Inclement winter weather creates some of the most challenging and hazardous driving conditions that can be experienced. While slick winter roads are an annual reality for millions of Americans, the unique nature of the conditions shouldn’t be forgotten or overlooked. Snow-, ice-, and slush-covered roadways are not “normal.” They pose a unique traction challenge requiring a tire engineering solution.
For proper vehicle performance in winter conditions, specialized, specifically-engineered tires are a must, same with other extreme driving environments – motorsport tires for the race track, or mud-terrain tires for severe off-road terrain.
For many years the marker of tires specializing in winter traction has been the mountain/snowflake symbol. You’ll find this symbol stamped on the sidewall of tires that meet certain winter traction criteria. It looks like this:
However, while the symbol used to be only associated with specifically-engineered winter tires, more types of tires than ever now qualify for the symbol. Tire manufacturers have made a real effort to address the winter traction problem head on, and provide drivers of cars, trucks, and SUVs with a variety of tires that will more capably stand up to the winter driving challenge. (Despite the apparent implications of the name, “all-season tires” haven’t always delivered sufficient wintertime traction.)
There’s been some confusion over the widespread implementation of the mountain/snowflake symbol, which created an apparent equalization of various types of tires that aren’t truly equal when Old Man Winter really comes knocking.
So let’s answer some important questions, set the record straight, and get you equipped to make the right tire choice for your vehicle and circumstances.
The mountain/snowflake is the product of a joint effort between the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association and the Rubber Association of Canada to establish a meaningful wintertime traction baseline.
Fundamentally, the mountain/snowflake signifies advanced traction on packed snow. Tires that qualify for the symbol must exhibit measurably superior traction as compared to a reference tire in snow testing conditions.
What does that mean exactly? Specifically, longitudinal, or straight ahead traction, not cornering or dynamic handling traction capabilities.
Most winter driving situations aren’t limited to just straight line traction on packed snow, so you can see how this doesn’t truly capture the diverse challenges you can face in extreme weather.
The mountain/snowflake traction criteria is meaningful, but not necessarily a guarantee of strong traction in all winter road conditions. It’s the highest winter traction qualification yet to be established, but it’s arguably limited.
Admittedly, we weren’t there when the phrase was first uttered, but an educated guess is “snow tires” is the product of the mountain/snowflake symbol. (Snowflake on the sidewall = snow tires. That’s our thinking, anyway.) Tire manufacturers rarely, if ever, refer to any tire as a snow tire. This is a tire classification that gained momentum at tire shops and around the office water cooler. (You talk tires at your water cooler too, right?)
Because for many years, the only tires that qualified for the mountain/snowflake symbol were full-fledged winter tires, winter and snow tires became synonymous.
Today, it’s necessary to draw the distinction. Tires that qualify for the mountain/snowflake (“snow tires”) aren’t necessarily true winter tires.
Winter tires are to winter road conditions as motorsport tires are to race tracks, and mud-terrain tires are to extreme off-road environments. They’re the specialized, specifically-engineered solution to all winter’s driving challenges. That means snow of course, but also ice, slush, freezing wet winter roads, subzero dry winter roads, and everything in between. See Top ten reasons you need winter tires.
The overall performance of true winter tires far exceeds the snow traction criteria represented by the mountain/snowflake.
And so while the symbolization on the tire sidewalls of winter tires and other types of tires might be the same, the all-around wintertime performance capabilities are not necessarily equal.
All-weather and all-terrain tires with the mountain/snowflake credential
Outside of winter tires, all-weather tires and select all-terrain tires have most commonly qualified for the mountain/snowflake symbol.
All-weather tires are a newer tire category, and represent a comprehensive effort to develop a tire suitable for the full range of year-round road conditions, including variable winter conditions.
Early testing data on all-weather tires suggests that many will deliver near-winter tire performance in variable winter conditions. Without a doubt, these tires are the closest yet to true, year-around, four season tires. See all-season vs. all-weather tires for more information.
All-terrain tires with the mountain/snowflake qualification are generally a different breed. The straight ahead, loose sediment traction characteristic of many of these tires lends itself to achieving the snow traction criteria outlined above.
While some all-terrain tires might also deliver standout winter traction in other conditions, note again the mountain/snowflake symbol alone is not a guarantee of diversely capable wintertime traction and performance.
The question of when to change over to snow tires is very much location-dependent. Some U.S. locales experience an earlier start to winter than others. When you check the long-term weather forecast and begin to see temperatures consistently around or below 40° Fahrenheit, and/or the chance for wintry precipitation, it’s time to change to snow tires.
For example, in the Midwest, a change to snow tires often occurs around mid-November, and then depending upon how long Old Man Winter hangs around, swapping out snow tires in mid-March.
In certain mountain regions and at higher altitudes, winter storms can hit as early as October and as late as April or May. So the timing of the snow tire exchange has everything to do with your local forecast and travel plans.
A bit of friendly advice from those with ample (maybe too much) tire shop experience: You’ll have better luck beating the crowds before the real winter weather hits, and drivers learn their tires are no longer fit for duty.
When snow tires are dismounted, be sure to store your tires properly for maximum tire life.
Winter tires and snow tires are not the same, and especially these days it’s necessary to draw the distinction. Understanding the difference is very important in making an informed tire decision.
Need some more help on deciding which type of tire is right for you? Give our tire experts a call at (866) 961-8668