How To Install Tire Chains

Some states require tire chains.

Time Needed: 20 minutes, Difficulty: Beginner, Cost: $50-100 for a set

Humans are obsessed with adventuring to places they aren’t designed to reach on their own, and cars are the tools that help get them there. A place like the summit of a snowy mountain pass might seem like an impossibility on foot, but with four wheels and a motor, it’s within reach, so long as you and your vehicle are prepared for the conditions. In the case of a frosty snowcap, that means winter tires and snow chains.

Winter tires should be owned by anybody who has experienced a bout of seasonal affective disorder, but snow chains are a bit more specialized. You’re required by law to use them in certain places and required by law not to use them in others. It’s a bit confusing, so we’re here to lay it all out for you.

Below, we untangle the kinks of what tire chains do, which tire chains you need, and how to install tire chains onto your ride. Let’s get to work.

What Are Tire Chains?

Tire chains, also known as snow chains or skid chains, are literal chains that can be added to car wheels over the tire’s tread to increase traction and grip in extreme winter conditions. There are a variety of styles, but most are designed like a web that can be connected at its ends to make a circle around the tire.

When Do I Need Tire Chains?

Tire chains are needed when traversing an elevated snowy area like a mountain pass.

Do You Need Tire Chains on All Four Tires?

The general rule for tire chains is to put them on the drive wheels. So, front-drive cars require them on the front wheels, rear-drive cars require them on the rear wheels, and cars with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive need them on all fours.

How Fast Can I Drive With Snow Chains?

You don’t drive fast, that’s the whole point of this exercise! Most laws and recommendations say you should never drive faster than 30 mph with snow chains. Doing so will put you and your ride at severe risk.

Varieties of Tire Chains

Tire chains come in a wide array of variants. They are available in different material types, patterns, sizes, installation methods, patterns, and different styles and designs. These factors are all key to making sure your chain fits and will work well with your car. Consult your owner’s manual for specific instructions on which chains to buy.

The Safety Brief

Safely installing tire chains, a safety device in and of itself, is less about how it’s done and more about when and where it’s done. Although safety glasses and mechanic gloves could help, they are not required.

When pulling over to install your tire chains, it’s important to use a safe, isolated spot away from traffic that has a level surface.

The Tools & Parts You Need

Most tire chains are designed to attach without any tools. The only things you’ll need to install your tire chains are the chains, maybe a flashlight, and the digits on your hands.

The How-To

The first and most important step to installing your snow chains is consulting your owner’s manual. The manual will have specific instructions for usage, as well as several restrictions for what you cannot use. Below, we’ve laid out instructions for three different types of chains.

Ladder-Type

Ladder chains literally look like a ladder when extended flat on the ground.

  1. Place the chain next to the wheel with the gap in the chain side-by-side with it.
  2. Leaving the chain flat on the ground, rotate it underneath the car behind the wheel 180 degrees and pull the chain around the wheel.
  3. Grab the two corners underneath the car and fasten them together on the backside of the wheel.
  4. Pull the chain toward you to wrap it around the wheel.
  5. Fasten the bottom chain on the front outside of the wheel.
  6. Fasten the top chain on the front outside of the wheel.
  7. Attach the tensioner piece to the face of the wheel by connecting it to the chain in a star pattern.
  8. Tug on the tensioner to eliminate slack.
  9. Drive forward 5-10 yards, get out, and check all of the chains.
  10. Tug on the tensioner and chains to make sure they are tight and in place.

Single Ring/Rail/Tube-Type

This version has a flexible rail or tube threaded through one of the sides of the chains.

  1. Lay the chain next to the tire with the tube-side farther away from the car.
  2. Thread the marked end of the tube around the wheel and position it on the other side of the wheel. The tube will now be on the opposite side of the wheel underneath the car.
  3. Reach behind the wheel and fasten the rail together at the top.
  4. Once the rail is in place, grab the chains and put them in position around the wheel.
  5. Locate the marked hooks, often red, and connect them at the top of the outside of the wheel.
  6. Connect the bottom of the chains on the outside of the wheel. Tug for tension.
  7. Connect the tensioner that goes across the outside face of the wheel.
  8. Tug on the chains again to make sure they’re tight and in place.
  9. Get in the car and drive forward 5-10 yards.
  10. Get out and check the position and tension of the chains.

Double Ring/Rail/Tube-Type

This version has rails on both sides of the chain mesh. One side has a single rail, the other side has two rails.

  1. Grab the inside of the single rail with the opening at the bottom.
  2. Place the opening over the top of the wheel and position it down over the wheel.
  3. Connect the inner rail at the bottom of the inside of the wheel.
  4. Connect the bottom of the two rails on the outside of the wheel.
  5. Connect the top of the two rails on the outside of the wheel.
  6. Drive forward 5-10 yards and double-check the tension, fit, and position of the chains.

Your Questions, Our Answers on Tire Chains

Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!

Q. Are Snow Chains Bad For Tires?

A. Snow chains are only used for extremely temporary situations, so they should not do any damage to your tires. As long as you are using them only during those specific times and not on hard roads without precipitation, they could cause damage or dangerous situations.

Q. Is It Okay To Leave Tire Chains On Overnight?

A. This should never be an issue. Tire chains are specific uses, and should only be used during the time of those specific uses. Put them on, get through the rough stuff, then take them off immediately.

Q. Why Are Chains On Tires Illegal?

A. Every state’s laws are different, but some states ban tire chains in select areas or everywhere. This is a road protection measure, as chains driven on bare pavement can be damaging. Using chains on roads without snow or ice could also create a dangerous driving situation for the vehicle due to poor traction and instability.

Video Tutorial on Installing Tire Chains

Some people like to read their instructions, others like to watch somebody else say them out loud. Watch and learn.

How To Buy Tire Chains

If you live in an area where tire chains are required, you must keep them in your car at all times. Don’t have a set? Grab one of our picks:

Quality Chain Cobra Cable Tire Chains

Security Chain Company Super Z LT Light Truck and SUV Tire Chain, Set of 2

Security Chain Company Super Z6 Cable Tire Chain for Cars, Pickups, SUVs, Set of 2

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Tony Markovich
Tony Markovich

Tony has a thing for pop-up headlights. His first car was a $3,000 1996 Saturn SC2 Coupe, and his current project is a 1970 Opel GT junker. When he's not daydreaming about the Cadillac Sixteen, he's watching the Chicago Bulls go undefeated on TNT. Contact the author here.