Winter tyres or snow chains what is best for driving out to the Alps for your ski holiday?

Snow chains on 4x4 forest trail Serre Chevalier

What is best, winter/snow tyres or snow chains? If like me you spend all the Winter in the mountains, and with a 4X4 do you actually need snow chains; but if just on holiday what are your options?

New rules in France stipulate you must either have snow tyres or snow chains, for most snow chains are a cheap and easy option, however buying online can be fraught with issues, so if you're not sure it's best to get advice.

Winter tyres or snow chains what is best for ski trips

What to consider when buying snow chains, and it's not just the wheel size!

And it's not just about driving out to the Alps, as many in the UK now have a set of chains in their boot, for those possible once-in-a-decade moments when you might actually have to use them, and to a certain extent the same could be true for driving out to the Alps.

However for those that are driving out to the French Alps, and that does account for the vast majority of self-drive holiday skiers, it's now law to carry chains if you do not have snow tyres, though the Gendarmes are supposedly not enforcing the new law for another 12 months, but it's best to be equipped anyway no matter what.

Though for 99% of us we will not find ourselves in the situation like these two below!

Land Rover's stuck in the snow
 

 

Over the many years that I've been driving to the Alps either from the UK, or with a hire car from an airport, there have only been a handful of occasions when I have had to use chains in anger, though it does seem that those occurrences were a long time ago, which could reflect the fact that we don't see the snow accumulations that we used to get, but that's another discussion, but as I'm compiling this article if you didn't have snow tyres you'd really need chains, fortunately, my winter tyres were put on yesterday!

And the fact that it's nigh on December and I've only just had my winters put on is one of the reasons I'm writing this.

My van is a Four Motion VW T6 Transporter* and I swap my winters over to summer at the end of the season and then back again. However this year I found myself staying in the UK longer than anticipated and realised I would be travelling back out to Serre Chevalier with my summer tyres on as both my winter's and chains were in my garage back in Serre Chevalier.

I should also add here that I often drive up closed roads and forest trails (image below) to gain access to altitude, out of season to go ski touring, and have come close to getting stuck, pushing my luck on more than one occasion with 4WD & snow tyres.
*Four Motion is 4WD

driving up closed roads to go ski touring
 

Hence with the new laws in France I thought it best to get some chains, especially as my old Thule Easy-Fit chains I bought 9 years ago for my old T5 didn't exactly fit the T6, but they had got me out of trouble a couple of times, and that's the crux, as even with winter tyres, sometimes you need chains, even with a 4x4 (see top image), you can still get stuck, and in my case when my Haldex failed, but that too is another story.

I was aware that simply checking your wheel size and then going Online to buy chains was a potential minefield...

Nor was I going to chance buying them en route in France and/or taking a chance that it wouldn't snow.

So taking note of my wheel size 255 / R17 I also looked in the manual to check if there was any mention of chains etc and noted "that if possible, use snow chains with fine-pitched links which do not protrude more than 15mm, including the tensioner".

I then set about searching online knowing that there were a few good Snow Chain Online retailers, however, I was somewhat loathed to get them delivered as I was on a bit of a tight schedule and didn't want any issues, so was relieved to find an outfit not too far away that would tie in with a trip I had to make.

So I decided to go Analogue and call them up to discuss my options, and I was so glad I did as they carefully guided me through the minefield that I alluded to above.

The first issue was the clearance, which my manual had mentioned, however, Adrian from Snowchains.com had me double-checking the clearance both behind the wheel and both sides of the wheel arch on either lock, as the amount of space would determine the chain link size.

Checking wheel clearance for snow chains
 
Clearance is now a major factor when it comes to snow chains, and some vehicles simply will not take a classic snow chain that fits over and behind the wheel rim, such as the chain on the right of the picture and must opt for a chain like that on the left.

Snow Chain tyre wheel clearance
 

Like anything, with Snow Chains you get what you pay for... 

My original Thule Easy-Fit chains were in their day, top of the range, and it's good to see a product nine years on still at the top!  

As Adrian points out, and more from him later, it really does depend on your budget and how you think you might be using the chains. For many holidaymakers the chances of them encountering snow both driving up to and down from their resort are low, and if they're not using their car in the week that too negates the need for top-of-the-range chains.

If like here in Serre Chevalier where many people stay along the valley and have to drive to the lifts then obviously that ups the need for chains, but there again, many that choose accommodation like that tend to invest in snow tyres.

So ignoring the little fact that I managed to get the wheel size dimension wrong (255 instead of 235) I travelled up to Snowchain.com in Tonbridge for a custom fit as it were, plus if they're not too busy they'll show you how to fit them!

Once there it was also explained to me that the profile of the wall of the tyre can also affect the sizing and fit of the chain, as some tyre walls are more rounded in profile whereas others have more of an edged one.

And it's a most impressive operation as they not only sell chains but the whole range of Thule rooftop boxes and tow-bars etc

snowchain.com snowchain warehouse
 

 The top-of-the-range Thule K-Summit is designed to fit to vehicles with limited clearance at the back of the tyre.

Top of the range Thule K2 Summit Snow Chain
 

In the end, it was recommended that I go for the Thule/Konig XG-12 Pro which is designed for 4x4s, vans & motorhomes... 

And that recommendation is based on considerable experience and that's what you can't get from a simple click n'buy operation, for sure if you know exactly what you require, or if it's a replacement, but for many their set of chains is for the duration of the lifespan of the vehicle that they purchased the snow chains for, and I'm a  case in point in that you would not have thought that there would have been major sizing issues between one model of VW transporter and another.

In fact snowchains.com offers an exchange on snowchains for exactly the above reasons.

After what was a well above average retail experience and so good to talk with people who know their product range and recommend to the end user the best solution, which unfortunately is so rare nowadays, I sent Adrian some questions as I'd decided to write this feature.

