Winter Tires vs. Chains

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Oct 21, 2003
Central California
I am planning a couple of trips to the Sierra Mountains this winter, to the Mammoth/Bishop/June Lake Areas. I've never used dedicated Winter Tires before, what are the pros & cons to winter tires vs. plain 'ol chains? Besides the obvious budgetary reasons - I'd rather just use chains than buying a whole set of snow tires that I'd just use once or twice.

Two wheel drive or four wheel drive? If two wheel drive you will want chains for sure.

R1= Snow Tires okay, carry chains.
R2= Chains required, 4x4 with snow tires okay, must carry chains
R3= Chains no exceptions.

R3 is rare. They usually close the roads first.

I live in Big Bear Lake. I just don't drive my 2WD Tundra quite as much in the winter opting for our Subaru Outback (AWD). They do keep the roads pretty clean but there are a few places that can get (and stay) pretty icy. I just chain-up occasionally. It's not that big of a deal.

Last winter about 200 people got stranded overnight on Hwy. 18 just west of the dam here in an area called the "Arctic Circle". From what I understand, it was R2 conditions and a tour bus without chains slid and blocked the road. As traffic piled up behind the bus (waiting for it to move) ANOTHER tour bus WITHOUT chains came up behind the traffic jam and blocked the road...It snowed heavily all night. It took most of the next day to rescue all of the people and remove all of the cars.
I used to use cable chains frequently to drive up and down Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah...when conditions required.

They don't last long, are good up to 35 mph...but when you need them you need them.

In Colorado, 4 excellent snow tires is enough... but I carry chains just in case.
though this may be initially appear to be a wise $ choice - consider these few options:

-you don't say what type of car/tire package
if your tires are say oversized, will the chains clear the wheel housing?

-are chains allowed where you're going?

-is mpg an issue?
It's a speed & distance vs tires & conditions thing. If you only have chains and crummy tires for winter conditions you'll be using chains a lot, and may not be able to cover the needed distance and/or maintain the needed speed. A lot of state troopers seem to just use good all season tires, which should work fine with chains as a backup. I like dedicated winter tires and still carry good 'alpine' square link chains, but we occasionally have some very bad conditions around here. Winter tires are often avaialable used at low prices around here in the paper, often on rims.
Sounds like you should look at cable chains for all 4 wheels.

They aren't that hard to install, you drop them over the top of each wheel and reach around the tire to hook, then hook the outside, and tighten inside and outside a few times.

You will get dirty, and it helps to have thin leather gloves so that you can feel what you are doing and still keep your hands from freezing.

I could do all four tires in less than 20 minutes, and then check the cable chains for snugness every 15 to 30 miles.

First time may take longer.

Cable chains are low profile, store fairly easily in the plastic case they ship in, and cost $30 to $50 per axle.

Chains will help you get up or down a pass or move around a snow covered village [ as in get up an icy or snow covered driveway or back road to your ski house ]...but they are no substitute for four top performing snow tires.

I have 4 wheels mounted with 4 season tires for summer , and 4 wheels mounted with Studded snow tires or Blizzak studless snow tires....and that's for 6 cars!!

I have cable chains in a few cars that drive over the passes regularly. But I'm in Colorado Rockies driving around Vail, or Vail to Denver.

If I was in Wasatch Mountians in Utah I'd need cable chains in every cars that went up the canyons. The same is probably true in the California ski resorts.
Since you're heading up to mammoth, I would recommend a good set of M+S tires IF you have a AWD or 4x4. If not, then you'll need chains. Since the road to mammoth is a long drive above the snowline, a 4x4 would be much faster if you could go without chains, as with chains you will be driving 25-30 mph for a long time.
Two things:

1. You will need to carry chains regardless of drive axle configuration (2WD, 4WD or AWD). That's just California law as well as being prudent.

I carry chains in my AWD Subaru. Will I ever use them? Probably not. Will I ever be turned back down the mountain (and I live UP the mountain) at a chain control checkpoint? Nope

2. Under R-2 conditions when all of the 2WD vehicles are thumping along at 25mph, you probably won't be passing too many people.

i use studded snow tires on three vehicles for about five months every year.they are loud and expensive but worth the extra traction and safety.

That's how I feel! If the snow tires are needed once for 15 seconds during the whole winter they paid for themselves.

Spending money for snow tires and extra wheels is minor compared having an accident or worrying about your kids out driving in a winter storm.
I've had both studded tires and modern studless snow tires. I'll take the studless unless I moved to a place with more ice on the roads than any other condition. Studs are no help on snow and reduce traction on wet or dry roads. Modern studless snow tires are as good as studs on ice roads too slick to walk on as close as I can tell. I like them a lot.

Thanks for all the replies! It's a 2003 Honda Odyssey minivan with the wife and 3 kids and a few snowboards. If's its the law, then it's settled, I'll pick up a set of chains and chug along at about 25 or so mph if conditions call for it. I just can't really predict the exact snowfall during my vacation that I need approved a month or so in advance.

I guess I was wondering if quality modern snow tires like the Blizzaks are better than chains, but it really isn't in my budget if chains will do the job. It's the difference between two trips and one to Mammoth.

But if it's the law under the right conditions, then, chains here I come, and make two vacations, chugging along at 25mph if it's really bad on travel day.

Thanks for the help.
I dont think dedicated winter tires were ever intended for the mountains of the western US. They are more for hard ice at subzero temps.

For a FWD minivan, get the cables, not traditional chains. They dont last as long, but you are not going to put that many miles on them. Running lugged chains can rattle the fillings out of your teeth with the vibration. Also, cables do much less body damage than chains if they break or come loose.

Like Larry, I have a place in the San Bernardino mountains. I have always carried a set of cables in my 4x4 pickup, but never used them. When I had RWD, they worked great.
"I guess I was wondering if quality modern snow tires like the Blizzaks are better than chains,"

They're much more convienent when the traction is ok for the conditions, but that doesn't matter when the traction isn't ok. From what I've experienced so far the lighter the vehicle and the colder the temps, the better they'll work on snow, packed snow, and ice. A vehicle weight increases you start finding that traction varies a lot more in different conditions. At lower temperatures the ice is hard, where even decent all season tires can do well at slower speeds. In deeper snow you may need an aggressive tire or chains. As the temps get closer to freezing the snow can get slushy, where more aggressive tires, studded tires or chains may be needed, and the ice gets soft as well as developing a water film under pressure. Note that most claims for as good or better performance than studded tires seem to have originated with tests done on hockey rinks, which has hard ice, while other more comprehensive tests under different conditions find that studded tires do best on 'soft ice'.

Whne the conditions are bad enough around here it's chains only, regardless of vehicle or tires. Another consideration is ice racing, where there are different classes for the custom spiked tires, where roll cages and such are needed due to the speeds encountered, a class for regular studded tires, and one for studless tires. The studless class ends up with the lowest speeds.

I bought some Michelin Artic Alpins a few seasons ago to try out some of the studless tires, and they don't work as well on soft ice as studded tires, or more agressive snow tires with bigger lugs in deeper snow. Siped, studded, heavier lugged snow tires work best for me, but I still carry chains too.
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