Snow Driving – Tire Chains vs Tire Cables

Note: I originally wrote this article for the now retired An archived copy of the post can be viewed here. Affiliate links are present in this article.

The diversity of the US means that some people at some times are going to need to do some driving in the snow. If you live in a city you may be able to get away with your all seasons, but for those heading out on a ski trip, or who live out of a plough zone, a set of chains are critical. While certain states have legal requirements for tire traction devices (check your local DMV website), always use some common sense when driving as to whether a set of chains will be beneficial or not.

What are termed ‘tire traction devices’ come in many different varieties, beyond the well-known snow chains; cables, spikes and other devices are also available. While they all have their application, the most popular and universal are tire chains and tires cables, so how does one go about choosing?

What is the difference?

Both devices have the same goal, to improve your traction on snowy roads, but have a different design. Snow chains are the most well-known, they are literal chain links that are linked to create a mesh that you can wrap around your tire. Cables are slightly lower key, and are made from strands of steel cable that create a web covering your tires. Usually additional small metal rings are looped onto the cables to provide additional grip.

An example of tire chains (left) and tire cables (right)

What to Consider


A limiting factor to what you can install on your vehicle is its clearance. While most SUVs and pickups have plenty of space around the wheel arch to accept any type of chain or cable, certain vehicles, especially sedans and hatchbacks with low ground clearance also have minimal clearance in the wheel arch. This not only makes installation difficult, but if you were to install chains, may result in damaging your vehicle.

Check how much space there is around your wheels, and consult your owner’s handbook for recommendations. If you are concerned about the amount of space, you should definitely go with a set of snow cables. They have a much lower profile than snow chains and are less likely to damage your vehicle if slightly loose.

How much snow

The next thing to consider is the amount of snow you’re going to be driving in. If it’s just a few inches, snow cables are more than capable. But if you’re going to be driving in much more than that then you definitely want a set of chains. The more snow there is, the thicker the type of traction device you want. Cables are relatively thin by design, which means they can’t get you through as much snow as a solid set of chains.

How much Use

You also need to consider how much you’re going to be using the device, and how far you are going to have to travel. If you’re not expecting to use them very often, and only for a couple miles, then cables are more than adequate. If you are going to be using these several times a week and covering tens of miles each time, chains are more durable and will provide you with a longer life. Some of the more expensive cables are also designed for extended use, but expect to pay for the extra quality.


The cost of snow chains can vary a lot. If you know you’re going to be travelling in an area that may experience snow, buy a set ahead of time. If you have to buy chains last minute in an area that’s just had snow, chances are the prices will be high, especially if you have an uncommon tire size. Otherwise cables are usually the cheapest. We’ve discussed the compromise you will make buying cables over chains, and if you’re expecting to get lots of use out of a set, you should definitely pay extra for a good set of chains.

In the grander scheme of things they are not particularly expensive, with very good products available for much less than $200. This for a product that you can use repeatedly for a long time.

How many do I buy

Chain sets are usually sold in pairs. Most states and vehicle’s owner manuals recommend that a single set of snow chains be installed on the driving wheels. For a FWD vehicle, this will be your front wheels, and for a RWD vehicle your rear wheels. If you have a 4×4 or AWD vehicle you can place them on either set, and for extreme conditions installation on all four wheels is usually permitted.

Recommended Products

Now that you know what type of product you want to buy, you’re still left with choosing between many different products that will fit your car. To help you out, we’ve selected two chain sets and two cable sets to get you started on the search. All products come in different sizes, so be sure to check your car’s tire sizes before purchasing a set of chains.

Glacier Cable Tire Cables

A relatively cheap set of no fuss tire cables. A simple design with easy installation. Depending on requirements you may want to opt for an additional tensioning cable.

Security Chain Company Quik Grip Tire Chains

A solid set of tire chains, mainly for larger vehicles. Very well rated at a decent price.

Security Chain Company Tire Cable

A moderately priced set of cables with angular traction pattern providing slightly improved traction. The set includes a built-in rubber tensioner, requiring less attention while driving. Very good customer reviews.