Background First

Are snow chains bought primarily for ski trips?

Yes, primarily skiers and other holidaymakers going to the Alps or beyond.

There are also quite a few people who travel at Christmas to visit family (in Western and mid to eastern Europe).

There's a modest but significant demand for UK use, such as for people in rural areas where they can't get out to the gritted/cleared roads. And trades-people, couriers, carers etc. i.e. businesses that can't WFH so still want to get around when it snows (or whose employers can justify equipping staff to increase the chances of them making it into work!)

For example, we have supplied employees of airports, care agencies, and food delivery companies. Also, we have supplied mountain rescue teams, MOD, armoured vehicle builders, pharmacies, broadcasters, fire & emergency services, RAC/AA, and forestry contractors..

Are people buying snow-socks or are they sticking just to chains?

For skiers it's still a majority for chains, as you want the real deal if you're miles from home up serious mountains as socks aren't much good on ice.

We tend to describe socks as a soft option because they are better than nothing, but they don't give the same level of traction in all conditions as a chain.

People also like the fact it's obvious what you have to do to fit them, but that's not to say they are easy to fit because they need to be snug and that means it's a fight to get them on and off, plus you have to move the vehicle to fit a sock which is not the case for quick-fit chains with auto-tensioning.

There's more about the snow chains vs snow socks here.

Have you found people are opting now for winter/all-season tyres?

Yes, these have become more common.

They are good in that they improve traction even when there's no snow on the ground, whereas chains/socks you require that in order to use them.

The trouble is they are expensive compared to the cost of snow chains, and that's for a regular car never mind 23" or 24" wheels that many modern SUVs are coming out with.

So while it's ideal to have both, the cheaper route for now is just a set of chains or socks, I say for now because I gather it may become compulsory to have winter/all-season tyres even if you have snow chains.

Do people with 4X4's still buy chains?

Yes, absolutely. Some SUVs are good in snow, but many are not. Either way, the law is you have to carry chains (in mountainous regions Nov-April) regardless of vehicle type.

Although an Original Defender might get a pass, a new one or an X5 (or most other Chelsea tractors) won't be waived through without chains.

Big SUV's are actually not ideal vehicles in snow as they are too heavy and the tyres are too wide, the ideal car is a little Fiat Panda 4x4 or anything light with skinny wheels.

And does the more you pay the better the product hold true?

Yes, in the sense of buying a decent brand with good quality metal, design etc. as opposed to budget (far Eastern and/or cheapie brands).

But beyond that once you're buying a good brand, their basic options are decent, what you then pay more for is technology or to solve specific problems – such as fitting systems to make them more user-friendly to fit/remove, or for a lack of clearance.

So for example the Konig 'Easy-Fit' is designed as the name indicates, to make fitting easier.

Whereas the K-Summit is designed to fit to vehicles with limited clearance at the back of the tyre - this type of chain has become the most popular because so many vehicles have this problem, even big SUVs.

Owners of these vehicles have little choice, as they cannot fit cheaper traditional chains (or they have to take the risk of the soft option of socks).

In your experience, does the vehicle manual cover size and fitting of chains.

Rarely is that information sufficient.

They've gotten better in recent years, Tesla Model Y is the first we've seen that clearly states exactly what to buy (Konig XG-12 Pro) but Teslas are a bit different to normal vehicles because the number of tyre sizes they come with are relatively few (two). Whereas normal brand vehicles tend to have more of a range of tyre and wheel sizes.

Historically you needed to be an expert to navigate most handbook advice on snow chains (because it's central aim was to avoid liability for the car manufacturer while complying with the regulation that the car could technically accommodate snow chains) so the standard advice was 'only fit chains if you have tyre size x or y' but usually customers didn't have that tyre size.

The implication here is 'you're on your own with it if you use chains' or rational conclusion "I can't fit chains so can't use this car for a ski trip". In a minority of cases that was true, but usually not. Then it requires pragmatism/practicality by the customer, or defer to experts like us to deduce suitable options.

In my manual it does state "fine pitch-links which do not protrude more than 15mm" does that suffice?

It's better than no information, but the trouble with this is it's a bit arbitrary – on which tyre sizes does that note hold?

If you have large tyres a 14mm chain might still damage your vehicle or break the chain.

Your handbook may state specific tyre sizes as mentioned above, but if you don't have that tyre size, then all the notes are not applicable or at worst potentially misleading. If you put 20" rims on a T6, then a 14mm chain will not work.

What are the obvious mistakes people should look out for?

Time-frame, don't leave it until 1 week before you go. Chain/tyre sizes are like shoe sizes, they are not exact. And you wouldn't buy new walking boots online the day before a long trek.

Smart people sort their chains out months before they travel because while we deliver the next day in most cases, we also know tyres aren't predictable so if you send out 100, 1-10 of those will not be an optimal fit and the process to triage those is much easier to manage if you have 2 weeks to play with. Ordering with 1 day or 1 week up your sleeve is taking a risk.

Approximately half of the reports about incorrect size are either due to another factor (fitting error, snag, twist/tangle, or trial fit on a gravel drive is a common mistake), or from a customer misreading tyre size (who would do that) or worse getting the tyre size from somewhere other than the vehicle (for the axle the chains are going on – as some cars have differing tyre sizes front vs rear).

Some people say 'My friend has the same car and his tyres are..' Nope! Or 'I googled it and they are..' Nope!

Tell me the tyre size as printed on your actual tyres, on your actual car!!

Tyre sizes are a sub-optimal approximation anyway, so let's not start this process on dodgy foundations and instead get this detail correct!

And finally, I have to explain what clearance means about 3000 times per year!

And if after reading all the above you still lust for more information then snowchain.com's FAQs are an excellent read.

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