How to Use Snow Chains

The safest and quickest ways to use chains for better tractions.

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Traction control is a tricky issue when there is snow on the ground. All vehicles, even ones with all-wheel drive, can face the challenges of slipping and sliding on wet snow or ice, especially when the weather comes suddenly. If you'd like to keep your vehicle from careening off the road into a ditch, the best solution is a high-quality set of tire chains.

Unlike snow tires, traction chains are easy to get onto the vehicle while out on the open road. Best of all, you don’t need the best snow chains for great traction. While the best tire chains have a few extra convenience perks, you can get any chain set to work. This means you can get your vehicle winterized even when the snow hits, no matter where you are. Here's how...

Safety

Since you are likely to use snow chains out on the open road (unless you actually plan ahead and look at a weather report), staying safe is key while putting chains on your tires. 

  1. Find an area to safely attach the tire chains, ideally away from other traffic.
  2. Make sure to have the emergency brake on when you position the tire chains.
  3. Buy the right length of tire traction chain. Different tire sizes need different lengths of chain. For example, SUV tires will often require longer chains along with rubber tensioners or another tensioning system. Some tires meant for low-profile or limited-clearance vehicles will be shorter.
  4. Practice installing the snow chains before you need to use them.
  5. Keep your speed in check. With most passenger vehicles, you shouldn’t expect a smooth ride. The cross member chains will offer excellent traction but can create a bumpy ride at high speeds. 

Things You'll Need

The great thing about typical tire chains is you don't need any special tools to get the chains on the tires. Instead, all you need are:

  • Traction Chains: A set of two or four chains will be enough to get the job done, depending on the number of drive wheels. Heavy-duty, self-tensioning chains are the best. Cable tire chains also work.
  • Vehicle: This may seem obvious, but snow chains really need a vehicle to work. Even if you have an SUV or light truck that seems like it can handle the bad weather with snow tires, quality chains are the best way to get the traction you need.

Preparation

Whether you're at home or find yourself on the road, prepping your vehicle for snow chains is easy if you find the right spot. You can install the chains while on sloping hills or flat roads, but the most important thing is to have some distance in front of you to pull the vehicle forward.

  • If you are on the road, pull the vehicle over to the side. Ideally, you should have a good deal of road shoulder to stay safe from traffic.
  • Identify your drive wheels. This will let you know where you need to put the snow chains.

Using Snow Chains

Snow chains can seem challenging to use at first. If it's your first time putting chains onto your tires, you should expect some trial and error that may or may not test your ability to use PG-friendly words while under duress. With some persistence, and the occasional mumbled swear word, chains are much easier to use than other traction control solutions. 

Installing the Snow Chains

Most traction chains use a similar installation process, even when companies tout their "easy-installation" technology that drives up the price tag. Note: Repeat these steps for each chain you need to install.

Prepare the Chains

If you can get the snow chains readied and positioned near the wheels, getting them onto the tires will be much easier. 

  1. Get the chains out of the vehicle. Unless you have a handy carrying case for the chains, you should expect them to be tangled. 
  2. Place the chains on the ground near the tires. Untangle the chains on the ground until you have them laying flat.
    • If your chains have V-bar links, make sure the V-bars are pointing up to contact the road surface. Cable chains should be able to go in either direction.
  3. Straighten out the chains next to the tire. Don't worry about getting the chain on the tire yet. Just straighten out the other end and side chains so everything is lined up.
    • If your chains have some kind of tensioning system, make sure the cam tensioners or self-tensioner mechanisms are on the outside of the wheel for easy access.

Mount the Snow Chains 

With the chains positioned, you can now start the careful process of getting the chains placed onto the tire.

  1. Lift the chain onto the top of the tire. Be careful not to get the chain tangled as you lift.
  2. Square the chain up around the tire. Make sure the side chains are sitting along both sidewalls of the tire. 
    • The cross chains should be straight on the tire as well.
  3. Place the end fasteners near the base of the tire. Keep the fasteners on each side of the tire so they have room to connect later on.

Connect the Chains Together

If everything has been positioned correctly, the chains should stay on the tire while moving the end fasteners into position to be connected.

  1. Gently move the car forward. You should only need to move the vehicle less than a foot to get everything positioned. The end fasteners should be behind the tire while the opposite end continues to hang along the back of the wheel.
  2. Hook the fasteners to the opposite end. Start with the inner fastener for better access. Try to get the chains as tight as possible.
  3. Tighten the chains. This step will vary depending on the type of chains you have. Some snow tire chains have self-tightening systems or tightening ratchets you can use on the chains. Others have separate rubber tighteners. 

Drive

The chains should now be ready to move and use. Like other traction devices, pay attention to the amount of grip the chains deliver. You may need to readjust them if the wheels continue to slip.

Removing the Snow Chains

Thankfully, getting snow chains off of your tires is much easier than putting them on.

Disconnect the Chains

All you really need to do to disconnect the chains is unhook them. Keep in mind, however, you can't completely remove them until the passenger car is no longer sitting on them.

  1. Unhook the fasteners. It's best if the fasteners are sitting on top of the wheel.
  2. Unfold the chain and lay it on the ground.
  3. Repeat these steps for each chain.

Remove the Chains

Now it's time to get the vehicle off of the chains so you can pack them up and put them away.

  1. Drive the car forward. The tires should be completely off of the chains.
    • Be careful not to park the rear tires on any front-wheel chains.
  2. Pick up the chains. You can now pack them away and place them back into the vehicle.

Tips

  • Bungee tensioners are a good solution for snow chains that lack a cam tensioner or self-tensioning system.
  • When you remove the snow chains from your tires, be sure to wash them well to remove any dirt, snow, mud, and debris. Hang them up for storage, and spray them with WD40 to keep them in good shape.
  • To check the clearance of your tire, make a sweeping motion with your hand back and forth over the tire from the front to the back. If your hand goes around without striking anything, the tire has good clearance.
  • Try to avoid hitting a pothole when you have snow chains on your tires. This can damage or break the chains and possibly harm your vehicle.

FAQ

Q. Does each tire need a snow chain?

A: Only if your vehicle has all-wheel drive. Otherwise, you should only need chains on the drive wheels.

Q: Do I need to jack up my vehicle to put on snow chains?

A: Not necessarily. If there is enough space above the tire and wheel arch, you don't need to use a jack. But you may need one to raise the body of the vehicle if there isn't adequate space.

Q: Are snow chains difficult to install?

A: Most snow chains are easy to install. It's recommended that you read the manufacturer's manual to guide you during the installation process. You probably won't need a mechanic to do the job.

Q: Do I need to re-tighten the chains during use?

A: Even the best snow cables can rotate and move around when you drive. It’s advised that you check the snow chains every time before you drive. If they move, they may loosen and become less effective.