Snappledagain's Blog

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Snow tires, or Winter tires?

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While I was riding with a friend he announced his truck had new snow tires on it.

“Really”, I said, “actual snow tires?”

“Ya”, he replied with his normal South African accent (pronounced ‘sud abrikaan’).

I pondered this for a moment then had to ask “Actual snow tires, not just winter tires?”

“Yes. Wait, WHAT?” he said

“Did you get snow tires or winter tires?”

“There’s a difference? Jesus Christ how long do you have to live in this fucking country to know these things? You’re kidding right? Snow tires aren’t winter tires?”

He was visibly distressed now. If we had not been driving down the road he would actually have been jumping up and down with frustration. Clearly, he was trying very hard to be a good Canadian. But there are subtleties to being a Canadian that are only learned through long experience. These little gems are simply not in a reference manual.

My friend is an educated man, yet still remains very practical.  He has been in Canada for a considerable time now, and it seemed only fair to let him in on the “secret”.

“Snow tires” I began “are always a bias ply construction. Real snow tires are designed to be more pliable in cold temperatures, and have comparatively large and oddly placed lugs that make the design excellent for chewing through snow. But they suck on slippery streets, and they’re super noisy on the highway, and are almost impossible to steer at high speed. Also, they do not last very long”

“Winter tires on the other hand are built with steel or carbon fibre plies that give them decent road handling characteristics, and have a consistent tread pattern that makes them really good for slippery, that is icy or hard-packed snow conditions. They’re quite a bit quieter than snow tires too. But truthfully they kinda suck in the snow. You can usually drive these at normal speeds without any control issues though, and that’s why most people have taken to buying them over the years. I bet you were probably sold winter tires.”


“Ya mon” I said mocking his accent. “It’s actually hard to find real snow tires anymore. Everyone just buys winters because they handle ninety-five percent of what you will encounter on the roads these days anyway. Bona fide snow storms are rare now.  Even snow plows hardly ever have real snow tires on them anymore.”

Afterwards I got to thinking, wondering how I even knew such a thing. It was not from school curriculum that I could remember, not that I remember many specifics from grade school anyway.  But snow tires would not be a likely topic at any rate. Nor was it from any special training I had received along the way. I was never a ‘service-technician’ for example.

Randomly the answer came back to me several days later. I remembered a moment with my father when I was very small, maybe only about five or six years old. There had been a massive snowstorm overnight, and on the Saturday morning afterwards the entire neighborhood was digging out from underneath all the new snow that had fallen. Our home had a car park in the back, accessed through an alleyway between streets, and Dad and I had tried to plow with the sheer mass and energy of an old Plymouth sedan downhill through this alleyway to the nearest road, a little over a half a block away.

But we did not make it, and I remember as clear as day my Dad saying “Nope, this isn’t gonna work, these radials aren’t gonna be enough.” And we ground to a stop, buried to the gunwales (literally, that thing really was a boat). Heavy powder was now settling in firmly around us in the sunlight of a blue-bird day.

And I asked what a radial was. And in that moment I was taught the difference between radials and bias-ply tires, and why bias-ply tires are better in the snow than radials are. I just discovered now that I have never since forgotten that lesson.

I stayed with the car and began digging out the wheel-wells with a small plastic shovel I had brought along ‘just in case’ while Dad climbed back uphill to get Earl, our neighbor. Earl just happened to have an old International with snow tires on it, and he could come and tow us out.

I also remember learning that day that if a tow cable snaps it can “Take you’re head clean ‘offa’ your shoulders if you’re not careful.“ Graphic thought for a six year old. Dad probably should have filtered the lessons a little because that one troubled me for some time afterwards, the thought that ones’ head could actually come off having never even occurred to me before.  On the other hand (in Dads defense)  I have always been careful about that ever since.

Thinking about it now I really love that moment in my life. Helping Dad get the car out of the car park so we could go, nowhere. The fresh snowfall. The blue skies.  The excitement of how the entire neighborhood was out digging and plowing and towing and, laughing together. I’m not sure what it was amidst all of this that made those lessons stick with me for nearly a half century, but stick they did.

Radial tires are not snow tires. They are winters, and sometimes they are just not gonna work.

I, am, Canadian.

Written by snappledagain

07/31/2013 at 12:08

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