How to Buy the Right Tire Chains

Snow Tire Chain Overview: How to Buy the Right Tire Chains

Tire chains are a great solution for improving your vehicle's traction on snow and ice. They're available for almost every car, truck, SUV, and 4x4. But how do you know what size tire chains to buy? What's the difference between a $50 set of chains and a $200 set of chains? Which will be best for ice, snow, or mud?Whether you'll be driving around town or up slick mountain roads, we're here to help you choose the right tire chains for your application and vehicle.
How to Choose Tire ChainsStep 1: Identify any tire chain restrictions for your vehicleStep 2: Identify your tire sizeStep 3: Determine which tire chains are best for your applicationStep 4: Decide how frequently you'll use tire chainsStep 5: Select a chain using our fitguide

Step 1: Identify any tire chain restrictions for your vehicle

Before anything else, stop and check your vehicle's owner's manual for any restrictions on tire chain usage. Not all vehicles have sufficient clearance between the tire and wheel well for chains. If your vehicle is one of these, you risk some serious damage to your ride.Certain other vehicles require special tire chains known as SAE Class S tire chains in order to maintain proper distance between the tires and wheel wells (as well as suspension, splash pans, etc). Your owner's manual will let you know if Class S tire chains are required for your vehicle.
SAE Class S: Regular (non-reinforced) passenger car tire chains and cables for vehicles with restricted wheel well clearance.A - minimum of 1.46" (37 mm) between top of tire tread and wheel wellB - minimum of 0.59" (15 mm) tire's sidewall and vehicle itself
SAE Class S Tire Chain Dimensions

Step 2: Identify your tire size

Choosing properly fitting chains is crucial to safe driving. Fortunately, finding your tire size is pretty easy: just check your tire sidewall. For passenger vehicles, the tire size is indicated with a P. It will look something like this: P185/60-15. The first number following the P is your tire width in millimeters. The second is the height ratio of the sidewall compared to the width. The third is the wheel diameter in inches. But really all you need to know is the full number so you can match it up with the right tire chains.Choose your vehicle model here to get started.
Determining Tire Size Infographic

Step 3: Determine which tire chains are best for your application

Once you've narrowed down your options by size, it's time to choose the chain that best suits your needs. Will you need to travel over ice, or traverse muddy back roads? Do you just need backup chains to keep in your trunk in case of an emergency winter situation?
Ice Spike Tire Chains

Choosing tire chains for ice:

If your main concern is ice, the key is to choose tire chains with extra "bite" to break through a solid surface. You're best off with chains that include ice spikes or icebreakers, which are built-in studs or cleats designed to grip the ice. Short of strapping skates to your tires, you can't beat this tire chain style when it comes to driving on ice.Keep in mind that these types of chains can really tear up a road that's not covered in ice or thick snow. They also have a relatively rough ride quality compared to other chain styles, so if you plan on only driving in snow, you're probably better off without the ice spikes.
Twist link tire chain
Square tire chain
Pictured: twist link (top) and square link (bottom) chains

Choosing tire chains for deep snow:

When it comes to deep snow, large links will provide the best traction. Square links are particularly great because they provide excellent traction in deep snow and can also bite into ice if you happen to encounter it, so they're ready for anything that comes.However, twist link chains offer a smoother ride, so if you aren't worried about encountering ice, you may want to stick with these more rounded chain shapes.
Tire chain in mud

Choosing tire chains for mud and off-road use:

Although we typically think of snow when we think of tire chains, they're also great for navigating back country roads and off-road terrain.Many standard tire chains are designed for both on- and off-road use and will provide much-needed traction in deep mud. (Essentially, you want to avoid chains with cams when going off-road, since the cams are known to pop open when caught up in mud.) However, if you'll be trekking through mud often, consider a designated mud service chain. These chains often have large twist links or double-spaced cross chains for superior traction in deep mud. However, the biggest difference is that mud service chains are built tougher than most standard snow chains in order to handle all that rough terrain. (Although that's not to say you can't use mud service chains in snow or ice.)
Cable Tire Chain

