More people than ever are spending their vacations venturing away from the prepped and paved surfaces of civilization, getting closer to nature in their crossovers, SUVs and even a few wagons. There are a number of things to consider as you plan to drive off the beaten path, but selecting the proper tire tops the list when it comes to getting a grip on an adventure and hitting the trails with confidence.
Off-road tires are designed with blocky, heavy-duty tread patterns and puncture-resistant sidewalls that withstand abuse from bashing through rocks while also maintaining traction in mud and loose sediment. While not an excuse to throw caution to the wind while exploring, off-road tires can make the difference between maintaining traction sketchy situations or spending hours getting unstuck.
In challenging off-road conditions, your vehicle will be much more capable of managing the terrain than standard all-season tires, but there are some tradeoffs. Off-road tires will wear out faster driving on pavement than all-seasons, usually create more road noise and they’re not available for every vehicle.
The majority of off-road tires are sized for pickup trucks, SUVs and crossovers, and they particularly benefit four-wheel drive trucks, all-wheel-drive cars and vehicles with built-in traction systems. A select few tire companies manufacture all-terrain tire options for smaller passenger vehicles like sedans, hatchbacks and wagons, but as the market continues to grow, the availability will likely follow.
What Makes a Good Off-Road Tire?
Not all off-road tires are created equal, and not every driver will want the same tire. TJ Campbell, Tire Information & Testing Manager for retailer Tire Rack, explains that the first step in finding out which tire is right for you is to dig deep and do a bit of soul searching. “Be honest with yourself about what you’re willing to live with and what you’re willing to give up,” Campbell says.
Where off-road tires excel in traction and durability, but not in ride comfort or on-pavement durability. How much do you use the vehicle for daily driving? How often and how far will you go off-road? Today’s average off-road driver spends around 70-percent of their time behind the wheel rolling on pavement. Also, consider the types of terrain and weather you’ll be navigating through.
We’ve prepared a selection of the best off-road tires in our estimation, but Tire Rack also offers a decision guide of its own.
Campbell says that what makes a good tire depends on how well it matches your daily needs. “A tire that is designed for mostly off-road use often won’t perform as well on the highway when compared to an all-season or highway tire,” he explains. The two most common types of off-road tires are all-terrains (A/T) and mud-terrains (M/T).
All-terrain tires are the go-to for overlanding enthusiasts and are a compromise between all-season and mud-terrain tires. The main difference between the two tires is that mud-terrains are optimized primarily for off-road driving, while all-terrains are designed with on-road driving performance as a priority.
If you drive more on the road than off, all-terrain tires are likely the answer. Most mud-terrain tires don’t perform well in rain or on wet pavement, and the tread can wear quicker due to the softer compound and bulkier tread blocks.
While browsing for off-road tires, take notice of the products known more for authentic performance versus cosmetic performance and everything in-between. Tires manufactured for cosmetic performance achieve a rugged look, but may not be tough enough for extreme off-roading, although the majority are still tested in various ways.
Companies that manufacture tires for use in motorsports competitions typically offer products that are proven and developed to higher standards. For example, BF Goodrich competes in the Baja 1000, General Tire is the official tire of Lucas Oil World Series, Pirelli sponsored this year’s Rebelle Rally and both Falcon Tire and NITTO tire compete in the King of Hammers, a California rock-crawling and desert adventure race.
Then there are the in-betweens: alternative budget-friendly tires that have the gritty looks while also incorporating some of the technology needed for varying levels of off-road adventures.
“Personally, I’d gravitate toward a product or brand that has been tested in the real world but also has off-road performance heritage,” TJ Campbell advises. “Those manufacturers have some of the best technologies, innovations and know-how, all gained from fine-tuning their tires to perform reliably in extreme conditions. Authenticity matters.”
How do Off-Road Tires Compare to All-Season or Winter Tires?
Off-road tires have a reputation for having a negative impact on handling and being noisier than all-seasons. When switching from an all-season tire to an all-terrain, your handling might be slightly less precise on dry pavement, and it might also drink a tiny bit more gas. It takes more power, and in turn more fuel, to keep heavier and potentially larger tires in motion. However, there is hope.
Increasing demand and competition between tiremakers is rapidly propelling off-road tire technology forward. Today, Campbell says, “There are many all-terrain tires that offer comparable handling, road noise levels and fuel economy to all-seasons.”
Though all-terrain tires are known for lower treadwear ratings, newer technologies are achieving more competitive performance and strong mileage warranties. For example, Toyo Tires backs their Open Country A/T III tires with a 65,000-mile warranty, a number that competes with the average all-season tire warranties.
Both all-terrain and all-season tires are designed with year-round use in mind, however, people who live in colder climes with longer winters should consider equipping their vehicle with a second set of winter tires for optimal cold temperature performance.
That said, the all-terrain tire’s numerous tread blocks and biting edges that grip sand and mud have a similar effect in deep snow. Many all-terrain tires meet the severe snow service qualification, a validation of a tire’s longitudinal traction (acceleration and braking) in snow conditions, and are marked with the three-peak mountain snowflake on the tire sidewall.
The severe snow service qualification does not, however, account for a tires’ performance while driving through slushy, icy or wet roads or on cold, dry winter roads. When it comes to the best cold climate performance, winter tires are still superior.
Tire Sizing Matters
Off-road tires are most often found in larger sizes, and larger tires can improve off-road performance and looks. But a tire that’s either too large or too small can have consequences, including negative effects on handling, steering response, ride quality, power and fuel mileage. Sticking as close as possible to your vehicle’s manufacturer specifications will have you riding in comfort, but there’s shorthand to guide you through changing tires even if you’re upgrading.
When you look at your existing tire’s sidewall, you’ll see a number and letter sequence that looks something like this: 235/70R16. The first number, 235 for example, is the tread width in millimeters, “70” is the aspect ratio of the sidewall, and “16” is the tire diameter, which should always match your wheel’s diameter.
The load rating is also displayed on the sidewall. Be sure to match the load rating recommended by your vehicle’s manufacturer. P-metric (passenger) tires are meant for mostly on-road driving and passenger vehicles, while LT (light truck) tires are built for handling heavy loads, towing and off-road durability. If your vehicle calls for a P tire you can use a P or upgrade to an LT, but if it calls for an LT, “downgrading” to a passenger tire is not recommended.
Most of the time, off-roaders are looking for taller tires, which improve the appearance and can increase ground clearance, and wider tires, which provide a better contact patch with the road or terrain and are more adept at floating over sand and mud.
Increasing the height or width of a tire also means tradeoffs, namely more road noise, diminished fuel economy and on-road performance, and in the case of taller tires possibly erroneous speedometer and odometer readings. Wide tires can also reduce a vehicle’s turning radius depending on the clearance between the tire, and the vehicle’s fenders, bump stops and suspension components. The best tire size for most overlanding or off-road adventures is the biggest one your vehicle can handle without requiring modifications.
As you gain more experience driving off-road, you may find that you need even more from your tires. Perhaps you’re hitting more difficult trails and need a set of mud-terrains or an all-terrain with characteristics more well suited for off-road. Or, maybe it’s time to get back to civilization, but you still want the option to escape. If you’re curious about your options, you can check out our recommendations here.
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