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Tire Chains: When and Why You Really Need Them

Losing control of your vehicle due to snow and ice can cause you to see your life flash before your eyes. However, a set of tire chains can help you avoid these white-knuckle situations while driving.

Today, we’ll dive into why and when you should carry tire chains. Buckle up, and we’ll get started.

Safety First: 8 Steps to Installing Winter Tire Chains

What Are Tire Chains? 

Tire chains, or snow chains, fit around a tire to add traction in snowy and icy conditions. The chains use the vehicle’s weight to push them down into the snow and ice. While you can’t travel quickly with them on your tires, they can help you keep moving in conditions where your normal tires will not make any progress.

What Does Putting Chains on Tires Do? 

Putting chains on your tires drastically increases the traction between the tires and the road surface. The chains dig into softer ice and snow surfaces. They help improve the tread and avoid slippage, which can cause a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.

Tire chains are essential and even required for traveling through some sections of the country in the winter. If you’ve ever driven through steep mountain passes, you’ve likely seen the warning signs for drivers to carry chains. 

They are extremely effective at improving road safety. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you need them and don’t have them.

Close up of installed snow chains on tires
Install snow chains on your tires to stay safe while driving in the winter.

How Do I Know If My Car Needs Snow Chains?

Some parts of the country require drivers to use or carry chains during specific times of the year. You’ll find this typically in mountainous areas that frequently experience extreme snow and ice conditions. 

Will law enforcement pull you over and check to see if you have them? No. However, if you find yourself stranded or in a situation where you need assistance, law enforcement will likely issue you a citation for not observing the requirement.

If you’re planning to spend a significant amount of time in an area that experiences extreme winter weather, you’ll need them. It doesn’t matter whether you have four-wheel drive or not — you should use snow chains in these situations. 

Four-wheel drive on ice just means you’ll have four spinning tires without grip instead of two. Four-wheel drive also does not help in breaking. If your tires loose traction you will slip, chains can help slow your vehicles as well.

Pro Tip: Thinking of getting all-terrain tires? Before you do, learn more about the Pros and Cons of All-Terrain Tires and What They’re Actually Good For.

When Should You Use Tire Chains?

You should never use tire chains on bare pavement. This can cause damage to the road surface and cause issues for your tires. If driving on a road covered in snow and ice, chains can be extremely beneficial.

Many drivers make the mistake of waiting until it’s too late to use these safety devices. If you have them, use them. Don’t wait until you’re up to your fenders in snow or stuck in a ditch to pull them out. Let them do their job of keeping you and your vehicle on the road.

Man installing tire chains on tires in the snow
Only use snow chains in snowy or icy conditions.

How to Use Chain-Up Areas

Now you know why you need them, but how do you use tire chains? You’ll often see chain-up areas along roads that experience extreme winter conditions and have drastic elevation changes. 

These roadside pull-offs give space for drivers to pull over and install or remove their chains without worrying about their safety.

If you need to use these areas, be as efficient as possible. The process of installing chains on your tires can take several minutes. 

While you don’t want to be in such a hurry that you make a mistake, you don’t want to try to figure out how to install them for the first time, either. It’s worth practicing ahead of time so you can chain up as quickly and easily as possible.

Tire chains installed on RV tires
Snow chains should ideally be installed on all four tires before you hit the road.

Do You Need Chains on All 4 Tires?

You ideally want to chain up all four tires. Only putting tires on a single axle of your vehicle can cause traction and steering issues. If you want to be as safe as possible, have chains for all four tires. If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, you should use them on all four tires.

However, things happen, and you may only have enough for two of your tires. In these instances, place chains on the ones on your drive axle. These are the tires that will spin when you push on the accelerator.  

Pro Tip: Don’t want to use tire chains? Try out snow socks instead! Take a closer look at how they work.

Do Chains Ruin Your Tires?

When used properly, tire chains shouldn’t cause any damage to your tires. However, if you use them on dry surfaces or install them incorrectly, you can seriously damage your tires and the rest of your vehicle. 

You must size your chains for your specific vehicle. They need to fit correctly, or they will cause more harm than good. If the chains come loose and flap, they can cause serious body damage.

Close up of tires with tire chains driving through deep snow
Remove your snow chains when you are done driving in poor weather conditions.

Can I Leave Snow Chains on Overnight?

While you should remove snow chains as soon as you finish driving, leaving them on overnight won’t cause any harm. This is especially true if you’ve parked in a parking lot with ice or snow overnight. 

If you arrive at your destination and want to wait until morning to take them off, you don’t need to worry about causing any damage to your tires or vehicle.

Pro Tip: Apart from snow chains, make sure you have these Top 13 Winter Road Trip Essentials To Keep Your Holiday Travels Safe.

Tire Chains Ice Test

Do Tire Chains Actually Work?

Yes, Tire chains are very effective at improving traction for drivers. Certain areas expect drivers to have them and use them because of their effectiveness. Driving without chains on snow and icy roads can be extremely dangerous, especially on mountainous grades. If you plan to drive in one of these areas regularly, do yourself a favor and get a set of tire chains for each vehicle and know how to use them.

Do you use tire chains? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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Wednesday 4th of January 2023

Something you should also consider if you pull a trailer in snowy conditions: If the weather is bad enough to force you to chain your tow vehicle you should also have a set for your trailer/5th wheel. Commonly referred to as "drag chains," these will help you keep your trailer behind you when coming downhill off a mountain pass. The best traction in the world on your tow vehicle can do little or nothing to stop a heavy trailer with effectively no brakes on ice and snow.


Sunday 1st of January 2023

Being from northern New England, I always carry a set of tire chains for both the RV and the Toad. You don't use chains to continue if conditions get bad, you use chains to get you OUT of conditions that are hazardous back to safety!


Wednesday 28th of December 2022

On I 5 and I California there are check stations to make sure you have chains when the passes are bad. If you don't have chains they do not let you go any further

Dominick Issi

Wednesday 28th of December 2022

In actuality, snow socks are superior to tire chains ... cheaper ... easier to install. Try 'em after you check out this YouTube test!

Lester Bridges

Wednesday 28th of December 2022

Having sold tire chains for over 45 years, if you travel in the winter, they are a must have. Living close to Yosemite National Park, it is required by the Park to have them in your possession between the months of November and March. This is a Federal requirement! And yes, law enforcement will require you to show them that you have them even if not required installation. Carry them and be safe.