Winter tyres demystified

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In the colder months many people now opt for winter tyres, but what exactly are they, and why should you fit a set?

Tyres have an extremely hard life and we expect them to cope with a huge range of weather conditions, temperatures and road surfaces. As a result tyre manufacturers spend vast sums of money creating tyres that are capable of dealing with a wide variety of conditions.

However regular tyres are something of a compromise, and that compromise becomes all too apparent when the weather turns icy and snowy and you find yourself struggling to get up even a small incline. At the mere hint of snow, the whole country grinds to a halt, so what can you do to keep mobile in the winter?

One option is to fit a set of winter tyres. These are designed to perform better than summer tyres once the temperature drops below around 7 degrees C, and perform much better in the snow and ice.

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How do Winter Tyres Work?

There are two main differences between winter and summer tyres, the first being that winter tyres are made of a softer compound, usually with the addition of more rubber, and the second is that the tread design is different, frequently with deeper tread blocks and with additional 'sipes' (the name for the grooves in, and between, the tread blocks).

These provide surprising levels of extra traction in the snow and ice by allowing the snow to become trapped in the sipes. Try rubbing two snowballs together and see what happens - the principle is the same - snow sticks really well to snow!

Can I use winter tyres all year round?

There's nothing to stop you, but above 7 degrees C the levels of grip will fall to below that of a comparable summer tyre, so you'll find the handling worse, and braking distances will increase, so it's not a great idea.

Tyres branded as All Season are available which are claimed to strike a balance between summer and winter tyres, but it could be argued that these tyres are a compromise whatever the weather.

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When Should I Fit Winter Tyres

The simple answer is when the temperature drops below 7 degrees C! But many people swap them over in October, and then switch back in March. It makes sense to change them when cold weather is forecast, and not wait until snow actually falls, as by then it could be too late to get to a garage to swap them over.

Do I need another set of wheels too then?

You can just buy winter tyres in the same size as your current tyres, and get a local tyre fitter to swap them over on to your existing wheels, but for convenience it makes sense to buy a set of cheap steel wheels and fit your winter tyres to them. The added bonus of this is that it protects your alloys from the corrosive effects of winter salt, plus makes swapping the wheels over a simple DIY task. Many retailers and sellers offer wheel and winter tyre packages.

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My car is front wheel drive: can I just fit two?

It's always advised to fit winter tyres to all four wheels. Fitting them to just the front can cause unwanted handling characteristics which could lead to the car spinning out of control in icy conditions. So whether your car is front, rear or all wheel drive always fit a full set.

How do I store winter tyres when I'm not using them?

The best way to store the tyres is somewhere dry and covered up (light degrades the rubber over time). If you're just storing tyres don’t stack them up, as it can deform them, instead stand them up (as if they were on the car) and periodically rotate them.

If they're fitted to wheels you should store them horizontally and it's advised to over inflate the tyres by a couple of PSI before you stash them away. You can also buy a variety of tyre storage solutions including tyre trees, racks and storage bags depending on how much space you have.

Expert tip

Some Tyre Fitters offer a storage service and will look after your wheels and tyres when they're not fitted to the car which saves you having to stash them in your shed.

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What about the cost?

As with summer tyres, winter tyres are available at budget, intermediate and premium price points, plus you need to factor in the cost of additional wheels to fit them to. But after the initial outlay don’t forget that you won’t be using your winter wheels in summer and vice versa, so you'll actually end up buying replacement tyres less often.

What other options are there?

If you don’t think your driving warrants winter tyres but still want to be able to drive in the snow and ice in emergencies, then you could consider snow socks. These fit over the tyres to get you out of slippery situations!

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