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Matching Tread Types with Terrain and Conditions

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Trent Riddle | Writer
Posted May 1, 2001
Photographers: Rutherford B. Hayes

What Works Where?

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  • Less aggressive street-type treads like the one on this Goodyear HP are designed for great on-road ride, with very little noise and a long tread life. While the manufacturer claims that it is an “excellent choice for on- and off-road traction,” this is really just an all-season tire for inclement weather or occasional light trail use. The sidewalls on tires like this are lightly constructed for smooth road ride and are more susceptible to damage than a true truck tire would be.

  • This BFGoodrich Long Trail T/A is an example of the next step toward the trail in light-truck tires. The Long Trail T/A is slightly more aggressive than the all-season treads, but the sidewall and tire carcass is still built with on-road ride as the main consideration. If better traction for weekend trips without greatly affecting the on-road ride is what you’re after, you’ll want to consider a tire similar to this.

  • The Goodyear Wrangler GSA tire is Goodyear’s attempt to make one tire for every condition. The triple tread works surprisingly well on the trail; its light-truck carcass has proven to be durable everywhere but in sharp rocks. The idea was to have a hefty, squared-off inside shoulder for traction in rain and snow on- and off-road, a deep wide-groove center tread for good tracking stability and improved wet handling, and a thick rounded outer tread for improved cornering and shoulder life.

  • This is the Goodyear AT/S all-terrain tire. This tire boasts twin traction lug channels that act as water channels for wet weather driving as well as helping to clear the tire of mud and snow. This tire offers good traction in all but the deepest mud.

  • The latest offering on the all-terrain tire front is the BFGoodrich All-Terrain K/O. This was designed from the ground up to offer more traction in rocks than the previous All-Terrain. The tread blocks are designed to flex and clean out light snow and mud, but deep, thick goo will defeat this tire just as it will every other all-terrain tread.

  • BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A is a longtime standard in the off-road community. This tire is known for its toughness on the trail and its all-around versatility. For even more puncture resistance BFGoodrich offers the Baja T/A, but its heavy construction limits its flexibility for rockcrawling.

  • The Parnelli Jones Dirt Grip is a new tire that features a wide-open tread design with sipes in the tread blocks. The sipes should provide some tread flexibility to help the tire clean and cling better than tires without them.

  • The Goodyear MT/R is the final step in trail traction. This aggressive tread is computer-designed to be quieter than the old MT; it’s still loud in comparison to the other Goodyear light-truck radials. This tire can be expected to provide good traction in all conditions but ice. In deep mud the tread clears itself quickly when spun-up. The sidewall is equipped with what Goodyear calls Durawall technology, which involves use of three sidewall plys and a silica compound for increased puncture resistance in the rocks.

  • The Super Swamper Bogger is the most aggressive tire we know of for light trucks. These tires are most at home in the mud but have proven themselves in rocks, too. We’ve seen more than a few drivers with Boggers claw their way up a rocky hill using the sidewall lugs as much as the tread. Flexibility is not the Bogger’s strong suit, but aggressive traction is.

  • The Mickey Thompson Baja Claw Radial is a relatively new offering. The tread on these tires looks a lot like that of some of the bigger agriculture tires you’ll see on the farm. This tire has proven a little weak in the sidewall for serious rock running, but is good for most other conditions. For rock pounding you can also get a bias-ply Baja Claw. Super-wide Baja Claws are available for added flotation in the sand.

  • The Bridgestone Winter Dueler is one example of specialty winter tires for use in icy conditions. The Winter Dueler features a special dual-compound tread that has micropores in the surface to help dissipate the water layer between the tire and the ice. These tires use very soft-tread rubber with a great many sipes. This means ice traction that is superior to that of any standard mud- or all-terrain tire. These tires are for seasonal use only as they wear very quickly on the pavement.

  • Buckshot Mudders are reminiscent of the industrial mud tires of old. These tires are tall, narrow, and aggressive on their shoulders, with two center tread bars. Tires like this tend to wear well and work fine in deep mud but are usually short on traction in the rocks and sand. This is due to the limited number of traction surfaces and the stiffer construction of these tires.

