basics. What is a “winter tire?” You may be more familiar with the term “snow tire.” Years ago, however, tire manufacturers ditched the term “snow tire” and started calling their cold-weather donuts “winter tires.” Their reasoning was sound. Winter tires are for more than simply snowy conditions; the old moniker was misleading.

But the newer name, to many, is equally as confusing.

You see, most all-season tires are rated M+S, which means “mud and snow.” These tires often meet the basic legality for use on some highways that require “winter tires,” like mountain passes through British Columbia. But they’re not true winter tires. They’re merely rated for “use in mud and snow.” We’d like you to do more than “basic legality.”

True winter tires have a distinct symbol on their sidewalls: a three-peaked mountain with a snowflake (3PMSF). If your tire doesn’t have this symbol, it is not a proper winter tire and will not perform adequately in cold temperatures. (To make things trickier, 3PMSF tires will also display M+S on the sidewall.)

Oh—and toss out your studded tires. Our roads get more than enough wear-and-tear, thank you, and modern studless tires actually perform better in variable winter conditions than studded tires.

2. Swap-Out from Thanksgiving to Easter (or so)

Along with their winter-specific tread patterns, modern winter tires perform so well in frigid conditions because their rubber compound remains sticky even at extreme low temps—when all-seasons turn to hockey pucks. (This is why winter tires should be used even in snowless conditions when the mercury drops below seven degrees Celsius. Talking to you, Vancouver!)

However, the reverse is also true—the warmer it gets, the already sticky compound of a winter tire gets even stickier. And just as your all-seasons turn to hockey pucks in the cold months, winter tires turn to bubblegum during the hot months. Which doesn’t help longevity.

So swap them out—a good rule of thumb is to change your all-season tires to winter tires around Thanksgiving if you live in a snowy climate, or American Thanksgiving if you live in southwestern BC; and put the all-seasons back on around Easter for southwestern BC’ers, or at the end of April/beginning of May for folks in frostier climes.

Follow this advice and you’ll likely get four to five seasons from your winter tires.

3. Always Use Four

You may see old pickup trucks with chunky tires on the back, or front-wheel-drive compacts with snow tires up front. Give these vehicles a wide berth.

Always—always, always—put winter tires on every rim. When it comes to two-wheel-drive vehicles, old-timey advice often suggests putting grippy snow tires only on your drive-wheels and leaving all-seasons on the others. By doing so, you’ve created a traction imbalance on your car. This system may help you climb a hill, but while braking or steering—you’re in trouble.

With snow tires only on the front, you have hard-biting front tires and hockey-puck rears. So under heavy braking conditions, your rear tires can slip-and-slide, potentially causing you to spin. Same with cornering—you’ll bite hard into the turn but risk a dangerous fishtail or oversteer as the rear tires break loose.

With snow tires only on the back, you may have acceleration-traction for your rear-wheel-drive truck—but no steering. Hard braking conditions will see the front tires lock-up while the rears bite… you’ll slow down a bit, sure, but be unable to avoid that tree. Plus, you risk not making the corner at all should you come in hot, due to understeer.

TL;DR: If you can’t put four winter tires on your ride—take the bus.

(Check out 1:30 onward in the above Rubber Association of Canada video to see the proof.)

4. AWD Doesn’t Help You Stop

There’s a saying when it comes to all-wheel-drive vehicles: AWD gets you up the hill, but winter tires get you back down. Modern all-wheel-drive, with the added bonus of traction control, is a blessing when you’re ascending the ski hill. But AWD does nothing when it’s time to slam on the brakes. That’s when winter tires will save you. Same goes for cornering.

Think of it like this: for every safety system in your vehicle, only one component is actually touching the surface upon which you drive—your tires. Skimping on tires is like putting paper wings on a jetliner.

(Watch the great demo from Zack Spencer above.)

5. You Need Them. (Yes, Even You.)

Not only have I heard it all—I’ve said some of it myself… in the past:

“Snow tires are for people who don’t know how to drive in the snow.”

Re-read the part about braking. It doesn’t matter how skilled a driver you are—winter tires can reduce your stopping distance by two to three car-lengths at 50 km/h. So unless you have extra-sensory perception and can predict every driving variable before it happens—proper tires can be the difference between stopping safely and a serious smash-up.

“Good all-season tires are all you need.”

I have never heard any tire expert—or any automotive expert—agree with this statement. No matter what tread pattern you have, no matter what size of tire, no matter what type of vehicle—all-season rubber becomes too hard in sub-zero temps. Physics and thermodynamics don’t lie—all-season tires simply cannot grip well in cold weather.

“I have all-wheel-drive so I don’t need snow tires.”

Refer to item number four (or watch the RAC video above). Tests have proven—even when it comes to uphill grip, two-wheel-drive vehicles with winter tires can equal or even outperform all-wheel-drive vehicles with all-season tires. All-wheel-drive with winter tires? Now you’re adventure-ready!

“I’ve driven in the snow my whole life. I don’t need snow tires.”

After Quebec implemented mandatory winter tires in 2008, they recorded nearly 600 fewer traffic-related injuries that first winter. Those 600 extra Quebeckers who ended up in the hospital the year previous? They’d likely driven in the snow a while too.

“It’ll never happen to me” is what people tend to say right before it happens to them. There are, on average, roughly 1,800 traffic fatalities in Canada every year. You owe it to yourself, your loved ones and the others on the road to mitigate the variables as best you can.

So get outside this winter—with proper tires.

4 Winter Tires To Check Out

Cooper Tires Discoverer True NorthBoasting a quiet ride and excellent slush, ice and snow grip, Cooper Tires are consistently well-rated with drivers. (Pictured.)

BF Goodrich Winter T/A KSI. These are a modestly priced but well-regarded option designed for light trucks and cars, offering meaty grip and long tread life.

Bridgestone Blizzak WS80. Consistently one of the most popular winter-tire choices in Canada, Blizzaks have been in the Bridgestone lineup for nearly 30 years.

Gislaved Nord*Frost 200. A brand that’s relatively new to Canada, but with 120 years of heritage abroad. These Swedish tires were made to brave the frosty roads of Scandinavia—so they should do just fine here.