When the weather gets wetter and the trails get muddier, it’s time to fit winter tires with a little more bite.
Specialist winter tires are often narrow to cut through thick or deep mud, but we’ve generally stuck with more versatile 2.2 to 2.35in carcass tires, which behave more consistently and survive better on rocky or harder surfaced trails.
While some tires manage to tread a better balance than others, there’s always a trade-off between speed and grip. That’s because more grip generally comes from a softer compound, stickier rubber or a wider spaced, taller block pattern, neither of which is a recipe for fast, smooth rolling.
Whether you want maximum grip or easier mobility depends on your riding preferences and the terrain you ride, but for winter, we’ve chosen grippier rather than slippier tires. There’s nothing to stop you running a faster tire on the back and a grippier one up front to create your own balance.
What to consider when choosing winter mountain bike tires
The tread depth: The taller the knobbles, the deeper they dig to spike the firmer ground beneath. That means more grip in mud, but too-tall knobbles can flop unstably on rocks and roots, making them poor on rocky trails. They can drag and roll slowly on harder surfaces too.
The shoulders: If you’re riding natural, unsurfaced trails a lot, a pronounced shoulder and a square-ish profile will dig in hard for great grip under cornering. There can be a noticeable transition from the centreline to the edge though. Some tires have knobbles in-between to counter this.
The compound: Soft compounds offer huge grip on wet rocks and roots, but are harder to pedal, wear fast and are prone to tearing. Multi-compound designs, which mix soft rubber and hard in various ways, grip hard but roll and wear well. Note the lower the durometer, the softer the compound (42a is soft, 70a is hard).
The ramps: Many tires use ramped central knobbles for easier rolling, and they make a big difference – you’ll even hear it. Ramped tires are quieter, as less of your energy is being wasted in generating sound. The backs of the central knobbles remain vertical for good braking bite.
The casing: Where once you had hugely heavy dual-ply casings for downhill and single-ply for everything else, now there is a host of armoured but trail-weight options. If you regularly ride fast rocky, heavily rooted stuff with rough landings, an EXO or ProTection casing will help; for smoother stuff, single-ply is fine.
Five of the best winter mountain bike tires
WTB Vigilante TCS 2.3in (650b)
The Vigilante is a fantastically grippy tire that does a lot before it even gets on your bike. The TCS comes in one well-judged width and one rubber mix, but is available for all sizes of wheel, making it easy to buy.
The casing’s supple but tough, with a 50a compound overlaying a firmer 60a base. It finds a hold on woodsy terrors, where deep sipes keep the 4mm-tall knobbles mobile enough to squidge out grip. In soft stuff the big side lugs dig into loose or muddy ground for excellent cornering.
Braking is excellent too, though the aggressive tread means it’s best as a front tire allied to a quicker rear. If you ride mostly trail centres it’ll be a little wasted, though not out of its depth.
WTB’s Tubeless Compatible System means it’s a tight fit on some wheels, bordering on nightmarish with our test pair of tubeless ready Stan’s Flow EX rims. It’s best on 21mm (or wider) rims, as anything under 19mm leaves it pinched and prone to rolling over.
- Weight: 765g
- Width: 2.3in
- Tubeless ready: Yes
Michelin Wild Mud Advanced Reinforced (650b)
This extremely grippy mud tire is so spiky even the spikes have spikes. The smaller, ‘twisted’ blocks on top are designed to be easily snipped off – lower blocks are more stable on hard or mixed ground, and the Wild Mud tends to pinball through wet rock gardens despite the sticky Magi-X Series rubber. The 6mm-tall lugs break away early on anything resembling a prepared surface, too.
In soft dry ground or filthy wet mud, grip is fantastic. Steering and braking is sharp enough for dry-trail levels of aggression, and with the full extra ply of this stiff, 33tpi Reinforced version there’s little chance of damage. The extra damping of the heavy carcass and soft rubber (Michelin doesn’t say how soft, but it’s comparable to Maxxis’ Super Tacky) is a performance boon.
The reinforced Wild Mud is designed for enduro racing, and while heavy it rolls quicker than you might think. Michelin recommends the harder Gum-X for the rear, but doesn’t do it in this casing. These still work best in a pair.
- Weight: 1,015g
- Width: 2.25in
- Tubeless ready: Yes
Mavic Crossmax Charge 2.4in (650b)
- Weight: 1,040g
- Width: 53.5mm
- Height: 51.5mm
Mavic’s maximum grip enduro specialist, with beautifully damped, bombproof control, is still our most wanted attack tire. The wide spaced, siped tread in soft ‘SSC’ rubber gives feedback rich, squirm-free grip in the most treacherous conditions. While it blows up small, the easy sealing, dual ply carcass gives an outstanding mix of supple, ground moulding, grip enhancing softness and impact-eating damping that makes a Sektor feel like a Pike.
Its ability to maintain traction under the biggest braking and cornering loads has made it the go-to ultra-grip front tire for our test-kit-killing custom Nicolai. We still haven’t burped, ripped or flatted it in nine months. Rolling speed is glacial though, so slick the rear for speed.
Hutchinson DZO Enduro 2.25in (650b)
- Weight: 1,020g
- Width: 54mm
- Height: 49mm
Hutchinson’s DZO is tooled for sinking its teeth into the soggy end of the year, with full-on fang tread on a stable, shock absorbing carcass. The full height spikes are so effective in loamy or muddy conditions that our first runs with it were an understeering, apex tree-clobbering comedy until we learned just how hard this tire could corner.
The reinforced yet supple Enduro Hardskin carcass sucks up small bump chatter and big body blows to keep it locked on even when hammering. It’s even pre-marked for cutting down if the tall knobs start to wander on harder surfaces. High cost, rapid wear and notable drag on drier, firmer terrain mean it’s a real ‘special occasions’ option.
Schwalbe Dirty Dan 2.35in Super Gravity (650b)
Dirty Dans are available in 26in, 650b and 29in in 2.0 and 2.35in widths and a range of compounds. At 2.35in they blow up large – a full row of knobbles wider than the 2.25in Michelins – and put a serious amount of sticky VertStar rubber down. The result’s a bit less grip in slick mud than the narrower Wild Muds, but a bit more grip and predictability through rock gardens and roots.
Given that they’re just 5g heavier than the Michelins it’s tempting to say they’re more versatile, but they’re slow rolling and hard work without gravity on your side. They’re not cut out for general trail use, but make sense of slippery natural descents and twiddly climbs as long as the mud lasts.
The rubber is a triple-compound with a soft centreline and very soft shoulders over a hard base. Even the centre compound is softer than the ‘soft-compound’ shoulders on Schwalbe’s TrailStar tires. The tubeless-ready Super Gravity casing is tough, and we ran them 5psi lower than expected to stop them pinging off things instead of moulding to them.