Choosing the ideal tire setup in your ATV for winter is not always easy. Neither chains nor studs are the perfect solutions for all winter conditions. I’ve examined their pros and cons so you can better decide 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 minimal traction in the snow, where chains work well in moderate depths.
Let’s explore the different parameters you should consider when deciding which is better for you. For some, it’s more important not to scratch the driveway, while off-road performance matters the most for others.
I cannot decide for you, but I can help you make an educated decision by showing you what to expect from each of the two competitors.
Cost – Which Is More Expensive?
Chains do cost more than a bag of studs. A good set is about $150 to $250, and you can get studs for $50 to $100.
But if you don’t want to leave the studs installed all year round and do not want to spend much time removing and replacing them between the seasons, you may need 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 round)
Surface Wear and Damage Potential
If you want to avoid scratches in your driveway at any cost, neither chains nor studs are ideal.
None of them will do any real damage when you drive steadily across a smooth surface. But as soon as we hook up a snowplow and take hills and turns into consideration, 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 doing 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.
Simultaneously, studded car tires are getting banned worldwide, primarily due to the unwanted dust they create in city centers. Even the tiny studs on studded car tires will wear down the road when the number of cars passing through is high enough.
Traction on Ice
The chains do offer excellent traction on ice, no doubt about it. ATVs do, 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 chain’s risk of falling in between the tire lugs, where it won’t do much good.
A chain made of square steel will also give a better grip than round steel.
Studs, on the other hand, are purposely made to have an excellent grip on ice. To be more specific, they were initially created for and are still used primarily in ice racing. In ice racing, you aim for high speed and excellent grip, where ice studs shine.
With the correct setup, you can achieve a grip so good that you almost forget that you are riding on ice, not on asphalt.
How much traction you get can be adjusted by how many and the length of studs you use. The screw-in style studs are slimmer than those on chains so that 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 give you the best grip according to your bike’s weight. More is not always better because the more studs you add, the less they will sink into the ice.
Adding weight to the ATV is always a solution for improved traction, whether using chains or studs. However, it is worth noting that carrying sandbags is not ideal for racing or trail riding due to the added drag and other apparent reasons.
Traction on Snow
So we’ve established that studs work well on ice. But for studs, the fun stops here. With just a thin 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 purpose of tire studs is 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 snow depths but will dig in and leave you high-centered on the belly pan when snow depths get extensive.
Your best chance with wheels in bottomless snow is getting a set of tires with massive paddle-shaped lugs and applying full throttle to increase wheel speed. This strategy works better in these conditions than any average tire with tire chains. You cannot achieve the required wheel speed when using 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.
Those who want to utilize tire speed to get traction when playing in the snow can install studs to keep the ride manageable when riding on icy surfaces. This will reduce the chance of sliding down a snowy hill or spinning off the road.
When small enough studs are used, some even like leaving them in all year round.
Traction on Hard Surfaces Like Asphalt or Concrete
When riding on surfaces devoid of ice or snow, you will notice that both studs and chains diminish your grip compared to regular, straight ATV tires.
The chains are so thick that it’s mostly metal that touches the ground, not the tire’s rubber.
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 contact the surface still, making them the better option when riding on hard surfaces.
Atv-Wear or Damage Potential
Studs will not wear your bike, but they will tie up a set of tires. Some remove all the studs when spring comes, leaving a scarred tire.
This doesn’t matter much in practical use, 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 somewhat because they are more rigid than rubber. But the real damage is caused when they come loose, break, or when the chains are installed less snugly than they should. A sloppy chain link catching your brake line will rip and tear it open instantly.
When the chains wear too thin and break, they may cause quite a bit of damage to the ATV 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 when you see several links with only 1/4 of the original metal thickness.
On many ATVs, you will encounter chain-catching problems when installed on a stock machine. The rear wheels are usually less troublesome, but turning the front wheels makes them more exposed.
First and most importantly, you must ensure 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 of the same quality as the chains. If this is insufficient to keep the bike’s chains clear, you are left with installing wheel spacers.
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 where there is a risk of damaging your ATV is when running chains and experiencing instances where the tires spin but suddenly regain full traction. This puts a lot of stress on the CV joints, and as most ATV owners will learn at some point, these things are not indestructible.
Flexibility and Ease of Use
Chains can be installed and removed in a matter of minutes. It may take a bit longer the first couple of times, but it’s a relatively fast and easy procedure when you get the hang of it.
With studs, this takes much longer, no matter how much you practice.
Studs are made for ice only and wear down if used on harder surfaces.
This is not ideal for ATVs that are often used on a wide variety of surfaces. Not many ATV owners will ride exclusively on ice.
If you ride slowly, chains can be used on snow, ice, slush, gravel, and even on hard surfaces.
Speed – Which Are Better for Fast Riding?
Studs with proper threads will handle almost any speed. This ability is what makes them so great for ice racing. Get threads as big/deep as your lugs 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 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 argue that a new set of chains can withstand higher speeds, but it’s important to note that even if they don’t break, the chains can lose their shape, leading to balance issues.
Both chains and studs will wear fast if used on hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt. Riding at higher speeds makes it even worse.
Ideally, it would be best not to have to ride on hard surfaces when you have chains on. Just one season with regular rides on asphalt may be enough to wear them down completely.
However, if you only ride in the snow, a good set of quality chains may last you a lifetime if you repair broken links and don’t misuse them too severely.
Some 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 longer before they wear down. They are more expensive than ordinary screws but will last significantly longer.
Also, the purpose-made studs have much more aggressive threads, so they do not come loose as quickly as the screws. Regardless of your choice, expect that a stud comes loose now and then. Luckily it is fast and cheap to add more studs when needed.
I prefer the “ice auger” style of threads, as these can take a beating without coming loose.
- For racing or general trail riding: Studs, because of the carbide tips that allow some hard surface riding.
- For plowing: Studs will wear fast when spinning on concrete or asphalt. Chains will last longer.
Chains are not renowned for enhancing ride comfort.
Diamond-shaped chains will, however, rattle your teeth much 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 when it comes to riding comfort, as both chains and studs are plenty comfortable for their intended use.
What Are the Alternatives?
What if neither chains nor standard tire studs meet your needs?
Installing Bolt-Style Studs
Some riders prefer to sacrifice a set of tires and install beefier “studs” 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 needs. Some leave 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 viable option for many riders who don’t like the disadvantages of having them. For riding on packed snow, most ATV tires will deliver decent traction.
Especially for individuals who only need to plow their relatively flat driveway a few times each year and wish to avoid causing scratches, it is highly likely that they will be able to manage.
Get a set of good quality tires with a soft rubber blend like the IPT 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.
Using Specially Made Studded Snow Tires
If you 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 feature a tread pattern and rubber blend that suits winter use well.
Combining Tire Studs and Chains
A good option that some prefer is installing chains on the back tires and studs upfront. To some degree, this will give you the best of both worlds, with less risk of damaging the bike.
Get ATV Tracks
Nothing can beat a set of good ATV tracks for moderate to deep snow. 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 used to install them.
How Do ATV Tire Studs Work?
ATV tire studs are threaded straight into the tire lugs to improve traction on ice. They do not work well on snow. A carbide tip on each stud reduces wear.
Are There Any 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.
How Many Studs to Use in Each ATV Tire?
The number of studs you should use depends on how many lugs the tire has and the expected usage. One stud pr lug is a good starting point. With more oversized lugs, one can consider installing two studs per lug.