When Should You Replace Your Tires for Winter?

Wondering if your tires are safe for winter driving? Learn how to assess the tread.

Planning a road trip to a snowy locale like Lake Tahoe or Yellowstone National Park? Then make sure your tires are in tip-top shape for those icy roads.

Winter tires or snow tires are designed to drive easily on snow and ice and are great for wet, snowless roads, too. Some winter tires even have metal or ceramic studs, designed to increase traction on hard-packed snow or ice.

But like everything else, winter tires come with an expiration date. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to change your winter tires before your trip, you’ve come to the right place. 

If your winter tires have reached a minimum of 2/32 inch or 4 millimeters of tread depth, replace them immediately. Bald tires are not safe and have been known to cause hydroplaning, blowouts, understeering, and lack of control.

There are three ways to check a tire’s tread depth: the penny test, built-in tread wear indicators, or a tread depth gauge.

Try the penny test

To conduct the penny test, insert a penny between the tread ribs (the raised portion of tread) with Abraham Lincoln’s head pointing down. If the top of Lincoln’s head disappears between the ribs, your tread is more than 2/32 inch. If Lincoln’s entire head is visible, it may be time to replace the tire. 

When performing the penny test, remember to check different tread areas on each tire, because even if some parts of the tread are deeper than 2/32 inch, other spots may fail the penny test. 

Plus, uneven tread wear can indicate a greater underlying problem. If you notice signs of uneven tread wear, reach out to an auto repair shop near you and have a mechanic check your car for wheel misalignment and other issues.  

Check the tread wear indicator bars

You can also determine if it’s time to get a new set of tires by looking at the tread wear indicator bars. Tread wear indicators are designed to help vehicle owners monitor tread depth and make tire replacement decisions in a timely manner. 

Performance, light truck, and medium commercial tires have indicator bars or wear bars. These bars are embedded between the tread ribs at 2/32 inch. If a tire’s tread is flush with indicator bars, it is worn out and should be replaced as soon as possible. 

Use a tread depth gauge

Many car owners use a tread depth gauge to check tire tread depth. To do this, insert the probe into a groove in the tread and apply pressure on the gauge’s shoulders, making sure they’re flat against the tread block. Read and evaluate the result. 

Whether you need new tires for your car or want to get your vehicle serviced, a certified technician at any AAA Owned Auto Repair Center can help. Request an appointment at any of the AAA Owned Auto Repair Centers near you. Or, find a AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility in your neighborhood. AAA Members save 10% on labor costs, up to $75, and receive a 24-month/24,000-mile warranty on parts and labor.