Special "How To" Tire Guide

By the staff of Dirt Wheels

There are different types of rock riding. A tire that works on slick rock where there is a ton of traction may not work well in wet rock situations.


What type of trails do you ride? This should be the first question a dealer asks you in regards to choosing a new set of tires for your favorite toy. Whether you drive a sport quad, hunting-equipped quad or UTV, or a mud-bog monster of a 4×4 quad, there are tons of traction options to choose from. We’re hoping to help you narrow down your options and outfit your rig with the tires that will optimize your riding experience. We categorized the most common types of tires on the market for you in this “How-To” on choosing the right tires for your trails.

All-terrain tires work reasonably well in many types of riding or driving. You can see these tires chewing up some soft dirt and showing evidence plowing through mild mud.


This section is basically the one-size-fits-all tire type. All-terrain tires combine tread designs of modest open space, aggressive tread blocks, roundish profiles, and carcass ply ratings of different magnitudes. One of the best examples is the enormously successful Maxxis Big Horn 2.0. It comes stock on a large number of performance UTVs and even some 4×4 ATVs. It is exceptionally light, and development engineers love that. It is great in intermediate terrain but works reasonably well at crawling, sand-slinging, hardpack, mild mud, light-duty snow, and tackier trails. There are a large number of intermediate tread patterns from virtually every tire brand, and all work pretty well in a wide range of conditions.

The ply ratings on these types of tires usually rest between 6 to 8 ply, so it is a bit easier to get flats over other dedicated desert tires.

We generally see all-terrain tires in wooded areas and on GNCC-style courses. A tire that is skinny allows it to roll through tighter sections and hang up less on roots, ruts, and rocks. They are also easy on differentials and axles.

Rock-crawling tires tend to be large, heavy, and have a more square profile to get edge grip. Slow-speed crawling doesn’t require high air pressures. It is better to have a tire that flexes and molds to the surface it is being used on.



Rock crawling comes in a few different forms. There is slick rock, which isn’t slick at all and has a ton of traction available, and rock that is actually somewhat slick. A tire that is made specifically for rock crawling tends to have a larger diameter with a lot of tread. The tread will be closely spaced together with sidewall tread blocks that protrude outward.

All parts of a rock-crawling tire tend to get utilized. The carcass is generally 8-ply rated and the tread blocks are very supple. This means the blocks will wear quickly outside of crawling. These meats aren’t great for any other type of riding due to their weight and tread design, but you can use them comfortably on hardpacked desert trails.

Desert-specific tires tend to have a more rounded profile. Desert riding is fast and generally hard-packed, which allows a rounded profile to excel while sliding corners or tracking through ruts without catching an edge and causing the vehicle to tip.



The Dirt Wheels’ headquarters is stationed in sunny SoCal where endless miles of desert terrain are close by. We spend a lot of time there and test all terrains and desert-style tires there constantly. Tire sizes are getting bigger, and the tread technology is getting better.

Desert-specific tires tend to have a rounder profile. This helps the tires slide corners more predictably without as much edge catching. The taller sizes let the UTVs or ATVs have more ground clearance for rocks, bushes, and other trail debris in your path.

You will notice that a lot of UTV desert tires will look similar to light truck tires. The tread blocks are spaced close together since there isn’t too much mud around. Tread wear tends to be longer than other types of tires, and the carcass is generally 8–10-ply rated to resist getting flats. There are even run-flat tires and ply ratings up to 12. Sidewall tread isn’t generally needed in the desert, so a manufacturer can cut down on weight.

The key to riding in the sand is to float above it, and on a sport quad, rear paddle tires perform the best for more traction and speed. The paddles scoop the sand and propel you forward with less spinning compared to normal sport quad tires with lugs.