Konig Snow Chains

If you’re looking for quality, Thule is a big name in outdoor equipment and their Konig snow chains are no different. While quite pricey, they still come in under $200 (for most tire sizes) and include a 5 year warranty. Good traction pattern with self-tensioner. Top choice if you’ll be making regular trips.


A tire traction device is a must for anyone who needs to do some driving in snow, even if just a few inches are present. Whatever type you decide, be sure to install your traction device soon after you purchase them and ensure they fit properly, and that you know how to install them. Putting them on in the snow, when you’re in a hurry is not a fun experience, made worse by ill-fitting chains. Chains are not one-size-fits-all, so you will have to check a manufacturer’s model table to determine what product is suitable for your tires. With this knowledge of the differences between tire chains and tire cables, you have no excuse to get outdoors this winter.

New SA Traffic Laws 2017

Recently in the news there has been some talk about new intended traffic laws. According to this article they are supposed to come into effect on 11 May 2017.  The laws are:

  • Bakkie drivers may not transport children in the back.
  • Bakkie drivers may not transport more than 5 people in the back
  • Heavy goods vehicles will be speed limited by weight, and require a sticker indicating the speed

This is going to happen. It has been published in the government gazette. Further laws that they wish to implement at a later stage, but have no due date, include:

  • Practical driving re-evaluation when renewing licence
  • Re-examine K53 (update it)
  • Lowering of speed limits in certain areas.
  • Goods vehicles with GVM > 9 tons banned during peak hours.

These laws were first discussed in 2015, but similar to the laws the DoT tried to pass in 2011, have been very poorly communicated to the public, and with any luck will be reconsidered. Both the laws that are changing and the proposed ones were published in the Government Gazette of 11 May 2015. And the Justice Project South Africa submitted some excellent commentary. To what it seems was mainly deaf ears.

I wanted to find more information about these topics, so tried looking around a bit. I first went to the eNATIS website, but their news page was returning a 404 error. The Department of Transport website didn’t go to their homepage (first google result), but asked me for login details. After getting to their proper home page, I couldn’t find any info on any upcoming changes to the NRTA. I then looked through Arrive Alive’s website and couldn’t find any news, and my browser warned me that the AA’s website was untrustworthy.

Let’s look at what’s been published though. On 11 November 2016, the 24th amendment to the NRTR was published in the Government Gazette, it had some definition changes, but ultimately the important parts were that as of 6 months after the Gazette was published, the following will come into effect. paraphrased:

school children may not be conveyed in the goods compartment of a motor vehicle for reward on public roads.

No one may be conveyed in the goods compartment of a motor vehicle for reward unless complying with NTLA provisions.

The amendment also immediately specified the inclusion of the following vehicles into the category not allowed to travel more than 100kmph, paraphrased:

vehicles between 3.5 and 9 tons

So what does all this mean? Basically what I put in the first half of this article. It means the law has and is changing. It means that there quite likely will be more changes later on, but there’s no new information.

The DoT really needs to reconsider the laws it’s implementing and take into count the excellent comments they receive back from the public, specifically organisations such as the Justice Project. They also need to do a better job of publicizing changing laws, and not rely on news outlets to publish these details. Very few people read the government gazette, and even fewer can make sense of what gets published.

US (CA) vs SA driving licences

Planning to be in the US for a while still, I figured I might as well try get a US driver’s licence. It makes life a lot easier, and means I get to leave my passport at home more often. Each state has its own testing procedures, and for California (CA), as a foreign driver, you are required to go through the whole process. That means write a theory based learner’s permit, and then do a practical driving test. If you’re from another state in the US and want a CA driver’s license, you are required to only do a theory test.

Overall I’ve found the admin side of things to be far better in the US, and the actual testing to be easier. Firstly I booked online for both my learner’s and driver’s tests. For the learners you can go in person any day and write the licence immediately, but will wait in queues. For the driver’s test I waited a week for the earliest booking. For the learner’s I probably sat about 40min waiting for my number to be called, 10min answering  multiple choice questions on a computer, and that was it. This website (not official) says there are 46 questions, and you can get 8 wrong. I don’t remember answering that many questions, but anyway, I passed.

Also the eye-test you do is amazing. None of this fancy machinery, no, they have a board hanging behind the counter, they ask you to read a few letters, close one eye, repeat, close other eye, repeat. That’s it. None of this struggling to make out vague squares, pressing your forehead up to try get closer.

