Diggin’ Snow: We Test The Best Tread Design For Driving In Snow

    Diggin’ Snow

    Bruce W. SmithPhotographer, Writer

    Winter always has a way of bringing tires to the forefront of conversation, especially in those parts of the country that see frequent snow and sub-freezing temperatures. When rain turns to snow, tires are everything.

    For many drivers, white roads are cause for white knuckles—and them questioning whether or not those four tiny patches of rubber their rig is riding on are the right choice to keep themselves and their loved ones moving safely down the road.

    “Are mud tires a good choice for driving in snow, or all-terrains?”

    “Is it worth the money to buy dedicated snow tires just to run them for a few months during the winter?”

    “How do all-season tires compare to more aggressive tires when I need to drive in snow?”

    Those are the types of questions brick-and-mortar tire dealers and web-based warehouses such as Tire Rack get a dozen times a day after the first snowflakes start floating to the ground, and there’s no better way to get a grip on answering those basic questions about winter traction than to go out and put tires to the test. That’s what we’ve done. But instead of pitting one brand’s snow tires against another’s, we decided to test how popular tread patterns compare on snow-packed road surfaces.

    A Test Of Treads

    Which tread works best on 4x4 pickups running on packed snow is a question Woody Rogers and T.J. Campbell, product information specialists for Tire Rack, had never directly addressed until we brought up the topic. So we teamed up with the Center for Driving Sciences and Tire Rack to test five types of pickup/SUV tires under controlled winter driving conditions at the training ground for the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

    The tread types we tested were factory all-season tires on the ’16 Ford F-150 SuperCrew 4x4s we used as our test mules pitted against a mud-terrain, all-terrain, studded snow tire, and non-studded snow tire that Tire Rack provided based on the highest customer satisfaction rating in each category.

    The Contenders

    We spent two days in late winter under identical cold weather conditions running the group of 265/70R17 tires on a twisting, curving 1/2-mile section of Track 3, which is often used for testing winter tires because it emulates typical freshly plowed country roads.

    The contenders:
    • Goodyear Wrangler Fortitude HT OWL (load range SL)
    • Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2 (load range SL)
    • Goodyear Ultra Grip Ice WRT LT (load range E)
    • BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 RWL (load range C)
    • Firestone Destination M/T (load range E)

    All of the tires were delivered to the test track from Tire Rack’s warehouse, mounted and balanced on steel wheels, sans tire pressure monitoring sensors (TPMS). TPMS were not necessary for the type of closed-course testing we were doing because we checked each tire’s pressure each time we rolled out onto the test track.

    Test Setup

    Each truck’s 36-gallon tank was filled and tire pressures set to 35 psi for the Wranglers and Blizzak DM-V2s and 50 psi for the others per the tire manufacturers’ specifications for the F-150. All the tests were run with the transfer case in 4Hi, just as one would in normal driving in such conditions.

    Rogers and Campbell then equipped each F-150 with a Racelogic DriftBox data logger to record every aspect of the vehicle’s movement around the 1/2-mile section of the track and the acceleration/braking area we’d chosen for the tests.

    Gathering The Data

    Our test consisted of two elements: acceleration/braking and handling. The DriftBox recorded time and distance for each segment, and each set of tires was tested six times. At the end of each tire test session, we uploaded the data into laptops for analysis.

    Rogers, who has a decade of experience tire testing for Tire Rack, was our driver for the data runs over the snow-packed road course, while Campbell handled the acceleration and braking tests on a plowed section dedicated just for that purpose. The tests started with the all-season control tires, switched to two of the contenders, then back to control tires, then the last two contenders, and back to controls. This alternating regimen between the OEM tires and the contenders allowed us to compensate for any deviation changing temperatures during the day may have brought to the track surface. Braking and acceleration testing was straightforward, literally. We accelerated the F-150 as hard as traction control allowed up to 30 mph, maintained that speed for a two-count, then nailed the brakes, allowing the ABS to bring the truck to a stop as one would in an emergency braking situation.

    The second day was spent on the road course, driving it as quickly as the tires allowed without sliding out or using rally-style techniques. As we’d expected, making multiple runs over the 1/2-mile snow-packed road course and acceleration/braking section magnified each tire’s attributes—and weaknesses.

    The Results

    It became very clear at the end of our two-day testing which treads work best when it comes to keeping the driver feeling in control of a 4x4 pickup on snow-packed roads.

    Here’s how the five different tread types faired when the numbers were tallied:

    Goodyear Wrangler Fortitude HT
    Performed better overall than the mud-tire tread pattern. The Fortitude’s four-rib design, close tread blocks, and deep sipes give it the ability to hold snow in the tread just long enough to provide decent grip during both acceleration from 0-30 mph and braking from 30 to 0 mph. Overall rank: #4.

    BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2
    Representative of an all-terrain that has exceeded the Rubber Manufacturers of America (RMA) Severe Snow Traction Performance requirements to achieve the three peak/mountain snowflake rating. The BFG didn’t hook-up as well as the Fortitude on acceleration but made up for it in braking and cornering against the control tread. Overall rank: #3

    Firestone Destination M/T
    Typical of the high-void traction tires favored by many pickup owners worldwide who need to dig and sling their vehicles through less-than-optimal driving conditions. However, snow traction is predicated on keeping snow in the tire treads, not ejecting it. The M/T’s ability to dig and sling away snow traction was glaringly evident in its poor performance. Overall rank: #5

    Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2
    Dedicated studless winter tire engineered specifically for pickups and SUVs. It represented the latest in tread compound and design for driving on snow and ice. The DM-V2 stopped in half the distance of the mud tire while delivering exceptional traction on every aspect of the test track. Overall rank: #1

    Goodyear Ultra Grip WRT LT
    Represented the older technology of the studded winter pickup tire segment. The E-rated Ultra Grip WRT utilizes a specialized ice tread compound that provides enhanced traction on ice and snow-covered roads. Although it has fewer sipes in the tread blocks than the Blizzak and wider grooves/voids between the blocks, it performed nearly identical with a combined average of just 1.3 feet more than the Blizzak. Overall rank: #2.

    Bottom Line

    Between driving the twisting road course and the straight-line testing, it’s no surprise the dedicated snow tires, whether studless or studded, come out leading the way compared to the other tread types. We loved the studless snow tire’s performance.

    What we learned from this comparison between tread types is tires that keep snow packed into the tread face provide better traction than those that eject it. You can’t beat dedicated snow tires for snow traction. All-terrains with the mountain snowflake rating are a good compromise if you can’t find dedicated snow tires to fit your 4x4. Owners of four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles concerned with maximizing vehicle control and minimizing the risk of accidents should keep that in mind when thinking about making bi-seasonal tire changes.

    For those who are content to stick with the tires they are currently running, our test should provide a new level of expectation for your tread type when encountering winter driving conditions.