Snow chains on a 4WD vehicle

I have a 1999 Jeep Cherokee Sport, 4l inline-six. I opted for the part-time 4WD instead of the full-time/part-time option. This is probably going to be a harsh Winter, so I guess I’d better buy chains.

  1. Are chains put on all for wheels? Or only the rear ones?

  2. Link chains, or cable chains? (I lean toward the traditional linked ones.)

Are chains legal in Washington? Just asking because they were banned here (Ontario) decades ago.

Step one: Ask your dealer for their recommendations. They have the best info.

Step two: Make sure you have good all season or even better, snow tires. Studded snow tires are best but the lawyer and ambulance lobby groups have made them illegal in most places.

Step three: If chains are safe and legal for you to use, go for the traditional link set on all four wheels. My tire chains have an additional v-bar welded into the ground contact links for additional bite. Do not put them on just the rear wheels. Getting moving is less important than stopping or turning. If you only have one pair then put them up front.

Since your location is NoWA, there may be some relevant information for you here if you’re not already up to speed on the state’s requirements:

What I see from that is that you won’t be required to mount the chains as long as your tires meet traction requirements, you engage 4WD, and you have a set of chains in the vehicle.

In my Buffalo-born personal experience, I have no idea what NYS legal requirements were at the time. But we had a Jeep pickup with part-time 4WD, and would typically have chains on the front only but a spare set was always kept in the bed, so those could be placed on the rear tires if needed – or were available in case one of those on a front wheel failed.

On a 4wd vehicle, the chains are the most effective on the front, but it’s dangerous moving faster than a crawl with chains only on the front, so you need them on all four wheels.

As for what kind, the traditional link chains are vastly superior in seriously deep backcountry type snow, but are also much more expensive. The cables might make you a little more sure-footed on icy roads (and will satisfy the State Patrol) but there probably aren’t that many situations in which a 4x4 with cables will be able to go somewhere that a 4x4 without wouldn’t.

Yes, chains are legal and are locally available.

I tried calling Les Schwab before posting here. They said, ‘Check your owner’s manual.’ Unfortunately, that requires finding the owner’s manual.

Interesting. The snow doesn’t get very deep here. I think this is what contributes to the sheets of ice. On hard-packed snow I feel quite safe in 4WD with just the stock Goodyear Wranglers. I pay attention to the road and to the truck, and keep my speed down to what the seat of my pants tell me is reasonable.

I’ve been driving on snow since I was a teen, even in SoCal. I liked to ski. Up here there’s more ice, and I’m not so confident driving on it as I am driving on snow. I want to be ‘sure footed’, and cables just don’t look like they provide as much traction. I imagine the twisted chain links smashing into the ice under a ton and a half of metal.

Sounds like ‘best practices’ dictate buying two sets, then.

$40/set for the cables, $80/set for the links.

On anything but a front wheel drive car, chains should be placed on all four wheels to facilitate traction for accelerating, steering, and stopping. The cable chains are, in my opinion, much easier to install, and the seem to do less damage to tires, but are probably less robust, so if you’re going to be leaving chains and using them for an extended period I’d get the link chains. (Either type will tear the shit out of your tires, so be aware.) If you really expect to use chains on a regular basis, I’d recommend getting Spikes-Spiders or some other hub-mounted deployment systems; they’re a little spendy, but the time you’ll save at not having to fight with installing and removing chains, and not having to try to unwind the damned things when they get wrapped around the axle is well worth it.

Unless you positively need chains, I would stick with a good set of non-studded snow tires. (Studded snow tires are really only useful on hardpack, and can be dangerous on ice or wet pavement.) I’ve used both snow tires and chains, and while the latter definitely gives you more traction, careful driving with snow tires is usually adequate for all but the most icy conditions on pavement, and don’t require you get out on the side of the road and install, risking frostbite or being hit by another car.

One thing to be aware of with chains is that you do not want to get into a situation where you jam on the brakes; even with anti-lock brakes, jamming the brakes will put a lot of stress on the chains, and eventually you’ll snap a link and either have the chain wrapped around the axle or flapping loose, beating on the wheel well or tearing at your CV boot. If you do get chains, practice installing them a few times before you have to do it at night in sleeting snow. Also, keep a pack with your chains that includes plastic zip ties or bailing wire (for tying off the loose ends), a headlamp, a pair of angled mechanics pliers, and a small set of bolt cutters. Oh, and plenty of towels, as you’re going to get wet and muddy installing and removing the damned things.

If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of chains. To be used when absolutely necessary, and not trusted then.


Nor am I. They’re a pain, and I don’t like getting on the ground in the cold and wet. I’ll carry a small drop cloth.

I rarely drive the Jeep anymore. The Prius is more comfortable, gets better mileage, and has a better stereo. I don’t want to get studded tires, as I’d have to store tires. It doesn’t often snow heavily here. It (probably) will this year because of La Niña. I’m pretty comfortable driving the Jeep in the snow, and I’m very cautious on the ice. The freeways are usually cleared pretty quickly; it’s just the road from my house and the main road that are problematic. I just have to make it five miles to the freeway. My Goodyear Wrangler AT tires are adequate. If it gets bad, I don’t need to go out. If it’s a work day, I can telecommute. But I feel I should have chains ‘just in case’, the same as I keep a shovel, tow rope, space blanket, first aid kit, fire starter, disposable lighter, knife, road flares, jumper cables, etc. in the Jeep.

