Off-road tires are able to carry a vehicle, driver, passengers, and load, on bumpy rocks, sand, mud, and other off-road surfaces, thanks to their special tread patterns. The grooves between the tread blocks are wider and the lugs are larger. Off-road tires also have reinforced sidewalls and are puncture resistant, which helps avoid damage and accidents.
How Off-Road Tires Work When Street Driving
Off-road tires are typically worse than street tires on pavement, due to the lack of contact patch area. On a street, they provide less grip and are quite noisy. However, there is a type of tire that provides adequate performance on all surfaces, including both paved roads and off-road.
Major Types of Off-Road Tires and Their Performance
There are four main types of off-road tires:
- All-terrain (AT)
- Mud-terrain (MT)
All-terrain tires are good for people who often switch from highways to off-road use and vice versa. Their tread consists of large blocks and deep grooves that continue to a part of their sidewalls. They also have smaller center blocks, which provide enough traction and less noise during on-road use. These tires have lifespans of up to 50,000 miles, due to the compounds added to their rubber blend.
The performance of these off-road tires is adequate on mud, rock, sand, etc., but on highways they are rather rough, which impacts ride comfort. This was proven during a test conducted by the TireRack team.
These tires can also be used all year, including in cold winters. In temperatures lower that 7C, their performance will be mediocre at best; much worse than that of winter tires.
You should consider AT tires if you need a regular quality on- and off-road, and if the winters in your area aren’t cold and snowy. Using such off-road tires only on paved roads may result in cupping, while using them only off-road may be insufficient. In this case, you may require a more aggressive tread.
You can learn more about all-terrain tires and how they differ from other types from this post.
Mud-terrain tires are mostly for off-road use, especially on muddy surfaces. Their tread is more aggressive, the blocks are larger, and the channels are wider. Mud doesn’t pack into the tires’ grooves, and even if some of it does, most MT tires nowadays clean themselves of it. Dirt, debris, and mud channels through the grooves, just as water does in regular street tires. The same goes for deep snow, so mud-terrain tires are good for year-round use. However, they won’t keep your vehicle stable on ice, due to the lack of contact patch area.
MT tires have stiff sidewalls, which absorb shock from impacting uneven surfaces. The tread is also quite durable, but not as much as all-terrain tires. The rubber compounds in these off-road tires are softer, providing better grip on all surfaces. This is why they wear faster and cost more. MT tires are also noisy and rough when used on highways, and may be less stable on wet roads.
Not always considered off-road tires yet worth mentioning, winter tires are for snowy, icy surfaces, and cold times of the year. Their rubber compounds are soft enough to remain pliable in temperatures lower than 7-10C. These on- and off-road tires bite into snow and ice with the help of the thinner grooves on their tread blocks – known as sipes.
They have a number of advantages over all-terrain tires, but their major drawback is they are only for cold seasons. When the weather becomes warmer, they can no longer provide adequate performance. Furthermore, they don’t last as long, as at least 4/32” tread depth is needed to bite into snow.
Sand tires provide good traction on sand, helping move through dunes.
These have special extrusions that appear horizontally across the tire or in a V-shape. They help churn sand and move through it successfully. Such off-road tires are usually specialized and used for particular sport activities and tours.
Off-Road Tires Construction
Off-road tires are usually radial or bias-ply.
Radial tires have plies horizontally across the tire’s surface, from bead to bead. On top of that main layer, there are several stabilizing plies. Such tires usually cause less rolling resistance, improving fuel economy. Moreover, they provide smoother rides, which makes them great for street use. Radial tires also take longer to wear and help keep a vehicle under control. Most tires on the modern market are radial, but are not in the off-road niche.
Bias-ply tires have been proven to be better for off-road use, due to the shared casing plies for their tread and sidewalls. While radials have plies at a 90-degree angle, bias-ply tires have crisscrossed steel layers at a 30-degree angle. The shared plies improve tire flexibility, and allow for better traction and self-cleaning capacities. However, the increased flexibility is also a disadvantage if used on-road. It causes more rolling resistance, which increases fuel consumption.
Bias-ply off-road tires keep any minor puncture in place, preventing its expansion and making it possible to plug it and finish the travel.
5 Best Off-Road Tire Brands
Here are the 5 best brands manufacturing off-road tires:
- Mickey Thompson
- Dick Cepek
Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is one of the two all-American tire brands that manufacture all kinds of tires, from sport to heavy off-road. Wrangler is one of the most popular off-road lineups of the company. They are mostly all-terrain tires, which provide great on- and off-road performance. However, if you need a more aggressive tread, try Wrangler DuraTrac®. They have reinforced sidewalls (which helps the tires to be puncture-resistant), and improved silica rubber compounds.
