Choosing the ideal tire setup for your ATV in the winter season is not always easy. Because neither chains or studs are the perfect solution for all winter conditions. I’ve taken a closer look at the pros and cons of both so you better can make a decision of what suits you the best.
So who’s the overall winner in the “ATV chains vs studs” showdown? Chains are generally better for all-purpose low-speed use on ice and snow, such as plowing and hauling firewood. Studs are better for high-speed ice racing and trail riding. Studs add very little traction in the snow where chains work well in moderate depths.
Let’s have a closer look at the different parameters you should consider when declaring your own winner. For some, not scratching the drive is the end-all be-all, while for others its off-road performance that matters the most.
That’s why I cannot make the decision for you. But I can shine a light on what to expect from each of the two competitors.
Chains do cost more than a bag of studs. A good set is about 150-250 dollars, while you can get studs for 50-100 dollars.
But if you don’t want to leave the studs in all year around, and you do not want to spend a lot of time removing and replacing them between the seasons, you may end up needing to invest in one extra set of rims and tires to accommodate the studs.
On the other hand, the chains also usually come with the cost of a set of wheel spacers that will set you back about 100-200 dollars more.
Winner: Studs (if you leave them in all year around)
Surface wear and damage
If you want to avoid scratches in your driveway at any cost, neither chains or studs are the ideal choice for you.
None of them will do any real damage when you just roll freely over the surface. But as soon as we hook up a snow plow, and take into consideration that the surface may not be completely level, the risk of spinning tires increases. And this is where scratches occur.
If you are careful not to spin your tires, you should be able to get through the winter without making too much damage to your asphalt or concrete driveway. But you can’t avoid scratches altogether.
Chains will make deeper scratches simply because they are beefier. At the same time, there is also a reason why the banning of studded car tires is becoming increasingly more common all over.
The studs wear down the road surface in a hurry when enough cars run over it at high speeds.
Traction on ice
The chains do offer really good traction on ice, no doubt about it. ATV does, however, have the disadvantage of being relatively lightweight. Because of this, the chains won’t penetrate the ice as deep as needed for optimal grip.
To counter this you can get V-bar style chains, or even better: diamond shaped chains with some beefy studs.
The diamond shape has the additional benefit of reducing the risk of the chain falling in between the tire lugs, where it won’t really do much good.
A chain made out of square steel will also give better grip than one made of round steel.
Studs, on the other hand, are actually purposely made to have excellent grip on ice. To be more specific, they were initially made for, and are still used mostly in ice racing. In any type of ice racing, you are looking for the best combination of high speed and great grip.
With the right setup, you can achieve a grip so good that you almost forget you are riding on ice and not on asphalt.
How much traction you get can simply be adjusted by how many and what length of studs you are using. The screw in studs is thinner than the studs that on chains so they will penetrate the ice better.
With the ability to regulate how many studs you install you can also test and find the number of studs that gives you the best grip according to the weight of your bike. More is not always better, because the more studs you add, the less they will sink into the ice.
Adding weight to the bike is always a solution with both chains and studs if you need even better traction. But for obvious reasons, dragging along a couple of sandbags is less desirable for racing or trail riding purposes.
Traction on snow
So we’ve established that studs work well on ice. But for studs, the fun stops here. With just a small layer of snow on top of the ice, they will no longer be able to dig into the ice, and the tires will start slipping.
It’s worth noting that the use of tire studs are often misunderstood. They are only meant for ice and nothing else.
On snow, they have little to no effect. On super packed hard snow the longer studs will work to some degree, but not by much.
Chains work great in moderate depths of snow, but when it gets really deep, they will just dig in an leave you high centered on the belly pan.
Your only chance with wheels in really deep snow is by using high wheel speed, and a set of tires with huge paddle-shaped lugs to throw the snow back. This will work better than any smooth tire with chains. You cannot get the needed wheel speed with chains.
