Losing traction in the snow is no one’s idea of a good time. Even in areas not known for abysmal snowstorms, winter can create icy and hazardous road conditions that drivers must be prepared to deal with. Adding tire chains for cars can be a workable solution to get you where you need to go when the roads are not your friend — but they can also be a pain. Knowing when to employ chains can help you get out of a slippery situation, but you have to know what you’re doing first. Here’s how to tell if it is time to use tire chains on your vehicle.
While tire chains are legal in all 50 states different laws regulate chain usage in different states. Even Hawaii has a law on the books for tire chains (only if you are driving on on Mauna Kea though). Before you invest in a shiny new pair, make sure you know whether chains are allowed, permitted or even required in some cases. Generally, a chain “requirement” means you must have them in your vehicle if you want to pass certain checkpoints that pop up in inclement weather. Some go as far as requiring tire chains to be installed when road conditions reach a certain point with fines and penalties for non-compliance. Places where chains are permitted usually come with some disclaimer that restrict their usage, so make sure you know the law and follow it. There may even be different tire chains laws for passenger vehicles versus commercial trucks. Most tire chain laws are meant to help protect the roadway surface from damage caused by using chains without enough snow coverage.
The other important factor to consider is whether your vehicle is suitable for chains. You can find chains for most tire sizes, but there must be enough clearance for them to fit on without causing damage to the body, undercarriage or brakes. Make sure to check clearance around the front tires with the steering wheel turned fully to each side to make sure nothing rubs. If clearance is tight you may want to consider snow cables, which sometimes have a lower profile. Consult your owner’s manual for tire chain specifications and allowances.
Because chains are something you will likely need to take on and off at least once per trip, and because the conditions surrounding their use are usually cold, soggy and snowy, it’s best to practice installation first, ideally when the weather is still nice. Without driving the car anywhere, put them on and take them off a couple of times to get the hang of it so that when you do eventually need them, you aren’t stuck fumbling and trying to figure out how to get them on with freezing fingers. Also, if you’re carrying chains, pack a safety vest as well. There’s a good chance you’ll have to pull onto the side of the road at some point to adjust or remove them, and if it’s snowing, visibility will be low.
Using Chains For Tires Under The Right Conditions
Tire chains for cars should only be used if there is a layer of snow or ice on the road. Using chains on bare pavement can cause substantial damage to both your tires and the road itself. If you turn onto a road that’s clearly been plowed and salted, pull over and remove the chains.
It always pays to be careful when driving in freezing conditions, but chains require a whole new level of attention and care. When on, the car should not be driven above 30 miles per hour and you have to be mindful of curbs when parking. On two-wheel drive vehicles, chains must be attached to wheels on the drive axle, but ideally you get them on all four. If installed only in the front there will be a tendency to oversteer and a tendency to understeer if they’re only in the back. Four-wheel drive vehicles should have chains installed on all tires. Once the tire chains are installed drive a block or two and tighten them again. Some vehicles with selectable driving modes may need to be in the appropriate mode when using snow chains, so check your owner’s manual just in case. Once you get to an area of clear roadway, take off the chains. The aggressive traction that make tire chains so effective can also cause increased tire wear, so only keep them on when you need them.
Though they can be cumbersome, snow chains make a real difference in winter weather when you need to get somewhere without mother nature’s permission, but only if they’re being used safely and effectively. Otherwise, you’ll just be spinning your wheels. Once you are done using your snow chains inspect them for any breaks, corrosion, or physical damage before putting them away. Give them a good spray with WD-40 so they will be ready for next season.
Check out all the steering and suspension parts
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Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.