Winter tires in Denver: required or just recommended?
December 12, 2007 8:12 PM   Subscribe

Do I really need winter tires in Denver? I lived in Chicago for 30 years and never bought winter tires. Granted, I was young and foolish for many of those years, but still.

Now I live in Denver. I have nearly 48k miles on the performance tires of my 2004 Honda Civic so I need to get new tires anyway, but I'm concerned about the winter driving here. In Chicago everything was salted within an inch of it's life the minute the snow started falling. That doesn't seem to happen here. I've yet to see a city plow or salt truck or any of the like.

Tell me about winter tires and whether it's just a good idea or a necessity. Is it likely I'd be able to get through the winter with just a new set of tires? And should I get winter tires - what happens in the spring? I store them until I need them again? Does the garage/shop swap 'em out and hand the lot of them to me?

Other information: I work about seven miles from where I live. I have one road trip planned from Denver to Albuquerque at the end of this month. I need to get back and forth to DIA on average of 4 or more times each month. Thanks!
posted by FlamingBore to Travel & Transportation around Denver, CO (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Welcome to Denver!

Good snow tires will do you better than 4WD, seriously. In case you hadn't noticed over the past week or so, the main problem you'll be dealing with is slushy snowpacked streets (when it snows) and black ice (when it subsequently goes up to a sunny 40º , then goes down to 15º and re-freezes overnight).

The good news: they don't salt the roads out here, so your car will not suffer a premature death due to malignant road cancer.

The bad news: they do put down that god-awful de-icer crap (liquid magnesium chloride...?) that turns the packed snow into greasy slop. Which then turns into ice when it (as it always will) re-freezes. The temps will almost always drop below 20º at night during the winter, which means that no matter what treatments they use, it doesn't matter, it's just gonna turn into black ice anyhow.

The ambiguous news: they don't do much, if anything to the secondaries. So get used to it, because you will be driving in snow or on ice, if nowhere else, in your subdivision / neighbourhood.

Seriously. Get decent snow tires, especially if you have to drive to DIA that much. I-70 becomes a complete hockey rink when it does the 4"-of-partly-cloudy unannounced snowfalls during rush hour like it did last night.

Pro tip: get used to the fact that they will never, ever be able to predict these sudden mountain snowstorms accurately. Put a few survival gear items (i.e. windshield washer fluid, some spare water in a container that won't break if (when) it freezes, boots, gloves, flashlight and a blanket) in your car. Last winter when we had the ridiculous insane 36" blizzard, there were hundreds of people who got stranded out on U.S. 36 overnight. Most of them had less than 10 miles to travel. I knew 2 of them personally (colleagues) and they said they were only 3 miles from their house and completely incapable of going anywhere.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:04 PM on December 12, 2007

whoops, didn't see the bonus question you sneaked in there.

As to the 2nd set of tires, yes, many if not most people here keep a winter set and a summer set. Most of my friends (I don't own a car anymore) just have a cheap set of backup rims, and mount their winter set on those. Get the tire place to swap 'em, store the spare set in the garage, and bob's yer uncle.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:11 PM on December 12, 2007

Response by poster: lonefrontranger - thanks for the words. Especially the reminder to "winterize" my trunk. I don't even own a brush for the car. I've been living in denial that I'll need such things.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:14 PM on December 12, 2007

I used to have studded snow tires for my Honda Accord, and I think as well for my Saab 9-5. For my Toyota Highlander I've just used the tires that came with it. I just got a new set of some sort of all-weather tires and they're definitely doing better than the old tires were doing last winter. I still slide in spots, but its spots where _everyone_ slides. I helped push someone out of an icy parking spot this evening. I didn't pay attention to her tires, it was on some sort of front wheel sedan. Winterizing the trunk is a wise idea, LFR is very smart! I've never had to use the stuff I haul around in the back there, but I'm glad I have it. They do appear to be making an attempt to plow more in Denver this winter, I saw plows on 45th + 44th near Lakeside on Saturday night when the driving conditions were lousy.

When I had the studded snow tires, I didn't have another set of rims, I just took them down to Big O tires and they'd swap them out for me. It helped to make an appointment beforehand, a concept that Discount Tire doesn't seem to understand. I did enjoy catching up on the manly magazines (Popular Mechanics, Car + Driver) that my barber doesn't stock. :)
posted by dr. fresh at 9:21 PM on December 12, 2007

Front-wheel drive Honda sedan, all-season tires (not sure of the brand -- whatever Costco was selling), and I've had no problems at all with traction. Including frequent airport trips, often returning late at night. I'm in Boulder, but I don't imagine Denver is too different.

Honestly, I think the most problematic part of driving in snow here is insufficient ground clearance on never-plowed residential streets -- i.e., the first 50 yards of your commute. And studs or snow tires aren't going to do much for you there. There are probably 3-4 mornings per year where getting my Honda onto main streets would be at least a major hassle (and maybe impossible, such as during last year's craziness). Willingness to shovel snow can usually get you by; or get an SUV or a truck.

