Up there in the extreme north there are areas of Lapland where snow already appeared in September. Still in small amounts, but this is the first sign of an inexorable truth: winter is coming. And although Finland is not the primitive Winterfell of Game of Thrones, people should start preparing for the toughest time of the year, a season that will transform the country into a dark, icy and almost inhospitable place in the eyes of those who have come from abroad.
Adaptation, that is the key word when cold, snow and ice become part of your daily life and force you to adopt some previously unknown customs, such as the obligation to change the regular tyres of your vehicle for studded ones. For drivers recently arrived in Finland from warmer latitudes this might seem another annoying (and expensive) requirement, since winter tyres are not mandatory in most of the European Union (EU) countries. But again, Finland is one exception due to its harsh climatic conditions.
If you bought your vehicle when you arrived in Finland, the seller probably already told you about the convenience of acquiring with it a second set of wheels with ice tyres. On the other hand, if you brought your car from your home country, you will have to buy another set of wheels to use during the winter time. A regular set may cost around 800-1,000 euros depending on the car's model (this estimation includes rims and tires).
A life insurance
Some newcomers may find annoying to have to add that expense to the budget, but the truth is that it is money well spent. Winter tyres are a life-insurance on the road for you and for other drivers. And they are also the only tool that will make possible to travel by car all-year-around in a country whose winter conditions are among the toughest in the world.
If the whole thing seems very expensive, the first winter you can skip half the expense by changing only the tires and continue using the same rims. This option is more complicated and must be done in a wheels store, but it will allow you some time to save for a new set of rims. If you stay in Finland, in the long run you will surely end up having two complete sets of wheels, like most Finns. Some of the locals even change the wheels by themselves twice a year, so why not to learn?
When is mandatory to change the car's tyres?
According to the information published by the Finnish Traffic Authority (Trafi), winter tyres are mandatory since 1 December until the last day of February.
Between those two dates you must have your vehicle adapted for driving under extreme weather conditions and therefore circulate with winter tires. Otherwise, you would be risking your security. And if the police encounters you driving in winter with 'summer tyres', surely you will be fined.
However, that does not mean drivers have to change the wheels exactly in those specific days. Changing the wheels of all the vehicles in the country twice a year is a large-scale transformation, so the current regulation grants margins of around one month to do it.
Finland's traffic authorities allow circulating with studded tyres since 1 November.
In the same sense can be extended the term to remove the winter tires from your vehicle. The Finnish Road Safety Council reminds that winter studded tyres may be used until March 31st or the first Monday after Easter, whichever comes later.
This rule applies also to cars and vans with foreign number plates when driven in Finland. Since January 2017, lorries, coaches and buses as well as cars with a total mass exceeding 3.5 tonnes are also required to use winter tyres during the December-February period, remarks the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications.
Still, drivers must keep in mind the old Finnish proverb which says that 'Finland's summer has few snow', meaning that in this country ice and snow may appear anytime, even when we think winter has passed. For this reason, the law allows some exceptions to the calendar rules described above. In fact, studded tyres may be used at other times of the year, if necessary due to exceptional weather conditions.
Before fitting tyres, it should be ensured that they are in good condition and compatible with the vehicle and that the tyre pressure is correct. The groove depth of winter tyres must be at least 3 millimeters measured in the principle grooves of the tyre pattern, Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications says in its website.
Studded or non-studded?
Winter tyres may be of either the studded or non-studded variety. As said before, the minimum tread depth of the main tread grooves is 3 millimeters. For difficult road conditions, the recommended minimum tread depth is 6 millimeters. Winter tyres can best be identified by the M+S, MS or M & S markings on the tyres.
Studded or non-studded, what is best?
When driving on snowy or slippery roads, the tyre tread pattern and the friction characteristics of the rubber are the main factors affecting traction.
Studded tyres are heavier, therefore more consistent. They are also by far more noisy because they actually 'scratch' on the roads. This is why in icy conditions studded tyres provide better grip and the best traction. However, they do cause more road wear than non-studded ones.
Non-studded winter tyres are called friction tyres. According to the Traffic authority, "their grip characteristics are at their best on snowy roads". They also have the advantage that they may be used all-year-round.
Most Finnish vehicles (more than 80%) use studded tyres during the winter time.