What’s the best off-road tire? We’d love to tell you that there’s one perfect tire for everyone and every condition, but that tire doesn’t exist. Instead, the perfect tire is the one that’s perfect for you. It’s the one that fits your sweet spot.
Your sweet spot is determined by the terrain you encounter and by your personal performance preferences. Because it comes down to personal preference, only you can tell where your sweet spot is. This story aims to give you enough information to make that choice.
How does personal preference come into play? Let’s be hypothetical for a moment. Say you drive a trail that includes sand, rocks, hardpack, and a bit of mud. Furthermore, let’s say that you drive your trail rig straight from your driveway to the trailhead; no trailering whatsoever. If you value optimum highway, hardpack, and sand performance over rock and mud performance, you’d pick an entirely different tire than if you valued mud and rock performance over highway, hardpack, and sand. You’d willingly sacrifice performance in some areas in order to gain performance in others.
For most of us, the optimum tire is either an all-terrain or a mud-terrain. We’ve highlighted a number of driving conditions and explained what tread works best where. Once you’ve found your sweet spot, picking a tire is much easier.
The Nitto Terra Grappler is a prime example of an all-terrain tread. Note the closely spaced tread blocks and the generous siping. The alternating shoulder blocks are designed to improve sidewall grip when you’re navigating ruts and off-camber sections. Numerous grooves shed water easily.
Reasoning: Closely spaced tread blocks put more rubber in contact with the road, and the siping lets the tread blocks flex better, further improving grip. The siping and the closely spaced tread blocks (low void ratio) have two more benefits: first, the tire runs fairly quietly on the street, and second, the tire is able to shed water well. Finally, having more rubber in contact with the road means an all-terrain will last longer on the pavement.
Mickey Thompson’s Baja Claw TTC embodies the mud-terrain tread perfectly. The tread blocks are bigger, and the space between the individual blocks is greater compared to an all-terrain. The tread carries over onto the sidewall, a feature Mickey Thompson calls “Sidebiters.” Also note the skinny ribs that protrude from the casing in between the main tread blocks. These are called “stonekickers” and they’re designed to prevent pebbles from getting lodged between the tread blocks. Some of the blocks are siped in order to increase traction in wet conditions and to allow the blocks to flex a little better.
Terrain: Snow on top of hardpacked desert (yes, it snows in the Mojave under the right conditions).
Reasoning: The low void ratio means that snow has less space available to pack into. Siping lets the knobs flex better, improving grip in this slick trail condition. Relevant side note: All-terrain tires aren’t the same as dedicated snow tires, which have a softer compound for superior winter grip over snow and ice. Snow tires will wear quickly if you leave them on too late in the year.
Terrain: Canyon bottom with mixture of sand, chunky rocks, and fallen branches.
Reasoning: This terrain isn’t uniform, and the bigger blocks and greater voids in the mud-terrain tread allow the tread blocks to act like little fingers, clawing their way over rocks, branches, and other irregularities.
Terrain: Desert hardpack overlain with coarse-grained sand
Reasoning: Closely spaced tread blocks and generous siping put more rubber in contact with the hardpack. The siping lets the tread blocks flex and grab at the hardpack in spite of the loose overlay.
Reasoning: All-terrain tires have greater floatation compared to mud-terrain treads. Additionally, the more aggressive tread of the mud-terrain tire can dig downward faster than it can propel forward. Sand specialist? Running real sand paddles on the rear and razor-back tires on the front provides sand propulsion and steering like nothing else, but it’s a combo that only works in deep sand.
Terrain: Gas station
Reasoning: All-terrain treads aren’t as aggressive and as such have lower rolling resistance on pavement. If you’re driving much distance, even over mixed terrain, you’ll find that all-terrain tires take less fuel to propel. We drove the Angeles Crest Highway (where this photo was taken) back-to-back with mud-terrains and then with all-terrain tires. The all-terrains returned 1 mpg better than the mud-terrains.
Reasoning: OK, so "Moab" isn’t a terrain, but it’s a poplular ‘wheeling destination. While there’s plenty of slickrock, pavement, and sand to negotiate in Moab (where an all-terrain works better) there’s also no shortage of chunky rocks, ledges, and steep, loose slopes to climb. Overall trail performance in Moab calls for a mud-terrain tire.
Advantage: Mud-terrain, what else?
Reasoning: Here’s what happens when you find a mud puddle with your all-terrain tires. Notice the way the mud has packed into the tread. The low void ratio means that all-terrain tires don’t self-clean or grip as well as mud tires do in their element.
Terrain: Chunky, dried clay
Reasoning: Here’s a situation where the more aggressive tread blocks and higher void ratio of the mud-terrain tire really shine. An all-terrain has a tendency to slip and slide here, while the mud-terrain really digs in and propels you forward. Additionally, if this soil gets wet, it turns to sticky, gloppy mud very quickly.
If you’re really on the fence, check out the Dick Cepek Mud Country. It’s got elements of both an all-terrain and a mud-terrain tire. The void ratio and knob shapes are well suited to self-cleaning as well as providing extra grip over ledges and general off-road detritus.
At the same time, the center groove combined with siping on each tread block mean good performance in the wet. It rides smoothly on the road and although it makes more noise than the Terra Grappler, it’s quieter than the Baja Claw TTC.
No matter what tire you choose, airing down makes a big difference off-road. Better grip and a smoother ride are the chief benefits. The 4Runner usually goes with 40 psi for the street, and 30 psi for general trail running. Looser terrain calls for 15 to 20 psi. Airing down below 10 psi without beadlocks is practically begging for an unseated tire.
The upper reaches of Last Chance Canyon near Ridgecrest, California, start out with a loose, sandy surface punctuated by assorted streambed rocks: ideal for an all-terrain. Further down, the rocks get bigger: better for a mud-terrain. No matter what type of tires you’re running, trails with changing surfaces offer an opportunity to hone your driving skills.