  • Yokohama’s Geolandar MT is a very flexible tire with a softer-than-average tread compound. These tires have a chevron-type tread pattern. The center should clear water in the rain as well as provide good lateral stability.

  • The Super Swamper TSL Radial is supposed to offer a quieter ride and more traction than a non-staggered shoulder would. These tires are noisy on the highway—but who would want them for that? These are tires for the toughest trails.

Which tires do you really need? The truth is, there isn’t any one tire that is perfect for all conditions. If you really want to have the best tire for every condition, you’ll need a tractor trailer and support crew to follow you around so that you could make a pitstop-style tire swap every time conditions changed. Not very practical, right? So as with everything else in life, you’ll likely have to compromise.

You have several things to consider when it comes to tire compromises. The first is what kind of ’wheeling you plan to do. Second, do you care about on-road ride and noise, is trail performance the real goal, or are you more concerned with looks? Many more questions will come to light as you make your tire buying decisions, but these will likely be the first you’ll think about.

If you mainly drive your 4x4 on the street and don’t plan to do much more than take occasional trips down forest-service roads, then you should consider less aggressive, street-tread-style tires. Tires with less aggressive tread patterns wear longer, run quieter, and ride smoother than light-truck all-terrain or mud-terrain tires. On the other hand, more aggressive light-truck all-terrain tires offer more traction on the trail, while being fairly reasonable in the ride and noise categories. Mud-terrain tires are often rougher riding and are always more noisy on the highway than all-terrain tires; and the more aggressive they are, the noisier and rougher riding they will be. In the tread wear department the rule is simple: The more rubber you have on the ground, the longer the tire lasts. While factors such as tire compound affect tire wear, you can pretty much bet on aggressive-tread tires wearing out faster than street-tread tires of the same size.

For dedicated trail use you have to consider how the tire will perform in mud, sand, snow, and on the rocks. Here the question isn’t ride quality or road noise, but traction. In addition, the longevity question switches from tread life to sidewall-puncture resistance. Generally speaking, you’ll find that all-terrain treads work well in most situations (hence the name) but they do have limitations. Choose an all-terrain tire if you drive a lot on the street, ’wheel in sand and soft soil, or spend a lot of time on slickrock. The wide tread blocks will give you added flotation in the loose stuff and, being less aggressive, the tread is less likely to begin digging for oil. In addition, the added rubber you’ll have on the ground will offer top-notch traction on sandstone and granite slabs. Finally, all-terrain tires are generally better for packed snow and ice than mud-terrain tires. This is because the large-tread blocks of a mud tire tend to hydroplane on the icy stuff because the higher ground pressure of their overall footprint causes the ice to melt under the tire; and the general lack of siping on mud-terrain tread sections means there’s no place for the resultant water to go. However, in deep snow, all-terrain tires will pack up just as they do in mud. Mud tires, on the other hand, are great in deep mud and unpacked snow, as with a bit of wheel speed, the tread will clean itself out quickly. In addition, mud tires have proven themselves superior in jagged rocks, where their aggressive tread can find something to grab onto. A good soft-compound mud-terrain tire also will work very well on sandstone and granite slabs, but hard-tread compounds can cause a mud tire to slip on rock almost like it was on ice. This is due both to the hard-rubber compound and to having less rubber on the rock, thanks to the large gaps between tread blocks.

One final tire to keep in mind is the specialty ice-and-snow tire. These tires use special construction and tread compounds that dissipate the water layer between the tire and the ice. This vastly improves the handling and stopping ability of these tires in frozen lands. These tires are very soft and flexible, with lots of siping, so that water is forced out of the tread quickly to aid in traction. Special ice-and-snow tires are recommended for seasonal use only, as they tend to wear quickly.

Many of you are used to swapping tires seasonally. Special ice-and-snow tires often are installed in the winter months for added traction but replaced with less aggressive street tires in the summer for a better, quieter ride.

We’ve been seeing a real trend among four-wheelers to have two sets of tires—one for street and one for trail. These are the folks who want the best tires for the conditions. If you’re considering new rubber for your rig then you’ll want to look at this general overview we’ve put together on tread types. This should give you a good idea of what works where.