Tire Basics and the Tire Selection Process

This week we’re going to look at the tire selection process I used to pick the new tires for the LJ.

While the actual shapes, sizes, and configurations vary from tire to tire,
all tires share common elements to their construction.
When talking about tires here is a quick guide to what is what on a tire.

All of these elements impact handling both on-pavement and off-pavement.
Sipes help with water management.
Ribs and tread blocks help with overall traction.
The shoulder helps with side-bite especially with a more aggressive A/T or M/T tread.

Before we go too far into that I want to throw out some basics in terms of tire terminology, look at tire classifications, and look at tread types.

Tire Basics: Reading the sidewall

Ever sit down for breakfast and out of curiosity read the back of a milk carton or the side of a cereal box?  There’s a lot of good information there but it can be a little overwhelming.  Tires are no different.  Molded into the sidewall of every tire made is all kinds of information.  Some of it is pretty straight forward such as the brandname, tire name, and it’s size.  Those are all usually in big letters and easy to read.  Some brands even go so far as to color them white so they stand out in contrast to the black rubber of the tire.  Beyond that there are loads of small print letters and numbers protruding out of the sidewall.  To read them you often have to crouch down and wipe away the road grime.  To start our in-depth look at the tire selection process we must first take an in-depth look at the tires themselves.

In all honesty any tire suitable for the overland lifestyle will most likely be an LT tire.
However, all LT tires are not created equal.
Truck tread types run the spectrum from highway specific patterns all the way to all-terrain and max-terrain tread patterns.

For the purpose of this article I’m not going to waste too much time talking about non-truck tires.  Passenger tires, although common as OEM tires on many SUV’s these days, just aren’t suitable for the overland lifestyle.  They are fine on-pavement tires but lack the tread and sidewall construction to handle sustained off-pavement terrain.  In contrast most light truck (LT) tires are designed with off-pavement travel in mind.  I say most because there are in fact highway specific LT tires that are designed to handle the increase weight of a truck, have many features in their tread design to help with things like noise, rain, and snow wile on-pavement, but lack the aggressive features needed to handle things like dirt, mud, rocks, and snow while off-pavement.

Where to start?

TireRack.com has a great breakdown of the various classifications of tires.  I am not going to reinvent the wheel (no pun intended) and post all that information here.  If you’re curious head over to their site and give them a quick glance.  You’ll see that within the LT category there are four subcategories of truck tires with an available eleven total different tread types below are the ones we’re going to focus on.

You can see the common theme with the all-season LT tires is “on-road” traction.
Not exactly the key feature you want for a trip down a backcountry fire service road.

In contrast the on-/off-road class of tires balance on-pavement with off-pavement traction to different degrees.

Just like we can avoid passenger tires, we can also avoid “Summer” and “All-Season” tires.  While they aren’t bad tire types in their own right, they still aren’t appropriate, or intended, for sustained off-pavement travel.  The category we’ll want to focus on most is the “On-/Off-Road” category because the best adventures begin when the pavement ends.

From mild to wild, Light Truck tires run a spectrum.
Highway tires (left) are setup for pavement while A/T  (middle) and M/T tires (right) are setup for off-highway travel.
Which one is best for you depends on a lot.  Hopefully this article can help you make an informed decision.

Quick note about commercial on-/off-road tires.  Commercial tires are great for heavier vehicles like 1-ton and larger trucks (think mining trucks, dump trucks, other construction equipment, etc).  Their sidewalls and treads are constructed with the heavier weight of both the vehicle and it’s cargo in mind.  While they are off-pavement rated, they aren’t appropriate for lighter SUV’s or mid-size trucks.  Just be mindful of the distinction and make sure the tire you choose (LT or commercial) is appropriate for your vehicle’s weight class.

Which tread type is best?

In terms of off-road capable tires the two most common ones you’ll find on overland adventure vehicles will either be “All-Terrain” or “Maximum Traction” tires.  I’ll confess, I always thought that “M/T” stood for “mud-terrain” but I guess I’ve been wrong all these years (see, even an old salty dog like me learns something new from time to time).  While most mud-terrain tires are designated M/T’s, it’s not universal.  This is more of a subtle nuance than anything to stress over.  For the most part when people talk about A/T’s verse M/T’s they’re talking specifically about all-terrain verses mud-terrain tread types.  I’m going to do the same.  That said, trying to claim which tire or tread type is “best” is not possible.  There are just too many variables.

  • daily-driver vs. overland-specific
  • on-pavement time vs. off-pavement time
  • weather – four seasons with snow vs no-snow
  • terrain – dry, wet, hard, soft, mountains, plains
  • weight – heavy diesel truck vs. light weight cross-over
  • driving style
  • towing
As you can see there are a lot of variables to consider.  So, let me break down my answers to those questions:
  • My Jeep is a daily driver (and my only running vehicle)
  • My Jeep sees a lot of pavement time (both on-highway and around town)
  • I live in a four-season area (with wet weather and snowy conditions)
  • I live on the east coast with damp soil as the predominate terrain type
  • The Jeep is a mid-size SUV with a lot of additional weight added to it
  • I tend to drive conservatively (if you know me stop laughing)
  • I tow an overland adventure trailer
Throwing all of those conditions into the mix my process basically had me settling on an all-terrain tread type.  Mud-terrains tend to have shorter lifespans and wear down quicker the more time they spend on the highway.  Since my Jeep is also my daily driver the noise factor of a mud-terrain tread is also a turn-off.  Another advantage of an all-terrain tread is that they have sipes for wet weather and snowy conditions.

In the next article I’ll reveal the new tires I’ll be running for the 2017 season on both the LJ and the trailer and why I chose them.