Pickup Trucks 101: Choosing the Right Tire

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By Matthew Barnes

Having the right tire on your pickup can improve performance and be one of the best safety strategies you can employ; having the wrong tire on a pickup truck can ruin a good day. Not to overstate it, but tires are one of the most important components on your vehicle, and knowing a few basics will ease the tire selection process. Choosing the right tire can be a daunting task as there are so many options and pieces of information to keep in mind. 

While this discussion mostly covers radial tires, there are many topics and issues that carry over for the few people looking to purchase bias-ply tires. Of course, getting into the habit of regularly checking your tires is always a good idea. Worn, improperly inflated or damaged tires can be dangerous to you and others.

Tire Markings

All tires are marked with the width, sidewall height ratio or overall height, rim size and load range. An example of what you might see on the sidewall is LT315/70R17 121/118O. Here's what that means:

LT315.70R17 M+S 3 Peak II

  • Tire type, LT, shows up first in this example but it can be placed in other spots as well
  • 315 is the tire width in millimeters
  • 70 is the ratio of sidewall height to width: 315 x 70 percent = 220.5-mm-tall sidewall
  • R indicates radial
  • 17 is the rim size in inches
  • 121 is the load rating, but the load is also listed elsewhere on the tire in pounds
  • 118 is the load rating if the tire is used for a dually setup
  • O is the speed rating listed as a letter, not a number
  • On the left of the photo above there is a three-peak mountain with a snowflake and an M+S, which indicate that this tire is good for mud and snow and ice

Another way to label a tire is in inches; for example, 35X12.50R20LT.

35x12.5R20LT M+S II

  • 35 is the tire height in inches
  • 12.50 is the tire width in inches
  • R indicates radial
  • 20 is the rim size in inches
  • LT is the tire type
  • M+S indicates that this tire is OK in mud and snow[JB4]
  • At the bottom right of the photo above is load range E, which is another load rating for the tire
  • At the bottom left of the photo above are the weight ratings: 1,450 kilograms or 3,197 pounds at 65 psi cold

The tire has a few other markings placed on it such as the date stamp, Department of Transportation number, which direction the tire should be mounted if it's a directional tire, whether it's a tubed or tubeless tire, and safety warnings.

Load Ratings

P Rated AT II

Tires get several load ratings; here's what those letters on the tires mean:

P stands for passenger in a P-metric tire. These tires are great for lighter loads and highway use. Generally, they weigh less and cost less than a light truck tire and provide the vehicle with a smoother ride and better gas mileage. The downsides are that P-rated tires can't handle as much of a load as LT tires and they are more easily punctured.

LT stands for light truck tires. Terminology is a little confusing in the truck market because many manufacturers label their pickup trucks as heavy duty. Class 3 trucks such as the Ford F-350, GMC 3500 and Ram 3500, and smaller, are all considered light trucks. Medium duty refers to Class 4, 5 and 6 trucks such as the Ram 5500 or Ford F-650. That leaves heavy duty for the 18 wheelers and big rigs. That means LT tires are made for HD pickup trucks.

The common load-range ratings for LT tires are C, D and E. In the past, these ratings signified the actual number of plies the tire had. Today, the ratings are based on the maximum amount of pressure and load the tires can handle. The actual weight a tire can carry varies for a given load range, but in general a D-rated tire will handle a heavier load than a C-rated tire, and an E will handle more than a D.

LT tires will have a higher load rating than a P-metric tire. This adds stability to the vehicle for towing and hauling; it also adds durability to the tire, making it better for dirt and gravel roads as well. Rougher ride, reduced gas mileage and higher cost are all disadvantages of LT tires when compared to P-metric tires.

Tire Tread Types

Tires also get tread designations. Here's what those letters mean:

HT Tire Tread II

HT (highway terrain): HT tires are designed primarily for paved roads. They have shallow tread depths and very little or no shoulder and sidewall blocking. HT tires are typically fuel efficient and quiet. Since they don't need to offer high traction for off-road use, they can be made with harder compounds, decreasing rolling resistance, to last a long time. These are usually the most cost-effective tires because they have a lower purchase price, get better gas mileage and last longer than any other truck tire type.

At Tire Tread II

AT (all terrain): AT tires are just what their name implies, tires designed to be good in as many conditions as possible. AT tires have deeper tread depths and significant shoulder and sidewall blocking. The tread has larger spaces or voids than an HT to allow mud and snow to clear out of the tire. If the vehicle spends time driving on logging and forest service roads, then an AT tire would be a good option. AT tires are a little louder than HT tires. They weigh a little more and get a little worse gas mileage as well. AT tires cost more than HT tires, but provide better all-around performance in bad weather and on dirt or gravel roads.

MT Tire Tread II

MT (mud terrain): MT tires are made for off-road use. They have the deepest tread depths and largest shoulder blocks. They also have bigger voids in the tread and sidewall lugs, allowing these tires to carry a vehicle through obstacles that would stop an AT tire. MT tires are noisy, heavy and reduce gas mileage. The deeper tread depth makes them more prone to uneven wear. This can make it difficult to keep them balanced over time. Generally, an MT tire will cost more than an AT tire will.

