Winter tyres might sound like something you’d only need if you were scaling a snowy mountain, but stop and think about how many times the UK has been caught short by even the smallest bit of snowfall.
Conditions don’t need to become Arctic for this country to be brought to a standstill. A drop in temperature and motorways up and down the UK are thrown into disarray trying to deal with rain, black ice, and snow – and that’s when the need for winter tyres starts to make more sense.
To help you prepare for these colder months in good time, we’ll talk you through all things winter tyres, including what they are, when you should fit them, and how they can help you get a grip when on the road.
Winter tyres are designed to offer improved traction and grip when the cold months kick in. Compared to the compounds your summer or standard-fit tyres are designed with, the rubber used in winter tyres is softer, featuring deeper grooves and narrow cuts – known as sipes – in their tread.
The narrower, deeper design stops snow from building up and clogging the tread. Instead, the rubber can more freely move around, dispersing water and snow and improving contact with the road.
Since the rubber compound has more silica in it, winter tyres stay soft and supple even when the weather’s at its coldest. Summer tyres, on the other hand, can become extremely rigid at freezing temperatures, not only causing them to slip across the road instead of gripping it, but also increasing the likelihood of punctures and blowouts.
What’s more, a winter tyre’s rubber blocks are designed to vibrate when in motion. This allows any snow that’s been picked up to be shaken free. With summer tyres, the snow packs the treads, causing them to become completely smooth – rendering them useless in the process.
How can you tell winter tyres apart from standard versions? They always have a snowflake symbol on the sidewall. You’ll sometimes see tyres without this symbol but marked ‘M+S’ (for mud and snow). These are not necessarily proper winter tyres.
Since UK weather gets pretty changeable throughout autumn, there isn’t a specific date for switching to winter tyres. However, fitting them whenever the average 24-hour temperature drops below 7°C is a good rule of thumb. Being prepared is the best idea; it doesn’t have to be snowing before you feel the advantages of a winter tyre.
However, don’t be fooled into making the switch because of a temporary drop in temperature. You want to wait until there’s some consistency to the cold weather.
When they’re used in the intended conditions, an average set of winter tyres should last about as long as an average set of summer tyres. We’d advise against leaving them on all year round, as their softer rubber will quickly wear out in warmer weather. Likewise, as stopping distances increase in wet, cold weather, the grip and traction of winter tyres will take a beating as a result too.
Put simply, driving on winter tyres out of season is unsafe. When the temperatures start to get warmer, you should remove them and replace them with your regular summer tyres.
The good news is you don’t have to wait for a cold snap to purchase winter tyres as they’re available all year round. We’d recommend buying them in spring; as demand drops suppliers will be looking to shift their stock as soon as possible, so you’ll be able to pick up a bargain as the spring season emerges.
On the other hand, as autumn and winter come around, you should expect to see a spike in demand, which might make finding a set of winter tyres difficult. Try to avoid putting off your purchase until the colder temperatures appear.
How much you fork out for your winter tyres depends on your car and wheel size, but keep in mind that they’re generally more expensive than your usual summer tyres. For a small city car, you’re probably looking at around £200 for a starter set, but larger, more specialist cars might set you back by four figures depending on what you drive.
One way of minimising cost in the long run is by fitting your winter tyres to a second set of wheels. Not only will this stop you from swapping over twice a year, but your summer tyres will get a few more seasons’ use too. Sure, the initial cost might be high, but the longer-term cost of your winter tyres will be lower as a result.
Fitting winter tyres shouldn’t affect your car insurance, but it might be worth double checking with your provider. Certain insurers class winter tyres as an aftermarket modification – despite the fact they offer safety benefits – which means you’ll pay more for your insurance.
When they’re not in use, you should store your winter tyres in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated place to keep them at their best. Leading tyre maker Continental suggests inflating your tyres to 1 bar (about 14psi) and then hanging them from their wheel spokes. However, not all wheels are designed to be stored like this, so you may want to err on the side of caution by stacking them.
When stacking your tyres, it’s important to restack them every month so that they can keep their shape. If they aren’t fitted to a wheel, then you’ll need to store them in a tyre rack and rotate them every month for the same reasons.
If you haven’t got a garage or shed to store your winter tyres in, then not to worry. You can always check them into a tyre hotel instead. These are available at certain main dealers or high street tyre retailers, and allow you to store your tyres in optimal conditions for a fee. Keep in mind, though, that some companies will only store your tyres and not the wheels that they’re fitted to, so you might want to enquire ahead of time to confirm.