As in the other thread on winter driving: Huh?

Studded tires dangerous on ice? According to my experience (driving for 30 years, half the year Nordic winter), icy roads are the type of conditions where studded tires really excel compared to studless tires. Especially at temps around freezing (the difference gets smaller at really low temps, like below -10C). We can agree on hardpack, though, and under all other conditions studless tires are IMO as good as (or better than) studded tires.

Either your snow tires (both studded and studless) or your snow/ice has to be radically different over there on the west bank of the pond compared to here.

If temperatures are around freezing, then yes, studs will help punch through ice and get traction, as with hardpack. With solid ice, thick slush, or water, they give a false sense of security, giving seemingly good grip until you get into a hydroplaning regime where you’re suddenly tap-dancing across the water. Studs are great for offroad equipment or work trucks used on trail roads at low speed; on well-maintained pavement (which I believe is the type of conditions the o.pi is facing) they’re just not very good under many conditions, and they also tear the hell out of the pavement, nearly as bad as chains.


I ended up getting two sets of chains. You don’t have to lay them out an back over them to put them on, which is nice. And the connectors are better than the old style I’m used to. I was warned that they may break on ice, though. They don’t seem to be as skookum as the ones I used in the '80s and '90s.

It wouldn’t be much help anyway. My Wrangler manual only says install them on the rear, use “S” class chains and use the size recommended by the chain manufacturer. I guarantee your manual is the same. The “rear only” has puzzled Jeep owners for years. The theory is that the manuals say that because the chains can rub during sharp turns, but you really need them on all drive wheels.

Hopefully you got them at Les Schwab. If you don’t use them, they’ll take 'em back at the end of the season and you can get permanent good ones next year.

I like the V-bars too. One only uses chains when you really need them, but they’re life savers when you do.

When I get in a jam I always put the fronts on first to see if I can get out, mostly because that’s where most of the weight is and it’s easier access under the fenders. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do the backs too and push snow over the hood.

If that doesn’t work, it’s time for the winch.

The “rear only” is probably due to the same physics that dictate that all cars are designed to lock their front wheels before their rear wheels when braking hard. If your front wheels lock first, you’re not going to make the turn, and you’re traveling in a straight line forward. If your rear wheels lock first, your car’s rear end will swing wildly from side to side, and in a few split seconds you will probably find yourself going ass-forward with absolutely no control at all. You can even do the experiment: Find a big, open space, work up some speed, lock the rear wheels by pulling the handbrake and see what happens. Even better, try it while making a turn. Woohoooo! (Yeah, used to have some fun with that back in the time before electronic control systems)

In traffic, you really, really don’t want your rear wheels to lock up first. Putting snow chains on the front wheels only is a pretty safe way of ensuring that that happens when you hit the brakes.

ETA: Or it may be due to poor clearances around the front wheels. A loose snow chain breaking a brake fluid line is generally a Bad Idea.

Based on my experience with Nordic winters, Nordic pavement and Nordic-made winter tires, both studded and studless, I would like to respectfully disagree. Up over here, most people prefer studded tires even for small cars if they can. Nordic studded and studless tires have the same tire patterns and differ only in the presence of studs and the rubber formulation (studded tires needing somewhat harder rubber to prevent the studs from working loose). Compared to studless, studded tires are vastly superior on wet ice, superior on dry, smooth ice, better on hardpack, slightly inferior on snow and slush and clearly inferior on dry pavement. They age faster, though, losing their traction faster than studless.

Our studded tires do tear the hell out of the pavement, but not nearly as bad as chains. But the wear on the pavement is the reason they’re not allowed in some cities and taxed extra in other cities. Out in the boonies, though, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone even considering studless tires.

Studded tires are the way to go in Winter, around here. Many people have two sets of tires for their primary Winter vehicle- studded for November thru April, nonstudded for May thru October.

I used to have studded Hakkepolitas on My Subaru. The sense of security wasn’t false, the difference between those and unstudded tires, or even cheep studded tires was a whole different magnitude of grip.

I’ve been shopping only Hakkapelittas for the last ten years. In the winter, I want tires which have been optimized for the worst driving conditions (i.e. ice and snow) and with slightly inferior properties on dry/wet pavement rather than the opposite. Winter tires made for e.g. the Central European market have been optimized for dry/wet pavement and are inferior to the Hakkapelittas on ice and in snow.

General rules about winter tires:
[li]Quality studded tires >= quality unstudded tires >> cheap studded tires > cheap unstudded tires[/li][li]Buy new winter tires roughly every three years even if the thread looks good. The rubber ages and loses traction, and the difference between fresh tires and 3-4 years old tires is quite dramatic[/li][li]Quality studless tires age slower than quality studded tires, but even so they’ve lost much of their grip at the not-so-ripe age of three years’ usage[/li][li]Cheap and/or old studded tires are dangerous. They give you a false sense of security. One of the things you pay for when you buy quality tires is rubber quality and tire construction, and both of those are vital for good traction[/li][/ul]

The o.p. is in the Pacific Northwest, however, where when they get a snowy year (due to El Niño) it tends to be a wet, blustery snow that piles high but doesn’t last for very long. They don’t have the sustained snowpack or ice that is common to the northern central/eastern states or Canada, and so chains or studless snow tires (along with caution when it is necessary to drive in snow) are more appropriate.