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Get a Grip: Tow-Vehicle Tires

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

With so much riding on tow-vehicle tires, proper selection and maintenance are important to your safety and can contribute to better handling and fuel economy

When it’s time to put tires on their tow vehicle, some people are happy to tell the tire shop to “just put on another set of what’s on there now,” grab some stale popcorn in the waiting room and browse a 16-year-old National Geographic until the mechanic tosses their keys back. But leaving the tire-buying decision to somebody else, especially a person who sells tires, isn’t always the best choice. Matching the type of tire to driving conditions and being informed of proper maintenance will lead to good longevity and service, and ensure less frequent visits to the tire store.

Are You Ready to Re-Tire?

The decision to buy new tires isn’t one to be taken lightly, since a set of four can cost anywhere from $500 at the bottom end and up from there. To find out if your tow vehicle is ready for new rubber, do the Lincoln test. Put a penny between two tread blocks with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you; if you can see the top of Abe’s head, you have a tread depth of 1⁄16 inch or less, so the tire is worn out. Even if they feel fine, the thinner tread is more susceptible to punctures, and the shallower tread grooves can’t move water on a wet road out of the way fast enough to prevent hydroplaning.

When choosing new tires, it’s almost always a bad idea to buy on price alone. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are many offshore manufacturers flooding the market with seriously cheap tires; do your homework before buying to ensure reliability and safety.

Age is also a factor in choosing whether to replace the tires. On the sidewall you’ll see a series of letters and numbers beginning with “DOT.” The four-digit number indicates the week and year the tire was made. For example, 4210 means the tire was made in the 42nd week of 2010. Generally, the accepted practice is to replace tires after seven years, even if the tread is at acceptable limits. Some manufacturers stretch that time-out period to 10 years as long as the tires were maintained properly and protected from the elements.
The rubber in tires deteriorates over time, and hot weather, direct sunlight, high concentrations of ozone in the air and other environmental factors all contribute to tire degradation. Long-term storage can also shorten tire life.

All-Season Versus All-Terrain

Pickups and SUVs that are never driven anywhere but paved roads and the occasional gravel trail to a campsite will do well with all-season tires. They’re made primarily for highway use and can handle wet roads and even ice and snow without unnecessary drama. They offer a smooth, quiet ride and are available in load ratings that can easily handle towing a trailer or carrying a slide-in camper.

If you’re an RVer who thinks the fun starts miles after the road stops, you’ll need a more aggressive, off-road-oriented all-terrain tire. Wide, deep tread grooves grip better on dirt and pick up fewer rocks than highway tires. In loose, muddy or sandy conditions, the extra traction can mean the difference between driving home, working to get yourself unstuck or walking out for help.

All-terrain tires exact a penalty for their rough-country prowess. On the highway, they can be noisy and corner with less confidence than rolling on all-season tires, and they make for a harsh ride. The widely spaced tread blocks increase braking distances, decrease acceleration and wear faster. Those wide tread grooves are also vulnerable to punctures.

No Need for Speed

All-season tires come with a speed rating consistent with typical highway travel. Don’t be tempted by “high perform­ance” tires with a higher speed rating because they typically earn that rating by using thinner tread that wears faster. But that doesn’t mean that lower speed ratings are preferred since they might not be built to handle the heat generated
by heavier loads.






General Tire




Carry That Load

The same goes for load rating. Use the load rating of the vehicle’s original tires as a baseline, and never go lower. You can upgrade to a higher load rating, but that won’t change the vehicle’s overall load capacity. Tires should always be matched carefully to load, based on accurate weights from a certified scale.

Keep the Pressure On

Checking tire pressure is like making an appointment with the dentist. Most people don’t think about doing either one until things have already gotten out of hand. Many people don’t realize that tires are part of the vehicle’s suspension; air pressure can affect handling, braking and ride. Proper inflation also has a direct effect on tire life. Underinflated tires heat up more quickly and run at a higher temperature. Heat is a tire’s worst enemy, and too much of it can lead to anything from premature wear to outright failure — not to mention lower fuel mileage.

