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Choosing the Best Jeep Wrangler Tires for Off-Road & On-Road

There's no doubt about it; off-road driving is an absolute necessity for any outdoor enthusiast. You can't get into those secret fishing holes or that prime spot for ultimate wind-surfing without knowing which trails lead you there. When looking for these spots, remember to stay on the beaten path and only travel in areas open to four-wheel drive vehicles. If you've just purchased a Jeep and your head is full of off-road dreams, you're also probably wondering if the tires on your Jeep are the best ones for your plans.

Extreme Terrain

What's the Purpose of Your Wrangler?

The tires you use are one of the most significant aspects of your Jeep's performance. It can make the difference between a rock climbing monster and what you perceive to be a gutless wonder. Those Jeep engines are die-hards you'll have to beat to death with a two-by-four. If your Jeep isn't pushing up the three-hundred-foot climb over Suicide Hill, chances are you don't have the right tires.

With all the options to choose from, the task of choosing the right tires for your Jeep can seem overwhelming, but there are really some rather simple rules to play by that all relate to the number one big question---exactly how do you plan to use your Jeep? Knowing what you are going to use your Jeep for will assist you in choosing the correct tires which is not only good for you and the up keeping of your Jeep, but for the trails you travel and your vehicles' efficiency. Selecting tires geared towards the trails you most frequently travel will provide grip and traction without tearing up the trail to the point of unsatisfactory conditions.

JK Wrangler Rumbling Down a Trail

For the Mud Slinging Wrangler

There are a few different ways to get through mud. It primarily depends on the situation you are in and your preference. If you are moving through mud that actually has a bottom, skinny tires will make it easier to steer and will allow them to cut to the bottom and get traction. However, if you are driving through extremely deep mud you may benefit from trying to float on top with wide tires that are aired down.

Navigating Winter in Your Wrangler

If you live somewhere that gets very low temperatures and plenty of snow during the winter, good winter tires will outperform almost all tires in snow. Better acceleration, stopping distance, and turning are some of the benefits you get from these tires.

In shallow snow skinny tires will help cut through and reach pavement/dirt. However if you are off-road up north during the winter, skinny tires may not help. In some places snow can be several feet deep and one of the only ways to get through in a Wrangler is to try to float on it with wide aired down tires. Whatever way you decide to get through snow, make sure you bring a shovel and some chains in case you get stuck. That is... if you don’t have a winch.

JK Wrangler Slinging Mud

For the Rock Crawling Rigs

When it comes to rock crawling, you want good flex, big side lugs, and aired down tires. When you air down tires you are increasing the contact area and allowing them to conform to the surface you are driving over. This provides a great increase to your traction, especially when combined with large side lugs allowing for some rather surprising rock crawling abilities. Larger tires will provide more ground clearance but will require larger lift kits to accept them and can reduce flex depending on the tire size and lift height. In addition, larger tires will put a larger strain on the Wranglers drivetrain and may require re-gearing and possibly an axle swap to handle large heavy tires.

On rocks you're not only going to be bumping up and down but you'll also need to be able to swing from side to side without any fender rubbing. A good all-terrain tread or mud tread allows for plenty of grip without tearing up the trail. Go with something with plenty of grab like the Baja Claw or BFG A/T KO tires if you’re concerned about fender clearance.

One thing about larger, heavier tires though is the braking distance is usually longer. You can offset this by upgrading your brake discs and pads somewhat, but you are still going to have to adjust your driving for the longer braking distance. Another thing you'll notice is heavy duty tires are noisier on the highway than street tires, but for the off-road experience they can't be beat.

2009 JK Wrangler Project Build Showing Off its Flex

Streaking Across Sand

When driving in sand the most important things to remember is to air down your tires and to not spin your tires. If you gun it when taking off, you will probably end up digging holes with your tires. Smooth acceleration is important to prevent this from happening. Airing down your tires will give you more traction, better weight distribution, and will allow to you and your wrangler to float on the sand better. Wider tires will typically be a better choice in this situation.

