Rugged Terrain vs. All-Terrain vs. Mud-Terrain Tires


Photo by Vova Shevchuk/

Any off-road gearhead with a bit of dirt under their fingernails is sure to know that traction is a huge part of a great day on the trail. All the locking differentials and beadlock wheels in the world – or horsepower and torque, for that matter – won’t stand a chance in the tough stuff if the tires on yer rig are bald as Homer Simpson. This is why some drivers end up enduring YouTube infamy thanks to viral videos caught at the most inopportune moments.

But wading through tire selection can be a trial. Even if a person has a brace of favorite brands, rubber companies tend to offer multiple types of tires, all of which are suited for different environments. Some will get the job done off-road but then mercilessly beat you senseless on the drive home. Others do the inverse, leaving you stuck in a spot where Murphy’s Law guarantees there’s no cell service even though there were three bars the last time you were at that location.

All-terrain tires are a popular option in this segment, providing a decent amount of grip off-road but not contributing to one’s Tylenol budget when driving on paved roads. After all, most 4×4 owners use their rigs for daily-ish use during the week in addition to wheeling on Saturday and Sunday. A bit of compromise can go a long way – but don’t tell your spouse we said that.

Promoted Product: Blackhawk Ridgecrawler R/T

When it comes to trucks and SUVs, many of us use either an all-terrain tire (good traction in off-road conditions as well as good road manners for everyday driving), and mud-terrain tires (designed for outstanding traction where the pavement ends, but they aren’t designed for pavement pounding). Rugged-terrain tires fit somewhere in between, with open tread patterns and big lugs for mud and other traction-poor conditions, yet have close enough tread for decent road manners, too. Blackhawk Ridgecrawler R/T tires are a great choice for those looking for an aggressive tire that won’t let you down on the road, too. The Ridgecrawler R/T has consistent grip and performance in various weather conditions. The 3PMS-certified badge lets drivers know this tire can handle winter weather and 3D sipes provide outstanding wet traction. The tire has an optimized wide-footprint tread design providing excellent grip that enhances control on any surface. The durable and aggressive sidewall lugs provide extra traction and protection to help pull you out of ruts and holes while helping prevent cuts and snags. The sidewall stiffness also helps when you air down on the trails.

Check Price — Blackhawk Tire USA

Check Price — Blackhawk Tire Canada

All-terrains are often (but not always) denoted by an A/T designation either on the sidewall on in an official name. They usually feature large tread blocks which are staggered to provide a wide void ratio, meaning there’s more space between the chunky tread blocks than generally found in the tread of passenger car tires. This design is part of the secret sauce which permits these hoops to work well on dirt and but also provide a measure of comfort on pavement.

Some all-terrains, such as the BFGoodrich KO2, have little triangles molded into the rubber in those voids, operating as stone ejectors to fling pebbles out of the tread pattern instead of leaving them stuck in there like a peppercorn in yer teeth. Same goes for thin elevated lines molded into voids between tread blocks on the shoulder, designed to flex a bit and break any suction action causing mud to stick in tire which can scupper traction.

Sipes – those little squiggly lines in each tread block – permit the tire a skiff of extra grip on paved or concrete surfaces, since the action of pressing them into a hard surface opens them apart slightly to create extra biting surfaces. This feature can also contribute to these tires earning the three-peak mountain snowflake (aka ‘winter tire’) designation, but not always.

Mud-terrain tires are the burly brother of all-terrains, shrugging off rocky terrains and mires with absolute ease. This is thanks to huge, staggered tread blocks which have even more void between them than on all-terrains. This allows the tire to easily conquer loose or soft terrain and power through deep mud – hence their name. For drivers frequently taking their 4x4s into the wilds of a wood or the pits of mucky despair, this type of tire is a smart choice.

But, as with most things in life, there are trade-offs. Those huge tread voids which pay dividends off-road create an extreme amount of noise on pavement, and anyone whose commute includes concrete freeways should investigate a set of OSHA-approved ear protectors (not really, but you get the point). Dry traction suffers with mud-terrain tires since the very same rubber compound that eat mud for breakfast can get squirrely and squishy when driving to the mall. As an aside, many mud-terrain tires don’t have a mileage warranty or guarantee thanks to their intended lot in life. They can also be a challenge to keep properly balanced. Shop wisely.

Finally, alert readers will have noted the emergence of a new(ish) type of tire referred to as a rugged-terrain unit. Always looking for a new niche to occupy, rubber companies have seized upon the notion that there is a sliver of market between A/T and M/T tires, perhaps seeking to serve customers who want the look of a mud-terrain tire on their rig without the attendant noise-induced headaches on paved roads. Tough, sculptured tread blocks bring the grip while stout multi-ply sidewalls provide a measure of on-pavement handling whilst offering cut and chip resistance in tough conditions.

In making this hybrid tire, companies have attempted to make tread patterns which are good in the tough stuff but not overly noisy on the road. Those same sidewalls which protect against punctures are likely to have very aggressive designs on these R/T tires, thanks to customers who often want their vehicle to look as aggressive as possible – even if they only wheel on the scattered weekend when the kids aren’t in school. Expect to find both LT and flotation sizes for this category of tire.

[Product Image: Blackhawk Tire]

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