Mickey Thompson is now a subsidiary of Cooper Tire and Rubber Company, specializing in high-performance tires for different uses, including off-road. The Baja ATZ-P3 lineup is one of the most popular off-road tires of this brand. They have an advanced compound that improves cut resistance. Furthermore, their sidewalls have a 3-ply PowerPly special feature. These are all-terrain tires, but if you need a mud-terrain off-road tire from this brand, you might like Baja MTZ. They offer high mileage and excellent off-road traction, with self-cleaning capabilities. Baja MTZ are great tires for mud and deep snow use, as the substances don’t pack into their grooves.
BFGoodrich is one of the most popular tire companies in the world. They manufacture products for all vehicle applications, including off-road tires. Their most popular off-road lineup is All-Terrain T/A KO2. Their shoulder grooves are 40% wider, they provide a long lifespan, damage resistance, and strong bead construction. A great mud-terrain lineup is Mud Terrain T/A KM2. The construction of these off-road tires’ involves special linear flex zones, which help grab and drive over obstacles much easier.
Another Cooper subsidiary, Dick Cepek, specializes in off-road tires. Their Fun Country lineup is one of their most popular. They fall somewhere in between all-terrain and mud-terrain tires. Their tread is 18.5/32” deep, and the lateral grooves help resist damage and clean the tire with their special Stone Kickers. Moreover, their sidewalls add to their safety and puncture resistance. The sipes of these tires help keep the grip great all year long.
Japan-based Toyo Tire and Rubber Company manufacture a high-quality off-road tire lineup – Open Country. Their Open Country M/T tires provide excellent traction on pavement, rock, mud, snow, and other surfaces. The over-the-shoulder tread construction guarantees deep mud and snow grip. Their sipes are also quite deep, which helps them move on wet surfaces and ice.
Tire- and Wheel-Related Tips to Consider When Going Off-Road
Here are some things to do to ensure safety and avoid problems when going off-road.
Check the Tires and Wheels
Inspect your vehicle and see if the tires are balanced and rotated, and if the wheels are aligned. Also check your off-road tires for damage and treadwear/uneven wear. Even if you do it regularly, find time for an extra check before going on an off-road trip.
Know Your Tire Limits
Make sure you know the load and speed capacities of your tires, and don’t exceed them. Do your best not to load the vehicle to the maximum if you prefer driving off-road on slightly under-inflated tires. You can find information on your tire specifications in the code on its sidewall.
Let Some Air Out
Decreasing the inflation of your off-road tires will increase the contact patch area. This will help you drive easier on off-road surfaces. The tires will flex and move over rocks, trees, and debris, without any damage. When driving on snow or sand, lower pressure will help you avoid digging into the surface and getting stuck. Regular vehicles specialized in rock-crawling have tires with 8 psi or even lower.
However, remember that letting too much air out may make the tire go flat and come off the rim.
Avoid Rapid Speed Changes and Moves
Don’t rush, go as slow as you can yet as fast as you need, and give your off-road tires some time to get used to the surface. After some time, they will provide much better grip and you will be able to increase the speed. You should also avoid rapid moves and adding throttle if you start spinning or sliding. Instead, slow down and guide your wheels gently until they find traction.
Check Your Front Wheels’ and Vehicle’s Positions
Always lean out of the window to make sure your front wheels are in their proper position. Just because you keep the steering wheel straight does not mean the wheels will be straight. . If you think you are about to become stuck or there’s a maneuver to be done, steer slowly, bit-by-bit.
NOTE: Be careful; keep your thumbs inside the steering wheel. Rapid kickbacks from debris may break them.
As for the vehicle, don’t stop in deep ruts or try to avoid them completely, if possible. Drive where the ground hasn’t been touched, but if there are ruts everywhere, make sure you are on the highest point. Ignoring this may cause even the best off-road tires to get stuck in the ground or even sink, especially if the surface is muddy and porous.
Switch to 4-Wheel-Drive (4WD) When Going onto Dirt
If you own an all-wheel drive off-road car, you will have to lock the center differential. Shift into 4WD as soon as possible, as when your tires start spinning you may be already stuck. Shifting at that stage may not help solve the problem.
Also keep in mind, some of the roughest off-road trails may require additional 4WD Low-Range control. This will help you improve traction and regain control of the situation. In this mode, power runs through an additional set of gears, improving pulling power.
NOTE: Don’t engage/disengage low-range at speeds higher than 2-3mph.
Making an Off-Road Adventure Successful
Choosing the right tires, for the right surface, will help you avoid most problems that may occur when going off-road. Make sure to check the weather before going on a trip, as the off-road ground may change from dirt to mud if it’s raining heavily. Don’t forget a tire repair kit and other tools that can help you repair your vehicle or get out of deep ruts. It would also be wise to plan all parts of your trip, so you know what surfaces and potential obstacles to be prepared to.
With high-quality and suitable off-road tires, any surface or weather is conquerable.