Snow Tires vs All-Season Tires: A Guide for Seasonal Tire Changes

January 14th, 2022 by

A mechanic is shown with a tire while comparing snow tires vs all season tires.

Choosing the right tires for the right time of year will make a marked difference in how your vehicle handles on the road. Even though all-season tires are great for a variety of weather conditions, don’t let their name fool you into thinking they can serve for all times of the year. There are times when you want dedicated snow tires for winter and times when you want a tire that serves better for warmer days. To help clear up any confusion about which kind of tire to use and when, we thought a comparison of snow tires vs all-season tires would provide useful information that can increase safety while we drive in any season.

Design of an All-Season Tire

Tread and rubber composition are the biggest differences between all-season tires and other types of tires. All-season tires were first engineered back in the 1970s to help give drivers an option to avoid having to constantly change tires throughout the year. Though drivers in milder climates that see little to no snow are likely to be fine with all-season tires, they truly aren’t made for extreme temperatures. All-season tires work best above 40 degrees Fahrenheit due to the composition of the rubber.

When temperatures are mild, all-season tires provide decent gripping power and have tread that directs water away from the underside of the tire. They also tend to last for long periods of time, thanks to their tough composition to withstand driving for up to 80,000 miles. Most tires can’t last that long, and compared to other tires, all-seasons are usually best for a quieter, more comfortable ride in the cabin. Typically, all-season tires are good for handling wet or dry roads and can handle short periods of cold if necessary. Once the temperatures turn cold for consistently wintery weather, all-season tires can get stiff and lose traction, particularly on ice.

A close up shows a tire on a snow-covered road.

In the Grip of Winter

As soon as the thermometer drops below 40 degrees, your all-season tires are going to have less traction, which means it will take longer to stop or accelerate, and cornering will be less precise. This is the time when snow tires are at their best. Once you know the temperature is likely to stay below 40 degrees most of the time, you are better off changing over to winter tires for the best road performance. With rubber that’s made to remain pliant during cold conditions, snow tires won’t get brittle like all-season tires. They will maintain grip even when temps fall far below freezing.

The tread on snow tires also differs from all-season tires in the depth and grooves designed for driving through slush and snow. Because the grooves both release water from the channels and push snow out, the tread is capable of maintaining good road contact without getting caked with snow. Slits are cut into the tread, called sipes, to slice through the ice and snow on the road, so your tires avoid sliding or hydroplaning. Depending on the quality of the snow tire you fit to your vehicle, you could see an impressive 25-50 percent improvement in the handling of your car when you have snow tires instead of all-season tires in winter!

How to Recognize the Difference: Snow vs All-Season

One of the easiest ways to know you’re looking at a snow tire is by searching for the snowflake symbol located on the sidewall of the tire. Such tires are made to stand up to extreme cold, heavy snowfall, and ice. In the case of all-season tires, look for the M+S on the sidewall. This indicates mud and snow, even though this is a tire built more for conditions above 40 degrees. Remember, a few snow flurries in winter are fine for all-season tires, but if snowfall sticks to roads or you know temperatures will cause ice to form on the pavement, you want snow tires. Look for the snowflake or the M+S when you visit the tire center.

Performance and When to Change Tires

In the past, snow tires were not engineered to handle being driven on dry roads. A snow tire in today’s market has been vastly improved and can handle stopping and cornering on dry roads almost as well as an all-season tire. Comparison tests have been conducted by numerous entities to find that snow tires have stopping power that can out-perform all-season tires in slippery, cold conditions by a wide margin. In snow, a vehicle with snow tires will stop several car lengths sooner than a car equipped with all-season tires, and that’s at speeds less than 30 mph.

Switch to dry conditions, and the all-season tires will out-perform the snow tires in terms of stopping, but only by a small margin of a few feet. Where once winter tires might have been shredded when having to stop on a dry road, today’s winter tires are much stronger and can handle dry roads readily. Thus, you won’t need to worry about those times in winter when it’s cold but dry. Still, there is a time when you want to change from snow to all-season tires. Again, it’s all about the average temperature. Once those temps dip below 40 degrees and remain at or below that level, you want snow tires. This usually happens in late November or early December, but winter may be early or late, so use your best judgment. When temps on average are above 40, including those colder temps at night, it’s time to transition back to all-season tires, which usually happens around the end of March or early April.

A car is shown driving on an empty road during a snow storm.

Does It Matter If I Have All-Wheel Drive?

Though all-wheel drive is great for keeping your wheels moving when encountering a loss of traction, in wintery conditions, that traction will be better with snow tires. All-wheel drive only works when the wheels can keep moving because they can grip the road. If your tires can’t gain traction because the entire road is covered in snow or ice, all-wheel drive isn’t going to make much difference in comparison to snow tires. Similarly, when temperatures get warmer, those snow tires need to be changed out for all-season or summer tires in order to have the best performance on the road. All-wheel drive vehicles do make a difference in terms of performance, but that performance is improved dramatically by the right tires for the job.

Do I Need to Change All My Tires?

It does matter that you change all four tires if you want to drive safely during the winter. If you think putting snow tires only on the front because you have front-wheel drive is going to be enough, think again. Even if your rear tires aren’t being powered by the engine, they still have momentum that will react with the snow and ice on the road. When conditions are cold and slippery, all the wheels will slide. Snow tires will make your vehicle much safer to drive when you replace all four tires, regardless of which tires are getting power. In fact, if you own a rear-wheel drive vehicle and you only place snow tires on the back wheels, you could face a serious problem with being able to steer. Save yourself the trouble of potential accidents and place snow tires on all four wheels for winter. In general, you should avoid only partially changing your tires at any time because having different sized tires with different treads can be dangerous.

The Right Tires Mean Saving Money and Increasing Safety

Even though snow tires excel in cold temperatures, they can be a hazard when temperatures warm up, especially when it gets hot. Those tires that perform so well on ice and snow will wear down rapidly when it gets warm, so taking the time to change them in spring will save you money in the long run. Your all-season tires will perform well in most types of weather and are built to last a long time. Most vehicles today come from the manufacturer with all-season tires due to their durability and flexible nature to handle the most road conditions of any kind of tire. Think of your tires like a pair of shoes: sneakers are great for most of the year, but when it snows, you want winter boots.