The Up and Up of Airing Down

One common point for a lot of these off-roading situations is adjusting your air pressure. It can make a huge difference when done correctly.

  • When driving on pavement air up tires to manufacturer spec
  • Low tire pressure when driving on paved roads will cause your tires to wear faster
  • High tire pressure can also cause your tires to wear faster
  • When airing down, do not lower your tire pressure too much.,You may damage your tire or pop the bead out
  • If you plan to run low tire pressure often, beadlocks can help prevent it from popping the bead out
  • Don’t drive too fast with aired down tires
  • Air tires back up before returning to pavement
Tire Deflater Installed on a Wrangler Wheel
Tire Deflater Installed

Finding Tires for the Universal Jeep

You can't beat a Jeep to death, which is why you still see a few old Willys growling down the back roads like they were built yesterday. The main problem is while you can rebuild the engine and replace parts, it's hard to find new tires for your Universal Jeep. Most of those early classic models came with 15" or 16" wheels, but their tires were military style mounted “non-directional” tread. Apart from ringing up a specialty shop, you can usually adapt light truck tires to fit your forty-year-old Jeep. While slim was the fit for fifties era Jeeps, Universal introduced wider tires in the 1960s. These Jeeps weren't built for tall tires, so you need to keep those comfortable fittings around 6.50x16.

Group of Willys Jeeps

Best All-Around Tire for your Wrangler

You’ll need studs, chains, or good all-season tires to navigate off-road, but you also want a tire that can handle being driven on the pavement as well. It can make the difference between sliding sideways down the road until you bury yourself in drifts past your hood and getting to your destination safely. Bald tires are also always an issue you want to address as soon as possible. Use all-terrain radials with plenty of tread when you're driving in dangerous winter climates.

Take for example a good dedicated mud tire. Said tire can perform great in mud, light dirt, and rocky terrain, but can suffer excessive wear and noisy performance on the highway. A big reason why is because what makes a mud tire great is a soft sidewall. This contrast makes it horrible on the highway where it leads to a bogged down feel in acceleration and poor handling due to sidewall flexing. In addition, the large knobby aggressive tread pattern that contributes to ideal traction on the trail could be problematic on the highway during the rain.

Overall, a tire like the GoodYear Duratrac or BFgoodrich K02, do a great job of maintaining a reasonable balance between the dueling environments. Firm but pliable sidewalls offer great highway performance and when deflated offer very pliable traction on the trail. The tread pattern still offers a good amount of traction, while on the trail, but not too aggressive to cause noise or issues with the rain while on the highway.

Baja ATZ All-Terrain Tire Installed on a Wrangler
All-Terrain Tire

What is an All-Terrain Tire Anyway?

All-Terrain (AT) tires are commonly the standard factory tire on entry-level to Sahara model Wranglers and other SUV and truck platforms. These tires are designed for mostly paved road use, but still offer good traction during adverse weather conditions along with light off-road use. The tires follow a traditionally channeled tread pattern found on most sedan vehicles which makes them very efficient at dispersing and channeling water out of the treads to prevent any type of hydroplaning on paved roads.
 
It’s important to note unlike traditional road tires found on most passenger vehicles, AT tires have slightly larger tread blocks and spacing. This could result in tread “cupping” which is uneven wear or “balding” on only some spots of a tire. This in turn causes the tire to oscillate or bounce slightly. Cupping is sometimes caused by wheel imbalance or bad suspension/steering components. The larger tread pattern of an AT tire makes the tread more prone to cupping and requires special attention to suspension/steering components and more importantly, tire rotation schedules.

