Best Tire Chains: Get a Grip in Snow and Ice
Maneuver a little easier in the snow and ice with these top tire chains.
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BY Corrina Murdoch / LAST UPDATED ON April 26, 2021
Road conditions are unpredictable in the best circumstances — add in a massive snowfall and some unexpected ice rain and you’re driving through a nightmare. If you’ve ever had to face icy roads armed with nothing but your winter tires, you know the struggle. That’s why tire chains are so important. In fact, in some mountain regions, it’s the law to have them installed. Even if it’s not legislated, snow chains can drastically improve how your vehicle performs on a slippery road. Because tire chains are so useful, you can find all sorts of designs. Most are made out of a steel alloy and cover the tire surface to grip snow and ice. However, some innovative options are hitting the market, making it easier to install them and enabling you to remove and replace them as needed.
Of course, for something as important as road safety, it all comes down to quality. You can’t have them snapping mid-trip, after all. So, to help you along, we’ve curated a list of the best tire chains, along with some advice on making the right pick. This breakdown details all the different types of chains, essential features, and extra tips so you can face those winter roads safely.
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Benefits of Tire Chains
- Improves your grip. The key benefit of tire chains is that, when the road gets slippery due to snow and ice, you can maintain traction more easily. Chain links grab onto ice and snow, increasing the friction coefficient between the tire and the ground. This prevents your car from slipping and keeps you in control.
- Works on all types of roads. You can find tire chains for all sorts of vehicles, ranging from 18-wheelers to compact cars. They are effective on flat, rural roads and snow-covered asphalt alike. Whether you’re dealing with sharp turns or high-incline surfaces, chains remain an effective solution.
- Extra power when turning. Snow and ice make any vehicle more prone to slipping during turns. By upping the friction between the tire and the ground, you get better torque when shifting the wheel. It stops you from sliding so the vehicle turns more smoothly.
- Safer driving in winter. In the United States, more than 70 percent of roads are in snow-prone zones. Approximately 156,160 motor vehicle accidents happen on ice-covered roads, costing the lives of roughly 800 citizens each year. Tire chains improve safety and help you avoid becoming a statistic.
- Quick to install and remove. Modern design innovations have opened up the world of tire chain structure. With self-tightening and self-centering tech, even a beginner can install most snow chains. In fact, a lot of positive user feedback for the chains on this list involves how easy it is to work with these tire chains.
Types of Tire Chains
Diamond Tire Chains
The traditional type of tire chain, these feature strings of metal chain links, organized in a diamond structure. If you’re facing more snow, the angle of the diamond vertices should be smaller. The diamond pattern works together to make a mesh pattern that covers the whole tire. Since this type of chain has a higher contact surface with the ground, it offers the best traction. As a result, diamond tire chains are better for places that get frequent, heavy snow.
Cable Tire Chains
A streamlined version of the original tire chains invented in 1904, the cable design uses the same steel material. This sort of tire chain features spaced-out, lateral metal cables which link to a chain that runs over the circumference of the tire. By separating the cables, it is easier to brake the vehicle. Typically, these chains have small links, helping them stay lightweight while still optimizing traction. Because they are usually smaller and with a lower profile, you can find these for the smallest wheel wells. This type of chain is ideal for casual use in areas that get medium amounts of snow.
While they might not technically be a type of snow chain, they serve the same purpose: improving tire grip on winter roads. Chains can be heavy and awkward to install. To save space and make it easier to get set up, you can opt for an alternative. Popular options include a textile cover that uses thick fabric to keep traction with the ground. Others focus on a smaller surface area, with a thin yet rugged material working to grip the ground. These are ideal if your area is not prone to much snow and you simply want to be prepared. Compact, lightweight, and easy to store, this is a suitable option for a large part of America.
Top Brands of Tire Chains
Konig American, a subsidiary of YHI International, has been producing aftermarket wheels for 35 years. With offices on both the West and East coasts, one of its popular tire chains is the KONIG CB-12 090 Snow Chains.
Peerless Industrial Group
Peerless Industrial Group, headquartered in Winona, Minnesota, produces several winter traction products under the name Security Chain Company. The company also provides chains for other purposes. Among its leading selections is the Security Chain Company ATV Traction Chain, letting off-road enthusiasts make the most of winter.
