Off-roading can be some of the best fun you’ll have with your vehicle. Not only you’ll experience pushing the machine to its limit, but you can also visit places few others can, together with most of your belongings. It’s quite an attractive proposition nowadays, especially with urban environments limiting our time in the open.
However, off-roading does bring many challenges, and the biggest one is getting stuck in mud or sand. Even the best off-roader on the planet, like a Jeep Wrangler or a Toyota Land Cruiser, can’t overcome every obstacle without proper equipment. And by that, I mean upgraded suspension and, crucially, better tires.
Now, putting a set of maximum traction off-road (or mud-terrain) tires or all-terrain tires sounds like it would do the job, but it’s actually much more complicated. See, regular off-road tires also have limitations and won’t be able to overcome demanding terrains. For that reason, tire manufacturers started looking into the farming and agriculture industry for a solution, and it’s called flotation tires.
Today, most off-road/all-terrain tires come in P-metric (Euro-metric), LT-metric, or flotation sizes. However, most owners of 4x4s or SUVs don’t know what’s the difference between them, and only a few are educated about flotation tires.
Not to worry, though, as I’ll cover everything there is to know about flotation tires in this article in-depth, so you can have a clearer picture before splurging the cash. Let’s (not) dive in!
What are Flotation Tires?
Flotation tires are characterized by their high volume, i.e., wider footprint and higher sidewalls. The higher volume allows these tires to run at very low pressures while still having enough air inside to carry the weight of the vehicle. Moreover, the wider footprint reduces the pressure per unit area on the ground, unlike thinner off-road tires.
Thanks to their low-pressure profile, wide tread, and high sidewalls, flotation tires will float over demanding surfaces like mud or sand and conform over larger rocks. In other words, due to their design, they won’t get stuck as easily as smaller and narrower tires. And driving in very deep mud or sand doesn’t only require traction – it also necessitates not digging into the surface.
Originally developed for heavy equipment, such as tractors, combines, and sprayers, flotation tires were designed to prevent these heavy-duty vehicles from sinking into mud or sand, which is crucial when you deal with heavy cargo. By distributing the weight of the vehicle to a larger area, flotation tires also ensure farming vehicles don’t compact the soil and damage the crops.
But the volume of flotation tires is only a part of the story. Since you’ll be using these tires at very low pressures, they also come with stiffer sidewalls. The overall construction is also more durable, with more steel belts or plies inside the tire, which bring higher puncture resistance. Even the tread on these tires is more durable to prevent cuts and chips from abrasive surfaces, like sharp rocks or other objects.
So, generally, flotation tires will be tougher and can drive over mud and sand easier than their smaller counterparts, but how big is the difference, really?
Advantages of Flotation Tires
1. Higher Traction and Better Stability for Off-Roading
Due to their large volume and low-pressure profile, flotation tires can significantly increase your off-road game when aired down. You’ll experience more traction in mud or sand and will be able to overcome very large rocks.
Moreover, you can use the aggressive tread pattern on these tires for added traction on dirt, gravel, and turf (though you’ll still get better traction on regular off-road tires). Just don’t forget to re-inflate the tire to the recommended pressure for road driving because, in those conditions, you won’t need the flotation abilities.
In other words, flotation tires give you many options when you are going off the beaten track. Dirt and gravel? No problem. Deep mud or large rocks? A piece of cake. Nothing can stop these tires when you know what you are doing – you’ll just need a good tire inflator, and you are done.
So, if you are a real enthusiast off-roader and want the best possible traction over challenging terrains, there is no better option than flotation tires. For most other people, though, the answer is not as straightforward.
2. Higher Load Capacity
Apart from providing better off-road traction, flotation tires also come with a higher load capacity. Now, this would mean nothing if you keep everything else on your SUV/4x4 stock, as the vehicle would already have a limited weight capacity.
However, upgrading the suspension and installing flotation tires can increase the overall load capacity of your vehicle. Thich might come in handy if you are building an overlanding rig with various amenities inside the cabin.
3. Won’t Damage Sensitive Terrain
Thanks to the lower pressure they put on the ground, flotation tires won’t destroy soft soil as much as regular tires. So, if you care about keeping the turf intact and generally minimizing your impact on the environment, flotation tires can help significantly.
4. Improved Fuel Efficiency on Soft Terrain
In my experience, flotation tires also decrease fuel consumption when driving on challenging terrain. This is because there will be less wheel slip, meaning most of the power will be used to push the vehicle forward rather than digging into the ground.
Moreover, with these tires, you’ll generally be keeping your engine at lower rpm when off-roading on challenging terrains.
5. Tougher and More Durable Construction
Flotation tires have more belts and plies inside while also featuring stiffer rubber that can withstand higher loads and resist punctures and cuts. Thus, if you go off-roading regularly, they will generally last more than P-metric tires and are similar to LT-metric tires.
6. Improved Comfort Over Rough Terrain
Thanks to the higher sidewalls of flotation tires, they absorb much more shocks and vibrations when driving on uneven terrains. As a result, the passengers will feel more comfortable with their heads not tossing around.
Disadvantages of Flotation Tires
1. Much Worse Road Handling
Due to the higher sidewall, larger volume, and higher weight, flotation tires provide much less precise handling and slow steering response. Moreover, these tires tend to deform if you attack a corner too fast, which limits lateral grip. It’s the same story with longitudinal traction – you’ll experience more wheel slip and longer stopping distances.
