Tire chains vs. cables and winter driving tips

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 http://www.tirechainsrus.com/car-cable-tire-chains.html


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.

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:


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.

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.

Keith…you 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…

Keith…Before it became fashionable, I never used studded tires on the front either. As soon as I started, it was apparent that with most braking and all of the steering done by the front, I suddenly had more control and stopping. It was cheaper and not illegal so people with rwd don’t do it. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t serve more of a purpose in helping you stop especially for a person with no winter driving experience.

As far as adding weight I recomended, it is unquestionably more valuable whether you or I got away with not doing is not the question. I believe it is extremely important for OP. To say that it hurts handling when it actually helps is false and is important for a novice winter driver. OP without these aids will have more problems in slippery conditions. OP didn’t grow up in Vermont. Everything I suggested was with that in mind. I live on a mountain in snow country, plow and move snow from November till April. I know what works, and what doesn’t and am in agreement with the majority of people who discuss this on other forums concerning adding weight to trucks AND SUVs especially in mountainous terrain… Google for yourself. BTW, it’s not actual weight that is as important as weight as a percent of total over rear wheels.

Caddyman is right…OP isn’t ready to deal with chains either. Generally, my experience is that only those who know how, use them. I used them for some plowing in winter and then only at low speeds as Caddyman suggests.

It sounds to me like you should have good winter tires, especially as a novice winter driver, even if you disagree. The cost really isn’t as much as you think, as you’re saving wear on your summer tires when the winter tires are on. If you order a set already mounted on basic steel rims from Tire Rack, you can put them on and take them off yourself.

If you insist on chains or cables, I’d suggest keeping one of those full-body snowmobile suits in your car. You’ll want to wear something like that when lying in the snow and slush, especially if you have to put them on and take them off several times in a trip (which you’ll have to do each time you come to a dry stretch of road).

dagosa, I am a little confused by your post, you put studded snow tires on a RWD car? I have seen that done, but only on vehicles that were either ice racing or in a rally in Europe during the winter. If you need studded tires on the front of a RWD car, you are driving too fast.

I carry cables in my car, but I’ve only used them once. Since it is FWD, I put them on the front only. I live in Tennessee now, but the time I needed them was when I was at the Grand Canyon in winter. BTW, no matter how many times you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, seeing it in snow is a whole new experience. Few visitors and the views are far more spectacular. You don’t see a lot of pictures of it in snow though.

Keith…and I’m confused by your post. If I got you correct, you are saying if I need them on front as well, them I am driving too fast ? Is 10 mph too fast ? On an a glare ice intersection that was covered by light snow, you may not stop at this speed. I am aware that the majority of braking and steering contol is done by the fronts. It seemed natural that studs on all 4 wheels of a rwd car is as helpful as studs on all wheels of fwd car for both handling and stopping. If I read you right, I predict that you are in minority if you don’t feel that 4studded snows help all drivers, even those who drive prudently .

If you put cables only in the front, you had better travel in ice and snow going really slow and avoid braking going down hill…you are an accident waiting to happen otherwise.

I hear this ultimate planner argument from those who feel they have everything under control and feel they will be ok with just two studded snows as long as they do everything “right”. The fallacy of that thinking is…ultimate planners have to share the road with those who aren’t and create emergency situations. Ultimate planners can never travel in inclement weather. As a cop, I had plenty of multi car accidents to investigate where one of the parties did absolutely nothing wrong.

dagosa, we started of discussing chains or cables. Somehow we got to studs. For RWD, I feel that chains or studs are needed on the rear only. I am not advocating a trip across Texas on glare ice, just to the grocery store and back. Although I did drive from El Paso to Shreveport on glare ice all the way. All season tires but limited slip rear end.

On FWD, if I needed to drive a lot in snow or ice, I would put winter tires all around. If I got stuck, I would just use the cables on the front only until I got to a better road or a place to hole up till the storm was gone.

If you are using studs all around, then you are intending to drive faster than is safe to do. Now you mentioned that you are a cop, so for you, I would agree that you need studs all around when you are on duty. Your job may require you to drive faster than the rest of us. You will find me either at home or in the right lane, except when I pass you while you are helping some idiot out of a ditch. For that, I will move over for your safety.

Keith…I think we have legitimate but different points of view. I’ m driving around in Maine and upper New Hampshire in the winter, you my friend are driving around in Tenn. and Texas. I rest my case…I have no problem with your minimal traction aid point of view.

FYI, I was born in Vermont and went to college in the UP of Michigan. As I said, when I lived in Vermont, the only 4wd’s were a few surplus army jeeps, and FWD was unheard of. I was a kid then, but my dad, my granddads all use snow tires on the rear only and seldom used chains. But then, they didn’t feel the need to go 65 mph on the highways during a blizzard either.

About this time last year, I was working on a windfarm that had only dirt roads. The roads were very steep and often muddy. They told me that I would not be able to get up to most of the turbines without 4wd. I don’t think National rental wants to know where I took that Dodge Charger of theirs.

The question I heard the most the first couple of days was “How did you get that up here?”. One one occasion, the road was blocked and all the guys in the 4wd’s said we couldn’t get to the turbine, until I made an alternate path with the Charger, then they followed.

Yes, I do live in Tennessee now, but we get ice storms here. They are a lot more difficult to drive on than snow. Its interesting to watch (a few) of these rednecks in their big 4wd trucks blow past me on the highway, and then see them again a couple of miles down the road, in the ditch.

When we have a snow or ice storm here, there are a lot of accidents, but I remember that when I lived up north, there were a lot of accidents on the day of the first snow storm of the season. People were not ready with their winter tires and not used to the snow. Down here, we seldom get more than a couple of snow or ice days a year so we never get the winter tires, but most people figure out to SLOW down by the second day.

I feel the need for 4wd is greater for a couple of reasons. We are much more active during inclement weather and the technology is more affordable. One thing i believe is that cars in general are worse in snow then they were. Cars have wider tires that float on snow and much less ground clearance. It’s what the public wants and pays for. When conditions got bad in days gone by, we stayed at home.

If I lived farther south then NYC, I doubt I would have any thing but 2wheel drive and all season tires. From that perspective you actually go above and beyond the call of duty. I live 5 months out of the year on snow and ice on a mountain…the south looks awfully good after November. Our red necks(me included) are different. If we end up in the ditch, we drive our four wheeler or snowmobile stored in the back, for help.

“One thing i believe is that cars in general are worse in snow then they were”.
dagosa–I have to agree with you. My first car was a 1947 Pontiac. It had 6.50 X 16" tires. My Pontiac had the inline 6 engine as opposed to the inline 8, and the engine sat right back against the firewall. This shifted more weight to the rear and I think the car had a higher percentage of weight on the rear tires than the newer cars I have had since that time. I had 6 ply mud and snow truck tires on the back that had just been recapped. It was a great snow car. The other car that I once owned that was good on snow was a 1961 Corvair. With its rear engine, it had the weight over the drive wheels.
I do remember my dad having some emergency strap on chains that could be put on quickly–the straps went thrrough the slots in the rear wheels. I remember him using them on a 1947 Dodge that he owned. The Dodge also had a fluid coupling between the clutch and the transmission which allowed for easy second gear starts on ice. We lived out in the country and he could get into work when people in town got stuck.