Again, we’re talking about playing in deep snow here, not utility work in moderate amounts of compact snow. For the latter, chains are much better, only beaten by tracks.
So those that want to utilize tire speed to get traction when playing in the snow, can install studs to keep the ride manageable also when riding in on icy surfaces. This will reduce the chance of sliding down an icy hill or spinning off the road.
When small enough studs are used, some even like leaving them in all year around.
Traction on hard surfaces like asphalt or concrete
Whenever riding on surfaces that have no ice or snow on them, you will find that both studs and chains will actually reduce your grip compared to running with plain ATV tires.
The chains are so thick that it’s mostly metal that touches the ground and not the rubber of the tire.
Metal is hard, smooth and needs a soft surface it can dig into to be effective. When you ride on hard surfaces you will only slide around while damaging the surface you are riding on, and wearing your chains.
Studs can be a bit better as long as you don’t install studs that are too long. This will allow some of the rubber to still be in contact with the surface, making them the better option of the two when riding on hard surfaces.
ATV-wear or damage
Studs will not wear your bike, but they will tie up a set of tires. Some choose to remove all of the studs when spring comes, leaving a scarred tire.
In practical use, this doesn’t matter much, but the cuts made by aggressively threaded studs may increase the chance of tire lugs coming loose when riding in the summer.
Chains will also wear your tires to some degree because they are harder than rubber.
But the real damage they can cause is if they come loose, break or if not fit as snug as they need to be. A chain-link cathing your brake line will rip it in half instantly.
When the chains wear too thin and start breaking, they may cause quite a bit of damage to the bike before you manage to stop. A piece of a loose chain may damage or even rip off your plastic fenders.
It’s best to replace the chains with new ones when you start seeing several links where 1/4 of the original metal thickness is left.
On many bikes, you will run into problems with chain catching the bike if you just install them on your stock machine. Often you will be ok on the rear wheels, but the turning of the front wheels makes them more exposed.
To begin with, you need to make sure the chains are installed tight with no slack. The easiest way to achieve this is by deflating the tires when you install the chains. When you put air back into the tires, they will expand, taking up any slack in the chains.
Next, you need to fasten all loose ends of chain. I like using steel shackles in the same quality as the chains.
If this is not enough to keep the chains clear of the bike, you are left with installing wheel spacers. These are aluminum plates or special spacer bolts that bolts between the bikes wheel hub and tire, moving the tire outwards.
I use 2″ spacers on all four wheels on my bike but could get by with 1 1/2 inch spacers only on the front wheels.
Another scenario when you risk damaging your bike by running chains is when the tires are spinning and the chain suddenly do get a good bite. This puts a lot of stress on the quads CV joints, and as most ATV owners will learn at some point, these things are not indestructible.
Chains can be installed and removed in a matter of minutes. It may take a bit longer the first couple of times, but its a relatively fast and easy procedure when you get the hang of it.
With studs, this takes much longer time, no matter how much you practice.
Studs are made for ice only and will wear down if you use them on harder surfaces. This is not ideal for ATVs that are often used on a wide variety of surfaces. Not many ATV owners will only ride on ice.
Chains can be used on snow, ice, slush, gravel and even on hard surfaces if you ride slow.
Studs with good threads will handle almost any speeds. This ability is what makes them so great for ice racing. Get threads as big/deep as your lugs will allow.
Chains, however, do not handle higher speeds very well. They weigh quite a bit, and the momentum of high speed may have them disintegrate. Anything above 5-10 mph involves a significant risk.
The force of a broken link breaking loose from the tire at speeds above 20mph will send it straight through your plastic fenders. If the piece then proceeds to hit you, it may inflict severe injury.
Some claim that new chains can handle higher speeds, but even if they do not break, you will face balance issues due to the chains losing their shape.
Both chains and studs will wear fast if you use them on hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt. Riding at higher speeds make it even worse.
