Choosing Tire Chains

Choosing Tire Chains

Cables, links, Zs, diamonds & other options

People who live in snow country are all too familiar with tire chains. They know the agony of painful fingers experienced when installing chains in a blizzard. Many other drivers only deal with chains during occasional ski trips. "Chain laws in effect" prompts people to buy tire chains, then hope they won't actually have to install them.

Ladder-style steel chains used to be the one and only option.

Chain Selection

Ladder-style steel chains used to be the one and only option. These days, tire chains are made of different materials and have varying cross-chain/cross-member patterns.

Check the owner's manual first to help narrow down chain choices. Some front-wheel-drive vehicles are deemed Class S by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). This means that there's at least 1.46" from the tread-face of the tire to the wheelwell and .59" from the sidewall to the nearest obstruction. So, if your car is Class S, shop for chains that comply.

Next, know your exact tire size. This can help narrow down the possibilities. Even so, same-size tires' actual sizes can vary as much as 7% among manufacturers. So, chains should always be installed to check proper fit before they're actually needed.

Cable Chains

The two primary materials used for winter traction devices are steel links and steel aircraft cable surrounded by steel rollers. Cable chains represent the latest evolution in winter traction devices. Lower-profile than link chains, cables fit more applications and offer a smoother ride. Because they're lighter than links, cables are often easier to install, remove and store. Some even come packaged with rubber tighteners that eliminate having to stop and retighten the chains.

Cable chains represent the latest evolution in winter traction devices.

Like link chains, cables are available in different patterns. Radial cables are similar to standard link chains in their ladder-style pattern, which runs perpendicularly across the tread. Advantages here are affordability and clearance.

Cables chains are also available in a zig-zag pattern. These "Z-type" cables provide better traction and a smoother ride than radial cables because part of the Z-chain is always contacting the road surface.

One leading manufacturer of passenger-car winter traction devices recommends radial cables for on-road use, including packed snow and ice, since they're relatively easy to install. Some include rubber tighteners to keep the cables taut up to the 30 mph maximum recommended speed limit. Z-style cables are recommended for on-road use that includes steep grades and deep snow where all-around traction and ride quality are important. Z-chains are also compatible with ABS and traction-control systems.

Steel Chains

Like cable chains, standard steel-link models are available in many configurations. The two prominent patterns are radial/ladder and diamond or X-chains. Diamond chains offer better traction, particularly in deep snow, and can often be installed from the outside of the tire without crawling underneath. Diamond chains can cost more than twice as much as comparable-sized ladder links, and Class S-clearance diamonds are available. This pattern typically offers great traction both on-road and off-road, and diamond chains are compatible with ABS and traction control.

Ladder-style chains also offer options. Available link styles are standard twisted and bar-reinforced. Twist-link chains give 120% more starting traction and 30% shorter stopping distances than bare tires. Bar-reinforced models provide an additional 140% starting traction and 20% shorter stopping. Twist-link chains are available in Class S-compliance. Unlike cable chains, steel links can cause sidewall wear.

Which Tires?

For maximum traction, all four tires should be chained up. However, most people purchase only one pair of chains. If this is the case, consult the vehicle owner's manual (particularly for all-wheel-drive vehicles). Generally, the single pair of chains should be installed on the drive wheels. This helps steering in front-wheel-drive cars but can allow the rear to swerve during braking and cornering. Chains on the rear only can limit steering effectiveness.

Overall, chains having a criss-crossed, Z, X or diamond pattern provide better performance than ladder-style chains and are also ABS/traction control friendly. Link chains normally work better in deep snow than same-style cable chains. Most steel chains are plated for rust-resistance, and quality link chains have case hardened cross-members for durability. For more information, including state-by-state chain laws, see the web sites below.


B-B Chain,

Laclede Chain,

Peerless Chain Co.,

Pewag Chain,

Security Chain Co. (SCC),

South Fork Hardware Co.,

Afraid of paying too much?
Get price quotes from dealers
near you... get ready to SAVE!

Get Internet Price