All-Terrain Wrangler Tire

The slightly larger tread pattern does have some advantages when it comes to dealing with the snow, sand, or light dirt terrain. The wider paths between treads allow more movement of terrain to work itself out of the channels. This process ensures a good amount of traction in looser terrain conditions such as gravel and sand. AT tires however have a limit in its ability off-road. In an effort to develop a good balance between paved and off-road use, AT tires have to maintain a closer channel gap. This of course limits its ability during very loose terrain in harsher off-road conditions. This is especially noticeable in muddy conditions. The tread will compact quickly with mud and lose any ability to provide traction. In essence turning them into slick tires.

AT tires are a great choice, if you plan on doing most of your driving on paved roads. The slightly aggressive tread pattern still provides good traction during severe weather conditions and light trail use. If you plan to do more sand and beach trails, AT tires still provide great traction. However, if most of your time is spent on muddy terrain, then an AT tire is not a good choice and you should consider an MT tire instead.

Pros:

  • Quiet on paved roads
  • Great in all weather conditions and sandy terrain
  • Better fuel economy
  • Good wear lifetime

Cons:

  • Limited off-road capability
  • Prone to cupping if imbalanced or faulty suspension/steering components
  • Bad in mud conditions
TJ Wrangler with All-Terrain Tires on Snow

What are MT (Mud Terrain) Tires?

MT (mud-terrain) tires have a much more aggressive tread pattern. The tread blocks on these tires are more pronounced with greater channel gaps. These tires are typically found on Rubicon and some special edition Wranglers. Unlike AT tires, these are designed for more off-road use, but can still be driven on paved roads.

As the name implies, mud-terrain tires are designed primarily for muddy terrain use. The larger, chunky treads are designed to allow more debris through the tire channels. This is essential during muddy terrain which typically fills those channels and compacts them quickly if the mud doesn’t have enough space to work through the channels. The same principle is seen during heavy snow conditions.

In addition to muddy terrain, MT tires are also excellent in rocky terrain. The larger treads provide a great layer of protection and prevention from possible punctures from rocks. In addition, when the tire pressure is lowered the foot print of the tire becomes larger and the large treads provide a better grip as they conform to the terrain.

Mud-Terrain Wrangler Tire Close Up

MT tires can also be prone to cupping like AT tires, so proper tire balancing and suspension/steering component maintenance is essential. Another drawback with MT tires is fuel economy and road noise. The larger tread pattern can create a humming noise while on paved roads and the harder rolling resistance on an MT tire will translate in more fuel consumption. In addition, tire longevity is significantly worse for MT tires as the larger tread pattern wears much quicker than an AT tire.
 
If you plan on doing an extensive amount of off-roading in muddy or rocky terrain, then an MT tire is an excellent choice. The aggressive and larger tread pattern allows constant movement within the channels, preventing any compacting of material. This ensures great overall traction, while also providing a great layer of protection against rocks or other hard terrain. If you plan on doing more driving on paved roads, then an MT tire isn’t the best choice due to the increase in road noise, decrease in fuel economy, and overall tire wear. 
 
Pro:

  • Better traction off-road
  • Better puncture resistance

Con:

  • Louder on paved roads
  • Less fuel economy
  • More tire wear
  • Prone to Cupping if imbalanced or faulty suspension/steering component
Muddy JK Wrangler with Mud-Terrain Tires

Off-Roading Essentials

No matter the terrain you’re traveling, practicing proper trail preservation will ensure future experiences will be just as enjoyable. A few things you can do to pitch in are as follows. Never go off the beaten trail. Not only is it dangerous for you to explore un-trekked terrain, it is also damaging the wildlife growing and living freely in that area. This could spook animals and may result in causing harm to them or others exploring the trails around you.

If you are inexperienced in off-road driving look into an off-highway driver's course and learn how to negotiate the terrain you will encounter in your off-road adventures.

Lastly, and what should be common sense, always bring a trash bag with you. Polluting the trails with your garbage and recyclables will cause less than ideal conditions for other drivers as well as hinder animal and plant life inhabiting the area. If you come across another's litter, do the trail a favor and pick it up.

TJ Wrangler Dripping Wet After a Day on the Trail
Fitment includes: JK, TJ, YJ, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017