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4x4 Tire Guide - Choosing Wisely

Posted in How To on April 1, 2013
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We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that modern 4x4 tires are the most durable, longest wearing, multi-faceted tires ever produced. We recently read a newspaper story that ran in the early 1900s that told the story of a local motorist who was able to drive his car 15 miles to a neighboring town and back without suffering a flat tire. That was big news back then and it’s just a small example of how tire materials and construction have improved. But not only has construction vastly improved, tread design and sizing has improved as well. Today we can choose from a mind boggling number of types and sizes of tires from a number of manufacturers.

With all these choices, purchasing tires for your 4x4 can be a challenging experience. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees so you want to get it right the first time. For sure the decision hinges on what type of driving you do. If you live in a place like the Outer Banks of North Carolina you’ll probably want a sand-friendly tire. If you regularly traverse “roads” like Last Dollar Road near Telluride, Colorado, you’ll be wanting a tire that’s mud-friendly so you can get around after a summer monsoon. If you live in the Snowbelt your desire will probably be a tire that excels in snow and ice. If all you do is run hardcore trails, well, you probably don’t care about the tires road manners so you’re going to put trail performance first.

Here at Four Wheeler our opinionated staff has their own favorite tires for certain types of terrain. In this story, Editor John Cappa, Technical Editor Ali Mansour, and Senior Editor Ken Brubaker weigh in on their preferred tire in four major off-road terrain types. We’ve also included our choice of what tire we’d want for an off-road nationwide trip as well as the best tire we’ve ever owned.

Hopefully our opinions and experiences will be a helpful piece of the tire-selection puzzle and help you formulate a good buying decision for your 4x4.

Cappa: Since I live in Southern California where rain and mud are somewhat uncommon compared to much of the U.S., I don’t have the luxury of owning a mud-specific 4x4. But I grew up wearing out aggressive mud tires nearly everywhere anyway, including on the street. So if I plan to run the “mud” 4x4 in question on the road for any significant amount of time, I’ll go for a radial mud tire in the sloppy stuff. Just about any of the tires that have a good rubber-to-void ratio similar to the Goodyear MT/R, Pro Comp Xtreme Mud Terrain II, Dick Cepek Mud Country, Mickey Thompson Baja MTZ, and so on will do. However, I’ll pay real close attention to the load rating and actual weight of the tire. If it’s a lightweight 4x4 I don’t need load range E tires; I’ll look for a C.

Now, if it’s a trail-specific mud rig, I’m going for the nastiest mud tire I can get my hands on. That will lead me to something with huge knobby tread blocks, giant voids, and quite often really bad road manners. My no-holds-barred mud tire choices would include several Super Swamper models and the Nitto Mud Grappler. Again, I’ll try and watch the weight, but that kind of goes out the window when selecting a tire like this.

Mansour: Mud is the majority of what I have in my neck of the woods. The most challenging of it being the red clay that is more inland. If I am building a dedicated mud rig, I will generally go with some type of Interco tire, usually a Bogger or traditional TSL. If I’m really heading towards the deep end, ag tires, specifically Rice and Canes, are a great choice. The biggest drawback with most ag tires is that they don’t provide any give or cushion. I’ve ridden in a few tractor-tired rigs that performed extremely well, but rode extremely rough. For a dual purpose rig that sees a mix of street and off-highway terrain, I like the Nitto Trail Grappler and Mickey Thompson MTZ.

Brubaker: Here in the Midwest, mud is the most common challenge I face. But not all mud is created equal. Frequently we have to deal with thin, grease-like mud. This is often found after a rainfall or in the spring when the very top of the soil thaws during the day but the ground below remains frozen. This mud is like ice, and I’ve seen locked 4x4s struggle to move. Control can also be a challenge. Conversely, we also have to deal with deep, tire-swallowing mud commonly referred to as a “bog.” When hunting for a mud tire I prefer one that not only propels my truck forward, but also provides lateral traction on uneven terrain. If it was on a truck that saw mostly off-road use, I’d fit it with a tire like the Interco Super Swamper TSL. For everyday use, with an emphasis on mud, I’d go with a tire like the Mickey Thompson MTZ or the Cooper Discoverer STT, both of which have large voids to self-clean, while returning good on-road manners.

