The Ultimate Guide to Winter Tires in Canada
When the calendar flips over to winter, should you switch to winter tires? Here’s everything you need to know to make the right decision for your winter driving needs.
Ahhh, winter. ‘Tis the season for snowball fights, holiday get-togethers, and white knuckles on the steering wheel as you hope and wish and pray that your car can make it up the steep, snow-covered road...!
Nobody enjoys sliding uncontrollably across frigid streets or being stranded on the side of the road after spinning out. But is it worth the extra cost and time of swapping out your all-season tires for winter tires? Keep reading for all the information you need to make a decision about how to equip your car during the coldest season of the year.
All-season tires vs winter tires
As the wet and cloudy conditions of autumn transition into the chilly winter weather, it’s time for drivers to consider the pros and cons of switching to winter tires.
Pros of Winter Tires
Cons of Winter Tires
Provides better traction when the temperature averages 7 degrees Celsius or colder, and in icy or snowy conditions
Extends the life of all-season tires
Takes time and money to swap to winter tires, then change back to all-seasons in the spring
Required by law for driving in certain areas of Canada during the winter*
Need a place to store winter tires for the rest of the year
*Quebec and certain highways in B.C. are the only places where tires for winter weather are required by law. In Quebec, winter tires (i.e. winter or all-weather tires) are mandatory for all passenger cars from December 15th to March 15th. British Columbia requires drivers to install winter tires (i.e. winter, all-weather, or all-season mud & snow tires) if they plan to drive on specific highways where conditions are unpredictable (i.e. Sea-to-Sky Highway). Winter tires are not mandatory anywhere else, but they are recommended and encouraged. In Manitoba, you can get a special loan to help you buy and install winter tires, while Ontario incentivizes winter tire installation with lower vehicle insurance premiums.
For more information about the best type of tire for your car and climate, read our quick breakdown on the differences between winter, all-weather, and all-season tires.
And read more about winter tire changes here.
Should you switch to winter tires?
Consider these questions when you’re deciding if you should make the switch:
- Are you willing to pay the cost of winter tires and installation (and, possibly, storage for your extra tires)?
- Does your region get a lot of snow and ice during the winter? If so, are you concerned about the danger of driving in frigid conditions?
- If you live in Quebec or British Columbia, do your current tires meet the mandatory requirements?
If you need more information before you can answer those questions, we’ve got your back.
The benefits of winter tires
All-season tires are generally fine for driving in when the thermometer measures around 7 degrees Celsius or higher. In these temperatures, the rubber is flexible enough to maintain a good grip on the road. However, when the mercury drops below 7 C, the material in all-season tires hardens and reduces traction.
Winter tires are designed to stay flexible in cold temperatures (7 C or lower), so they can spread out and maintain a better grip. Also, winter tires include tread patterns that are designed to push water away to the sides, which allows the tires to stay in better contact with the surface of the road.
4-wheel drive is not a substitute for winter tires
It’s important to emphasize that driving features like 4-wheel drive (4WD), anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control can be useful for accelerating and maneuvering, but they do almost nothing for stopping or slowing down. To get better traction on a snowy or icy road, there’s no substitute for winter tires.
How to buy the best winter tires for your vehicle
At this point, you’re probably convinced that you need winter tires (or, you’re at least strongly considering it). These are the factors you need to consider when you’re shopping for winter tires.
1. Tires and Rims
When you look at a tire, it’s actually composed of two main parts:
- Tire: the black rubber doughnut
- Wheel or rim: the circular metal structure that the tire wraps around
You have two options when buying winter tires: buy only the rubber tires and have them swapped onto your car’s existing rims, or buy winter tires that come with their own rims.
If you choose to purchase only the rubber tires, you can save money on the purchase but you’ll need to spend a little extra money and time getting the rubber swapped out on your rims.
If you prefer buying winter tires with their own rims, it’ll be quicker and easier to replace the tires (you might even be able to do it yourself), but you’ll need to pay extra for the rims. Plus, many newer cars are equipped with tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), which use sensors in the wheels. If you have one of these cars and want to use this feature, you’ll have to pay extra for TPMS sensors in your winter tires.