Sport quad tires are generally remarkably uniform in appearance and design. Stock tires have a round profile and smallish tread blocks so the tire slides controllably. Race tires have a rounded front with a more square shape to the wider rears. In the desert, the best tires are 22–23 inches tall with tread blocks that last a while. This gives your machine more ground clearance compared to the stock 20-21-inch-tall tires most sport quads come with.

We have noticed that some machines perform well with or without sand tires in the sand. This Ace gained a traction boost with rear paddles and front ribbed tires that acted as mini paddles in four-wheel drive.


Sand tires are one of the more specific tires for the terrain they are needed for. Sand is deep, soft, and generally dry. You will find most ATVs and UTVs ripping around on rear paddle tires and smooth front tires.

A paddle tire can start out as a round tire carcass without tread blocks. Manufacturers will then add on paddles that act like big spoons. Sand paddles can also be molded just like any other tire, but they are generally heavier than a buffed tire with paddles vulcanized on. Now, if you put all-terrain style tires on a machine, it will get you around in the sand but the blocks don’t dig too well and that means less traction for forward momentum. Paddles will dig deeper in the sand, scoop and fling sand out, which gets you a lot more traction and propels your vehicle forward with ease.

Since all your 2WD ride has to do with the front end is float on the soft sand, a smooth front tire is all that is needed. The extra weight of tread blocks will slow your rig down, and all your fronts need to do is push sand to make a turn. You will find that a tire with one to three small ridges of tread does provide a bit more help while cornering.

Four-wheel-drive machines can utilize front tires that have mini paddles in the sand. Traction and power tend to be what is most useful while blasting around on the dunes. Tires with more paddles are for higher-powered machines, and some people believe that any UTV with less than 150 horsepower doesn’t need paddles, but that hasn’t been our experience.

Unfortunately, one tire doesn’t do it all. An all-terrain can tackle some mud, but the tread blocks pack up and don’t clean out like a true mud tire would.



Mud tires are just as specific to their terrain as sand tires are to the dunes. The tread design for mud starts with large, tall, and sharp lugs. The tread is spaced far apart to promote easy mud clean-out. The tire carcass may offer flex, but the tread blocks are usually stiff, and many of the tire carcass designs grab as much traction in the thick, deep mud bogs.

Ply ratings generally rest around 6-ply for these tires, which allows the tire carcass to flex more. Sizes tend to be taller than stock tires. More often than not, a mud tire provides an uncomfortably rough ride on any terrain that isn’t soft and wet. Some mud tires are a little less aggressive, so they can get you to your favorite mud pits in a relatively smooth fashion.

Driving in mud is incredibly fun! However, to gain traction in it, a tire that has deep lugs with wide tread spacing is preferred. You need a tire that can dissipate the mud as quickly as possible to maintain forward traction.



The racing tire category is a rather track-specific choice. Depending on what you like to race, there are tires with very soft tire compounds that will offer the most traction but wear out the fastest. Tire size also depends on what you race. A sport quad in a motocross setting works best with 18 and 20-inch-tall tires so the machine is closer to the ground for better cornering. In the desert, bigger tires help. Short-course UTV racers utilize flat-profile tires that provide predictable sliding ability. You can generally get help from other racers on the right tire choices for your ride.

Race-specific tires don’t tend to perform well outside the realm of terrain they are meant for. These tires are designed specifically for dirt track racing. The tread is supple and allows the UTV to slide predictably in corners.
A lot of mud-specific tires do not perform well in any other terrain. You can find less aggressive mud tires that allow you to have a somewhat smooth ride out on damp trails.
There really isn’t a snow-specific option from almost all tire companies. Generally, an aggressive lug tire will perform well depending on the conditions.



We hope this guide gets you a great starting point to choosing the perfect set of tires for your ride. There are many companies with great offerings of tires, and different dealers will try to sell you on what they feel is the best tire or even what they get the most income out of. Take this base of knowledge and put in a bit more research for yourself. We have tested many different types of tires through the years, and our back issues are a good place to start! You can also find tire tests on Happy rubber hunting!

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