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Updated November 2022
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Buying guide for Best snow chains

Manufacturers have made great advances in vehicle safety, but when there's snow and ice on the ground, snow chains are still the best way to handle difficult conditions. In fact, in many areas, they're a legal requirement, whatever you drive.

There's an enormous range to choose from – which is great – but looking for tire chains can get confusing. Should you go for steel or alloy? Links or rollers? Ladder pattern or diamond?

Snow chains vastly improve grip, but there are limits. Think about your safety and that of your passengers. Should you postpone that trip until weather conditions are better?

Snow chain features

There's far more to modern snow chains than just a bunch of metal links that wrap around your tire.

Some of these are highly-engineered products, incorporating technology that improves your safety, as well as making them easier to use.

We're going to look at:

  • Material

  • Link type

  • Pattern

  • Fitting


  • Hardened steel chain has been around for a long time. It's durable, and inexpensive, but because it has a high iron content, it's heavy. It's also prone to rust if not looked after properly. For that reason, various alloys have been developed.

  • Manganese nickel steel is equally strong. It's also resistant to rust, and weighs less.

  • The best combination of lightness and strength comes from titanium alloy. It's incredibly tough and doesn't corrode – but it's quite an expensive material.

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Don't listen to well-meaning friends who brag about driving at 60 mph with their snow chains on. Stick to a 30 mph maximum.

Link type

The shape and size of the links have a big impact on grip, but wrapping your tire in chains doesn't do much for ride comfort!

Choice of link type is something of a compromise between the two.

  • The smoothest ride is offered by cables. These consist of rollers wrapped around a steel or rubber core. Because they have a relatively low profile, they're often suitable for vehicles with clearance issues. The downside is that they offer less traction than full chain.

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Expert Tip
During winter, if you live in a snow zone, keep your gas tank 3/4 full whenever possible.
  • A reasonable compromise between comfort and grip is provided by twisted links. These have a more rounded shape, so they roll more easily, but there's enough protrusion to cut through snow effectively. They're also good in muddy conditions, though ice performance isn't quite so good. To improve this, some makers add short bars to the link. The negative, again, is reduced comfort.

  • For top traction choose square or “D” links. They're very similar, with edges designed to bite into snow and ice. When conditions are at their worst, these are what you want. D links are slightly more rounded, so arguably more comfortable. The difference is minor, however, and difficult to detect in real-world driving.

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Don't forget basic winter checks: oil and coolant levels, antifreeze, tire pressures, lights.

Chain pattern

The traditional tire chain design is the ladder pattern. Chains run straight across the tire, giving excellent grip and good stability when moving forward or backward. However, they do offer resistance in turns, so the V pattern was developed. Chains still cross the tire, but at a slight angle that allows for more grip and better braking in corners.

This was further developed into diamond and full pattern options. The diamond design combines the benefits of the ladder and V with chains that run across the tire surface, and centrally. A very effective, if more complex solution.

Full pattern chains are a heavy-duty option. The chain covers more of the tire's surface and wraps the side-walls, giving greater grip, at the expense of ride smoothness. They're usually restricted to trucks and off-road vehicles. It's an area where makers are always seeking improvements, so variations on these patterns can be expected.

"ABS (anti-lock braking) and AWD (all-wheel drive) are no substitute for snow chains. These systems are great at managing traction, but when the road is covered with snow or ice there's almost nothing for them to work with."


When it's freezing outside, the last thing you want to be doing is struggling to get snow chains on. However, ease of fitting is pretty much directly related to how much you spend.

Entry-level snow chains are generally termed “manual” fitment. Often you have to lay the chains out, drive over them, fit, drive a few feet more, and tighten. You have to center them by hand. It's not technically difficult, but it takes a lot of practice to do quickly.

Better tire chains make your life easier by offering self-centering and self-tightening High-quality snow tires are lighter too, so fitting is fast and trouble-free, even for people who have never done it before.

Some have quick-release levers for easier removal. You might also get rim protectors, so the chains don't bite into alloy wheels.

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Did you know?
Snow chains are sold in pairs. Fitting them to the drive wheels is usually sufficient. However, always check local laws and follow state Department of Transport guidance.

