Shorter days and falling temperatures mean one thing: another winter in Canada. It also means it's time to start thinking about swapping a set of winter tires in place of your all-season or summer tires. In fact, some Canadian provinces require a winter tire switch at certain times of the year. 

Quebec requires snow tires from December 1 through March 15, and British Columbia requires them to travel on select highways between October 1 and April 30. 

If your current winter tires are worn out and not up for another season of snow and ice, or you’re buying a new or used car that doesn’t yet have snow tires, now's the time to determine the best winter tires for your vehicle.

Below, we'll cover what makes the best winter tires, including tread design, rubber compound, and more. But first, let's review what sets winter tires apart from summer or all-season tires. 

Special-tires-for-winter-driving

Why You Need Special Tires for Winter Driving

When the temperature falls below 7 degrees Celsius, you know it’s time to hit up your local tire retailers to pick up winter tires for the cold weather. When adding winter tires to your vehicle, it’s best to replace all four tires with the same brand and type so the tread depths and tread patterns are consistent. 

But what makes winter tires so much better than all-season or summer tires in winter conditions? Here’s a quick rundown.

Rubber Compound

The rubber compound — what the tire is made of — is one of the lesser-known reasons for swapping out your summer or all-season tires for snow tires. They're mostly made from natural rubber mixed with silica, orange oil, or rapeseed oil to keep them flexible and soft in freezing weather conditions. 

This added flexibility allows winter tire tread to move with the road, ensuring the full width of the tread remains in contact with the road when cornering. This softness also enhances the “stickiness” of the tire, enhancing its grip. Finally, the superior softness and flexibility of winter tires prevent premature wear in freezing temperatures. 

Summer and all-season tires tend to harden in extreme cold, making them brittle and reducing their grip. When the rubber compound becomes brittle, it may wear significantly faster in cold temperatures. 

Tread Pattern

The tread pattern is another critical advantage snow tires have in the winter. These unique tread patterns prioritize snow traction. Plus, they often have deeper tread channels — the valleys between the blocks of tread — to prevent snow buildup from impacting their ability to grip the road. 

Finally, wider tread channels and deeper tread depth mean winter tires are more effective at channeling water and slush away from the tire's tread. As a result, it prevents hydroplaning, which is when water builds up between the tire tread and road, causing a loss in traction at higher speeds.

Grip on Ice

Snow isn't the only concern in winter weather. Ice is another big problem that winter tires address in a few ways. 

First, snow tires generally have more sipes than summer and all-season tires. Sipes are the small slits across the tire tread. These slits increase the number of gripping edges on the tread, creating a biting-like action on the ice. 

Second, some snow tires include or are available with studs, which are small, metal spike-like pieces placed into the tread that dig into ice and compacted snow for enhanced grip.

Keep in mind that some Canadian provinces require studded-tire use during certain times of the year, generally between October and May. Alternatives to studded tires are those with micro-crystals added to the tread compound that act as studs. These tires are legal year-round. 

Best-winter-tire

Can’t I Just Add Tire Chains?

Tire chains, which wrap around your tires and provide extra grip in the snow, are a relatively common option for areas that get heavy snow or infrequent road clearing. However, as you can imagine, they’re temporary solutions used in extreme cases. Driving on a clear road with chains will damage the road’s surface. 

You can add chains to virtually any tire, summer, all-season, or winter, for extra grip if you run into roads covered in deep snow. Keep in mind that each province has its own law regarding tires chains. Provincial tire chain laws are as follows:

  • Alberta: No laws requiring or prohibiting them, but you could be cited if the chains cause damage.
  • British Columbia: Drivers are required to carry tire chains in their vehicles from October 1 through March 31
  • Manitoba: Chains are permissible when needed to drive safely. 
  • New Brunswick: Tire chains are permitted in “exceptional weather conditions.”
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: Chains or snow tires are required when there is snow or ice on the roads.
  • Nova Scotia: Chains are permitted when road ice or snow is present.
  • Nunavut: Chains are permitted as needed.
  • Ontario: Tire chains are permitted when weather conditions warrant it
  • Prince Edward Island: Tire chains are permitted if they don’t harm the highway.
  • Quebec: Tire chains are only permitted on emergency vehicles, farm tractors, or any road vehicle being used to clear snow between October 15 and May 1.
  • Saskatchewan: No tire chain regulations.
  • Yukon: No tire chain regulations

Because tire chains are loud and uncomfortable, and most provinces require you to remove them when there’s no snow or ice on the roads, winter tires are the better long-term solution. Even with winter tires, though, it’s a great idea to keep a set of tire chains in your car in case you encounter uncleared roads in a province where they’re permitted.

Tips for Finding the Best Winter Tire

Finding the best winter tire isn't a one-size-fits-all task, but there is one key thing to look out for: the three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) symbol on the sidewall. This symbol indicates you’re looking at a tire designed to handle severe snow. A tire without this symbol isn’t a true snow tire. 

Other than the 3PMSF symbol your specific driving habits will determine which snow tire is best. Here’s what you need to consider when looking for the best winter tire.

