Chains

Who hasn't seen pictures of 4x4s' plowing through heavy snow with chains on all wheels. Chains are unequalled on icy roads. Studded snow tires can come close but never will offer the amount of grip on ice and in deep snow chains give. But chains can also be used in muddy situations, especially if your usual terrain has this sort of very slippery mud over a hard surface.

What's the difference?

2 types of chains are of interest to us: Ladder and pattern types. Forget about cables and this plastic paddle type stuff, they are only good for a laugh if you see them on your neighbours car.

To the left you see the ladder-type. This design was the first availableafter the industry switched from cables to chain. It's easy to produce and therefore cheap. The military chains used to be almost all of this design.

It's main drawbacks were that, like on many military tires, you don't have any side guiding. This means when you travel in the woods on a track that leans to the side you will most likely find yourself among the green stuff very soon. Trust me, I tried it and it was no fun at all.

Today this design is all but extinct and only available for special applications.

This is a very common sight today. (Left and right: RUD Centrax). Many automobilists rely on them and so most shops carry these or a similar design. No, it's not really bad. It's even excellent in what it was designed for: Light work on light cars like starting an Escort on an icy road. It will probably bring you home with your 4x2 in light snow. And it can be mounted really easy and quick even with cold fingers.

What it's not good for is transfering heavy torque like most 4x4's do. The chain will move or break. Also the side guiding isn't any good either.

Now let's come to the serious designs. Pattern types ressemble a net over the tire. They offer much better turning capability as well relative high speed stability. Modern chains have a criss-crossing chain, giving good side guiding and a good deal of forward force transfered. On the left from RUD you see the Greifsteg, a very popular car model and the Cortina, aimed at 4x4's. The Grip is even more rugged. To the right PEWAG's Brentac is also designed for 4x4's.

For driving on muddy surfaces other rules apply. Here you encounter often immovable objects and the chain has to cope with this. Immagine which forces are applied if your wheels while slipping, suddenly hurt solid stone. A snow chain isn't made for this and will likely quit service with a loud bang and maybe a good sized hole in your wing.

To the left you see an lighter mud chain, the first right shows an heavier model from Ottinger.

The best models are like the one to the right from Ottinger.This one's designed for year round use in heavy conditions and on large vehicles. If you only look at the amount of high quality steel used here it is clear that these chains play in an all different price league

 

The different prices on similar designs come from the higher quality materials used. Steel for tire chains must meet some extreme demands. Common is carbon-steel, often surface hardened. Better qualities are made of nickel-mangan steel or stainless steel. The better the quality the higher the price- and the life span. You get what you pay for.

The chain links themselves come in either round or square, reinforced or twisted. Doesn't seem to make as much difference as ladder or pattern do. Which make however a big difference is a chain that can be turned over so you can use the unworn side after a while.

Life expectancy of snow chains is quite limited. A chain may support speeds up to 50Km/h (30Mph) with a 100% lifespan. Driving at 80 Km/h (50 Mph) will reduce this life to about 30%. Similar for a loose chain. Chains have to be tight at all time. Install them WITHOUT the rubber tighteners, then drive a quarter mile, retighten and only now mount the rubber tighteners.

If chains break they do it in an spectacular way and may well damage bodywork and brake lines. But they won't break if you don't abuse them. An easy foot on the go pedal will keep things together. If they break you can buy a repair kit but it will always remain a weak link. Or you can send it to the factory and have it repaired professionally.

Front, rear or both?

This is a debate running for a long time. The best and in many regions that require snow chains the only legal way is mounting them on all wheels. For those who can't afford this Land Rover says to put them on the back axle. I tried the front out for better cornering stability and it worked well too.

Maintenance

Normal snow chains won't last too long but if you dont look after them one season may well be all they see. After use you must clean them under running water to get the salt off. But first if you take them off rub them through clean snow and smash them onto some wood. Do this twice, then throw them into the passenger footwell where they can dry. Don't put them in their bag as this will keep moisture on the chain and give it plenty of opportunity to rust. The high tensile steel isn't made to withstand corrosion. I found that spraying them with one of those new biodegradeable greases for chain saws is the best you can do. Use biodegradable oil for environmental purpose. But you can use any oil like WD40 or similar. I then wrap them in an old cloth and put them in a watertight plastic bag so they don't rattle. That way you can get 5 or 6 years of use out of a normal pair. Mud chains will last much longer.

Where to get them

Some of the biggest companies are Rud and Pewag and Ottinger, both from Germany

Chains for up to 7.00/16 or 265/70x16 are available for around 200 Euro.

Remember that almost all chains can be adapted to a larger tire by the manufacturer.