2. Shop early
Don’t wait too late into the winter season before pulling the trigger on your winter tire purchase. Most retailers only receive inventory in the autumn, so the selection of tires will become skimpier as time goes by.
The best rule of thumb is to get your tires when you notice the temperature is starting to hover around 7 C or lower, or even earlier if you want the best selection to choose from.
3. Look for the logo
According to Transport Canada, to qualify as a “winter tire” in Canada, it must be labelled with the 3-peaked mountain/snowflake (“Alpine”) logo:
This symbol is almost exclusively found on winter and all-weather tires to indicate that the tire is certified to meet certain performance criteria in snow testing.
However, British Columbia's mandatory requirments include all-season M+S (mud + snow) tires too. Instead of the 3-peaked mountain/snowflake (“Alpine”) logo, you'll find the 'M+S' designation on the right all-season tire. Each mud & snow tire must have a tread depth of 3.5mm to be considered acceptable for BC's winter roads.
4. Studded tires
If you really want to maintain traction in snowy conditions, you can look for studded snow tires. These tires feature small metal studs embedded in the rubber which help dig into the road and provide more grip, especially when the temperature is around zero C.
A few things to know about studded snow tires: they can be noisy and might damage pavement, which is why they’re prohibited in certain areas of Canada. Make sure to check your local regulations before you buy.
Should I downsize my winter tires?
Downsizing your tires (aka minus sizing) can be effective for winter driving. Rather than using your factory rim and tire size, a smaller diameter wheel is matched with a more-narrow-but-taller tire. Overall, the tire is intended to be the same height as you’d choose a higher profile tire. The benefit of narrow winter tires is deeper traction on winter roads.
You can save money if you’re driving a car with factory-installed 20" or 22" rims since downsized wheels are cheaper. Just make sure you test fit the rim before installing a set on your car.
Maintaining winter tires
Great, so you’ve decided to plunk down some cash for winter tires. Here’s what you need to know to maintain them and get the most out of your investment.
1. Check the air pressure
Just like with your regular all-season tires, it’s a good idea to make sure your winter tires are properly inflated. This improves your tires’ performance and helps them last longer. To find your tire’s ideal air pressure, check the side of the tire or your owner’s manual, or look for a chart placed on the edge of the driver’s side door or inside the glove box.
2. Check the tread
The tread design on your tires will wear down as you drive. It’s best to make sure the tires have enough tread depth, otherwise you risk reducing the traction. This TranBC page provides details on what you should know about checking tire treads. Or, you could get a rough estimate with a quick “toonie test” (see below).
Gauge tread depth with a quick toonie test
3. Clean your winter tires
When the weather starts to warm up again and you’ve switched back to your all-season tires, make sure to clean off your winter tires before you store them. You’ll especially want to wash away any remnants of salt, which can eat into the rubber and damage the tires while they sit in storage.
4. Cover and store them
It’s not essential to cover the tires, but wrapping your tires up can help protect them from excess moisture. Use one large plastic bag for each tire, remove as much air as possible, and wrap them up tightly with tape.
After that you can stack up the tires, laid flat on top of each other, and keep them in a cool, clean, and dry location. If you don’t have any place to put them, you can ask a friend to do you a solid or rent some storage space.
How to get the best deals on winter tires
As winter draws near, sales on winter tires will start popping out of the woodwork. You’ll see ads from a lot of the big players in the tire industry like Canadian Tire, Kal Tire, 1010Tires, Walmart, and many others. Some retailers will drop prices, while others will throw in bonus offers and benefits.
- Costco offers a $19.99 per tire installation fee. It includes balancing, rotation, and flat repairs for the lifetime of the tire, as well as a comprehensive mileage, road hazard, and manufacturer’s defects warranty.
- PMCtire offers free shipping, mounting, and balancing when you buy a set of four tires from them.
- Canadian Tire offers their 6-year Tire Care Guarantee to customers that purchase, install, and balance their tires with them.
- Kijiji is a convenient place to find great deals on second-hand winter tires. But since these tires are usually pre-owned, you should be very careful about examining them before handing over any money.
Read more: Best Winter Tire Deals in Canada for 2021
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