How to Put On Snow Chains (and Why You Really Should Use Them)

how to put snow chains on

My family spent the Thanksgiving holiday of 2009 in Southern California’s beautiful San Bernardino Mountains. My wife, parents, brother, and sister-in-law stayed at a charming bed and breakfast with fireplaces in every room, bear-themed decor on the walls, and a superlative chef hard at work preparing the holiday feast. Thanksgiving day was clear and cold, with a fine mountain breeze stirring the pines that towered beneath a picturesque blue sky. All in all, it was a great time.

But when we awoke on Friday morning, it was to nearly a foot of snow. Which was lovely and all, but I had to get back to Los Angeles within a few hours, a trip that involved many miles of winding mountain road that were now covered in snow and weren’t going to be plowed any time soon. Fortunately, being the prepared type, I had purchased a set of snow chains the year prior. Unfortunately, being a damn idiot, I had left them in my garage. Thus I ended up buying a second set of chains that morning at quite a marked up price — but it was worth it.

During the drive down out of those snowy mountains — a drive during which my white-knuckled wife largely kept her eyes shut — we passed multiple vehicles that had slid off the road. Included in that number were SUVs and pickup trucks, not just sedans and limousines and such. (OK, there were no limos. Whatever.) Without snow chains, driving on snowy, icy roads can be a dangerous affair, friends. So get a set and learn how to apply them, All sorts of stores and/or this internet thing can help with the former, and I can help with the latter.

If you’re wondering how to put on snow chains, the first thing you should do is practice meditating. It can a frustrating (and infuriating) process to put these things on a car, especially in abject conditions and with frigid fingers. You owe it to your safety and your sanity to practice applying them in ideal conditions so you are ready to get the job done even in a blizzard, should the need ever arise.

snow tires

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First, make sure you get a set of tire chains that will fit your vehicle. You can find the tire specs in the car’s manual or, better yet, right there on the sidewalls of the tires themselves. Snow chains are adjustable to a point, which is necessary to create the tight, secure fit needed for them to work, but you have to get a set that is suitable for your vehicle. Sizing will be displayed on product packaging or should be easy to find in an online description.

In most cases, you only need to apply chains to two of your vehicle’s wheels. (Which is good, because almost every set out there only comes with two chains.) For front-wheel-drive automobiles, tire chains should go on the front tires. And — you guessed it — for rear-wheel-drive vehicles, the chains must be put on the rear wheels. For a four wheeler or all-wheel-drive, go with the front tires to give yourself more steering traction.

Now to apply the chains. Do not lay them out in front of the car and then drive on; that’s a rookie mistake, sir, and leads to a lot of wasted time as you try to get the chains perfectly aligned and drive forward juuuuuust the right amount. Instead, straighten the wheels (then set the parking brake!) and drape the chains over the tires, tucking one end of the chains under the front of each wheel and letting the excess slack drape off the other end. Make sure the fastening systems (it might be hooks, loops, clips, etc.) are facing outward from the tire so you can, you know, fasten the chains.

Now drive forward about two feet, maybe three. You should now have a tire partially wrapped in chains and with both loose ends free from the wheel. Bring them together and then engage the fasting system, ensuring you get those chains as snug to the rubber as you can.

snow tire chains

Commons/Wikimedia

And … you’re not done. Now drive for a few hundred feet, and make sure to turn the steering wheel a few times this way and that. Get out, stopping so the connection point between the ends of the chains is accessible. Chances are the chains will have shifted and loosened some during your little drive. Tighten them as much as possible again.

OK, now you’re good. Get out there and hit those snowy roads! But with caution!

Two quick things to note: In many places, driving without snow chains is prohibited in adverse wintry conditions, so you might need a set not for safety alone, but to even be allowed on the street.

And second, take the chains off immediately upon reaching a clear roadway. Driving with chains on regular paved roads will quickly ruin the chains and will eventually damage your tires. And, on dry roads, chains can actually cause you to slide out of control when braking or steering, which is just Alanis Morissette-level irony.

Now that you know how to put on snow chains, check out our tips for winterizing your car and our top picks for winter tires.