Trust me – driving with a set of these tires requires certain patience. My friend had them on his Land Cruiser Prado and returned to regular off-road tires – the off-roader was just too cumbersome to drive, especially on a twisty road. So, you really should be pushing them to the fullest when off-roading, or there is no point in owning a set.
2. They are Very Expensive
Another big obstacle in putting flotation tires on your SUV/4x4 is the price – they are much more expensive than regular-sized off-road/all-terrain tires. So, again, you really need to be sure that you’ll need the added off-road abilities before splurging the cash.
3. You’ll Need New Wheels (and Probably an Upgraded Suspension)
The worst thing about flotation tires is that they necessitate other upgrades to your vehicle. For starters, you’ll probably need a suspension lift kit so that the tires aren’t rubbing when turning. These kits are mightily expensive and bring all sorts of challenges with them.
Furthermore, you probably want to invest in beaded tires to maximize the potential of your new flotation tires. These wheels will let you run at very low pressures by keeping the bead of the tire locked into place. And beaded wheels are exorbitantly expensive nowadays, especially if you opt for a reputable manufacturer.
4. Worse Traction on Hardpacked Terrains
Although flotation tires will work fine on dirt and gravel when aired up, they still won’t provide as much traction as a regular-sized off-road/all-terrain tire. This is because regular tires with a narrower footprint create higher, more concentrated pressure onto the ground, which increases traction. Meanwhile, flotation tires with their low-pressure profile wouldn’t push into the ground, which limits traction.
5. Worse Packed-Snow Traction
Although it seems counterintuitive, flotation tires are actually worse in winter conditions. This is because you’ll mostly encounter packed snow, where you’ll want narrower tires to create more pressure and bite into the snow, creating traction. Flotation tires would only float over the snow and provide you with almost no traction, and the issue will be even worse when the ice comes into play.
However, flotation tires can be usable on unpacked snow – the type you encounter when off-roading. In this case, the floating ability is suitable, as it keeps the vehicle from sinking into the snow. Still, going too wide could create potential issues with traction, so it’s best to refrain from using flotation tires in the winter.
6. Higher Road Noise
Due to their large volume and footprint, flotation tires will be much noisier than regular-sized tires. You can even hear these tires at lower speeds when the hum will be a bit unnerving, but at higher speeds, it will be intolerable for some people – especially the passengers.
7. Worse Fuel Economy on the Street
Although flotation tires decrease fuel consumption when off-roading on soft terrains and large rocks, they can severely lower the mpg numbers on the highway. And since you’ll mostly be driving your SUV/4x4 on the street, installing flotation tires will increase the fuel consumption overall.
The reason for this is weight – flotation tires weigh much more than regular-sized tires. Your engine would be working much harder to turn these tires, as they are more inert, which deteriorates fuel economy.
How to Read Flotation Tire Sizes?
Flotation tires don’t follow the regular “tread width/sidewall height/wheel diameter” sizing. Instead, a flotation tire would look something like this – “35x12.5R17LT.”
For this particular tire, the numbers/letters mean:
- The number 35 represents the overall tire diameter in inches
- The number 12.5 represents the width of the tread in inches, i.e., the tire’s footprint
- R17 represents the diameter of the wheel in inches, just like in a regular tire
- LT represents the load range of the tire and refers to a “Light Truck”
Can You Replace Your P-metric Tires with Flotation Tires?
Yes, you can replace your regular P-metric or LT-metric tires with flotation tires. However, there will be limitations and probably some upgrades you’ll need to do.
For starters, you need to make sure that the flotation tires you choose are the correct size for your vehicle and can fit into the wheel wells. Flotation tires are larger and wider than P-metric tires, so you may need to adjust your suspension or do some fender roll to accommodate them. Otherwise, you risk your tires rubbing when turning, which is a serious safety issue.
Some SUVs, like the Wrangler, would accept larger flotation tires, but only up to 33 inches. If you want those tires that look like they came from a monster truck, you’ll definitely need to do some modifications on your vehicle.
Flotation tires look very tempting for owners of SUVs and off-roaders. However, learning from the people I know, they do that mostly for cosmetic purposes. Only a few of my friends installed flotation tires because they needed them – the others do it for fashion.
Now, sure, monster tires do improve the looks of your vehicle, but they also significantly worsen the on-road handling. Fighting with your SUV with the hands tightly holding the steering wheel is certainly not fun and also less safe.
You know what else is not amusing? Burning money from your pocket. Yup, flotation tires will deplete your bank accounts faster. You will spend a fortune on buying them and all those necessary upgrades (suspension and wheels) and then drive an SUV with worse fuel economy.
But let’s finish this on a more positive note. For people that really enjoy off-roading or overlanders that visit remote places, there is no better option than flotation tires. You can rely on them in every off-road scenario and have the peace of mind that you won’t get a puncture and get stranded!
I’m Ivo Gievski, the content writer for Tireer. We built our website with over 15 years of experience and extensive research in the automotive and technology sectors. My dedication to delivering high-quality content is unwavering, and I strive to continuously hone my skills to stay ahead of industry trends and provide readers with informative, engaging, and valuable insights.