Welcome to Colorado!
posted by genug at 9:59 PM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: I finally broke down and got myself a set of snow tires for my front wheel drive sedan. I honestly cannot believe the amount of grip and traction the car now has, driving in slush, ice, snow, whatever just feels like bare dry pavement. I was in Banff the other day and the entire town was a sheet of glare ice, most traffic was going about 15 km/h and sliding all over the place, I had no problems at all, it literally felt like a regular dry road. I live in Calgary so we get the freeze thaw cycle as well. From my experience, all seasons will kind of work in snow if they are new, but when it gets really cold they harden up like crazy and just don't grip. I would not go back to all seasons in winter.

If you do decide to get a set, I would check out the tire rack , I got a full set of x-ice tires on rims for $600 less than I was quoted locally, and that was after paying 200 bucks for shipping to Canada. They included all the incidentals like centering rings and new lug nuts. If you get them mounted you can do the change over in your garage, just buy a torque wrench and make sure you set it to the right ft/lbs for your car. Took me about 40 minutes, and I had never done it before.

The main thing is price it out, its probably 500-700 bucks for a set with wheels. Figure out what your insurance deductible is, and if it saves you from one accident its worth it, doubly so if avoiding the accident saves your butt, or someone else's.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 10:24 PM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

This may be obvious, but LFR mentioned windshield washer and I recommend getting that de-icer kind. It's much better to sit in your car and deice your windows with a squirt from the windshield washers than to scrape away on the outside of your car.

Disclaimer: I don't actually live in Denver, or Colorado.
posted by philomathoholic at 12:02 AM on December 13, 2007

My short answer:
If you really are planning on driving back and forth to DIA 4 times a month, then my opinion would be that snow tires will definitely be worth the investment.

I live about an hour north of Denver (Fort Collins area) and from the 20 years I've lived here, I've noticed the following trends:

1.) Sanding the roads is more prevalent than salting
2.) Interstates are cleared first.. then main highways/roads.. and (if they ever get to it) residential /side streets
3.) Although there can be winter days when it hits 60+.. dont be deceived,.. there is almost always one big killer storm every winter that will close roads.

I've never been in a Chicago winter to compare the two...

All I know is I drive a Jeep Wrangler and I put it in 4WD every winter. More often out of choice than necessity, but I'm glad its there for the times it is necessary.
posted by jmnugent at 12:24 AM on December 13, 2007

Other stuff for your trunk in the winter. Basically: Water, flashlight (LED are good), food, small first aid kit, gloves, hat, rubber boots, headlamp (if you have one), toilet paper (!!), blanket, book/crossword puzzles, flares, battery operated radio (or hand-crank), de-icing fluid. Booster cables. Kitty litter or sand comes in really handy at times. Mountain driving is for real - you're not overprepared with this stuff, you're being entirely realistic.

4WD cars and trucks are great, but they're always the ones who speed thinking they're invincible, and end up tilted on the side of the road in the middle of a curve. Snow tires, if you're going to be driving on snowy/icy mountain roads, are absolutely noticeable. Granted, my experience is in Canada, but I think the general concept applies to mountain driving in the winter.
posted by barnone at 12:50 AM on December 13, 2007

Last bit, because I didn't make a distinction: studs vs. regular snows. I don't think that studs are completely necessary as getting something with serious tread. This isn't Northern Manitoba. Our snow tends to go away after 3-4 days, so if you get studs, you'll be wearing them off / throwing them and chewing up the surface of dry pavement 90% of the time.

Just get some serious good quality snow tires, not all-weathers (they're a compromise, and a doesn't-do-anything-well compromise at that). Believe me you will definitely notice the difference with good quality snows.

Credit where credit's due: most of this info is compliments my former roommate, a dedicated Car Guy and former professional (Subaru team) rallye mechanic / driver. When I had a car, he recommended tires and did the changes and then taught me some serious winter driving skills in both our cars. But he wouldn't teach me anything with my Suby until I got the (new!) all-weathers off it and swapped 'em out for snows with real tread (no studs). It all boils down to having decent tires. He's absolutely right, proper tires trumps 4WD every time (he has an old Integra with front WD only, mine was an Impreza AWD).

Don't forget to come to the Boulder meetup a week from Friday, too! (scroll down, location & date are at the end).
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:35 AM on December 13, 2007

There's two very different things here - snow tyres and winter tyres (I am assuming that snow tyres are studded and winter tyres are not. Although this may be a terminology thing.)

Snow tyres become important if there is snow (duh). More so if there is more snow (duh squared).

However winter tyres will always be noticeably superior in the cold weather - if it is regularly below 10 deg C for long periods, I'd buy and fit winter tyres, no question. Your 'High performance' tyres do not include cold weather performance. My mate in England (where it snows one or two days a year at most, and is usually gone the next day) bought a set and swears by them. For reference, he works for a (very famous) automotive consultancy and part of his job is tyre testing...