HP (high performance): HP tires are for street use and are rated for high speeds. They have shallow tread depths and sticky rubber, which provide excellent road grip. Generally they won't last as long or get as good gas mileage as an HT tire. While there are HP tires designed for rain and snow, most don't do as well in those conditions as nonperformance tires would.

UHP (ultra-high performance): UHP tires are similar to HP tires, but with an even higher speed rating. They provide better on-road traction performance than HP tires. They have the same negatives as HP tires, but to a larger degree and they cost more.

M+S (mud and snow): M+S tires are often marked with a snowflake on a three-peak mountain icon along with the letter designation. M+S denotes that the tire is approved by the Rubber Manufacturers Association for snow. The three-peak mountain with the snowflake means that the tire meets RMA's requirement when testing according to the ASTM International packed-snow traction test.

Within each tire tread type, there will be a variety of tires to choose from. In the AT tires you will find some that are borderline HT and on the opposite end some that are borderline MT. With so many options available there should be a tire that suits the needs of nearly any condition in which a vehicle will be driven.

Tire Sizing

Changing the tire size on a pickup, up or down, will certainly change its driving characteristics. Manufacturers optimize vehicles for the tires that are installed at the factory. Anytime the tire size or style is changed, the vehicle will perform differently from the way the manufacturer originally intended. On the positive side, that means you can fine-tune the performance of your vehicle for the types of terrain you're most likely to encounter. On the negative side, you can potentially create some unforeseen problems. Whether going with larger or smaller tires, the speedometer also will need to be adjusted in some way to display the correct speed.

Larger tires increase ground clearance, unsprung weight (meaning weight not carried by the vehicle's suspension) and allow the vehicle to roll over large objects easier, but the heavier weight of the tire has many negative effects. If larger tires are installed, expect steering, braking and suspension components to wear faster, offer lower gas mileage, slower acceleration and deliver longer braking distances. Be sure to consider that the center of gravity is also elevated, potentially reducing the stability of the vehicle. Finally, larger tires could require a complete suspension lift or fender modifications so know your vehicle's fenderwell limits. 

When smaller tires are fitted, the exact opposite issues can happen. Fuel mileage might increase, the brakes, suspension and steering won't have to work as hard, and the center of gravity will be lower.

Final Thoughts

When shopping for new tires there are many variables to consider. The good news is that there are lots of tires to choose from. Compounds and tread patterns have gotten better over time as well, which means today's tires are significantly better than tires made 10 years ago.
Keep in mind that if you only need extra traction on rare occasions for ice and snow, then tire chains might be worth the investment, rather than using a set of dedicated winter tires. Folks who live in regions with longer, colder winters should consider having a set of winter tires and a set of summer tires.

Cars.com photos by Matthew Barnes, Evan Sears

 

Continental HT II

Cooper Discoverer AT.3 II

Mickey Thompson MT II

 

Comments

I keep a set of winter wheels/tires along with a set of seasonal wheels/tires. If you know you will be doing some temporary moderate off-roading, you can swap the winter wheels on and their soft rubber compound and aggressive tread will give a little better traction off-road, especially when aired down a bit. Caveats to keep in mind are that the winter rubber will wear quickly in warmer temps (so don't keep them on for extended periods), and the tire carcass thickness (number of plies or load rating) will determine how rough of off-roading you can do, particularly if driving around pointy rocks. Lower tire pressures will help somewhat here.

Dedicated A/T tires have more or thicker plies to make them more resistant to punctures from pointy rocks and sticks. This is primarily what makes them heavier and decreases road performance.

For my winter wheels, I usually go down a wheel size, so that I can put deeper-sidewall tires on to maintain my stock rolling circumference. This also provides more cushion in off-road situations.

These 2 are worth reading and understanding:
Inflation pressure and Load https://www.tirerack.com/tires/tiretech/techpage.jsp?techid=196
UTQG rating
https://www.tirerack.com/tires/tiretech/techpage.jsp?techid=48

They put them 10ply Dura=tracs rated at 3,700lbs per tire on the 4,600 ZR2 an t get any good off-road flex/traction ya have to air them down to 20lbs or less..
I've been looking for 33inch tires with 8inch width with out going to a road jarring 10ply for my Colorado...I don't want nor need a wide tire, which really kills gas mileage and performance more then height does

I just go with what looks good on my truck.

I run BFG A/T KO2's on both of my Tacoma's and they have been solid in pouring rain doing over 70 on the freeway and during winter storms!

They are sticky enough on dry pavement and solid in wet and snowy conditions!

GM should invest in square wheels and tires to match the wells, then they may look better, but the ride will be the same.

Have had Goodyear Wrangler and now the Toyo Open Country AT2. I offroad daily through infrastructure developments. Places where rock trucks with 5ft tall tires and dozers are moving earth. Deep mud, and even worse slop silt and clay. And at the end of the day I'm 120kph on the highway home.

