Do you really need winter tires?

The answer is that it depends. But let's start out by talking about what makes winter tires unique. Generally speaking, all winter tires utilize a specialized tread rubber compound that maintains it's flexibility in cold temperatures. What this does is make sure the tire has contact with the road surface and/or snow and ice as the tire is able to bit into anything that comes into contact with. All-season tires on the other hand are made for warmer weather and stiffen when the temperatures drop...leading to reduced traction and poor performance. Additionally, snow tires also utilize different tread patterns that enhance traction on slick road surfaces. These are highly engineered tires and are purpose built to tackle any tough winter weather.

and what that depends on mainly is where you reside. However there are a number of other factors worth thinking about when considering winter tires.
  • Your geography - As I mentioned, this is the biggest factor in deciding whether or not you should purchase a set of snow tires. If you live in San Diego and generally don't get too far outside of that area, then you're probably in the clear. How about if you live up in the Colorado Rockies in Vail or Breckenridge. I'd say you are probably in the target market as snow tires can help you keep traction for those many months of the year with snow on the ground. Now where you might be on the fence is if you live in the Midwest (of the United States) where it can snow a lot, but oftentimes does not. In that case you just have to figure out how much it snows and how often, and then what the impact of that snow might be. Also, do you live in a rural area or urban, and do your streets get plowed? I personally travel a good number of county road miles before I hit the interstate on my way to work. It would be a real challenge for me to traverse that stretch of road without snow tires. 
  • Your car/truck/suv - Yeah, what you drive makes a HUGE difference in deciding on a set of winter tires. If you have a real wheel drive truck or large sedan (ie Dodge Charger), then you've got a situation where the drive wheels are pushing the vehicle and that gets really hard on snow and ice. When the road conditions are poor, front wheel drive has a big advantage, and all wheel, or four wheel drive has a big advantage over both. So does your car fishtail in snow, or is it very difficult to get moving from a stop? That would be an indication that you should consider snow tires.
  • Your schedule - You might not have been thinking of this one, but it's really important. If you have to take your kids to school, or you must be at your job at a certain time, then you need to consider if your tires will allow you to get those necessary parts of life done when mother nature has dropped 8" of snow on the ground with a 0.25" layer of ice beneath. I know I don't have a job I can just miss. My employees and my family rely on me being able to get to work (on time) and bring in money to keep the house going. 
Keep in mind that snow tires are an investment. They keep your family safe and allow you do be a fully functioning member of society when the weather turns against you. It's always best just to purchase a dedicated set of wheels along with your snow tires so you can change them out quickly. It is typically not worth taking a set of winter tires on and off with your stock wheels.

My top snow tires are below, and the full list by category can be found here.