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Which Tire is Best for Sand, Rock, Snow and Mud

Stack Of Tires
Robin Stover | Writer
Posted February 1, 2011
Photographers: Courtesy Continental Tire North America

Tire Tread Works

Choosing the right tires for your 4x4 is a lot like picking out a rental car for a family vacation. You have many different models to choose from, and most will get the job done, but some work much better than others. Where a front-wheel-drive minivan might be well suited to handle a trip to Disneyland with several small children, you wouldn't necessarily want one for an exotic overland safari through the Serengeti. The same holds true for tires. Where a run-of-the-mill all-terrain might provide excellent traction in the paved confines of suburbia, you certainly would not want to show up at the local mud bogs on a set. Therefore, with every tire choice comes a set of compromises. With this story, we'll help you understand some of the key variables in picking the right tires, and we'll point out which type of tread design and compounds work best for a given environment. Keep in mind that we could not cover every tire made in this article-space is limited. So if we missed your favorite tread, drop us a line and let us know what tread type you prefer for a given terrain. Send responses to

The Basics
The first consideration of any tire selection should be intended use. While most tires are designed with a wide array of environments in mind, some target specific usage and subsequently lack attributes that are necessary to excel in other specific terrain types. For example: The BFG Baja T/A, which is primarily designed for desert racing, does not work well in snow and ice. Conversely, other tires, such as General Tire's Altimax Arctic, are true thoroughbreds for winter conditions, but feature a soft rubber compound that degrades quickly in warmer climates.

In addition to compound, you must consider tread design or pattern. It is unfortunate, but many enthusiasts purchase tires based on appearance and price point. Tire companies sometimes use these fancy patterns to attract the consumer who makes buying decisions based on emotional impulse rather than rational real-world data. However, in other cases, what might seem unnecessary for a daily driver may actually ensure great performance on the trail. For example, the split-personality Interco TSL Thornbird features a three-stage lug sidewall that protrudes noticeably from the carcass. These oversized lugs serve no real purpose on the street. However, when aired down, the protruding lugs become an impressive part of the traction equation. Don't let the good looks of a tire fool you-research the reasons for buying a particular design or tread element before making your purchase.

Here are some key things to keep in mind when shopping for tires.

When selecting a tread pattern, keep in mind that large uninterrupted tread blocks tend to decrease traction in the wet. Tires with copious amounts of siping stick like glue on rain-soaked roads.

High void-ratio mud-terrain tires are often noisy, while all-terrain designs' tight lug spacings are generally quiet.

Alphanumeric load-range values are expressed on the sidewall as load range "C," "D," and "E," but are not always reflective to the actual load the tire is capable of carrying. The more important numbers to consider are the maximum load numbers expressed as pounds per square inch at a specific psi cold.

Radial versus bias ply: Radial-construction tires are best for street and occasional trail use; bias-ply tires are best suited for dedicated trail rigs.

Size matters. Be sure that the tires you pick will work on your rig before you make your purchase. Refer to Four Wheeler's tire fitment chart before ordering. This chart can be found at

Void ratio relates to how much rubber is touching the ground versus open space between the lugs. Ideally, you want a specific amount of contact pressure for the weight of the vehicle. Tires with a higher void ratio tend to increase surface pressure-concentrating the weight of the vehicle to the individual lugs that are in contact with the road surface. A lower void ratio tends to spread out the pressure across a larger contact patch. Finding the right void ratio depends largely on the type of driving you do most.


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