Most vehicles made after 2008 are factory-equipped with a tire-pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that warns the driver if one of the tires is underinflated. The potential problem with these systems is that the alert may be triggered only when the tire drops below the set pressure by a significant amount, sometimes as much as 25 percent. For example, in a tire that’s designed to run at 80 psi, the TPMS (depending on the model) might not alert you to a problem until the pressure drops to around 60 psi, where load capacity, handling, braking, tread life and tire wear are all adversely affected.

A TPMS isn’t foolproof, and failures aren’t unheard of. That’s why it’s important to carry a good quality tire-pressure gauge and check pressure regularly to confirm the TPMS is functioning accurately. The pressure listed on the tire’s sidewall is the maximum allowable cold pressure; you’ll find those suggested pressures listed on the data sticker on the tow vehicle’s driver-side doorjamb. If you run lower pressures when solo, be sure to inflate the tires to the necessary value when towing, to accommodate the extra load created by the trailer.
Tire with stop watch

Tire Care

Since everything is riding on the tires, maintenance is paramount. The tires should be inspected at least once a month for uneven wear patterns, sidewall cracking, rocks and other debris lodged between the tread blocks, and punctures or holes in the tread. Make sure that all the valve-stem caps are on tight and no wheel weights have fallen off. Check tire pressures when the tires are cold, or at least three hours after driving, and don’t forget to check the spare.

The aforementioned Mr. Lincoln method can be used to check tread depth or look for the tread-wear indicators on the tire. Alternatively, you can purchase a depth indicator at an auto-parts store. If you’re not sure, replace the tires before leaving on the first trip of the season. Spending time at a tire shop in a strange place is nobody’s idea of a vacation.

Rotate the tires regularly, at least every other oil change. This ensures that the tires all wear evenly, promoting longevity. If you feel an odd vibration that wasn’t there before, find out the cause, perhaps a missing wheel weight or maybe something stuck in the tread, and deal with it immediately. Vibration seldom gets better, and the longer it goes on, the more it affects the vehicle’s suspension.

If you hit something on the road or see a peculiar wear pattern on the shoulder of the tire tread, have the wheels aligned. Misalignment not only decreases tire life, it also affects handling and braking. Pulling to one side under braking might be a brake issue, but don’t rule out misalignment.

When it comes to keeping tires clean, most tire manufacturers recommend using only water and mild soap. Some sidewall treatments and tire dressings contain petroleum distillates, which can accelerate the aging process in rubber by prematurely removing the protective chemicals added to the compound to fight deterioration.

If new tires for your tow vehicle are on the horizon, this guide can facilitate the shopping experience. Included are all-season and all-terrain tires. Tire prices are typically set by tire dealers and vary widely, so we’ve left them out. Shop around for the best price, and don’t be afraid to haggle. But don’t compromise your safety by riding on worn tires.

Bridgestone tireBridgestone

Designed for all-terrain use, the Dueler A/T Revo 3 features Bridgestone’s new Traction Claw technology for better snow and off-road handling.

A new tread pattern with large tread blocks and staggered shoulder lugs gives the Revo 3 an aggressive look and longer-lasting performance compared to the Revo 2. There are 36 available sizes.

bridgestone Dueler tireFor highway use, the Dueler H/T 685 uses heavy-duty steel belts and two-ply polyester construction. It’s tough and confidence-inspiring for jobs ranging from towing to moving loads on the weekend. An innovative tread-to-road contact footprint allows it to adapt to the load and promotes even tread wear.

Cooper Discoverer AT3 4S tireCooper

The all-weather, all-terrain Discoverer AT3 4S has Adaptive-Traction Technology and is
severe-weather rated. It stops on average 20 feet shorter in snow than the leading all-terrain tire, according to the manufacturer. The AT3 4S offers improved wet-weather performance, snow performance and fuel economy, and has significantly improved tread wear compared to the original Discoverer AT3.

Large tread tireThe new Discoverer AT3 XLT adds to Cooper’s line of powerful, shred-resistant all-terrain tires. It features Double Tread Technology and enhanced durability, and stops at least 10 feet shorter on wet roads than the leading competitor’s tire, according to the manufacturer.

