All-Season Tires vs. Snow Tires: What's the Difference?

Snow tires can help you get a grip on winter weather.
Snow tires can help you get a grip on winter weather. / ollo/iStock via Getty Images

If you reside in a part of the country prone to heavy snowfall, you’ve probably experienced the jolt of fear that accompanies briefly losing control of your vehicle. Tires slide and skid across icy or slippery surfaces; the steering wheel stops responding. For a moment, you’re in trouble.

While there are strategies to steer out of skids and other road hazards, one key safeguard against bad weather driving conditions is to equip your car with snow tires.

What’s the difference between regular tires and snow tires?

Regular or all-season tires are the default option for virtually all new and used vehicles. In terms of how they're different from snow tires, it’s not so much what they lack for icy conditions as what snow tires add. Specifically, there are three major differences in rubber composition, tread depth and pattern, and biting edges.

In snowy weather, regular tire rubber tends to stiffen up and provide less traction, which is an issue with roads that have been smoothed over with snow and ice. Snow tires are made with more flexible rubber that maintains a good grip on the road. A snow tire also has a deeper tread depth, which reduces the amount of snow that can accumulate on the tire and improves traction by pushing snow out of the way. The tread patterns of a winter tire will also repel slushy build-up and water, which helps prevent hydroplaning. Biting edges—those “slits” on the surface of the tire—also help keep the tire on the road.

How much do snow tires cost?

Snow tires average around $150 per tire, though cost is dependent on the tire brand and the make and model of your vehicle. Tires for SUVs, for example, can cost more.

Who should buy snow tires?

If snowstorms are a regular occurrence in your region, purchasing a set of snow tires would be a good idea. If you’re hit only sporadically and can manage to avoid driving in bad weather, you’re probably fine with the all-season tires that likely came with your car.

Can I install just one set of snow tires on the front or rear of my vehicle?

That’s not recommended. Having just two snow tires in the front or rear still leaves the possibility of your remaining all-season tires skidding.

Can I just leave snow tires on all year long?

That’s also not advisable. Driving snow tires on warm and dry pavement will wear them out. If you opt for snow tires, be sure to change them out in the spring.

Can I change the tires out myself?

You can, but it involves raising the car with a jack and making absolutely certain they’re secure. Winter tires should also be mounted on a dedicated set of rims. When in doubt, have the work done by a professional.