With roots in Alaska, this proudly American brand is focused on helping drivers handle winter roads. Offering tire chains for all types of vehicles, all its chains use a blend of Pewag nickel and manganese to reinforce steel strength. One of its top products is the Glacier Chains Light Truck Tire Chain.
Snow Chain Pricing
- Around $40: There are a select few cables and chains that cost $40 or so. They tend to require manual installation and may not be as durable as more expensive products.
- $40 to $100: Semi-auto or "assisted" fitting tire chains will cost between $60 and $80, while self-centering chains with auto-tensioning will be a little bit more expensive for an average passenger vehicle.
- $100 and up: Tire chains for SUVs and pickup trucks tend to be pricier because they are bigger. Light trucks require even more heavy-duty chains, which can cost as much as $200.
Chain Tension Setup
In order to keep a hold on your tire while also gripping the road, the chain requires substantial tension. Back in the day, tension needed to be applied manually. However, modern developments include self-tightening technology. Basically, there are ratchets positioned across the circumference of the chain. These spaced-out tools tighten the chain while you move the vehicle. By eliminating the slack, you get improved traction and avoid the hassle of tightening them after you’ve driven for a bit. Keep in mind that because ratchets are a moving part, they are the most vulnerable to breaking and can be difficult to replace. Balance the convenience with the potential for the chains snapping on the road.
Since you can’t drive on dry ground with chains, you need to be able to remove them quickly. If you turn onto a road that’s been cleared, you’ll need to take the chains off. Tire chains that include an automatic release let you remove them more efficiently. Be sure that the quick-release feature doesn’t engage without your command. Usually there is either a lever or a pull mechanism that controls the release. Check that it is hidden and not likely to get triggered by accident. Provided it’s of good quality, this feature makes it far easier to deal with tire chains.
Tire Chain Classification
Particularly for those who live in areas where tire chains are mandatory, keeping an eye on classification is important. SAE classification, short for the Society of Automotive Engineers, is an objective metric used to determine the performance value of tire chains. SAE Class S tires are non-reinforced chains on tires with limited well clearance. SAE Class U represents chains reinforced with lugs and work when the wheel well has no clearance issues. SAE Class W chains are for light trucks. For passenger vehicles, you are typically going to deal with SAE Class S chains.
Chain and Link Design
This feature refers to both the chain pattern and the design of the links themselves. Depending on the layout of the chain, be it diamond, ladder, or rectangular, the traction differs. Diamond layouts and diagonal patterns are suited for vehicles with ABS systems. Rectangular layouts are suitable for icy and snowy roads, while the ladder pattern is common for off-roading vehicles. In terms of the links themselves, lighter snows in low-humidity areas benefit from smaller individual chain parts. Heavier snow (like the kind you make snowballs out of) calls for larger individual links. Assessing this feature is about both your vehicle type and the climate in your area.
- Compatibility. When searching for the best tire chains, you’ll want to first think about the size. Look at your owner’s manual or check online to find out your tires’ specs. Find out the height, width, and radius of your tires to make sure you can actually put them on. Once you’re sure the chains are compatible, you can consider other factors.
- Wheel-Well Clearance. Another hitch is making sure that you balance the steel chain’s size with the space you have to install it. Heavier-duty tire chains weigh a lot more and are bulky. Some wheel wells don’t have the room to accommodate these tires. The most common chain size is 12 millimeters, but if you need something smaller, you can opt for a tire chain alternative.
- Chain Material. You can find chains made out of rubber (usually synthetic), though the vast majority are made out of steel. Rubber is a safe material for dry roads and isn’t prone to damaging tires. However, they are less popular and often less effective. Metal chains may harm dry roads, but so long as you remove them when appropriate, they perform better. Look for nickel-heavy steel — ideally stainless — to keep the chains working for longer.
- Setup and Removal Requirements. Whether you opt for rubber, metal, or a chain alternative, you won’t be leaving them on all the time. Look for tire chains with a fast-release mechanism that is accessible so you can take them off faster. Choose chains that don’t require tire removal to put them on and incorporate self-tightening features. It might seem like a small concern, but over the course of a whole season, you’ll be grateful for the extra convenience.
- Structure and weight. The bulkier and more awkward the chain, the more likely you are to skip that step and just go with your winter tires. Opting for something that is lightweight goes a long way. It makes them easier to bring with you and enables you to remove them roadside with ease. Heavier chains might seem more effective, but choosing something that’s too heavy can backfire.