Snow chains and the law

Most states give advice regarding when you can, should, or must fit snow chains. They also tell you when you shouldn't. Some leave the decision to the driver.

Individual states may have very specific laws though. Kentucky, for instance, says tire chains may not be used unless the road is ice-covered. Bottom line? Check. Especially if you're traveling to an unfamiliar state.

Several National Parks require you to have snow chains or cables in the car at specific periods, whether you use them or not. The rules vary depending on weather conditions (signs are posted at entries).

In severe weather, chains are required even if you're driving a pickup, SUV, or all-wheel drive, and in some cases, even if you have studded snow tires fitted! Maximum fine is $5,000 – you have been warned!

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Don't be tempted to leave snow chains on when driving on asphalt, even for a couple of miles. They will wear very quickly and could break. Remove them as soon as it's safe to do so. In some areas, driving on asphalt with chains fitted is actually illegal.

Snow chains and speed

The National Park Service knows a thing or two about driving in snow and ice. When restrictions are in force, their maximum speed limit is 25 mph.

Reputable snow chain manufacturers tell you not to exceed 30 mph. Go faster and you risk an accident.

Snow chains prices

Good, low-cost cables or chains start around $40 a pair. Not very much, considering the safety these devices provide. At this price you're looking at something you'll need to fit manually.

The amount of help you get relates to what you spend. For semi-auto or "assisted" fitting tire chains, you'll pay around $60 to $80.

If you're looking for self-centering snow chains with auto-tensioning, you'll pay between $90 and $120. That's for a pair that will fit an average family sedan.

SUVs and pickups need bigger chains, so you'll pay more, but even heavy-duty models for light trucks can be found for around $200.

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Did you know?
Snow chains also perform well in muddy conditions. You might want to keep a pair in your RV.


  • Once you've bought your snow chains, practice. Make sure you know how they fit and adjust. Have two or three goes, so you're comfortable with it. You don't want to be learning this in the middle of nowhere, with several inches of snow on the road!

  • Don't leave the chains behind just because it's sunny and bright. In mountainous areas in particular, weather can change dramatically. You've paid for them; you might as well carry them.

  • If you're driving any distance in winter conditions, pack a survival kit: a folding shovel (some are called avalanche shovels), blankets or sleeping bag, flashlight, drinking water, chocolate or energy bars, first aid kit, jumper cables, flares. Make sure your phone is fully charged, and that someone knows where you're going, and when you expect to arrive.

  • Clean snow chains after use using warm soapy water and a stiff brush to get salt, grit and dirt out of the links.

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In snowy and icy conditions, do everything slower. Accelerate slower, use a lower gear, brake slower. Better to get there late than not at all.


Q: What do I do if the maker of my car says not to use snow chains?

A: Some manufacturers warn that metal chains can't be fitted to specific vehicles. This is often because of low tire clearance for wheel arches when the steering is on full lock. It can also be proximity of suspension or brake components, or where chains would damage alloy wheels. Low-profile cable chains are available that often solve this problem, but you should still check that they're suitable for your vehicle.

Q: Can I use snow socks instead of snow chains?

A: You can in some states, but others insist on metal chains. There are other considerations. Though light and easy to store, snow socks can take longer to fit. If they tear, you have to replace them, and some are surprisingly expensive. They don't provide the same level of traction, particularly on ice.

They can get you out of trouble in an emergency, but we wouldn't recommend them for people who live in an area that demands frequent winter use.

Q: How do I know what size my tires are?

A: The easiest thing to do is look at your tire sidewall. You'll see something like P185/65 R 16. So:

  • P is for “passenger.” (The type of vehicle, not always shown.)

  • 185 is the tire width, measured in millimeters.

  • 65 is aspect ratio — the ratio of height to width.

  • R is for “radial.”

  • 16 is the wheel diameter, in inches.

You might also see something like: 255/35 Z R 20. The only difference here is the addition of the “Z,” which is a speed rating. Other letters are possible. So, this tire is 255 mm wide, has an aspect ratio of 35, is a radial, and 20 inches in diameter.

All tires follow the same pattern. Armed with this information, you can choose the correct size tire chains for your vehicle.

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