Choosing chains for short trips in light snow:

All tire chains can handle light snow (except for chains with ice breakers—those will make easy work of the snow but will also tear up the road in the process), but if you're just making a short trip, you may prefer a more economical cable chain rather than a standard tire chain.Cable chains aren't as hardy as linked chains, so they're ideal if you only plan on using them once or twice in a light-duty setting and don't want to splurge on more expensive chains. As a bonus, they'll also give you a smoother ride because you won't have the clunky individual chains to roll over.
Yellow Jeep in Snow

Step 4: Decide how frequently you'll use tire chains

If you're going to be installing and removing your tire chains frequently, easy installation is probably near the top of your list when it comes to choosing chains. Having tire chains in your trunk doesn't do you any good if you can't use them when you need them. Traditional tire chains are — well, let's just say they're not fun to detangle and work over your tires at the best of times, and certainly not when it's 12° and your fingers are frozen stiff.On the other hand, maybe you hope to never use your chains and simply need them in your trunk for emergencies, or because the law in your area requires them. In this case, you may decide to go with budget chains without easy-install features.Tire chains fall into one of three categories: automatic tensioning, assisted tensioning, and manual tensioning. What's the difference? It's all about how the chains are tightened on the tires, and it plays a big role in how easy they are to install.
Tire Chain Comparison Infographic
Pro Tip: For the easiest installation, look for automatic/self-tensioning chains with quick-release functions. For an even easier time, choose tire chains that don't require connections on the backside of the tire, so you won't have to lie in the snow each time you want to install them.
Automatic Tensioning
Automatic Tensioning
If you'll be using your chains often, you owe it to yourself to get a pair of automatic-tensioning tire chains. These chains automatically tighten and align as you drive — just attach them to your tires per the instructions and drive forward. You should always stop and check to make sure that the chains centered properly and tightened sufficiently, but most of the work is done for you.
Assisted Tensioning
Assisted Tensioning
Assisted Tensioning
There's a wide range of functionality in the assisted tensioning group, from "better than nothing" cam tensioners to premium integrated tensioners. At the lower end of the price spectrum, chains with cams may be easier to install than most chains with zero extra features. However, you'll still need a tool to tighten each cam individually (which is not fun to do with frozen fingers on the side of a snow-covered road), plus they often still need a chain adjuster to achieve a tight enough fit. On the other hand, chains with integrated tensioners are much easier to tighten and rarely need to be readjusted after you install them.
Manual Tensioning
Manual Tensioning
If you won't be using your chains often, you're probably safe sticking with manual-tensioning chains, which lack any separate features to aid in tensioning. For this reason, these are usually the most economical tire chain options.It's recommended that you use a separate chain adjuster to fully tighten manual chains.
Rubber adjuster on tire chain
Rubber chain adjuster on tire chain

Step 5: Select a chain using our fitguide

Once you know your tire size and what type of chains will work best for your needs, you're ready to start looking for the perfect chains. Enter your year, make, and model in our fitguide to see options that will fit your vehicle. Or if you still have questions, let us know in the comments below. Still have questions?Give our experts a call at 800-298-8924, or contact us online. We're happy to assist any way we can!
Amber S.
About the AuthorAs a content writer for etrailer, I might spend my morning loading and unloading a bike on five different bike racks to figure out which is easiest to use. I might be in the parking lot, taking pictures of an impressive RV battery setup our techs came across in the shop and discussing the benefits of the setup with the owner. I might spend an afternoon in a manufacturer training classes for some hands-on experience with new products, and then sit down to assemble all this information into a coherent article.At etrailer, one of our core values is that we are always learning, and I learn something new every day. I start each morning with the goal in mind of taking all of this information and figuring out the best way to answer the questions people ask us (and the ones they don’t know to ask yet), and helping people get the solutions they need to make their lives easier, safer, and more fun. I’m a DIYer at heart, so it brings me great joy to help a fellow DIYer find what they’re looking for, whether that’s a product, an answer, or a community.
Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated on: 11/18/20

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