Vehicle Type

The type of vehicle you drive will play a huge role in finding the best winter tire, as tire manufacturers build a wide range of options tuned for specific vehicles. 

First, you want a tire that will fit your vehicle. Look on the placard inside the driver’s side door jam that lists the tire size, load rating, and speed rating. This will be listed in this format “P225/60R16 93S.”

The “P” indicates this is a passenger car tire — there’s also “LT” for light trucks. The “225” is the width of the tire in millimeters. The “60” is the sidewall height as a percentage of the tire width. The “R” simply means it’s a radial tire. The “16” is the rim size. The “93” is the load index, which converts to the weight the tire can safely support. Finally, the “S” is the speed rating, which is the maximum sustained speed the tire is rated to handle.   

For example, if you own a performance coupe, you'll want a snow tire that can also deliver a smooth ride and acceptable cornering grip in normal road conditions. 

A top-rated option for a performance coupe is the Yokohama BluEarth Winter V905. The Yokohama not only offers superior cornering performance, but it also has low rolling resistance to maximize fuel efficiency. 

However, if you drive an SUV, you may prefer a winter tire with a higher sidewall — the vertical wall on the outermost and innermost edges of the tire — and a more aggressive tread design. The Nokian Hakkapeliitta R3 SUV is a great option for SUV and crossover drivers, as it features a rugged tread pattern and a puncture-resistant Aramid fibre sidewall.

If you drive a minivan or a traditional passenger car, you can choose from the widest variety of snow tires. These include top-rated snow tires like the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R3, Michelin X-ice SNOW, or Bridgestone Blizzak WS-90.

However, if you drive an SUV, you may prefer a winter tire with a higher sidewall — the vertical wall on the outermost and innermost edges of the tire — and a more aggressive tread design. The Nokian Hakkapeliitta R3 SUV is a great option for SUV and crossover drivers, as it features a rugged tread pattern and a puncture-resistant Aramid fibre sidewall.

If you drive a minivan or a traditional passenger car, you can choose from the widest variety of snow tires. These include top-rated snow tires like the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R3, Michelin X-ice SNOW, or Bridgestone Blizzak WS-90.

Winter tire comparison

Studded or Non-Studded

Studded or studdable tires can be very helpful when dealing with areas that get higher than normal snowfall and the city has a difficult time getting snow cleared in a timely manner. (We're looking at you, Sudbury.) Because only certain tires are eligible for studs, you must decide early in the process if you need studs or not.

If you stick mostly to the cities and highways that road crews clear quickly after a heavy snow or ice storm, you can likely skip the studded option. However, if you live in a remote area or often drive to remote areas that are the last to see the snow-clearing team, studs will be at the top of your list. 

Keep in mind that stud regulations vary by province, here’s a list of the provinces and their regulations: 

  • British Columbia: Tires with up to 2 mm studs are permitted from October 1 through April 30.
  • Alberta, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon: No studded tire regulations.
  • Manitoba: Studded tires are permitted from October 1 through April 30.
  • Ontario: Studded tires are permitted in northern Ontario (Algoma, Cochrane, Kenora, Manitoulin, Nipissing, Parry Sound, Rainy River, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and Temiskaming) from September 1 through May 31. They are not legal in southern Ontario.
  • Quebec: Studded tires are required from December 15 through March 15.
  • New Brunswick: Studded tires are permitted from October 15 through May 1.
  • Nova Scotia: Studded tires are permitted from October 15 through May, but the studs can be no longer than 3.175 mm long.
  • Prince Edward Island: Snow tires are permitted from October 1 through May 31.
  • Newfoundland: Studded tires are permitted from October 31 through May 1.

Outside of the regulations on studded tires, there are a few other considerations. First, though they offer extra traction in the snow and ice, they are significantly louder than non-studded tires on dry pavement. Second, due to their added rolling resistance, studded tires can impact fuel economy. Finally, studded tires can damage the roads. 

The Nokian Hakkapeliitta 9 is a top-rated tire that comes pre-studded. It features a silica, canola oil, and natural rubber compound, a 5-year warranty, and a thick tread pattern for ideal grip in all conditions. 

There's also the General Altimax Arctic 12, which doesn't come pre-studded but is studdable. This gives you the flexibility to add studs, depending on how bad winter is. The Altimax Arctic 12 also features high angles on its tread edges for enhanced grip and large channels for ushering out water and slush. Plus, its lower pricing is great for buyers on a tighter budget.

Studded Tires in Canada

Tread Pattern

The tire's tread pattern is the second key part of determining the best winter tire for you. Again, this will depend on the type of driving you do most.

The basics of picking a tread pattern are fairly simple — the more rugged the pattern and wider the channels between the tread, the better it'll grip on ice and snow. On the flip side, the chunkier tread and wide channels tend to create more road noise at high speeds. 

With a smoother tread design with narrower channels, you'll get a quieter and smoother ride, but they may not have as much grip in deep snow or slush.

