Whether you run a suped-up F250 or a speedy Subaru, the rubber that runs between you and the road is crucial to the performance of your vehicle. But deciding on the right tires can be confusing. Does “All-Terrain” include snow or should you go snow-specific?
Both all-terrain tires and snow tires are heavy duty. All-terrain tires are thick and tough, so they do not get punctured when rolling across rocks and boulders. Snow tires are specifically designed to stay pliable and keep grip in freezing temperatures. Which is better will depend on your needs.
It is hard to say which type of tire is better objectively. Instead, you need to look at what each tire’s function is and decide which one fulfills your driving needs. In the following article, we will compare the benefits and features of all-terrain and snow tires and make a side-by-side comparison to help you determine which is better for you.
The Parts of a Tire
As we will be comparing the features of these tires, we should first go over tire terminology. These are the basic components of a tire, and both all-terrain and snow tires will fulfill these parts differently.
The bead is the part of the tire that connects the tire firmly to the wheel. The bead is a tear-drop shaped ridge that runs along the inner sides of the tire. The following components all make up the bead assembly:
- Bead Bundle. The bead bundle is a collection of steel cords that runs all the way around the tire. It is the core component in the center of the bead assembly and gives the bead its strength.
- Bead Filler. A rubber composite that helps bond the bead bundle assembly to the interior of the sidewall.
- Bead Chafer. The chafer protects the body plies from rubbing against the bead bundle and helps to stiffen the bead assembly altogether.
These are the parts of the tire that make up the inner core and give the tire strength and durability.
- Body Plies. One of the main components of the tire, this can be thought of as the core layer of the tire itself. Largely responsible for tire strength and resistance to road damage.
- Carcass. The carcass is the next layer of the tire. It consists of thin fiber cables that run perpendicular to the tire, giving additional strength to the body plies.
- Inner Liner. An airtight rubber layer that allows the tire to be filled with air once mounted on the rim. This is applied on top of the carcass on the interior facing walls.
- Belts. Also commonly referred to as the crown plies, these stand as the rigid base for the tread. These steel belts are layered to create a stiff web of structure for the tire. They provide sideways rigidity for the tire, while also letting the tire bend enough to drive smoothly.
- Undertread. Acts as a cushion between the belts and the road. It is the thick rubber part of the tire that we actually see. The part that has all of the grooves and ridges cut into it that give the tire grip.
The outer parts of the tire are often how we see the difference in tires. The outer parts of tires have many different designs of treads that provide different grips. However, it is also the composite of the tire parts listed above that determine traction.
- Sidewall. The sidewall of the tire is imperative in protecting the tire from the impact on the sides. In an all-terrain tire, the sidewall is extremely tough to defend against sharp rocks and reduce pinch-punctures.
- Shoulder. This is the outer corner of the tire between the sidewall and the tread. Snow tires have a sharp shoulder, which allows the tire to bite into the snow.
- Tread. The part of the tire that is most in contact with the ground. The tread has patterns cut into it to provide extra traction. Different types of tires use different tread designs to improve things like speed, traction, water repellency, and durability.
- Sipes. Slits in the rubber tread of a tire that flex open as the tire comes in contact with the ground and supplies extra traction. Similar to the function of a suction cup. Regular tires have sipes on the shoulder, while winter tires often have them down the center tread as well. Sipes are key to grip in wet and snow.
- Grooving. The deep space in between each individual rib of the tread, these spaces allow tires to flex, turn, and compress as the road engages with the tire. All-terrain tires have deep grooves to prevent rocks from being lodged in the tires.
- Ribs. The tread has long grooves that run around the tire, usually three or four of them. The ribs are the individual ridges of the tread that are created by the grooves.
All About All Terrain Tires
Now that we know about the individual parts of the tire, we can explore how all-terrain tires use these parts to withstand various surfaces.
All-terrain tires combine design elements of off-road tires with the drivability of a road tire. These tires have an open tread design, which means that the tread grooves create an interlocking puzzle-piece pattern instead of a vertical pattern. This shape of tread allows the tire to mold and flex to many different shaped objects while maintaining traction.
