Main photo credit: Sergey Novikov / Shutterstock.com
The steady improvement in tire technology has led to snow tires that will help you get through just about any winter conditions. However, for the worst snowy conditions, especially when there is lots of smooth ice, there is no tire that performs as well as a good set of tire chains.
Tire chains were first introduced in the early 1900s, when drivers of the first automobiles were forced to fight snow and ice without proper winter tires. Back then, chains were the only viable option, but the old school chain systems were problematic. They were hard to install on the fly and they could come loose, damaging the vehicle when they get to flopping around. Many of the early tire chain systems were also fairly crude, so they could often damage the surface of the wheel face.
As time went on and tire technology improved, tire chains became more popular with commercial truck drivers who couldn’t easily switch tires when they got into the winter months. Although tires for passenger vehicles got vastly better, they still don’t offer the traction advantages of chains, especially in deep snow and on ice. Fortunately, as snow tire technology has improved, so have tire chain systems, including the addition of modern systems that don’t use chains at all. They have become easier to install and easier to tighten, making them more reliable and less likely to damage the vehicle or the wheels.
The key issue is that there are many different brands and styles of tire chains, so today, we bring you a look at the best tire chains on the market.
For more information on the best tire chains, refer to our table of contents.
Table of contents
1. Editor's Pick: Security Chain Peerless Auto-Trac Tire Traction Chain
The Peerless Auto-Trac tire chains from Security Chain are the most advanced iteration of the classic style. The tread and sidewalls are wrapped in a diamond-shaped pattern of thick chain. Where this weave of chain wraps onto the sidewalls, there is a chain running around the face of the tire, holding all of the main traction chains against the rubber.
The chain on the inside of the tire clips to itself to complete the circuit. On the outside of the tire, the chain system is secured by means of the unique ratcheting auto-tensioner. This tensioner system tightens and centers the chain system on the tire, so you don’t need to stop to make sure that the chain is tight.
This self-tightening tensioner system is what allows this system to stand ahead of the competition. It makes the Auto-Trac system the most user-friendly in every way. It takes the worry out of properly centering the tires and having to check them during your drive. The Auto-Trac system also offers great grip with plenty of thick chain straddling the rubber tread. The downside is that all of that chain is heavy and, more importantly, these are the most expensive of the traditional-style tire chains.
2. Security Chain Super Z6 Cable Tire Chain
The Super Z6 cable-style tire chain from Security Chain offers self-tensioning with a finer chain that weighs a bit less than traditional chains. The Z6 uses a system of cables that are wrapped in fine steel coils that dig into snow and ice like thousands of little fingers. This type of traction material is lighter than the heavy duty chains, but it also takes less space to install, making this ideal for compact vehicles with small wheel openings. The coils may not dig as deep with each rotation, but they create a coarser tool to tear up the slick surface.
The Super Z6 tire chains install easily. You drape them around the inside of the tire and stretch the cross-section portions over the rubber tread. You then connect the coupler to complete the circuit on the face of the tire. The unique component of the Super Z6 comes next, in the form of the rubber tensioner that connects to the cable running around the circumference of the tire. Using six clips, the tensioner pulls in on the connecting cable, helping to keep the tire chain system tight on the tire.
This constant-tension system eliminates the need to stop and check the tire chains, but they also make it easier to mount the chain on the tire. Since the tensioning system tightens and centers the chain system, you don’t need to move the vehicle when installing the chains. If there is an odd gap where the tire is on the ground, the tensioner system will pull that into shape as soon as the vehicle drives away.
3. Security Chain Radial Chain Cable
The Security Chain Radial Chain Cable is a more budget-friendly form of the Super Z6. It uses coil-wrapped cables that stretch over the tread surface and onto the sidewalls, offering the coarse grip with thousands of small coil links digging into the snow or ice. Unlike the Z6, there is no self-tensioning feature, so you will need to move the vehicle to install these tire chains. You will also need to stop to check that they are still tight after you’ve done some driving.
This option installs by draping over the tire and tucking under the front-facing portion of the tread. You then drive the car forward a bit, moving part of the traction chains under the tire. The coil-covered traction cables stretch over the tread, but the inside and outside cables are rigid. You begin by connecting the rear cable ends, then the front, by pulling them as tight as you can by hand. After driving the vehicle for a short time, you have to check to make sure that you cannot pull the outside end connectors any tighter.
The key advantage of this recommendation is that is costs substantially less than the other chain-style traction aides that we have discussed. They are also lighter than heavy duty chains, making them the tire chains that everyone on a tight budget will want to order.
