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How Off-road Vehicles Work


Off-road Tires
For a 4x4 vehicle equipped with mud-terrain tires, a drive through mud and water is a walk in the park.
For a 4x4 vehicle equipped with mud-terrain tires, a drive through mud and water is a walk in the park.
George Rose/Getty Images

The primary function of tires is to provide traction. For normal vehicles, this means gripping a relatively smooth paved or gravel surface. For off-road vehicles, this means gripping a variety of surfaces, from rocks and boulders to sand and dirt to snow and mud. As a result, tires are one of the most important purchases you'll make for your off-road vehicle.

Before you head to the local tire shop, think about the kind of driving you'll be doing. It's possible to buy smooth-riding tires (or street tires), but this implies you'll rarely, if ever, be driving off regular roads. As this is an article about off-road vehicles, let's set aside any discussion of smooth-riding tires and focus on the three major types of off-road tires available for four-wheel-drive vehicles:

  • If your vehicle will be splitting its time between highway and off-highway use, it will need all-terrain tires. These tires feature a tread design with interlocking tread elements that provide good traction in dry snow, ice and mud, as well as on paved surfaces. They are relatively inexpensive and have good longevity.
  • If you spend more time driving off-road, then you should consider mud-terrain tires. With aggressive tread patterns and larger lugs, these tires offer extraordinary gripping power in all kinds of off-highway terrain, especially wet snow and mud. They are also extremely durable, with super-tough sidewalls to absorb the impact of rocks and other off-road hazards. They will, however, set you back a few more dollars than all-terrain tires and will lose their tread faster.
  • You might want dedicated snow tires if you drive in areas that get lots of the white stuff. Snow tires stay soft and pliant even in subzero temperatures. They also have a number of grooves and channels, known as sipes, in the tire tread. Sipes bite into wet snow and ice to improve traction in slippery conditions.

Because ATVs and UTVs are off-road vehicles by definition, they generally come standard with mud-terrain or all-terrain tires. Sand tires are also available for ATVs that hit the dunes. Sand tires feature either horizontal or V-angled paddles, or extrusions, that churn sand and deliver superior traction.

Once you've chosen a tire, you can decide on a wheel. Up next, we'll talk about the types of wheels available for your off-road vehicle.