Falken Wildpeak A/T3W tireFalken

The Wildpeak A/T3W combines aggressive off-road and rugged-terrain capabilities without compromising pavement performance. The optimized tread design and silica compound are said to make the A/T3W an outstanding performer in wet or dry weather, and especially good in severe snow conditions. Full-depth sipes and grooves maintain consistent performance throughout the life of the tire.

Wildpeak H/T02 tireAn all-season highway tire, the Wildpeak H/T02 has a rugged upper sidewall to help meet the demands of towing. A silica-enriched compound provides superior wet-weather traction and tread life, and the optimized tread pattern has three variable pitches designed to offer an exceptionally quiet ride.

firestone tireFirestone

Transforce AT2 is targeted for all-terrain use on light and medium pickups and commercial vehicles. Its chip- and tear-resistant compound helps the tire withstand rough gravel roads and features a deeper tread pattern that improves performance in snow and on wet roads. The new tread pattern also contributes to long-lasting durability over the service life of the tire, according to the company.

FIRESTONE TRANSFORCE HT2 tireThe Transforce HT2 is designed for maximum highway performance and better fuel efficiency than Firestone’s Transforce HT. Biting edges provide more grip in snow and slush, while improved chip and tear resistance, and an improved service life offer dependable all-season capability.

General Tire

An all-purpose, all-terrain tire, the Grabber APT is designed for on-road, off-road and snow performance. Comfort Balance Technology provides a cushioned tread that contains an absorption layer to isolate the vehicle from road disturbances, and DuraGen Technology offers high-strength construction for impressive durability in off-road situations and outstanding cut and chip performance on rough surfaces, according to the company.

The all-season Grabber HTS60 features a stylish symmetric pattern with a strong center rib that’s optimized for water evacuation. The broad contour gives the tire a muscular stance that provides a wide footprint, promoting even wear, excellent braking and responsive handling. Comfort Balance Technology contributes to a more comfortable and pleasant ride, the manufacturer claims.


The Wrangler Fortitude HT highway tire features wide circumferential grooves, full-depth sipes and an optimized tread design for confident traction in dry, wet or snowy conditions. The tread design is said to provide a quiet ride on the highway while offering increased tread life.

Made with Kevlar fiber and proprietary Durawall Technology, the Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure offers quiet highway performance and off-road capabilities. It features traction ridges and open shoulder blocks, resists sidewall cuts and punctures, and offers superior traction on wet and icy roads.

Maxxis tireMaxxis

A premium highway tire designed for light trucks and SUVs, the Bravo Series HT-770 features a ripple-sipe design that is said to reduce wear and improve traction on slippery surfaces.

Dual circumferential grooves increase water dispersion for hydroplaning resistance, and multi-pitch tread blocks minimize noise. The sidewall is fine-tuned to improve the overall ride as well as stability during emergency maneuvers or heavy crosswinds.

Razr MT tireThe Razr MT has a new tread compound and chemical fillers for maximum tear resistance and tread life, and a dual-cord casing ply with intertwined reinforcement fibers that dramatically improve casing strength for superior durability and toughness, according to the company. The new pattern features deeply sculpted center blocks that maximize mud traction, and stone and mud ejectors for a claimed improvement in self-cleaning performance and minimized rock retention.

Toyo tireToyo

The commercial-grade Open Country C/T is an all-terrain tire developed for balanced on- and off-road work. Its high-turnup, three-ply polyester construction contributes to excellent durability and impact resistance, and the unique tread design and tough construction deliver long tread life and great traction in gravel, mud and snow, according to the company. Unlike some tires with similar aggressive tread, the C/T is said to provide a quiet, comfortable ride.

toyo-2-Toyo_OPHT_LfAn all-season highway tire, the Open Country H/T is balanced for optimal comfort, quiet performance and sure handling in city and open-road driving. Stability ribs in the shoulder areas extend tread life and durability, and the symmetric, variable-pitch tread design contributes to a quiet, comfortable ride, as claimed by the manufacturer. Tuff Duty sizes feature extra-strong three-belt construction, deeper tread depth and less tread void, and are marketed for pickups towing trailers.


Jerry SmithproductTiresTowing in Style

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