Example of eye test board – source

When studying for the learners, at first I was a bit intimidated. The material is a 100+ page PDF referred to as the California Driver Handbook. I read it through once, then did some test questions. After getting a feel for the questions, I scanned through it again, memorised some values, and went and wrote the test. I got one question wrong.Unlike the SA learners test, the CA questions are much more straightforward, have more logical answers and were less less ambiguous. The material itself can also be read like a book, and not hard learned like the SA ‘pass your driver’s first time’ style books. And is set out for learning as opposed to the official eNATIS documentation, which is literally extracts from the National Road Traffic Act. The CA driver handbook explains the laws, why they exist, and goes on to give best-practices and consequences of not following the law (not getting a fine, but the direct result).It’s hard to say which is better. SA test makes sure you know the laws better, and sets a higher barrier to pass, but the material for the CA test was better, although the test was much easier. If you are under 18 years old, before you can get your licence you are subject to completing a driver’s ed course at school, and also a certain amount of hours driving (think 50 hours).

The driver’s test for CA is also easier. There is no pre-inspection like the SA one, you merely need to show that you know all the controls within the car: lights, hooter etc.

There is no yard test. That means no parallel parking, no alley-docking, no hill start, and no 3-point turn. At some stage during your behind-the-wheel test, you will be asked to pull up next to the curb and reverse three car lengths in a straight line. That’s as hard as it gets.

The on the road section is very similar to back home, with a list of actions you need to perform throughout the test, and a minimum amount of points you’re allowed to lose, with a list of instant fails. The test is slightly more relaxed, they are not as strict about order of things done. Handbrake never has to be used throughout the test. Push-pull steering method is lenient. You don’t need to check every mirror every time you do anything, but must check behind you when braking, check blind spots when turning, and constantly scan road.

You are only allowed to lose 15 points (compared to 120+ in SA), but the rules aren’t as strict. Personally I feel like it is an adequate test to ensure that someone can drive, and negates a lot of fluff in the SA test (although I understand the reasoning).

What I found funny out of the whole experience is that, besides the points I lost during the test, the only recommendation the tester had for me is that I drive too slowly. And that she hopes I will speed up in the future :)

Overall a relatively straightforward and painless experience, especially having already had a driver’s licence for almost 10 years.

Octane Ratings (in America)

Besides Americans calling petrol gas (and gas propane, diesel is still diesel (when you can find it)), their octane ratings are different to what I was used to. Back home (in South Africa), the standard octane rating at the coast was 95, and 93 at higher altitudes. If I recall correctly my Audi’s manual told me to always use the highest octane possible, but at least 91.

So I was quite surprised when going through our Tucson’s manual and came across the statement:

Fuel Grade: Pump Octane Rating of 87 or higher

This seemed oddly low to me. When we went to go fill up at the gas station in the US, we were greeted by a choice of Regular, Mid or Premium fuel. Referring to fuel with an octane level of 87, 89 or 91 respectively. Another surprise, as by the coast in SA, all you get is 95. No choice.

At the end of the day, it’s actually rather boring. Basically there are different ways to to calculate a fuel’s octane rating, and different countries use different methods. It can be summarised like this:

US shows the average of the Research Octane Number (RON) and Motor Octane Number (MON) rating, which is the Anti-Knock Index (AKI) while Europe just shows the RON rating which gives a higher number than the MON rating – source

If you want to know more about octane, spend two and a half minute’s of your life watching this guy’s video. If you want to know more about measurement methods, RON and MON, check out Wikipedia.

But what it boils down to is an 89 Octane in the US, is actually equivalent to around a 94 octane back home. You also have price discrepancies between fuel grades:

Fuel prices at our local garage

We are also fortunate enough to live in California, who have the second highest gas price in America, after Hawaii. At an average price of $2.80 per gallon (ZAR10.17 per litre), it is $0.70 more per gallon than South Carolina.

Gas prices also fluctuate tremendously within a city. In South Africa, petrol prices are basically fixed, meaning you pick a garage by convenience. In LA, I can pay anywhere from $2.60, to almost $4.00 per gallon! That makes petrol almost as expensive as in SA!