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We have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, and only one set of chains. Which wheels do we put the chains on? Do they go on the front or back? – Carol in Kelowna, B.C.

Your first line of defence in winter driving is a dedicated set of winter tires. A set of chains, which hopefully you'll never need, is cheap insurance.

"Chains improve traction and climbing by 100 per cent. They also considerably improve your stopping distance, because they will bite into the snow or hard-packed ice. The difference between studded snow tires or chains on all four wheels, for instance, is that with chains the stopping distance is half," says Ken Cousins, BCAA's vice-president of road assist.

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You typically use chains when directed by local authorities, such as when going through a mountain pass or up the ski hill, and only in extreme ice and snow conditions.

So, if you do find yourself in one of these situations and your winter tires don't provide enough traction, what's the best way to use your chains? Usually your owner's manual will advise you on the best approach with your particular vehicle, but I'll assume that you don't have this, or have already checked it. There are some important things to consider when using chains.

In general, most modern all-wheel-drive vehicles are biased toward being primarily front-wheel-drive until slip is detected. Logic would suggest that if you only have one set of chains, they should go on the power wheels, which in this case would be the front. Whichever axle you decide to put the chains on, again it's important to consult your manufacturer first due to concerns about interference with other components in the wheel well – such as brake lines, steering and suspension.

"You want to put the chains on the axle that needs the traction, and that's the power axle. For rear-wheel-drive vehicles, it's the back wheels. For front-wheel-drive vehicles, it's the front. The bonus of a front-wheel-drive is that your power axle is also your turning axle. So if you have chains on the front, you have really good traction because you're able to turn and still speed up and slow down through that axle," says Wes Smith of Quality Chain Canada.

Smith adds that in an all-wheel- or four-wheel-drive vehicle, because you have power between all four tires, you should have two sets of chains.

"It's always good to have two sets of chains, no matter which type of vehicle you have, be it two-wheel- or all-wheel-drive. For example, with a front-wheel-drive car, not having chains on the rear end can cause it to start to slip. But nobody wants to spend much money and so they try to do things the cheapest way possible, and usually everyone only buys one set of chains, and it's usually just for the power axle," says Smith.

Although tire chains can be invaluable in extreme winter conditions, not every region of the country promotes their use. While snow tires or chains are mandatory in parts of British Columbia during certain months, and permitted in Ontario when conditions warrant, some provinces – such as Quebec – prohibit the use of tire chains on public highways (unless you're in an emergency or road maintenance vehicle, or driving a tractor). Regions that don't allow chains generally prefer that you stay home rather than drive in extreme conditions – and risk ruining the roads with your chains.

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This brings us to an important point. If used properly, chains won't ruin the roads, or your vehicle. Remove snow chains before driving on roads not covered with deep snow to avoid damaging your tires and unnecessarily wearing down the chains.

Always make sure to follow the instructions provided by the tire chain manufacturer. Using the wrong chains for your vehicle or installing them incorrectly can increase the risk of losing control. According to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation, you should not exceed 50 km/h while using chains.

It's a good idea to purchase and practice installing chains before you actually need them. As Smith says, "When there's two feet of snow on the side of the road and it's minus 20 degrees, your hands don't work as well as they do in a nice heated garage. Your ideal situation for practising is in your garage or outside when it's warm and dry.

"Put them on and take them off over and over until you get comfortable, so you can do it on the side of the road in the dark and cold – because that's usually when you'll have to put them on."

E-Mail Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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