Ideally, you should not have to ride on hard surfaces at all when you have chains on. Just one season with regular rides on asphalt may be enough to completely wear them down.
If you only ride in snow, however, a good set of quality chains may last you a lifetime if you repair broken links and don’t misuse them too badly.
Some just use ordinary hex metal plate screws as studs. This is cheap and will work fine if you ride only on ice. But any riding on asphalt or concrete will soon wear the studs down so that they lose almost all grip.
This is why purpose made studs have carbide tips that will last a lot longer before they wear down. They are a bit more expensive than ordinary screws but will last a lot longer.
The purpose made studs also have much more aggressive threads so they will not come loose as easily as the screws. Completely avoiding any is hard, but luckily it is fast and cheap to add some more studs when you need to.
I prefer the “ice drill” style of threads as these can really take a beating without coming loose.
For racing or general trail riding: Studs, because of the carbide tips that allows some hard surface riding.
For plowing: Studs will wear fast when spinning on concrete or asphalt. Chains will last longer.
Chains are not known for their comfort. Diamond shaped chains will, however, rattle your teeth a lot less than the basic 2-link V-bar chains.
As long as speeds are kept low, you should have no issues.
I call a tie on this as both chain and studs are plenty comfortable for their intended use.
What other alternatives are there?
What if neither chains or basic studs fits your need?
Installing bolt studs
Some riders prefer sacrificing a set of tires and install beefier “studs” by using 3/8 stove bolts that go straight through the tire with a washer on each side.
You can decide how long the bolt should be according to your need. Som leaves as much as 1 inch of each bolt sticking out.
Compared to running chains, this DIY setup has the advantage of no loose chain-ends flying around. You can ride faster with less risk of damage, as long as the bolts are fastened securely.
Using ordinary ATV tires in the winter
Skipping chains and studs altogether is a very viable option for many riders that don’t like some of the disadvantages of having them. For riding on packed snow, most ATV tires will deliver decent traction.
Especially for those that just need to plow their relatively flat driveway a few times each year, and don’t want to scratch it, you will likely get by.
Get a set of good tires with a soft rubber blend like the IPR Mud Lites, and strap on a couple of sandbags and you should be able to handle quite a bit of snow before having issues.
Taking several small passes with the plow may also be enough so that you don’t need to risk scratching your driveway.
Specially made studded snow tires
If you absolutely don’t like the idea of studding your summer tires, it may be worth looking into the ITP TundraCross Studded ATV Tires. These come pre-studded from the factory and features a tread pattern and rubber blend that suits winter use well.
Combining studs and chains
A good option that some prefer is installing chains on the back tires, and studs up front. This will to some degree give you the best of both worlds, with less risk of damaging the bike.
Get ATV tracks
For moderate to deep snow, nothing can beat a set of good ATV tracks. If you expect a lot of deep snow riding, you might as well skip straight to what’s most likely to satisfy your needs.
Can you stud ATV tires?
Yes, you can put studs in almost all ATV tires. They are installed in the tire lugs. Make sure you get the right type and length of studs.
Can tire studs be removed?
Yes, most quality studs can be removed using the same tool that’s used to install them.
Are ATV tire chains worth it?
For all-purpose use in areas that have a good solid winter, a set of ATV tire chains is definitely worth it. For those who only get the occasional snowfall, it’s better to get a set of quality ATV winter tires.
How do ATV tire studs work?
ATV tire studs are screwed right into the lugs of the tire to give better grip on ice. They do not work well on snow. A carbide tip on each stud reduces wear.
How many studs per ATV tire?
The number of studs depends on how many lugs the tire has and what is the expected usage. One pr lug is a good starting point. For bigger lugs, one can consider installing two studs per lug.
ATV snow tires for plowing?
Very few manufacturers produce dedicated snow tires for ATVs. They do give extra traction on snow, but they are expensive. A mud tire with a soft rubber compound will likely do just as well of a job for most riders.