In many parts of the country, the annual unfurling of the chains is of only academic interest. But for those who go skiing, live in or visit areas prone to snow, chains can be lifesavers.
They provide traction and an ability to steer in snow and some other cold conditions that even the best snow or mud tyres cannot match. They may also be able to crunch through some types of ice to find a bit of traction on the surface below.
These are reasons why skifields may require chains, even when you turn up on your expensive new winter tyres (see panel).
Many skifields make it easy. They rent chains at the base of the access road and - best of all - will put them on. Fitting and removal are the worst aspects of chains. It's dirty, awkward work even for the practised. Putting them on is tricky; then by day's end the chains are cold, filthy and their release mechanism most likely stuck.
So give a warm word of thanks for those guys at the rental centre, they save you a truly awful task.
The next big drawback of chains is that you can't really use them on a road free of snow or ice. They're noisy, make the ride rough and wreck the SNOW SPECIALCheck that chains don't foul steering or braking components.Picture / Geoff Sloan
Get smart and a grip in
this winter wonderland
If only one pair of chains are available, they should be fitted to a car's driving wheels.road surface. Some chains, usually European, are designed to go on the road, but only at low speeds and for relatively short distances. The price for this is that they may not be as good in the snow - but they'll still outperform any tyre.
Chains are made in two common patterns, ladder and diamond-shaped. Ladder-type chains with their "rungs" are regarded as better for going up and down hills. Those with a diamond type of pattern are a better general purpose chain and offer good steering.
The best set of chains is a full one - a chain on each wheel. If only one pair is available, they should be fitted to a car's driving wheels, although there are a few who will argue this point, preferring that they go on the steering wheels.
Good job, then, that so many of our cars are front-wheel-drive, because one set of wheels provides both drive and steering. On rear-drive cars, steering may be vague without the advantage of chains on the front wheels, but use caution and common sense and you'll be okay. At least the driving wheels will have good traction.
A word of caution: some vehicles don't have clearance in their wheelwells for chains.
Also, chains might foul steering or braking components. In some cases only specially designed (ie, expensive) chains can be used.
If in doubt, ask your service or parts manager.
And if you decide to buy chains, practise fitting and removing them in the comfort of your garage. Learning how to do it "in the field" is not a lot of fun.