The Toyos are a better tire. I'd say comparable offroad, my Silverado is in 4Auto so it's hard to say which tire is actually better in the mud. But they are quieter on the highway, better MPG, seem to have better tread wear, and I find them better on wet asphalt. Can't remember the price difference, probably in the same ballpark.

Wranglers "look" better, but if you care how your tires look, its probably because they never get dirty.

The tire you pictured for Highway Terrain is actually Michelin's LTX A/T2. All Terrain. Once again a useless story with inaccurate info from PUTC.

I'm about 99% sure the Duratracs are only a 2 ply sidewall, pretty weak for any rock crawling.

I've never had any issues with my Nitto tires, and I have never had a flat tire running Nittos. The last set on my truck when I replaced them had a nail that never punctured the tire.

What I see is no-name import tires with overly aggressive tread patterns 2 load ranges under OEM mounted on cheap imported junk wheels with totally wrong offset mounted on lifted Super Duties with worn out ball joints/bushings/wheel bearings and positive caster. Owner can't for the life of him figure out why the truck has bad 'death-wobble' and won't go straight. Buddy says he needs another steering stabilizer........

Go to your local Ford dealer lot and check out what brand of tires are on the F sisters. Then, don't buy those tires as we know that Ford puts all cheap parts onto their trucks. If possible, research which wiper blades and light bulbs are used on the F-sisters and avoid those brands also.

Ford puts tires that roll the vehicle over and Chevy puts tires on that shake the whole truck.

@gms, sorry you have to defend GM once again, my Ford tires are the same as the silvys we have work, most likely because GM copied FOrd as always.

Messing with the GM guys aside. I always made sure the tires I get can haul the loads I carry, have correct load range, and good warranty. BF's are my goto based on experience.

@oxi; I was BFG T/A KO fan too since owning my '93 jeep (gone through 5 sets) but finally switched due to the known annoying/ security issues when small pebbles/stones stuck in the grooves/ come off flying at higher speeds...yikes!

Recently switched to NITTO's for all my trucks, a bit pricey but great ties all around; Lightning NT555 G2 295/45/R18, Ranger Ridge Grabbler 285/70/R17, Wrangler Trail Grabbler 35/12.50/R15...

I like the Duratrac's on my truck. A bit noisy but only at certain speeds i.e. around 40 and 55 mph. They are great off-road. They are very soft so I don't expect them to live long driving on gravel roads. I'll be happy if I get 40,000 miles out of them. I bought them because I wanted a tire that I could run in the winter.

General Grabber AT2's hold up well but are a stiff tire and are prone to getting pulled around on rougher pavement. Paved road groves make the truck wander. I got 50,000 miles out of them. They too are winter rated.

I wanted to try the BFG KO all terrain but I could not get a good deal on them.

my Ford tires are the same as the silvys we have work, most likely because GM copied FOrd as always.

Posted by: Nitro | Aug 3, 2017 2:11:16 PM

Nitro, maybe you're right. Instead of the death wobble, like your truck has, Chevy reduced it to just a vibration, much safer.

Nitro, this is what it looks like from the outside when your steering wheel and entire front end gets the death wobble. I'm sure when it happens you Ford folk say "shake and bake, baby, shake and bake"!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8EuQ6f8rgT4

@gms, sorry you will need to defend this one

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNvG8Kj2DWY

@Nitro: sorry you have to continually defend the F-sisters. Anyway, see the link below for more info on your death wobble.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lb3bh96FVB8

The HT picture is an LTX A/T2. So not accurate. People will say it's more like an HT tire, but why show and AT in the HT picture?

@Tyler

Number of plies doesn't matter it is the thickness. For example the General Grabber AT2's in LT rating come in 2 ply 1500 denier poly sidewall where as the BFG's come in 3 ply 1000 denier. Neither is stronger than the other. So what then makes the BFG's so much more expensive? Name, looks? They certainy don't perform any better and are prone to hydroplanning, poor on road performance as well as elevated noise and decreased MPG's.

@Oxi,

This is how you lose credibility, those tires are notorious for hydroplanning with the C-shaped tread being poor at excavating water. Everything you say should just go through everyones ear and out the other, you drink way too much kool-aid.

Also don't forget the fuel economy repercussions of choosing an LT tire if you don't need one. To say your mileage will drop 15-20% isn't a stretch, not to mention the rough ride.

your mileage will drop 15-20% isn't a stretch, not to mention the rough ride. Posted by: Roger | Aug 8, 2017 5:12:17 AM

@Roger

A 20 percent loss in FE is really hard to believe, if all other conditions are equal. Please cite some specifics.

I have logged over 200000 miles on fuelly, and that is what I have found. The LT tires made it bad enough that when P-metric Winter tires were put on, that my Winter mileage was unchanged from my Summer numbers.

A 20% dip in the winter season (in northern latitudes anyhow) is pretty normal.



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