With the grooves of these tires being so wide, it also prevents many objects from getting wedged into the tread, very helpful when driving over the rocks and boulders of the mountains.
As mentioned, the sidewalls of all-terrain tires are extremely tough. These walls are often reinforced, not only to defend against rock punctures but to give the tires a heavier carrying capacity. A tire with weak sidewalls could buckle and explode under the weight of a fully-loaded off-road vehicle.
Just like the name suggests, these tires are meant to travel on all types of terrain. This includes the road, mud, rocks, slush, and yes, even snow. These tires can handle driving across some snow, but not to the same extent as snow tires.
One of the downsides of running all-terrain tires all year is that the tread wears quickly on a regular road. These are also much louder to drive on pavement, as the tread is wide and runs at odd angles to the road. All-terrain tires are great for someone who doesn’t do a lot of highway driving but loves to explore the mountains on the weekends.
When to Go With Snow Tires
Snow tires are specifically engineered to provide traction in the snow. They do this by utilizing a design that is optimized for the frigid conditions. Snow tires, or winter tires, are made with a softer rubber compound than normal tires. A normal tire freezes at a certain temperature point, making it stiff and disallowing it from flexing into the ground. A winter tire remains soft, even at low temperatures, which allows it to flatten and grip the road.
The soft rubber does mean that snow tires are not optimal for driving on warm roads. Think of trying to bounce a partially deflated basketball, and you can see how the softer rubber makes for a less responsive drive in warm weather.
The tread of a winter tire is the next crucial component that contributes to traction. It has larger grooves than a standard tire, similar to that of an all-terrain tire but not as wide. The tread is in a specific shape that dispels the snow and slush.
The shoulders of a snow tire are also at an angle, not the rounded slope of a regular tire. This, combined with the extreme siping, allows the tire to bite into the snow and slush, creating grip where there was none. The tread pattern of a winter tire pushes water out from under the tire, decreasing the chance of hydroplaning and improving lateral traction.
Some snow tires also include dimples which are meant to host the installation of studs. Studs are metal or hard rubber accessories that are pushed into the holes in a studdable tire and extend out of the tire a short distance. Like tiny ice picks, these studs punch through impossible surfaces like ice and compacted snow to stick to the slippery surfaces.
Side by Side Comparison
All Terrain Tires
Price for a set for a Small Truck / SUV
Best Suited For
Places with temperatures below 45°F (7.2°C) for most of the winter
Places that get snowfall less than ten times a winter.
Performance in Snow
Performance on Ice
Excellent when studded
Performance in Warm Weather
Noise Level on Pavement
Which Is Better?
Both of the tires examined in this article have their time and place. While snow tires are a niche tire that performs extremely well in specific conditions, all-terrain tires are a more versatile tire that performs well under a wide variety of conditions.
If you live somewhere that has intense, frigid winters, then there is no argument that snow tires are better for you–at least during the winter months. These tires provide grip that is unrivaled by most other tires. Add in the ability to stud those tires, and you have a nearly unbeatable grip.
If you do not live somewhere with insane winters, and you’re more of a mountain explorer than a highway roller, all-terrain tires are the perfect solution for you. They offer enough snow traction to get you through the white layer at the top of the mountain, while also offering advanced grip on the rocks on the way down.
Areas of the USA That Should Use Winter Tires
Every region of the United States has its own unique legislation regarding the use of winter driving accessories. Tire chains are permitted in all states, though most states restrict their usage to dangerous conditions where the chains do not damage the road’s surface.
Metal studs are much more restricted. They are:
- Banned in 11 states
- Allowed without restriction in 6 states
- Permitted during certain dates in the remaining states
Winter tires, however, face no restrictions or requirements. There are states that should use winter tires because of their fierce storms and snowfall. These states are generally located north of the 40th parallel. States in the midwest have especially bad winters, with Illinois, in particular, suffering through violent ice storms. Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Michigan all suffer from intense winters as well.
States that border the ocean tend to have less severe winters, as large bodies of water are slower to change in temperature, and this affects the land around them. So, even if you live north of the 40th parallel, say, in Seattle, you have a better chance of getting away with all-terrain tires year-round than someone in Minneapolis.
