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(Photo: Nokian)
Indefinitely Wild

The Best Winter Tires for Trucks, SUVs, and Crossovers

Studs or chains? LTs or P-metrics? Here's everything you need to know to find the perfect flexible, grippy tires—no matter the weather conditions.

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If you live north of the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s time to put winter tires on your vehicle. Winter tires stay flexible in cold temperatures, wick water away from ice as you drive over it, and aggressively bite into snow, providing traction and safety when it’s cold out. Which ones are best? Through extensive testing in the worst possible conditions, I’ve found some clear winners. 

What Are Winter Tires For?

Unless you simply stay home (a great idea when the weather is particularly dangerous!), you can’t choose your driving conditions. Depending on where you live, a typical commute might involve an icy driveway, a snow-covered side street, plowed pavement, black ice, and slushy parking lots. On a more adventurous trip, you could encounter deep snow, bare gravel, and whiteout conditions. Temperatures might vary from warm, above-freezing days to cold, sub-zero nights. 

While an all-terrain or mud-terrain tire may work in deep snow, it will compromise your safety on ice and slush. 

An all-season tire—the kind fitted to most new vehicles—will not provide adequate traction in any winter conditions. All-season tires begin to experience compromised traction below 45 degrees, even on dry pavement. 

A winter tire’s job is to provide safety. No other vehicle system—not anti-lock brakes or all-wheel drive—works without proper tires. And since we all share roads with other users, that safety applies to everyone. If one road user fails to run adequate tires, they’re putting every other driver, cyclist, and pedestrian in danger. 

 

How Do Winter Tires Work?

Modern winter tires sold by quality brands offer several unique benefits. They’re made from a rubber compound designed to remain flexible at low temperatures, which allows them to grip hard surfaces like pavement. That rubber is also microscopically porous. Ice gets slippery when the weight of your vehicle melts a thin film of water as your tire rolls over it. By wicking this away, winter tires stay in contact with the ice itself, and that flexible rubber finds grip. Siping—small squiggly lines in the tread blocks— accentuate traction by mechanically keying with the surface. Winter tires also feature large voids in the tread pattern, specifically design to hang onto loose snow and evacuate water and slush.

 

What Distinguishes a Winter Tire?

You’ll find two types of stamp on a tire’s sidewall that are supposed to denote winter capability. Neither actually does. 

The M+S stamp (for mud and snow) indicates a ratio of void-to-lug in the tread pattern. It involves no testing, and denotes no performance benefit. 

The Three Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMSF) symbol indicates that a tire has passed a performance test. But the test is conducted by the tire manufacturer itself, not a third party, and is exceptionally simple. To earn 3PMSF, a tire must demonstrate acceleration performance on packed snow that’s ten percent superior to a reference all-season tire from the early 1990s. No braking or lateral traction is tested. 

This is why it’s important to purchase winter tires from a reputable brand. 

What About Studs? 

Studs are designed for use in Scandinavian countries. Unlike the United States and Canada, northern European countries don’t plow their roads in winter. As a result, drivers there won’t need to use their winter tires on bare pavement.

That’s relevant to studs because driving on bare pavement will quickly wear them out. How fast does that wear occur? A study conducted in Alaska found that the braking distance of studded tires increased by 12 percent after just 1,000 miles of use on bare pavement. Virtually all North American drivers, even ones at far northern latitudes, will encounter at least 1,000 miles of bare pavement each winter, since we plow roads here.

Studs also damage pavement, increasing the need for road maintenance. And studded tires are much noisier than their studless counterparts. 

The main proponent of studded tires—Nokian—has put a lot of work into minimizing the downsides of studs. Studded Nokians use the same rubber compounds and tread patterns as their studless winter tires. I’ve recently driven on both studded and studless Nokians, and can detect little to no performance difference between the two. The only exception there is noise. Studded Nokians do add some noticeable tire thrumming at city speeds, but it seems to disappear on the highway. 

 

Can’t I Just Carry Chains?

Chains only work well in deep snow, and the additional traction they provide doesn’t go that much further than winter tires. Chains are challenging to fit, may damage your vehicle, and are unsafe to use in any condition other than deep snow. 

Some states require that drivers carry chains to travel certain, very dangerous routes in winter. You should always comply with those regulations, but a good set of winter tires will add safety throughout the entirety of your drive, not just the portions that may necessitate you fit chains. When conditions mandate chains, driving will prove exceptionally dangerous, even with them. It may be a better idea to stay home, book a hotel room, or take a different road. 

I carry chains in my winter-tire equipped vehicles when I travel through very remote areas. But I treat them as a tool of last resort. Should an obstacle (like a very steep climb in very deep snow) prove impassible by any other means, I’ll install my chains, tackle it, then remove them. 

By relying on chains only in those very limited circumstances, I can also run a much more aggressive style of chain than drivers attempting to cover longer distances with them. V-bar chains incorporate large, heavy duty studs that rip anything they contact to shreds, providing extraordinary traction, but can only be safely used at very low, walking-pace speeds. 

Many vehicles have no clearance for tire chains whatsoever. Attempting to run them will cause extensive damage. Even many trucks and SUVs, especially ones with independent front suspension, have no clearance for chains on their front wheels. Know what will work on your vehicle and proceed with extreme caution.

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What Differentiates Tires Designed for Trucks, SUVs, and Crossovers?