“Here in the Midwest, mud is the most common challenge I face. But not all mud is created equal.” —Ken Brubaker

Cappa: I drive in the sand and dunes regularly and I have tried everything from paddle tires to street treads. They all need to be aired down properly (5 to 10 psi usually) and they all have pros and cons. Milder treads won’t dig your 4x4s grave as quickly and they tend to float on the surface better than super-aggressive mud tires. However, I’ve found that milder treads are generally less predictable when sidehilling. Also, when descending a really steep and soft dune, the rear end will sometimes try to pass the front end. Yeah, not good. Ultimately the tire I choose is dictated by the power and weight of the 4x4 in question. Lighter, more powerful rigs can make use of a mud tire. My heavier, less powerful 4x4s will get some sort of aggressive all-terrain tire. Now, having said all that, perhaps the best sand tire I have ever used was the bias-ply Dick Cepek Fun Country. I can’t explain it, they were just amazing sand tires, especially when pulling out hopelessly stuck motorhomes in Glamis that must have been four-times (or more) the weight of my 4x4.

Mansour: I grew up driving on the beach, but it’s definitely not the same as carving giant dunes in Glamis. For just cruising around on the sand, an all-terrain works great. Dropping the air pressure in just about any tire will make it perform better off-road, and this is especially true in the sand. I know some guys have great luck with Boggers in the big dunes, as they act like paddle tires, but the power-to-weight ratio needs to be right for that combo to work well.

Brubaker: I’ve wheeled in the sand in Utah, Nevada, California, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Oregon, and North Carolina, among other places. Interestingly, the majority of the time I’ve been driving stock vehicles with the stock all-terrain tires aired down to around 12 to 15 psi, and it has worked fine. As a matter of fact, I’ve never gotten stuck as long as I aired the tires down and didn’t try anything stupid, like trying to climb a mega-tall dune. Based on my experience I’ll opt for a good all-terrain or hybrid tire and a good set of deflators. However, if I lived in a four-wheel-drive community like Carova Beach, North Carolina, and commuted to a job in the city I’d probably opt for a set of wider, high-flotation tires so I didn’t have fiddle with airing the tires up and down.

Cappa: Mud tires. Period. I think the large lugs grip jagged rock edges better than an all-terrain or street tread can grip and make use of the irregular surfaces. I want a minimum of a three-ply sidewall on a radial but I would prefer the bombproof sidewall of a bias-ply tire. The BFG Krawler is probably the best rock tire I have ever used but they ain’t cheap and they are pretty heavy.

Mansour: Rockcrawling out west is a bit different than in the south. Unlike places like Moab, Utah, or Johnson Valley where the rocks are big and dry, we often have to contend with a slicker set of boulders. For me, mud-terrains are the ticket for most rockcrawling outings. One of the most impressive rock conquering tires is the BFG Krawler. While all-terrains like the Falken WildPeak and Pro Comp Xtreme All-Terrain shine in dry and rocky conditions, they don’t mix well with mud-covered rocks that are more common in my area. The biggest challenge with most tires in the rocks these days are the D and E load range sidewalls. It’s hard to get the heavy-duty sidewalls to budge without dropping them into the single digit air pressure zone on most light rigs. This makes beadlocks almost mandatory equipment for those looking to get the most out of their tires.

Brubaker: Out here in the farmland of northern Illinois big rocks are scarce. They kinda get in the way of farming, so if they were there they’ve been carted off. Nonetheless, I’ve run plenty of rocky trails, including the Rubicon, and I have to say that a common mud-terrain tire works great. The last time I ran the Rubicon the stock Toyota 4Runner I was driving was fitted with Goodyear Wrangler MT/R tires and they were awesome. They had just what I needed for a trail like that, with large lugs on the inside and outside of each tire that would latch onto fixed rocks whether ascending or descending. I also liked the sidewall lugs, which helped to improve sidewall traction. Thanks to the Kevlar reinforcement, I was less likely to puncture a sidewall, which is a problem I sometimes have due to my somewhat limited experience on the rocks. On top of that, the MT/Rs had good road manners to and from the trail.

Cappa: This is a tough one; I’ve had some really scary experiences with traditional mud tires in snow and ice. But if the snow is deep, I’m going with an aggressive mud tire even though everyone tells me that’s not what I want. If you don’t ever slide into a ditch then the milder tread patterns are probably better, but I go wheeling where the snow-covered trails have sidehills and very eroded ditches. When, not if, you slide into them you ain’t getting out with a street tread. I have had really good luck with the old-style Goodyear MT/R and the new version has worked well, too. I also think the Goodyear DuraTrac is a good choice if you have to run a somewhat milder street-friendly tread pattern. If there is a chance I’ll tap into slop or rocks underneath the snow, give me an ultra-aggressive mud tire like a Swamper TSL or SX and I’ll pray that I don’t hit any ice on the paved road home.

