Your ultimate guide to Winter Tyres

We are all aware that snow, ice and wintry conditions can affect our driving and the safety conditions on our roads.

We are all aware that snow, ice and wintry conditions can affect our driving and the safety conditions on our roads. Steering, braking and acceleration are made that much more difficult as regular tyres have less grip in these conditions. Even damp and cold roads can dramatically impact the performance of your tyres, leading in severe cases to an increased risk of an accident.

Why use winter tyres?

Winter tyres are recommended in cold conditions when the thermometer heads below 7 degrees Celsius. The reason for this is that as the temperature drops, the rubber compound used in summer tyres starts to harden, providing less of a grip. The tread compound found in winter tyres contains a higher percentage of natural rubber, in addition to advanced silica compounds which are designed to mitigate the hardening effect. This helps drivers to stop in shorter distances than they would if they had summer tyres fitted.
But exactly how good are winter tyres? A car fitted with summer tyres going at 60mph takes approximately 70.5 metres to stop on a cold wet road, whereas a similar car equipped with winter tyres will come to a standstill at 65.7 metres.
Five metres might not sound like much, but it is the length of a large family car and can make the difference between being involved in a collision or not. Winter tyres offer added grip when cornering and pulling away on slippery surfaces, giving better control when it is cold.

How do winter tyres work?

Through using a different compound which creates a malleable and softer surface contact, the tread patterns on winter tyres are able to move more easily in cold conditions compared with those of summer tyres. This is further compounded by the fact that winter tyres have added grooves in the tread known as ‘snipes’ which also help grip the road or ice.
The more malleable the rubber, the more heat it produces and this extra heat generated by the winter tyres enables the tyres to grip the road, providing extra traction. Winter tyres also have a tread design that is more open, allowing them to bite into snowy surfaces easily while dispersing the snow at the same time.
Always make sure that you fit winter tyres as a set of four. You may think that they will work only on the driven wheels, however only using two winter tyres in cold conditions can destabilise your car, allowing it to lose traction and reduce braking effectiveness just when you need it the most.
You can always tell a winter tyre by the ‘snowflake on a mountain’ symbol that normally features on the tyre’s sidewall.

The differences between summer and winter tyres 

When it comes to summer and winter tyres there are three fundamental differences: their structure, their tread pattern and the rubber compound they are made from.

Winter Tyres

  • Winter tyres contain more natural rubber and a higher silica content, which allows them to remain supple in cold weather. The softer the tyres are, the more likely they are to be able to grip the road, increasing traction and handling. Unlike summer tyres, which quickly harden in cold weather, winter tyres function best at temperatures under 7 degrees Celsius.
  • Winter tyres also contain sipes in their tread blocks which are used to help disperse water and stop the tyres from aquaplaning. The sipes also grip into snow and ice, delivering optimal traction with the road.
  • They also feature a deep tread design which allows a cavity for snow. The build-up of snow in the tyres allows them to grip the remaining snow on the road (snow grips snow better than anything else) adding traction to the tyres and enabling the vehicle to move forward on icy and snowy roads.

Summer Tyres

  • Summer tyres provide drivers with an overall better performance during the warmer summer months. They are made from a harder compound, which softens in milder climates, allowing them to adapt to dry as well as wet roads.
  • As they’re made of a harder rubber compound which is suitable for most weather conditions, they can begin to harden when temperatures drop below 7 degrees Celsius.
  • Summer tyres normally have a block-shaped tread design which creates a large footprint with the road. This provides excellent handling and has a huge impact on braking distance. In temperatures of 15 degrees and above, vehicles with these tyres come to a stop up to seven metres sooner than cars with winters tyres. Designed to adapt to higher temperatures without becoming soft, summer tyres are lower friction and thus more fuel efficient.
Another difference between the tyre types is that winter tyres need to be replaced when their tread is reduced to 4mm in depth, whereas with summer tyres the minimum depth is 3mm. The stopping distance of tyres increases as the tread depths decrease meaning that a winter tyre with a depth of 8mm will stop faster than one with a depth of 4mm. Once lower than 4mm tread depth, a winter tyre no longer provides any benefits for use on snow or ice.

Are winter tyres worth it in the UK? 