Larger, heavier vehicles require larger, heavier tires. This is especially true for drivers of very large or modified vehicles. Seek out winter tires that closely match the size of the tires you run during the summer. Some drivers may also want to look for LT (for light truck), rather than P-metric (P is for passenger car) construction. 

Tire sizes are often complicated. The simplest way to compare sizes is to use an online calculator. Note that the actual measured size of a tire will also vary slightly by manufacturer. You don’t necessarily need to run winter tires that fully match the size of your summers, but getting as close as possible will help avoid any issues with clearance between your tire and other parts of your vehicle, keep your speedometer reading accurately, and provide the best performance. 

LT tires are constructed using thicker carcasses and different rubber compounds to P-metric tires. The thicker, stronger construction of LTs means they need to be inflated to higher pressures. This calculator will help you find that pressure. Their additional weight and higher air pressures means that LT tires will typically worsen the ride quality of your vehicle. LT tires are also made from a rubber compound that incorporates less silica. This may reduce traction on wet pavement in order to offer improved resistance to cutting and tearing on gravel roads. LT tires may be offered in larger sizes. 

As I explained at length when I wrote about all-terrain tires, factors like size, weight, rubber compound, and load capacity determine the suitability of tires designed for your truck, SUV, or crossovers. Given the variety of surfaces a tire encounters off-road and in winter, trying to define a truck tire’s performance through a specific set of performance tests could never capture the full picture of the challenges these tires have to deal with.

 

What Are the Best Winter Tires?

For most drivers of most trucks, SUVs, and crossovers, the easiest-to-find and most affordable option for a top-tier winter tire is the Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2. Bridgestone invented the modern studless winter tire in the 1990s, and continues to innovate in that space. The DM-V2 is offered in P-metric sizes that will match the stock tire sizes on most trucks, SUVs, and crossovers. Blizzaks are available at most reputable tire shops, and can also be found at Costco. 

Looking for a higher performance alternative? Nokian’s range of winter tires may prove more difficult to find in the correct size and spec for your vehicle, and are typically a little more expensive, but they merit the effort. Nokian tires are also available in both studded and studless varieties. Nokian is the only tire maker to offer a true winter tire in 35-inch sizes. 

I live in Montana and run LT tires on my highly modified 4x4s. Even in the depths of winter, it’s common to encounter bare gravel roads at lower elevations, and LTs experience less wear in those conditions. Complete with high quality suspension systems, my trucks also require larger sizes only available from LT tires. And because I frequently travel through very remote places, even in winter, I appreciate the LT tire’s additional resistance to punctures. The tradeoff I’m making is that LTs do give up some grip on wet roads, and through mixed conditions. 

On the 200-series Land Cruiser, I run the Bridgestone Blizzak LT. They’ve proven utterly reliable, and fit the specific tall, narrow tire size dictated by the one-off long travel suspension system I designed for that vehicle. Because they’re studless, I’m able to fit them a littler earlier in the fall, and leave them on a little later in the spring, which leaves the Land Cruiser prepared no matter what surprises the weather throws at me. 

On my new Ford Ranger, I use the studded Nokian LT3 (pictured above), in a smaller 32-inch size than the 34-inch all-terrains I run during the summer. Due to supply chain issues last fall, the studless version of the tire wasn’t available in the size I wanted. But I’ve found their performance to be exceptional. I keep the Nokians mounted on a spare set of wheels, and swap them on and off the truck if I use it to travel to warmer climates. Running that smaller size gives me a lighter tire, which improves the Ranger’s fuel economy and ride quality during mild weather. 

The Nitto Nomad Grappler’s offer aggressive all-terrain looks, and dedicate the center portion of the tread to off-road grip. But, economy road tire-style shoulders keep noise levels low, and on-road steering response sharp. (Photo: Stuart Palley)

What If You Live Somewhere Warmer?

This is a common question from drivers who live somewhere that doesn’t dictate winter tires, but use their vehicles to travel to colder places: People who live on California’s coast, but drive into the mountains to ski, for instance. 

If your use isn’t frequent enough—or your budget doesn’t stretch far enough—to justify mounting a set of winter tires on a spare set of wheels for those trips, then there is a compromise you can make. This compromise will give you nothing like the safety a true set of winter tires provides, but combined with careful driving, and smart decision making (stay home when conditions dictate!), may be enough to get you where you’re going. 

Four-wheel drive vehicles will benefit from running a 3PMSF all-terrain. I use the Toyo Open Country ATIII, in LT sizes, on both of my vehicles. It snowed 30 inches here in southwest Montana this weekend, and the ATIII proved a willing companion off-road, in deep snow, and while driving on pavement in whiteout conditions. I had to go a little slower, and leave a little more distance behind other vehicles than I would on my Nokians, but the Toyos got me home safely. 

AWD crossovers can also benefit from all-terrain tires. But all-terrains designed for heavy trucks will add too much noise, drastically reduce fuel mileage, and limit the performance of lightweight economy cars. Fortunately, there is a new category of mild all-terrain tires designed just for crossovers. This was pioneered by the Falken A/T Trail, which remains an excellent option, but the Nitto Nomad Grappler recently shook up the category. The latter pairs all-terrain style center tread and sidewalls with economy tire style shoulders. On-road, this helps keeps noise levels very low and amplifies steering responsiveness. I mounted a set to my brother-in-law’s Subaru Forester last spring, and they’ve proven capable through summer adventures and shoulder-season snow storms. We’ll still replace them with a set of Blizzaks in the next few weeks, but with careful driving, they can be pressed into limited winter duty. 

Lead Photo: Nokian

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