- Durability. Yes, tire chains are pretty affordable, but if you have to buy new ones every year, it can add up. So, when picking out chains, consider how long they will last. Chain alternatives tend to break the soonest, especially the textile type. Metal chains (when used properly) shouldn’t do harm to your tires and will last the longest. Even with limited care, you can get several years’ use out of metal snow chains.
Best Tire Chains Reviews & Recommendations 2021
- Only use tire chains when there is at least one inch of snow on the road. The best time to put them on is usually during or after a snowstorm.
- You can also use chains in muddy driving conditions. But be sure to remove the chains when you return to regular roads to protect your vehicle's tires and the road surface.
- You will need to drive a little bit slower when you have tire chains on your tires. We recommend driving 30 miles per hour or slower. In addition, try to not brake hard or accelerate fast when using them.
- Make sure you purchase the right size because if they don't fit well, they may cause an accident. The best car chains will perform better than winter tires because they are thicker than tire tread and firmly grip the road surface.
- Consider keeping two sets of tire chains and/or cables in your vehicle at all times, especially if you live in an area that gets a lot of snow. That way, if something breaks you will have a backup.
- Understand that chain-sizing tables are approximate. After testing their fit on your vehicle, drive a short distance and check the fit once again. They may settle differently on the tires after you drive with them.
Q. Do chains ruin your tires?
On snow or ice, chains are fine for your tires. If you’re driving on pavement and dry ground, you can harm both the road and your tires. Take the chains off if you encounter a road that’s been thoroughly plowed to prevent damage. In cold weather, both the metal chains and your tires are more vulnerable to damage. Exercise extra caution.
Q. How fast can you drive with chains on?
Because you’re using snow chains in already challenging road conditions, don’t go too fast. Stick to 30 miles per hour (maximum) to prevent any problems. Chains make it more difficult to brake, especially if the surface is dry. Slower speeds help avoid issues.
Q. What can I use instead of snow chains?
Alternatives to snow chains include traction aids like the Tracgrabber Tire Traction Device. It goes over the tire laterally and improves grip while covering minimal surface area. These help you if the vehicle gets stuck. Options like the Autosock 697 Tire Chain Alternative completely cover the tire with a textile.
Q. Is it okay to leave snow chains on overnight?
There should be no issue leaving tire chains on overnight. They won’t damage your tires and it won’t compromise the fit of the chains themselves. If the temperature drops significantly overnight, give metal chains a chance to acclimate to the cold before driving extensively on them.
Q. Are tire chains legal in every state?
The law varies from state to state. Many allow them during certain periods of the year on certain roads.
Q. Can I use tire chains on any type of vehicle?
Be sure to check with the manufacturer's recommendations. Usually, cars that have little tire clearance are not good candidates for tire chains. There also may be other mechanical reasons why tire chains won't work on certain vehicle models.
Q. Do I need tire chains if my vehicle has antilock brakes?
Yes. Antilock braking systems prevent vehicles from skidding. ABS does not have anything to do with tire chains, which enable a driver to have more control over snow and ice.
Q. Are snow socks a good substitute for tire chains?
Snow socks are an alternative, but they may not be as effective as tire chains. This is especially true when hard-packed snow is involved. Vehicles with little tire clearance may benefit from snow socks instead of tire chains.
Q. Where do I find the size of my tires?
Information about your tires is on the tire sidewall above the rim. The first three digits indicate tire width. The second set of double digits indicates the tire height ratio. The third set of double digits indicate diameter.
Q. How thick should my tire chains be?
There needs to be enough clearance between your tire and the body of your vehicle. A typical passenger vehicle usually has a lot of clearance. SUVs, trucks, and minivans often have a little less clearance. Sports cars and vehicles that are lowered have the smallest amount of clearance and probably should not have tire chains on them.
Q. How many tire chains do I need?
It depends. Many people just use snow chains on the wheels that are used for traction.
Ready to face that next big snowstorm with a quality set of tire chains? The Glacier 1042 Passenger Cable Tire Chain Set is rugged and durable, while the value of the Peerless Chain AutoTrac Passenger Chains ensures lasting benefits. There’s a winter traction solution out there for every vehicle, helping you stay safe on the road.