What Tire Works Where?

Matching Tread Types with Terrain and Conditions

Trent RiddlePhotographer, WriterRutherford B. HayesPhotographer

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 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 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 set of mud tires 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.