Smart Driving

Chain up

Help protect your tires by knowing when and how to use chains during winter

Chaining up is one chore that often requires you to work in the worst weather. If you run through Western mountain passes or on Northern routes in winter, you’ll probably be confronted with installing chains.

Chaining up in clear, dry weather may not be an option when driving in Western mountain ranges.

To prepare yourself for chaining in wintry conditions, carry a few pieces of equipment to keep yourself safe, recommends Eric Sullwold, business development manager for chain manufacturer Pewag Inc. Get a reflective vest that can be seen in whiteout conditions or at night. Carry a sturdy flashlight or battery-powered lantern. Also, pack a good pair of gloves, coveralls and a rain jacket or parka to protect you from wind and snow.

Ideally, pick a place far off the roadway, such as a chaining area or rest area that is well-lit and has adequate space. Look for level ground to keep from sliding on ice. Truckers often will procrastinate and think they can make it to the next pullout before chaining. Find a safe area and do it as soon as you can when conditions worsen, Sullwold says.

When applying chains, most truckers simply drape them over the top of the tire. Make sure the latch is on the outside of the tire and the connecting C-hook is on the inside, away from the tire.

Move the truck forward or backward slightly to get as much of the chain under the tire as possible. ­Fasten the two ends, connecting the C-hook first, and then the latch side. When you slide the link on and pull it down to fasten the latch, it will tighten the chain more.

Many chains have tightening cams along the side chain. The cam is a half-moon-shaped disk you tighten with a key that cinches the chain tighter. You might choose a rubber tightener, which is a rubber O-ring with metal hooks that connects to the outside chain to snug it up, says Keith Jull, sales manager at Security Chain Co.

If you have a V-bar chain, make sure the V-bar is pointing away from the tire. The same applies to studded chains. Otherwise, the studs will dig into the tread.

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After installing the chains, drive your rig a distance to allow centrifugal force to center the chain on the tire. You may not have much space, so you may have to re-tension the chains at the next pullout or chaining area.

Re-tensioning adjusts the tightness to get a better fit. If the chain is too loose, it will hit the pavement ahead of the tire and cause premature wear or break a link, Sullwold says, or it can roll around the tire and wear the tread. Rarely will you get the chains too tight, though this too could cause damage to the tire’s tread, sidewall or shoulder.

When removing chains, find a safe place away from traffic. Sullwold recommends hanging them on your truck or trailer in a way that will make it easy to install them the next time.

Common errors

The most common problem truckers have with chains is installing them upside down, Sullwold says. Cross-chain hooks in a faulty installation of this type can wear into the tire sidewall, which can damage the casing. “Always mount your chains with the hook portion facing away from the sidewall,” he says.

A second problem is not checking chains for twists in the side or cross chains, Sullwold says. This can hamper installation because it will shorten the chain and make connection harder or the twist in a cross chain can cause early failure.

Another problem is loose chains. This can also cause premature wear, and the chain can snag mounted equipment like brake lines or mud guards under the trailer, breaking the chain or equipment.

Chain life

Speed above 30 mph will accelerate chain wear, increase the chances of something flying loose and reduce your stopping distance dramatically. Sullwold says most of the time you’ll drive only a few miles on your chains through a mountain pass before removal.

Jull says tire spin and driving on bare pavement will shorten chain life. “When a tire is spinning it can actually cause the cross chain connectors to be yanked from the side chain, potentially damaging the truck,” he says. Driving on bare pavement will wear out chains faster than when driving on snow or ice-covered roads.

“As good as they are, they’re not bulletproof,” Jull says. “I’ve never known one to last forever.”

At the end of the season or after each trip, check the chains for broken links. You can repair cross chain pieces with a chain plier, which opens and closes hooks. Sullwold says you can repair a few cross chains, but if you’re going to repair an entire chain, you’ll save time and money by purchasing a new chain.

When you get a chance, wash the chains and spray them with a lubricant to keep them in good condition. Sullwold says if you place your chains in the back of your truck or hang them under your trailer, they will rust after the first use. Chains will, however, wear out before they rust out.

A chain’s life depends on how much it is used and maintained. Jull says drivers have achieved about 1,000 miles with heavy-duty cable chains, while other users “blow up their chains with a quarter-mile. It gets back to fitment, speed, tire spin and bare pavement driving. Limit those undesirables, and you should expect approximately 75 to 100 miles from a standard highway set of chains.”

Chaining laws

Chaining laws vary widely across the country. Florida, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and the District of Columbia do not have chain laws. Many states simply specify chains are permissible.

In California, truckers are advised to have chains in bad weather. Only one set of chains is required no matter how many axles. Tire chains on trailers may be staggered, and chains on tag axles aren’t required.

Colorado requires truckers to carry chains beginning Sept. 1, the earliest in the nation. The state also says that “signs along the roadway will indicate when a vehicle must be chained.”

In Nevada, vehicles will be stopped if not equipped with chains on at least two driving wheels and two braking wheels on each trailer.

New York requires chains when a “snow emergency has been declared.”

In Oregon, chains are required when conditions demand and signs are posted.

Pennsylvania requires chains of not fewer than five cross chains and that don’t project more than an inch from the wheel’s surface.

Utah advises drivers to carry one set for the drive axle from Nov. 1 to March 31.

Washington posts “chains required” signs and requires “sufficient tire chains” on certain routes from Nov. 1 to April 1. The number of required chains depends on the number of axles and vehicle configuration.

Chain laws guide for your smartphone

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association developed its Winter Chain Laws app for Android and Blackberry phones as a comprehensive reference for chain laws around the nation.

Android users, scan the QR code, right, to download. For Blackberry phones, visit