A Third Option
If you’re searching for a way to have a snow-capable tire on your vehicle year-round, then the snow-rated all-terrain tire might be the answer to your prayers. These are an all-terrain tire first but have undergone technological advancements and testing to increase their drivability in snow.
These tires can be recognized by the three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) symbol, which is the standard symbol on the sidewall of snow tires. This symbol signifies to the observer that the tire has passed these rigorous tests.
However, it is important to understand how this testing is done. To get a 3PMSF rating, only the tire’s ability to accelerate on medium packed snow is measured. Braking, turning, and ice traction are not involved in this test. So while the 3PMSF rating will mean that your vehicle will most likely drive in the snow, it doesn’t guarantee that your vehicle will stop.
Snow-rated all-terrain tires are a good investment for someone who plans to make trips from their not-so-snowy city to a ski hill or colder climate a few times a year, but they should not be considered a replacement for snow tires for people who live in the harsher winters in the US.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are all-season tires the same as winter tires?
A: No, all-season tires are a decent all-around tire, but the most winter driving they can handle is about a light dusting of snow. These tires are fine to have on your car during the spring, summer, and fall months in most parts of the country, but for true winter-capable tires, you need snow tires.
Q: When do I put snow tires on?
This will depend on where you live in the country, but in most wintery states, you’ll want your snow tires on by November. It is key to put your tires on before the bad weather hits. That way, you would not be caught off-guard, and you’ll beat the lines at the mechanic.
Q: Can I use two snow tires and two all-terrain tires?
Perhaps you’re thinking that you could save money by only putting two snow tires on the front of your vehicle. Unfortunately, the truck relies on all four tires to conquer the slippery snow. On a very straight road, you may not notice the difference too much, but as soon as you need to turn a corner, the all-terrain tires in the back would not work nearly as well, and you can fishtail or spin out dangerously.
Q: How often should I get my tires rotated?
For both all-terrain tires and snow tires, it is important to get them rotated regularly. All-terrain tires tend to wear faster on the road than other types of tires do, and snow tires are softer than most, so the rubber can wear quickly when driving on pavement.
Every 6,000 miles should see your tires rotated. Note that studded winter tires should never switch the direction of rotation. Studded tires should be rotated from front to rear on the same side of the vehicle.
Q: Do snow tires really make a difference?
If this article has not convinced you that snow tires are the most effective equipment for driving in severe winter conditions, this video should:
Q: Can I go off-roading with my snow tires?
As long as the ground is covered in snow, then snow tires are the best thing you could use to drive anywhere, on or off the road.
It is hard to decide between an all-around tire and one that is built for a specific purpose. While snow tires are unparalleled when it comes to performance on ice and snow, all-terrain tires offer four-season usability.
If you live in an area of the country that has full-on snowfall throughout the winter months, then snow tires are better. If you live somewhere that has 2-3 snowfalls a year, and usually no more than a few centimeters at a time, then all-terrain tires are probably the better choice.
- Tireworks: Tire Terminology
- David Osbourne: The Role of Cap Plies in Steel Belted Radial Tires
- Utires: What All-Terrain Tires Are Used for and How They Differ from Other Tires
- Icy Road Safety: Winter Tires: Myths and Facts
- General Tire: ALL-SEASON VS. WINTER TIRES: THE DIFFERENCES OF A COLD CLIMATE TIRE
- Midas: Snow Tires
- Laclede: Tire Chains and Laws by State
- Winter TPMS: Legislation for Snow Tires in the USA
- State Climatologist Office for Illinois: The Cold Hard Facts About Winter Storms
- Sciencing: How Do Large Bodies of Water Affect the Climate of the Coastal Areas?
- Tire Buyer: Snow-Rated All-Terrain Tires Vs. Winter Tires
- Tire Rack: WINTER / SNOW TIRE TECH: WHAT IS THE THREE-PEAK MOUNTAIN SNOWFLAKE SYMBOL?
- Bridgestone: Winter and Snow Tires
- Lesschwab: Winter Driving Tips: The Dangers of Using Just Two Snow Tires
- Continental Tire: How Tire Rotation Can Extend the Life of Your Tires