As winter weather approaches, drivers begin asking questions about tires. Whether all-weather tires can handle snow is a common question. Off-road enthusiasts with mud tires start to wonder if snow tires can handle snow safely.
Mud tires are good in the snow, depending on the situation. The types of snow, type of tires, and weight of your vehicle all affect how well you can handle snow and ice. A mud tire with a triple-peak mountain snowflake is rated for snow and ice driving conditions.
Contrary to what you read in online forums, mud tires can handle snow in certain situations. But there are times when driving on snow with mud tires can also be dangerous. We’ll explain both in this article, so you know the risks.
Why Do People Say That Mud Tires Are Not Good in Snow?
People who say the mud tires are not safe to use in snow point to the design of the tires. The deep channels on a mud tire are ideal for driving through mud. Basically, they spit the mud out to the sides so that the mud tires still have traction.
Snow, however, will get packed into the deep channels of the tire, reducing its traction. If the channels become completely packed, the tire has lost most of its traction. And when it hits the ice, then the tire loses all its traction.
There is certainly some truth to that. Some kinds of snow can fill up the channels and get stuck, turning your mud tire into a bald tire not equipped to handle icy roads.
Is all snow the same, however? Obviously not.
How Different Types of Snow Affect Your Tires
Since we talk about driving on snow, we are discussing three aspects of snow—types of snow crystals, snowfalls, and snow cover. Along with snowflakes, you can have:
- Hoar flakes: Ice crystals on tree branches, power lines, and plant stems can be hoar flakes caused by water vapor that skips a liquid phase and turns directly into ice. Surface hoar is created on clear nights when the snowpack radiates off heat, causing a light layer of ice. When it is the top layer, surface hoar is not dangerous.
- Hailstones: Hailstones can happen at any time of the year—hail limits visibility, which is a reason to slow down or pull over.
- Graupel: Sometimes called snow pellets or soft hail, graupel is formed when cloud droplets freeze to ice crystals. Unlike hail, which is ice pellets, the snow pellets are made of snow. Graupel is not dangerous when it is fresh.
- Sleet: The official term for the mix of rain and snow that we call sleet is snain. Sleet is caused by snowflakes partially melting as they fall through a warm layer of air and then freezing as they travel through the cold air.
- Freezing rain: Often, freezing rain, and sleet happen at the same time. While sleet consists of ice, freezing rain starts as snowflakes turn into rain, and when it hits the ground that is at or below 32°F (0°C), it freezes as ice. It is dangerous for driving.
- Black ice: Black ice is invisible because the ice is transparent, so it looks like the pavement beneath it (hence the term black ice). It consists of sleet and freezing rain that has frozen.
Why Mud Tires Do Not Perform Well on Ice
If you plan to drive on roads with thin layers of snow and lots of ice, mud tires will not perform as well as narrow tires. It seems counterintuitive that tires with more surface area do not drive as well on snow, but a wider tire has less contact with snow and slush.
As you drive your car over snow and slush, each tire pushes wedges of the snow and slushy mixture ahead of it. As the wedge gets larger, inertia and friction cause it to resist the push of the tire. The tire then rides over the wedge, losing contact with the ground, and it is now riding on the slush and ice.
Narrow tires push a smaller wedge, so when they ride over it, they tend to have at least partial contact with the road. That is why mud tires generally don’t perform as well on roads covered in ice or a couple of inches of snow.
How Can I Use My Mud Tires in the Snow?
You can keep your mud tires on your vehicle in the winter—snow or tire chains. The chains will give you the necessary traction to keep you on the road. Instead of leaving the ground when driving the wedge of ice, snow, and slush, the tire chains break up the wedge, and your tire remains in contact with the road.
Be sure to read your vehicle’s warranty for any restrictions regarding chains. Manufacturers often have restrictions on where you can place them. If you cannot put them on the front wheels, any advice regarding whether they should be on the front or the rear is moot.
Think of chains as an “I hope I never need them” investment.
Where Do Mud Tires Excel?
Once the snow is deep enough that the tires cannot sink down to find hard ground, thin tires will no longer work effectively. Instead of riding the snow, they will sink into it. Mud tires, on the other hand, will ride the snow.
Another issue is the ground under the snow. If it is muddy or you are off-road and hit a grassy hilltop, the thinner tire will not be able to grab the ground. It won’t have the aggressive tread mud tires even if they have been siped.
So if you plan to do off-roading in the winter, keep the mud tires on your vehicle. If you want to keep them on while driving on roads, have chains ready if you need them.
Why M & S and All-Season Tires Are Not Suitable for Deep Snow
A tire that is rated for mud and snow should be able to take on snow, right? But an M & S tire is really a 3-season tire. Their rubber compound has less natural rubber to increase tread life, so the tires become stiff and do not perform as well when temperatures dip below the 40s.
The tread pattern on an M & S tire is designed for a comfortable, quiet ride. The smaller grooves cause snow and slush to clog them, and the tires become a slippery surface that cannot grip snow and ice properly.
If you need a tire that can handle extreme winter weather, then look for a 3-peak mountain snowflake symbol (3PMSF) on the tire. A 3PMSF tire has been tested for traction and below 40°F (4.44°C) weather. Features that make a 3PMSF a winter tire includes:
- Additional rubber in the tread means the tires stay flexible so that they provide a better grip.
- Slushplaning is eliminated (or at least reduced) due to wider grooves between the tread blocks.
- Aggressive sipping helps tires dig into snow and ice.
Other Factors to Consider
Keep in mind that there’s more to driving in snow than the type of tires you use. A 4-wheel car will perform better than a 2-wheel. A truck with a load can handle ice and snow better than a truck with an empty bed.
The type, depth, and consistency of snow also make a difference in how well your vehicle handles. Finally, an experienced driver will be able to react better to driving conditions.
If you will be driving off-road or in deep snow, keep the mud tires on your vehicle. However, if most of your driving will be on roads with icy conditions and only a couple of inches of snow, then switch them out to all-weather or 3PMSF tires. And you still want to keep your mud shoes, then chain them up.