At first glance, it just doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Why would you strap bits of metal to your tires and drive around like that? But if you’ve ever used a set of tire chains, like the ones from our friends at Security Chain, you know they give you Abrams-like traction, and can be a definite safety feature during the snowy months. Here’s a basic run-down on what they are, how they work, and how to make the most of them.
Though several variations have cropped up over the years, two basic designs dominate the tire chain industry. The first is the “standard” type, these made up traditional chain links. Standard tire chains are generally very durable and offer better grip, since the road-facing links are studded with “v-bars,” small barbs that help dig into snow and ice. Why would anyone seek an alternative? Well, standard type chains are heavier to carry, sometimes can be trickier to install, and can be harder on tires if used on pavement for extended periods.
So manufacturers came up with “cable” type chains; these using steel cordage instead of traditional linked chains. The cables are surrounded by sliding metal “beads” for grabbing snow and ice, and though these can wear down and fall off over time, cable chains are often set up so the beads can be replaced. Cable chains are lighter, often easier to install, and are less abrasive on tires, but they also tend to wear out faster than standard chains, so which your ideal type depends on how snowy the roads are in your area and how often you actually use the chains.
Since nothing goes without saying online, tire chains are primarily for your drive wheels. They can improve grip on non-powered wheels, but if you only have a pair, match them up with the driven wheels.
It’s hard to imagine if you’re not looking at a set, but tire chains are relatively easy to install. The biggest things to remember when shoeing your tires are balance and tension. Balance is particularly important with cable chains, since most rely on the use of a bungee-type tensioner. A bungee tensioner uses an elastic band and small hooks to tighten the outside edge of your chain in a star pattern. But make sure your “star” is even on all sides, since chain balance can be just as important as tire and wheel balance.
Tension will be your other chief concern when you join the chain gang. As previously mentioned, strapping bits of metal to your spinning tires doesn’t seem like a good idea, and it isn’t when they’re not tight enough. Any slack at all can be dangerous, so make sure your chains are snug around your tires. The other type of tensioner, by the way, is the “cam” tensioner, a metal fitting on the outer chain that can be turned with a key. These are more common on standard tire chains.
The final thing to know about tire chain safety, however, is how to drive once your chains are in place. Always follow manufacturer limits on how fast you can go, since most tire chains are rated for no more than 20-30 mph. You should also try to avoid cleared, paved roads, as they’re predictably hard on chains, tires, and roads alike.
And you’re pretty smart, so you know what happens when you grind metal against asphalt all winter. Tire chains can break. So it’s a good idea to keep your distance from other cars when you’re at speed, since the golden rule of winter driving is, “Throw chains into your neighbor’s windshield as you would throw them into your own.”
Even if snow removal is pretty good in your area, and you don’t think you’ll leave them on all the time, keeping a set of tire chains in your trunk is never a bad idea. They can be installed in minutes and can save you hours waiting on the tow truck to pull you out of a ditch.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.