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What are winter tyres and are they worth it?

A close-up of a car with winter tyres driving on snow

Winter tyres are made of a special rubber compound that offers maximum grip on the road during colder, wet and snowy weather.

Unlike some European countries like Germany and Sweden, it's not a legal requirement to have them in the UK. 

Winter tyres aren’t mandatory in the UK. But there are good reasons for motorists to take on not just the extra costs of changing summer tyres for winter ones but also the burden of storing them.  

Are winter tyres a good idea in the UK? 

Where you live and the weather will determine whether using winter tyres is worth it. They are built to endure the colder weather, helping to make driving in the winter safer. 

Motorists may want to invest in them because the point of winter tyres is to provide better road grip and traction during cold, wet and slushy conditions, including black ice. 

There's no set date to put on winter tyres. They're recommended when the weather drops consistently below 7°C.

The Met Office officially defines winter as December to February. Or you could follow European guidance which is to switch from October to Easter.

Winter tyres are good when it’s cold

Stuart Jackson, Chairman of TyreSafe, one of the UK’s leading tyre safety organisations, says

“There is a misconception that cold weather tyres are not appropriate for drivers in the UK.

"However, this couldn't be further from the truth.

"Cold weather tyres provide much better grip in both wet and dry conditions when the temperature falls below seven degrees, so they offer extra safety typically from October to March.”

What are the benefits of winter tyres?

Consider switching to winter tyres during challenging wintry conditions for added security and confidence.

When temperatures drop and road surfaces become more slippery, there’s an increased likelihood of losing control of your vehicle and having an accident.

You should always adjust your driving when there's snow, ice and rain during the colder months. And the tread pattern on winter tyres as well as the added flexibility from the rubber compound gives added traction.

It makes a difference to driving performance and is obviously a boost for road safety in wet and icy conditions.

The benefits of having winter tyres include: 

  • Greater grip and traction and therefore better stability 

  • Better control of your vehicle under icy conditions 

  • Greater ability to stop and start on snow and ice 

  • Less likelihood of aquaplaning 

  • It’s the law in some European countries. 

Winter tyres and UK law 

There's no legal requirement to have winter tyres in the UK due to our more moderate climes.

But as anyone living in the northern part of the country knows, extreme cold weather is normal. If you’re expecting to travel great distances around the UK in the winter, it’s a good idea to be prepared for extreme weather. 

If you’re also thinking of travelling to Europe by car in the winter, every country has its own legal requirements and it’s best to check beforehand. 

For example, in Germany and northern European countries like Sweden, the law requires you to change from summer to winter tyres. Most people switch tyres in October through to Easter. 

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How much do winter tyres cost? 

There's a wide range of tyres to choose from. How costly they are depends on the size, the brand you select and what works best for your vehicle. 

It’s a good idea not to choose solely based on price, there are other factors that will make a big difference to driving performance.

You pay more for premium brands like Bridgestone, Continental, Michelin, Pirelli, Goodyear and Dunlop which are the standard bearers in the industry.

But you get what you pay for, including durability, noise reduction, increased comfort and wet and dry grip / braking.

According to retailer, Tyre Shopper, i's a competitive landscape among brands.

There are also constant technological advances, bringing you tyres that are safer, better value for money, more performance oriented and even more environment friendly.

This innovation also means you might pay more, of course.

Finding the value in winter tyres

Like most tyres, the cost varies depending on the car and the quality of tyre. But in general, good winter tyres will start at around £60 each.

A spokesperson for tyre manufacturer Falken said:

“It’s worth noting that winter tyres can save money.

"They are usually cheaper to buy than summer tyres and because you are using these, you could save wear on expensive summer tyres, making them last longer.”

What is the difference between winter and summer tyres?

Winter tyres have higher natural rubber and silica in the compound which makes them softer and more flexible – even below 7°C.

That improves grip and traction. The main difference between winter tyres and regular tyres is the tread depth. New tyres will have a depth between 7mm and 9.5mm.

For passenger vehicles in Europe, there is a minimum tread depth of 1.6mm. However, industry experts suggest replacing tyres at a depth of 2mm minimum and for winter tyres the wear limit is at 4mm.

The pattern on the tread helps reduce the risk of aquaplaning. However, if the minimum tread depth is reached then this risk rises.

The grooves within the tyre are wider and deeper as well, giving better grip which can help reduce your car’s stopping distance.

Tyre manufacturer Continental says that a vehicle fitted with winter tyres will come to a standstill on a snow-covered road (from a speed of just 30mph) after 35 metres.

With normal tyres the braking distance required is a further eight metres. That's 43 metres in total, or another two car lengths.

What types should I buy for my car?

Amongst the variety of models and brands out there for tyres, it may be difficult to know where to start.

There are three things to decide before you choose your tyres:

  • Your location – how remote and rural you are – and the likelihood of long, hard winters

  • What kind of driving you do, and how often

  • The make and model of the vehicle and the tyre dimensions.

If you live where there is likely to be heavy snowfall and icy roads, then it is advisable to get winter tyres.

On the other hand, you might live where there is variable weather with only occasional snowfall. If so, an all-season tyre which works both in summer and winter could be best.

Can winter tyres be used all year round?

Again, there's no law in the UK that says you can’t use them all year round. It’s whether you should that is the question.

Winter tyres are built for and maximise on safety during colder weather. The same does not apply in warmer weather.

In fact, says Continental, the very same flexible rubber compound that gives tyres their gripping power in the winter, “puts them at a disadvantage if used in warmer temperatures.”

The tyre maker cautions that winter tyres wear out quicker on warm tarmac.

You’ll lose on fuel efficiency, which is not environmentally friendly, and the wear can have a great impact on handling and safety. Continental says:

“Testing shows that driving on winter tyres in summer increases the braking distance by at least 10% on dry tarmac and 26% on wet tarmac."

Conclusion? If you’re going to switch to winter tyres, be fully committed and make the switch back to summer or all-season tyres come Easter.

Do you need all-season tyres in the UK?

All-season tyres are a good compromise between the summer and winter tyre.

They combine the best features of both and work well in moderate weather or even with light snow. And among their advantages, Continental points out the comfort and quiet they deliver.

They’re the Goldilocks of tyres: neither too hard nor too soft.

All-season tyres are made with a harder compound than summer tyres which means they cope better on the tarmac in warmer weather than winter tyres.

All-season tyres are also soft enough to endure colder weather.

Part of the compromise of all-season tyres is they won’t have the same braking and handling performance under extreme driving conditions, according to European tyre manufacturers, Barum.

So when it comes to extreme winter weather, winter tyres remain the best option for safety and performance.

Where can I store my winter tyres?

Storage should be on your list of things to think about, as it's an important part of maintaining the lifespan of the tyre.

Tyres should be stored on the rims. Avoid stacking them as this can damage the sidewalls.

They should also ideally be kept in a dark, dry environment and not outside – even with a cover over them.

Tyre retailers like MyTyres and ATS Euromaster offer a Tyre Hotel Storage Service, as does Kwik Fit.

They’ll also fit your winter tyres and store the old summer tyres until the winter has passed, then swap them back.

Where do I need winter tyres in Europe?

If you're planning on driving abroad, you might need winter tyres.

At the time of writing, the countries and areas of Europe where winter tyres are compulsory or recommended are:

  • Austria 

  • Bosnia-Herzegovina

  • Bulgaria 

  • Czech Republic 

  • Estonia 

  • Germany 

  • Latvia 

  • Lithuania 

  • Montenegro 

  • Norway 

  • Romania 

  • Russia 

  • Slovenia 

  • Sweden 

  • Switzerland 

  • Turkey