There’s little debate as to what wheel and tire combination is best for on pavement traction. There’s a reason drag cars have very wide rear tires. It’s to get the maximum amount of traction from the road surface. It may seem that the same would be true for off-roading but according to this detailed article by Scott Brady of Expeditions West and CEO of Overland International, that isn’t the case. In his paper, Brady argues that a thin wheel and tire combination will render the best results except in soft and deep sand, snow, or mud.
Skinny Tires Work Well In Most Situations
The vehicle’s weight is distributed over a smaller contact patch with the skinnier tire, meaning the rubber tread of that tire deformed more and was able to get
Skinny tires also enjoy less rolling resistance, less frontal resistance, and because the tire weighs less and is thinner overall there’s less rotating mass. All of these factors play a role in making skinny wheels and tires the superior option off-road.
It Really Depends On the Terrain, Though
There are exceptions to the rule. Wider tires are better on deep sand or mud. This is because they cover more space and the vehicle can “float” more or less on top of the terrain. Brady notes that wide tires are most effective in these cases when the snow, mud, or sand is deeper than 110 percent of the vehicle’s minimum ground clearance.
For example, if your vehicle’s ground clearance was 10 inches and you had to drive through 11 inches of snow, sand, or mud, you’d be better off with some wider tires. That way you wouldn’t simply sink into the terrain.
So Which is Actually Better?
The bottom line is that it depends on the terrain. In most cases, we’d have to say a thinner wheel and tire combination would be better. However, if you drive primarily on the road with a few off-road detours, you’d likely be better off with wider tires due to the handling benefits they have on the pavement.
You could also consider something in-between a wide or skinny tire. By splitting the difference, you’ll get the on-road performance you need and the off-road prowess you crave. Another thing to think about is the specific vehicle you drive. Each model is different, and the wheel and tire combination best suited for that vehicle likely won’t be the same for other vehicles. If you have trouble deciding, talk with an off-road or tire specialist before making a decision.