That was the point when I started to respect the need for winter tyres. He knows his shit. he's also extremely tight fisted, so for him to capitulate and buy a set of wheels and tyres after poo-pooing the concept for years (two weeks after doing the testing at work) is a MAJOR about face for him...

So. The question should actually be - do I just need winter tyres or snow tyres? Seriously. your high performance tyres simply don't cut it on cold tarmac. The volume of snow you are likely to see (depending on how good your area is at shifting it) is your most reliable method of judging, I think. But certainly err on the side of safety. The tyres are cheaper than crashing...
posted by Brockles at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2007

Depends on what you have on your car right now. My mom's 2004 Civic is shod with the wonderful Yokohama Avids- which are great all-weather tires.

I had Avids on a SAAB I drove in the 90's and they plowed through the snow and they are fantastic rain tires.
posted by wfc123 at 8:27 AM on December 13, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks All.

I'm not comfy with the notion of studded tires for the aforementioned reason - the snow isn't a constant, it's just annoying and dangerous for the short time it's here.

I think I'll be stopping by the tire shop tomorrow or Saturday to drop a few bills.

If anyone has recommendations on particular tires for a 2004 Honda Civic EX Coupe - by all means, lemme know.

Depending on weather and when I get out of work on the 21st, I'll be trying to make the Boulder meetup. But I am flying to Montreal the following morning, so it's all a bit dodgy right now.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:00 AM on December 13, 2007

Brockles, I think there is some terminology / semantics drift in Queen's vs. U.S. English going on here.

We call ALL "winter" tires "snow" tires in the U.S. The further distinctions we make are as follows:

"Studded tires" - tires with metal / carbide studs or spikes. These are only practical (as I noted upthread) in continually icy / snowpacked conditions; i.e. Alaska / Northern Canada / Sweden.

Studs are pretty much overkill for Denver, because we get snowpacked roads and ice perhaps at worst 10-15 days per winter, with the rest of the time being dry/mild/sunny. 60ºF+ with bright sun is a regular occurrence in December/January/February. The worst sunburn I ever got was from skiing in shirtsleeves and shorts (no, really!). Regardless of that fact, you will see (well, hear, really) the earnest fleece-and-granola types driving their clapped-out 1985 Volvos around up in Boulder with studded tires on 12 months out of the year (which is technically illegal, cos it's hell on the pavement, but whatever).

"Snow tires" - can have studs or not, but these are generally indicated as heavy tread "winter" tires, often with a somewhat grippier compound.

"All-weather tires" - a hybrid, all-year tire. A jack-of-all-trades, master of none type device. They don't do well at anything; they tend to be rough, noisy and don't grip well on corners on dry pavement, yet they are not grippy / treaded enough for serious winter driving.

Additionally, you can also get standard and the newer style "Z" chains. The Zs work pretty well, are far easier to install than old-skool chains, and are like YakTrax for your car. Speaking of which, I highly recommend YakTrax for your trunk survival kit, as they don't take up tons of space and can be put on any shoes.

Most "consumer" and "all-weather" car (and bicycle!) tires that are sold mass-market come with a hard, utilitarian compound that makes them very, very durable, which is why they sell well to the suburban minivan crowd / general public. Tires with serious traction for performance on dry and rough/offroad/winter conditions, tend to wear faster because they're softer compounds with loads more grip (these are vast generalities, mind you, and there are variations amongst genres).

Treaded (not studded) snows are what the OP wants, because (as he has discovered, to his apparent chagrin this week) when it snows here, it SNOWS (well, duh, we're in the mountains, at 5300' altitude no less). And the city/county/state highway department (as he remarked) indeed isn't terribly anal about sweeping every flake off the streets and drenching everything in rock salt like they tend to do back East (FlamingBore, I grew up in Cincinnati, for what it's worth). The Denver plow guys will push the worst of the snow off the streets, throw sand on the major intersections, and spray mag chloride on the highways, but the general attitude is basically "just suck it up and learn how to drive out here, like the rest of us had to". I know. I've heard the natives say this. Plus, this being Denver (i.e. chock full of treehuggers, outdoor enthusiasts and their attendant recreational park district advocates) in recent years they've become highly conscious of the environmental impact of chemical road treatments - there's a move afoot to reclaim sand out of the canyons due to the fact that it's killing the trees and the fish in Clear Creek, and so on.

Anyway, it looks as tho you've got a gist - btw the Yokohamas that wfc123 referenced are ideal). I think I've overthunk this beanplate, so I'll look forward to seeing you (perhaps) at the meetup next week!
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:49 PM on December 13, 2007

What a coincidence. The day after I posted that I had to drive my mom to the doctor's in a snowstorm. I had never driven her car in the snow- and remembering my post here, we took her Civic. The tires did not disappoint. Glad I could help.
posted by wfc123 at 9:42 AM on December 15, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to all. Just wanted to wrap up and say that I broke down and got a set this morning and on my drive back was pleased as punch with the performance.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:56 PM on December 27, 2007

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