Winter tyres are not mandatory in the UK, despite the fact that they are in some other European countries. This is because the weather in the UK does not normally exhibit extreme temperatures as it does in countries throughout eastern parts of Europe. In these countries, winter tyres are necessary to drive through icy and snowy roads, which are an annual hazard.
So are winter tyres worth it? Well, they can be a prudent investment if you live in a more remote part of the country, where if bad weather strikes you could be left without a fully functioning vehicle. If this is your situation, then it’s a good idea to have a set of winter tyres stored away should the worst happen. Don’t wait until the snow starts to fall before you decide to buy and fit them, as by then it will be too late.
For users who live in urban areas or places where the roads are well serviced, the reasons for buying winter tyres can be a little harder to justify. The majority of people living in the UK will not experience the near arctic conditions of Eastern Europe or Scandinavia, which is why opting for winter tyres UK drivers consider to be optional.

When should I put on my winter tyres?

There is no set date on which you should change to winter tyres, especially in the UK where the temperature and weather fluctuates throughout Autumn. However, a good rule of thumb is to fit them once the average 24-hour temperature drops to below 7 degrees Celsius. Ensure that the temperature has dropped sufficiently for a good number of days in a row to ensure that you’re fitting your tyres for the correct reasons rather than simply as a result of a temporary drop.

Can I use winter tyres in summer?

The warmer it gets the less need there is for deep tread designed for gripping snow and ice. Here are a number of specific reasons why using winter tyres year round is not advisable:
  • Faster wear and tear. Due to the fact that the tread of rubber tyres is more flexible than that of summer or even all season tyres, they can wear down faster in warm temperatures.
  • Decreased performance. In warmer temperatures, winter tyres won’t provide the same capabilities in handling as summer or all season tyres do. As the rubber is more flexible in the warm, they become soft, meaning you don’t get the crisp response that you’d get from summer tyres in the same situation.

Are winter tyres noisy?

Winter tyres are, technically speaking, slightly louder than their summer tyre counterparts due to the siping. This is more noticeable in dry conditions, which is another reason you should switch back to your summer tyres when the weather gets warmer. Of course, a little bit of extra noise is a small price to pay for added safety on the roads.

How do I store and look after my winter tyres?

Don’t keep your winter tyres outside and unused on your vehicle for more than a month as this could lead to damage, in addition to negatively impacting on their performance. The best thing to do is to remove them. If you do remove them, make sure that you note down their position on your car so that the next time you use them, you can rotate their position to even the wear. You should also wash them with water, clean them and dry them before you put them into storage. This should prevent corrosion.

Where should I store them?

Winter tyres should be preferably placed in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight and sources of heat such as pipes. If given too much exposure to these elements over a prolonged period of time, the weathering agents inside the tyre’s rubber compounds can break down and the tyres can crack.
For short-term storage you can stack tyres provided that they don’t reach heights of more than four feet and it’s best to store them on a pallet rather than directly on the floor. For a long-term solution, you should store them vertically on a rack which is approximately 4 inches off the ground.
If you don't have a suitable place to store your tyres there are "tyre hotels" where you can pay a small cost per tyre per season and they will hold onto them until you need them.

When should I check my winter tyres for wear?

You should check the condition of your tyres on a regular basis, during regular car inspections or maintenance sessions, for example. Then after five years a specialist should check out your tyres every year.

When should I consider replacing my winter tyres?

Legally speaking, tyres have to be replaced at or before the point at which they reach the legal tread wear indicator which is 1.6mm tread depth. This is a purely legal requirement, however, and not a recommended one. Many tyre manufacturers such as Pirelli, Bridgestone, Sumitomo and Falken recommend a minimum depth of 4mm as this is where key properties such as grip and traction start to diminish. In many tyres, this is marked with a tyre wear bar indicator in the tread which highlights when the tread depth is below 4mm.
If you want to measure the depth of your tyre tread, the easiest way is to either use a tread guage or to take a pen, a set of callipers and a match. First you place the match into the tread, mark the level with a pen and then measure the marked section with the calliper to reveal the depth. You can also check out our entire section on the importance of tyre safety.

Looking for irregularities

In addition to the tread depth, car owners should also check their winter tyres for any irregularities as these can impact your vehicle's performance. They include:
  • Bubbles
  • Cracks including cross-wise in the tread or sidewall
  • Bulges
If you come across any of the above, you should discuss the tyre's condition with the professionals at Protyre to determine whether they need replacing.

Winter tyres lifespan?

