In 1948, Michelin introduced the motoring world to the first steel-belted radial tire that was available to the public on a large scale.
Featuring steel reinforcement that “radiated” out from the center of the tire and perpendicular to the tread, this construction created a stronger, longer lasting, and more efficient tire. It also freed up manufacturers to experiment with new sizes and tread designs. Three-quarters of a century later, the radial tire still dominates the market, but remarkable new technologies have made today’s rubber better than ever.
Tire brands from all corners of the globe are offering incredibly capable and durable tires for everything from Le Mans endurance race cars to huge mining trucks whose tires are nearly fourteen feet tall. Exotic substances like Kevlar, carbon fiber, and even organic plant-based materials have made their way into tire construction, and the newest generation of winter tires perform nearly like magic on snow and ice. Gone are the days of weak sidewalls, delaminating tread, and puncture prone casings.
What does all this mean for the aspiring or seasoned overlander? Tire choice is absolutely key to your safety, peace of mind, and ambition as an overland traveler. Your entire adventure literally rides on four patches of hand-sized rubber, so thinking carefully about the tires you fit to your rig should be at the top of your list of priorities in any build.
To kick off this discussion, let’s look at four criteria we think should guide your tire choice, regardless of the type or manufacturer you settle on. In a future article, we’ll talk about the differences between all-terrain and mud-terrain tires, and what to consider in choosing a particular brand for the way you travel. But first, a quick word about modern tire technology.
Not so long ago, punctures and outright tire failure were major points of stress for adventure travelers. It was not uncommon to suffer multiple flats, or even the structural disintegration of a tire in harsh conditions on long journeys.
But consider some more recent data points.
Expedition Overland has traveled hundreds of thousands of collective miles on three continents in all their various overland rigs, from Land Cruisers to Tacomas to Jeeps, and including heavily laden trailers. They have run several different brands, and have never - I repeat - never had a catastrophic tire failure.
Our Overlander and XO collaborators Richard and Ashley Giordano from Desk to Glory drove all the way from Canada to Ushuaia, Argentina and back to Vancouver, BC and hadone tire puncture. They fixed it on the side of the road with their tire repair kit and drove thousands of more miles on that tire.
Our friend Dan Grec, one of the most prolific overlanders in recent years, drove 999 days and almost 54,000 miles in a loop of Africa over some of the most brutal urban and remote roads on the planet and had onlythree punctures.
My wife and I drove tens of thousands of kilometers over two years through a dozen African countries, often in extremely rough terrain, and we can report only two tire punctures during our time on those roads. Both flats occurred in the city where we lived, and not out in the back of beyond.
The take-away here is that modern tire construction has come a long way in the last ten years. If you buy tires from an established and reputable brand, such as General Tire, B.F. Goodrich, or Falken, you can definitely be assured that the old worries that plagued overlanders of yesteryear about tire durability have largely been put to rest.
Armed with that knowledge, we can move on to thinking about four core considerations when choosing an overland tire. As with any decision on a component of your vehicle that is designed to wear over time, there will be different variables to negotiate. So, it’s up to you to decide where you fall on these metrics based on how and where you travel.
An underlying assumption here is that we are looking at off-road oriented tires - all terrain or mud terrain rated. Nearly all of us want that extra ability to venture off the beaten path, so moving beyond highway rated tires is generally where we tend to fall as overlanders.
We all want our tires to last a long time - new quality rubber for your rig is a significant investment, particularly if you are upgrading your wheels at the same time. If your adventure vehicle also does daily duty as a commuter this is an important consideration.
While most off-road tires won’t wear as long as street tires in town and on the Interstates, due to softer rubber compounds and aggressive tread designs, the trade-off is higher durability and more strength when the trail gets really tough. Check on various manufacturers’ tread-wear warranties - some offer more miles than others. If your rig spends more time on the dirt than on the pavement, this will be less of a deliberation for you.
What our tires can accomplish out on the remote paths we love to travel is usually the first thing we take into account when looking at new rubber. The manufacturers know this, and their epic marketing campaigns reflect it - lots of Jeeps and Toyotas flexing on extreme terrain. We all want the capability to reach those wild campsites and blaze new trails safely and without drama.
Mud-terrain tires have big, deep tread blocks and they look extremely cool. They are also unparalleled in muddy conditions, as their rating suggests, and in very rocky contexts. However, they are for the most part poor performers in snow, and are a real drag on the highway - both literally and metaphorically.
A good all-terrain tire will tackle 90% of the conditions that a mud-terrain will, but can flounder when the sand or the mud gets really deep. If cold weather travel is frequently on your schedule, they’ll never match the capability of a true winter tire. Like a jack of all trades, an all-terrain tire can do lots of things well, but not any one thing exceptionally.
Traction is not the only measure of capability. You should also be calculating the mass of your overlander when it’s fully loaded for adventure. Choosing a tire with the correct load rating for your vehicle, plus all your gear is essential for keeping you safe on the road, and taking advantage of what your truck can accomplish on the trail.
We’ll delve even further into these discussions in our next post, but for our purposes here, it’s important that you’re honest and clear with yourself about the road conditions you normally find yourself traveling, and the weight of your vehicle. This will really help you nail down the capability you need from your new rubber.
One of the overlooked aspects of long-distance overland travel is that the vast majority of it happens on well-paved tarmac routes. Especially in North America, just getting to the trailhead might involve many, many miles of highway driving. My favorite desert back-roads happen to be in southern Utah, about eleven hours from my Montana home. Eleven hours of Interstate slog.
The fewer trips to the gas pump, the easier your travel will be on your wallet. The design and weight of your tire set-up will impact your fuel efficiency in significant ways. If you’re lucky enough to have your favorite trails near your home base, or have a committed overland rig, efficiency may fall further down the list of considerations. But if you live on the road long term, or need to travel far to find some solitude, you may need to think more carefully about your tires' heft and rolling resistance.
This final criteria depends a lot on your particular vehicle, and the size of your wheels. While manufacturers are constantly churning out a wide variety of tire sizes, some will have limited availability depending on where you travel.
When you need new rubber - or in the event you have to replace a tire due to damage - running a particularly large or odd size, or an unusual brand may present a challenge. As a general rule, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen inch tires are most common in the off-road sphere for all-terrain and mud-terrain tires, but eighteen’s and even twenties are starting to filter into the market as well for more modern vehicles. But for global travelers, many of these newer sizes won’t be available in far-flung corners of the world. Again, being clear-eyed about how and where you travel will guide this decision as well.
Now that we have some baseline criteria for thinking about your tire choice, next we’ll dive into the specifics of different kinds of tires and the benefits and drawbacks for overlanders.
What kind of tires are on your escape vehicle? Do you stick with a particular brand? Questions on tire selection? Let us know in the comments.
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We don’t like to get too hung up on labels here at Overlander, but, well… it’s in our name so we thought we’d take some time to think about what overland travel means to us and for you.