If you frequently drive through areas that are left uncleared with deep snow, you're likely more concerned with grip than comfort. Finding tires with the most rugged tread pattern is your goal. 

If you're more of a city driver who drives on well-cleared roads every day, comfort will be the priority. The best winter tire for you will likely be one with a more all-season-like tread pattern, like the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R3 or Pirelli Ice Zero FR. 

If you sit in the middle of these two driving styles, there are plenty of great snow tires that bridge the gap between aggressive and comfortable tread designs. Two of the best winter tires that span this gap include the Continental VikingContact 7 and Bridgestone Blizzak WS90. 

Tread Depth

New snow tires generally have between 10/32 and 12/32 of an inch in tread depth — the distance from the top of the tread blocks to the bottom of the channels between each tread block. The deeper the tread depth, the less likely snow is to build up and impact its grip and the longer the tire may last. 

The Nokian Hakkapeliitta 9 and General Altimax Arctic 12 have some of the deepest treads at 12/32 of an inch. The Yokohama BluEarth Winter V905, Bridgestone Blizzak WS-90, and a few others are close behind at 11/32 of an inch. 

Sipe Style

Siping, the creation of small slits across the tire's tread, plays a significant role in tire grip in all road conditions. However, siping is particularly helpful on icy surfaces and snow-covered roads. Siping creates additional edges in the tread to enhance grip, and their expansion and contraction helps push snow and slush away from the tread. 

In the simplest terms, the more siping a tire has, the better it grips on snow and ice. But not all siping is created equal — it can have negative side effects, including increased road noise. 

To keep noise to a minimum the sipe gap should be so small that they virtually interlock when there's no pressure on them. Finding sipes that virtually interlock when there’s no pressure on the tire means this tire will deliver superior grip in slippery driving conditions while minimizing noise. Run your hand along the tire’s tread to feel how smooth it is. The fewer sharp ridges you feel from the siping, the lower the road noise.

Another sign of good siping is that they go in multiple directions -- straight across and various diagonal directions -- to maximize grip in all conditions and when cornering. 

The Pirelli Ice Zero FR is one of the best winter tires in terms of siping design. It has plenty of varying sipes to enhance grip. Plus, the siping interlocks to minimize road noise on clear roads.

Tire Warranty 

Living in Canada means you get pretty familiar with your snow tires. (After all, you’re using them 6-8 months out of the year.) That's a lot of mileage to put on tires that deal with a lot of stresses like wheel slip, extreme cold, and salt. Because of the stress they endure, tire manufacturers tend to skimp a bit on winter tire warranties. 

Most winter tires will include a workmanship warranty for a set number of years only. This covers physical defects, like separated bands, detached tread, defective rubber, and other structural issues. However, they usually don't cover the tire's treadwear durability. 

Some of the more generous workmanship guarantees are the six-year warranties offered by the Continental VikingContact 7, and General Altimax Arctic 12. In terms of warranty, the best winter tire is the Michelin X-ice SNOW, which includes a six-year workmanship warranty and a 60,000 km treadwear warranty. 

Swapping Wheels and Tires

Tire changing is a surprisingly violent procedure — at least for your wheels. The technician will use a large, pneumatic bead-breaker blade just inches from your wheel to loosen the tire. They then claim the tire to a rotating table and pry the tire from the wheel using a metal bar and metal arm.  

With that visual in mind, it should come as no surprise that swapping out your tires twice a year can put a lot of stress on your vehicle’s wheels, especially chrome or painted wheels. Even the most experienced tire technician can’t prevent all wheel damage caused by the tire machine’s bead breaker, clamps, and arm.

This is why many people with pricey wheels opt for a full set of wheels—generally inexpensive steel wheels—and tires for winter driving. By adding wheels into the mix, they can simply have the shop swap out the entire wheel instead of separating the tires from the wheel every winter and spring.

There are also other benefits of opting for extra wheels for your winter tires. First, it’s quicker to remove and replace the wheels than remove the tires from the wheels, so you’ll get out of the shop quicker. Second, your expensive chrome or painted wheels won’t endure the stress of winter driving, including salt and other debris on the roadways.

Winter Tires and All-Wheel Drive

You may have decided to buy an all-wheel-drive (AWD) vehicle to help battle the slippery winter roads, and you may think there’s no need for winter tires. 

Yes, AWD will help with your vehicle’s grip in snow and ice, especially when starting from a stop or climbing a hill. But all-wheel drive helps very little when cornering in snow and ice. This is where winter tires will help. 

Also, the added grip that winter tires provide will enhance your AWD car’s performance in snow and ice. On top of the extra grip, remember that winter tires’ rubber compound helps them last longer than summer or all-season tires in the cold winter season. 

Choose the Best Winter Tire That Works for You

Choosing the best winter tire is like picking the most comfortable pair of shoes. What works for one person may not necessarily be right for you. Your friend up the road may have a minivan and swears by one set of tires, but that doesn't mean those tires will also work on your performance coupe

When shopping for the best winter tires, always consider: 

Shopping for winter tires

When you put these all together, you can find the best winter tire for you and your vehicles.