The extent to which a winter tyre will age depends on a range of factors. These can include the number of miles driven, the frequency and duration of use, weather conditions and the speed at which the vehicle is driven, to name just a few of them.
Due to these multitude of factors, it is impossible to come up with a precise number of years or miles that a winter tyre can be expected to last. Obviously, the older it is, the greater the chance that it will need to be changed.

Winter tyres air pressure

It’s important to check that you have the right air pressure for your winter tyres. As the temperature drops, so does the tyre pressure. If you are adjusting the pressure outside in the ambient temperature, then you should always set the pressure to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure.
However, if you are in a warmer environment such as a garage you may well have to add 0.2 bar (3 psi) to the recommended pressure in order to compensate for the difference and to ensure that you have the right pressure level for your car and tyres.

What about snow socks?

Snow socks have grown in popularity over the past few years thanks in part to the fact that they are a simpler alternative to snow chains. They are lightweight, thin and small enough to fold up and store in your car and provide your wheels with added traction on wintry roads. They are also simpler to fit than snow chains and are cheaper too, but do snow socks work?
Snow socks are not as powerful as chains, however, and do not offer the same degree of traction, especially when it comes to roads that are covered in hard ice. They are also more prone to damage than snow chains and a rip in a snow sock can seriously reduce its effectiveness.
For drivers in the UK, however, a snow sock is a great alternative to a snow chain as they are easy to transport in the boot of your car. For those travelling to remoter parts of the country during wintry conditions, it is a good idea to keep a set tucked away for emergencies.
If you travel outside of the UK, there is a level of ambiguity when it comes to snow socks. Even though they are not illegal, there are many countries within Europe such as Austria, Germany, Norway and Switzerland that require you to fit snow chains and not snow socks on dangerous roads.

Are winter tyres expensive?

This again depends on the type of vehicle and the wheel size. On average, winter tyres are slightly more expensive than their summer tyre counterparts. However, while the cost for 4 winter tyres might be significant, it means that your set of summer tyres will last longer as a result. The initial outlay might be unwelcome, but in the long-term, the cost of winter tyres is relatively low.
Fitting winter tyres won’t affect the cost of your car insurance. There has been a lot of debate as to whether winter tyres are considered a car modification or not, which would result in an increase in your premium. However, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) confirms that this is not the case, although it does recommend drivers tell their insurance providers if they have fitted winter tyres.

Which winter tyres are best?

So we’ve addressed the question “why winter tyres?” And now you may wish to discover which are the best fit for your vehicle. It all depends on your usual driving conditions during the winter months. For those of you who need to drive regularly in snow and icy conditions, then a tyre such as the Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 would suit you well. If, however, you’re looking for an all-rounder that can handle both wet and dry conditions then something from Bridgestone’s Blizzak range or Falken Eurowinter HS449 might be better suited to your needs.
Whichever tyre you decide to choose, make sure that it has the 3PMSF certification so that you know that the tyre meets the required specifications for a winter tyre. Models which feature this mark, which comes in the form a three peak mountain with a snow flake inside, are able to retain their performance at sub-zero temperatures. The 3PMSF symbol is controlled by the EU which means that every tyre that features it has undergone rigorous testing and is suitable for use in wintry conditions.
The tyre you need will also correspond to the type of vehicle (SUV, sport…) and depending on the brand of your car and its engine, you may need a tyre that is very specific to your vehicle. The year of manufacture can also have an impact as to what tyre you require. The best solution is to talk to one of our experts at Protyre who can go over the best winter tyres suitable for your car.

About the author

Dean Richardson

Dean is a Regional Director for Protyre who is also responsible for the running of our Protech Academy. The ...

View author

Related Articles

The Importance of Winter Tyres

Those who travel to Europe in Winter for skiing and winter snow trips will already know the advantages of winter tyres and the rules in many European countries where they are a legal requirement. (for a list of countries where winter tyres are a requirement click here).
Find out more

Should I buy winter tyres?

It can be a good idea to have summer and winter tyres; in fact, it is a legal requirement to have two sets of tyres and wheels in some areas of Europe.
Find out more

How do stopping distances change in the Winter?

Many drivers underestimate the extra distance they need in order to stop on a wet or icy road. Winter tyres can make the difference between being able to stop in time to avoid an accident, or finding the car sliding into a collision on a slippery road.
Find out more