4. SUPTEMPO Emergency Anti-Slip Tire Traction Chains
The SUPTEMPO Emergency Anti-Slip Tire Traction Chains aren’t actually chains at all. They are more like shoes that strap to the tires through the wheels. Each tire wears three of these composite “shoes” with thick metal studs scattered across the surface of each shoe.
This system works by covering a portion of the tire tread, with straps extending through the wheel spokes. The straps connect and tighten with ratchet assemblies similar to what you might use to secure a car to a trailer. You attach them to the tire in a three-point star layout, putting one at the top of the tire and two on the lower sides, so you don’t need to move the vehicle to install them.
These shoe-style tire chains have some distinct advantages over traditional tire chains. They cost less, they are lighter, and they are easier to install than a full tire chain setup. They also don’t require any retightening thanks to the ratchet-strap fastener system. The downside is that they aren’t intended to be used for long periods of time and they don’t offer as aggressive of a grip as true chains.
If you don’t ever want to use tire chains, but you spend lots of time driving in wintry conditions and want some peace of mind, these SUPTEMPO Emergency Anti-Slip Tire Traction Chains are a great budget option. Our only concern would be debris getting trapped under the straps and scratching the wheels, but if you are only using them in short periods of time, that shouldn’t be an issue.
5. NICEASY Tire Chains
The NICEASY tire chains combine the aggressive grip of a traditional chain setup with the ease of use of the multi-unit, shoe-style format. This system is sold in sets of six, with three being attached to each drive wheel. Unlike the other multi-unit kits that have a composite shoe, these use a sort of woven chain design. The result is the aggressive traction of heavy duty chains, but they are easier to install and they weigh a bit less, making them easier to stow after use.
These attach to the wheel with ratchet straps that run through the wheel spokes, around the wheel-and-tire assembly rather than around the outside of the tire. This makes it easier to install without moving the vehicle. It also makes tightening a breeze thanks to the ratchet straps.
This option doesn’t offer quite as much tread coverage as a traditional design, but they offer similar digging ability. The key concern is that if you use them on nicer wheels, you might get debris under the straps that can scratch the wheel finish.
The other issue is that they cost quite a bit more than most tire chain systems, but if you like the three-piece format with easy tightening and you aren’t worried about scuffs on your wheels, these are a great option.
Tire Chains: Everything You Need to Know
Photo credit: Jaroslav Moravcik / Shutterstock.com
The first tire chains were literally just random chains and even ropes that people wrapped around their tires to get grip on icy roads. The first commercially manufactured chains were designed specifically to fit around the wheel-and-tire and today’s tire chains are evolutionary forms of the original design.
Today’s traditional tire chains are often comprised of a similar length of chain like you might use to hoist an engine or provide a safer connection between a truck and trailer. They have two chains that run around the inner and outer sidewalls, with an array of short sections that run across the tread of the tire. The chain creates a web of sorts that wraps the majority of the tire in the thick chain.
Tire chains work by gripping the snow or ice more aggressively than any snow tire. When the chains are pressed between the rubber of the tires and the driving surface, they dig into the ice and help the vehicle move forward. When it comes to deeper snow, the portions of the chain on the sidewalls can also help you dig through winter’s fury. Ultimately, the chains dig through pretty much anything and with enough digging comes useful traction.
The key issue with the old school chains is that they can be heavy, so the modern tire chain systems look to provide similar functionality with different materials. Some brands use a finer spring-style chain that will dig in, but they weigh less than the heavy duty chains. These tire chain systems that wrap around the perimeter of the wheel-and-tire assembly offer the best overall coverage, with chain digging into the surface every few inches, all of the way around the tire.
Also, some products are more like snow shoes that strap around the wheel and tire. These system typically have three units that connect to each tire, with straps running through the wheel. Some options of this style use actual chains, while others use composite panels with studs mounted across the face. This style is generally easier to attach and tighten while being lighter than a traditional system, but with the straps going through the wheels, there is potential for debris to get caught against the wheel. That would lead to scratching, for those adding chains over nicer looking wheels.
If you are shopping for tire chains and you want the greatest level of grip, a traditional system with thick metal chains wrapped around the tire is the best way to go. These are heavy, but with the higher end versions, self-tightening systems help to prevent the chains from coming loose. They cost more than a basic chain setup that you have to retighten, but the biggest issue with the heavy duty chains is weight.
On the other hand, if you want a tire chain system that is lighter, easier to transport, and easier to stow in your vehicle, you should consider the three-piece systems with studded, composite shoes that strap around the wheel-and-tire. These more modern systems are more user-friendly, but they don’t offer quite the same level of traction as chains that wrap around the entire tire.
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