Mansour: I rarely drive on- or off-road in snow. It’s just not that common in my area. The dozen or so snow wheeling trips I have made, I’ve had good luck with aggressive mud-terrains.

Brubaker: Snow is tricky. There’s the granular kind, the powdery kind, and the wet kind. Sometimes snow is consistent in depth and other times it’s drifted taller than your 4x4s hood. Further, freeze/thaw cycles can change the consistency of the snow in no time and a soft, powdery drift can become a hard drift after it warms slightly and then undergoes a hard freeze. What all this means is that there is no perfect snow tire because snow differs. Here in the Midwest, I’ve had good luck with all-terrain tires like the BFG All-Terrain T/A in a narrow width for everyday driving. The narrowness helps to cut through snow and it creates less handling issues when slamming into slush at highway speed. However, if I wanted to drive on top of deep, hard snow I’d go with a wide, high-flotation tire that would be less likely to sink. I was on a trail run in Idaho a few years ago where we drove on top of five feet of snow all day and the rigs were outfitted this way. It worked great.

Favorite Tire for a Nationwide Off-road Trip
Cappa: I’m probably more willing to put up with tire-generated noise and handling quirks than most people. Heck, even my two-wheel drive trucks run all-terrains. But with the possibility of snow, ice, mud, sand, armadillos, and pretty much anything under the sun I gotta go with a less aggressive tire. I’d likely look for something like a BFG All-Terrain or Goodyear DuraTrac. It’s hard to say because I typically plan my vehicle builds and tire selection around the kind of terrain I hit most. So I guess I’d take that into consideration. If there was going to be a lot of mud I’d go slightly more aggressive and slightly less aggressive if it was during winter and there was a chance of hitting a lot of road ice. It’s a balance for sure.

Mansour: I’ve driven cross-country on a handful of different mud and all-terrain tires. One of my favorites was the Nitto Trail Grappler. It’s a heavy tire, but very quiet on the road and works great in most trail situations. The biggest drawback was they lack siping that you’ll find on some other mud-terrain radials, which make them less sure-footed in the rain.

Brubaker: If I was gonna go on a nationwide off-road trip I’d fully expect to encounter just about every kind off off-road obstacle there is. But I’d also expect to spend a fair amount of time on-road, possibly encountering snow and rain. For me, I’d want my rig rolling on a mud-terrain tire. They’re not perfect for everything, but neither is an all-terrain. Specifically, I’d outfit my rig with the Goodyear Wrangler MT/R with Kevlar. My experience with this tire has been good and I’d be comfortable knowing that the tire would be able to stand up to the rigors of everything from Mosquito Pass in Colorado to the Mojave Desert.

Favorite Tire We’ve Owned
Cappa: I’m having a hard time letting go of the fact that Goodyear no longer makes the older MT/R, especially in a 37x12.50R15. These have been really good to me all around. I love the 37-inch size on a 15-inch wheel. They grip well on everything I have thrown at them, have fairly durable sidewalls, and the extra sidewall height afforded by the 15-inch wheels makes even my suspension-travel-challenged 4x4s ride reasonably smooth on- and off-road. I have some really high hopes for the new Pro Comp Xtreme Mud Terrain II since it sort of looks similar, although I doubt I’ll be able to get it in the size I want.

I also have a special place in my heart for the Super Swamper Bogger, but not all of the sizes, just the really wide squared-off versions on properly-sized wheels. I like the looks of the 33x14.00-15, 16/35-15, 18/39.5-15, and 19.5/44-15. Plus, the Boggers just work awesome in the loose soil and rocks that I love to ‘wheel on in the desert.

Mansour: One of the most versatile tires I have come across is the Interco IROK Radial. They hook up great in the mud, work very well at low psi in the rocks, don’t make a ton of road noise, and look great. They can be a little heavy depending on what size you run, but they are a great all-around tire.

Brubaker: My favorite tires are the ones I’m currently running. I dig my Dick Cepek FC-IIs because they’re part all-terrain and part mud-terrain, built on a mud tire carcass, and have three-ply sidewalls. When I got the FC-IIs I was skeptical, but they have turned out to be an exceptional all-around tire, whether in the sand of northern Wisconsin or the mud of northern Illinois. They’re happy on the road as well, and have excellent manners, even in a downpour at speed.

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