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Tire chains vs. cables and winter driving tips

edited November 2011 in General Discussion
Hey everyone,

I live near a ski resort town in the Eastern Sierra and I will be making my first ever purchase of tire chains/cables...I grew up in the flat lands of Southern California (feel my embarrassment), so I have virtually no winter driving experience. I drive a Nissan Xterra 2WD. I am very much curious to hear from you all the pros and cons of chains and cables. I am also seeking any tips to help make my winter driving experience as safe as possible (for example, I've heard putting weight in the back of my car will help improve traction)...I've been up in this town before when the place was flooded with weekend warriors from LA, and it was not uncommon to see drivers spinning out all over the place. I do not wish to see that be me!

Thanks in advance. -RJ


  • If you are required, by law, to have chains or cables, buy them. Otherwise, good winter tires are probably preferable. If I was going to own tire chains, I would probably buy something like these
  • Whitey,

    My budget is tight, so I would prefer to settle on chains instead of shelling out for snow tires. I do live in an area where chain restrictions go into effect during storms. CHP officers have checkpoints. There are times (probably will not be driving too often in these conditions) when chains are required to be present on your person, even if you have snow tires and 4WD.
  • edited November 2011
    If you live where it snows a lot, winter tires should be a budgeted expense. This is an investment in safety, not something I would skimp on, especially if I was an inexperienced winter driver driving in winter conditions for the first time.

    I think winter tires are more important than chains. You can stay home during chain restrictions, but what are you going to do the rest of the time, when chains would damage the roads?

    Anyway, I've said enough. Seeing is believing:

  • Whitey,

    Sorry for not being more specific...thanks for sharing the videos though, quite informative. I do not actually live in the ski town (above 7,000ft). I live about an hour south in a town situated around 4,000ft in elevation. Winter hits the Sierra hard here, but snow rarely accumulates/sticks to the ground here in my town. Most of my driving to the resort town will be when the roads are clear, but there will be an occasional day when I wish to head up after a storm for powder skiing. Hence I am seeking chains or cables, at least for just this winter.
  • edited November 2011
    You do have one of a few standard vehicles capable of handling and needing chains. Sorry to say, this rwd, front heavy Suv other then ground clearance will give you no help at all. Before anyone even thinks about buying chains, first, find a friend who has them and have them walk you through the steps of properly mounting them. Then do it in cold wet snow with your hands freezing. You will find as most do, it may not be worth it. If you need chains, you will need then on all 4 wheels. Another option is changing over to all terrain tires which are fairly good in snow, not so good on ice as winter tires but you can keep them on year round. If you want a fighting chance you will put 2 to 300 lbs of tube sand over the axle. That is a MUST for this car. Then practice with a friend before who ever venture out on your own. All season tires with the added weight may give you decent traction in light snow depth, but only if their tread depth is 6/32 inches deep.....and after 50% wear, few do. You have your work cut out for you.
  • First thing you need to find out is; Do you have a limited slip rear axle? This makes a big difference. It would be an option on your vehicle so if you have the original window sticker, it would be listed under options on it. If you don't, you could jack up the rear of the vehicles until both wheels are off the ground, then spin one tire. If the tire on the other side spins backwards, you don't have limited slip. If it spins in the same direction, you do.

    If you have limited slip, you won't need the chains as much, if at all. You do have to watch your speed though as without a free wheeling tire on the back, the car will have a tendency to slide out at lower speeds than a vehicle with a conventional differential. But it will take you just about anywhere at 28 mph, even with regular tires.

    Because the Xterra already has a lot of weight in the back, additional weight isn't really needed and actually make it harder to handle. I would not put it back there.

    I use cables when I need them. If you going to ice race, then of course get the best studded snow tires, but for a local run for groceries, cables are fine. Just keep your speed down and don't try to keep up with the 4wd trucks with snowtires and chains. They should slow down too but they won't.
  • I'm going to suggest you ask around town. These folks will have the personal experience to tell you what works in your area. Everyone here only has a guess as to what works and what does not.

    Personal experience trumps theory any day of the week.
  • edited November 2011 make some good points especially about the cables, but what makes you think that the Xterra is not front heavy with the motor in the front ? 54% front vs 46% rear are it's specs. In general, all rwd cars do better in snow if weight is bias to the rear. and 2 to 300 lbs is minimal, little more than one and a half passengers making the distribution close to the magic 50/50 which would enhance handling.

    Obviously, loaded with gear in the back would help either instead or in addition to the bags, depending upon the total load. I have gone as high as 500lbs in compact trucks with excellent results. as long as weight is kept over axle or in front by SUV seat back or truck bed and not behind. Severe negative affects on handling doesn't happen if this little weight is carefully placed.

  • A compact truck, or any unloaded pickup is going to be very light in the rear. 46% of the Xterra's weight is a lot of weight. I just haven't found extra weight to be necessary, it just adds that much more momentum incase you get sideways. I don't even add any weight to the back of my compact truck with conventional differential, 2wd.

    BTW, I don't see any reason to put cables on the front tires either. I grew up in Vermont, before the FWD and 4wd vehicles took over and I never saw anyone put chains on the front. Didn't put studded tires on the front either.
  • V-bar chains work great for occasional use over short distances. Your top speed drops to 30 mph. Any faster and the chains will be quickly destroyed. So will your tires...You must learn how to install them so it becomes second nature. A better solution, if they REQUIRE chains, stay home.....
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