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Skinny vs Wide Tires! Versus!

Posted in Features on November 29, 2018
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Photographers: 4 Wheel & Off-Road Staff

Tall and skinny versus short and fat. Sounds like a horrible lead-in to some sort of terrible celebrity reality TV fight night series, but anyone who eats, breathes, sleeps, and dreams 4x4 knows just the debate we’re referring to. In bottomless mud you want something that floats along the top, but in mud with a hard bottom you want something skinny that’s going to dig to the hardpack. Even in winter, deep, wet snow is best handled with a wide floatation tire, while contact pressure is key on icy roads, favoring a narrow studded tire. Although 12.5-inch-wide tires are the norm for everything from 33- to 40-inch-tall tires, there are a lot more options out there if you are looking for them. BFGoodrich, Toyo, and Super Swamper all offer pizza cutters if that is your preference, while Mickey Thompson, Super Swamper, and Pit Bull offer wide meats. Not sure which is right for you? Read on, we have an opinion on tires.

These are perhaps the most dramatic examples of skinny and wide tires. The 10.5-inch-wide Class 10 race tire on the left is typically mounted on a 4-inch-wide wheel! By contrast, the old Dick Cepek Fun Countries on the right are 15 inches wide. The Fun Countries have been the snow wheeling tire of choice for decades.

Harry Wagner

Freelancer

I like my tires like I like my jeans: skinny. OK, I’m not actually a hipster, but I am writing this story on a portable typewriter at Starbucks. Narrow tires are lighter and easier to package than wide tires since they tuck inside the fenders and don’t swing in as wide of an arc when you are turning the front wheels. I will concede that wider tires offer better floatation in sand and snow, but I spend more time in the rocks and don’t feel that narrow tires are at a disadvantage there. Most of my vehicles are relatively light with underpowered four-cylinder engines, so the lower rotating weight of narrow tires without any loss of ground clearance is a benefit in all environments. On the road I find that narrow tires tend to track better and not follow ruts and grooves on the road nearly as much as wide tires do. Plus, they look right at home on steel wheels under vintage 4x4s.

In our opinion, classic 4x4s look great with skinny tires mounted on stock wheels. This 1981 Toyota pickup runs 34x10.5-15LT Super Swamper LTBs on the factory 5.5-inch-wide wheels. Are these actually the most capable option on the trail though? That is a matter of debate.

Verne Simons

Tech Editor

Truth be told, generally when it comes to tires, I don’t have much preference in width. I’ve heard all the arguments for and against both, and since conditions on different trails can vary from obstacle to obstacle, what works and where can change the skinny-versus-fat tire performance argument in a few feet. Tire compound, air pressure, tread design, weight rating, trail conditions, temperature, and a slew of other factors will, in my opinion, make more of a difference in a tire’s function than an inch or less difference in tread width will. If I had to choose, I think I would give a slight nod to a tall skinny tire over a fat short tire. Usually I prefer the way skinny tires look—they are somehow more utilitarian—and if you don’t have to buy new wider wheels to match your new taller tires you save cash. Even when it comes to running a relatively wide flotation tire I tend to head toward a narrower wheel that will keep that tire standing tall and as skinny as possible (and to aid in bead retention and wheel rim protection).

Some tires are offered in a variety of widths. For example, 255/85R16, 285/75R16, and 305/70R16 are all approximately 33 inches tall but vary in width. Toyo offers the Open Country M/T (shown) and BFGoodrich offers the Mud Terrain KM2 in all three of these sizes, so you have options.

Trent McGee

Nuts & Bolts author

I hate to waffle on this one, but the choice for me is far too dependent on the terrain or even the conditions of the terrain. In some types of rockcrawling wide tires help keep you out of the holes, while in others a skinny tire can help you pick your way in between the big stuff. It’s not a coincidence that you see one or the other tire type prevail in different parts of the country. It all boils down to what works best in the terrain you most frequently encounter. Obviously, you can’t have wide and skinny tires on a vehicle at the same time, so if I had to choose and couldn’t change, I’d probably go with a wide tire. The extra flotation and footprint of a wide tire can be an advantage in most of the situations I encounter and a disadvantage in only a few. Plus I like the look of wider tires on a lot of vehicles.

Christian Hazel

Editor

This argument isn’t as viable as it was 20 years ago when we had a variety of 18.5-inch-wide tires to choose from. There’s the thought that super-skinny tires increase contact pressure, thereby increasing traction in dry conditions. On the other hand, snow and mud and sand require flotation to get up and sit on the top of the surface without digging. While there is truth to both of these arguments, I’ll tell you what’s worked well for me: an intermediate-width tire in a 35-, 38-, or 40-inch size featuring a 13.50- or 14.50-inch width. While not significantly wider than most common 12.50-inch Light Truck tires, they are wide enough to notice a difference. And many times it’s just enough to grab that extra purchase in a rocky trail or keep you up on top of the dunes. But more importantly than any of that with regard to trail performance is tire pressure. Air down! No matter what you’re running, air ’em down.

Wide tires can be useful on several different terrains, including rocks. The more the tires stick out from the body the more they keep rocks and other obstacles away. The extra rubber can also be the difference between going forward and just spinning your tires.

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