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Winter is just around the corner in Canada – in many parts it has already arrived – but consumers looking to rent a car equipped with winter tires to handle the cold, slush and snow are largely out of luck. The supply is limited, and the additional costs can be hefty.

Until I asked about renting a car in Winnipeg in January, I hadn't given it much thought beyond landing at the airport and picking up the keys. Anyone who has experienced winter in Saskatchewan or Manitoba would probably be surprised to learn that cars equipped with winter tires in these provinces are not available from the big chains.

These two provinces have a lot of snow as well as the frigid temperatures that affect handling. That cold turns all-season tires into hockey pucks, and for anyone unfamiliar with Prairies weather – someone who might step off a plane and rent a car – it could pose problems. Yet, statements from Discount, Enterprise (National), and Avis/Budget acknowledge that winter tires are not generally offered in these two provinces.

Rental car companies explain that the cost of replacing and storing all-season radials for the winter is prohibitive. To compensate, it is an industry-wide practice to tack a surcharge onto winter tires in the $8 to 15/day range, if you can get them at all. Price and availability depend on the location and several companies say to check upon arrival.

Calling around the country to the local offices, I found helpful reps, but I also found few winter tires – except in Quebec, the only province that mandates winter tires for all vehicles from Dec. 15 to March 15. A tire fee is imposed year-round to spread out the costs of meeting legal requirements, usually $2 to $3. The rental companies use cars with standard all-season tires, as you and I probably do. The difference is, I put winter tires on my ride every year. I believe in them. Your mileage may [or may not] vary, but I guarantee your stopping distance will – for the better.

A spokeswoman for Avis/Budget, said that centres in Halifax, Fort McMurray, Alta., Ottawa and Vancouver can make arrangements for customers who want winter tires. However, you need to call ahead and they can't always be guaranteed – again, an industry-wide statement that is tempered with "we'll do our best".

An Enterprise rep in Halifax agreed Maritime weather is often harrowing and said that his location would set aside a car outfitted with winter tires if I reserved ahead. Again though, no guarantee. I asked what percentage of the fleet is equipped with winter tires. He wasn't sure, and repeated what most corporations told me: they monitor need, and have no final numbers yet.

A helpful Avis rep in Gander, Nfld., tried hard to obtain specific days in January from me so she could start calling around immediately to get me the car I'd requested. I was almost certain she would offer me her own car if I stayed on the line much longer.

In Vancouver, the rainy real estate that serves as a gateway to some of the best skiing in the country, I started with the airport rental desks. Enterprise assured me it had some properly equipped full-size cars and minivans. I asked how many they would have, and once again, no one had a hard number on how many cars in the fleet are equipped with winter tires.

The Avis in Fort McMurray has 80 Impalas ready to roll with winter tires. I asked about other vehicles, and was assured that all-wheel-drive vehicles don't require winter tires. This was repeated across the country by all the companies, making me wonder if it wasn't highlighted in a memo somewhere.

An Avis rep in Whistler, B.C. was the least surprised by my request, but admitted that they'd need a head's up to accommodate the request.

Nobody's breaking the law, but if you think far enough ahead to realize you'd prefer winter tires on your rented rig, be prepared to pay a hefty premium – and possibly end up on all-seasons anyway.

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