A flat tire is the most common situation you might find yourself stuck in, and it really (really) pays to be prepared. Preparing for a flat is just plain smart.
You might wonder why we’re talking about fixing a flat and you might even think this one is just too easy, but more and more these days your average person is simply not equipped to handle something as basic as flat tire.
It’s not all their fault, with $2/month insurance promising to come save you and services like AAA becoming more and more popular it’s easy to forget these basic things and rely more on others on the end of a cell phone for your own well being.
Another reason is the decline of fathers in our society. Chances are if you didn’t have a dad or a father figure teach you how to fix a flat tire, you probably never learned how.
But because a flat tire is a common experience and in fact is one of the most common situations you can find yourself stranded in, it pays to be prepared.
A simple flat can lead to much more serious situations too, like if you ask the wrong stranger for help or get stuck in the middle of nowhere without cell service.
With that been said, this isn’t a step by step tire changing instructional either (Youtube has a plethora of videos for that) but we’re here to give you the principles of preparation.
Do This Now – Before The Flat
Go out to your car and get your owner’s manual. Some vehicles have very weird ways of attaching a spare tire. Unless you’re familiar with how your vehicle does it you will be figuring this out on a cold rainy night with the baby screaming in the back seat because that’s Murphy’s Law in action.
Next, check your spare. Check the air pressure and tread depth. Check for any bulges, worn spots, or cracks. Note that most spares pump up much higher than regular car tires.
Then check the four tires you’re riding on now the same way you checked the spare. Most flat tires can be completely avoided with minor maintenance and some basic prepping.
Soon – Put These On Your To Do List
Practice changing a tire, or at least walk through the steps in your head while you walk around your vehicle. Always block your tires to keep the car from rolling and find a level spot with solid ground before attempting to jack up a vehicle.
Get a mini air compressor that plugs into the cigarette lighter in your car. You can buy one at Walmart but we recommend getting one online as the quality and price will be far better. You really get what you pay for.
Check your tires at least once a month. You can’t avoid a leaky tire and it definitely won’t go away if you ignore it and a low tire wear out faster and seriously bumps down your MPG. You never know if you might have hit something small in the road like a nail, so make a habit to check the pressure every so often. This is also the time to note your tread depth and look for any cracks. These are the most common causes of blowouts…
… which will help you avoid, uhhh…whatever is happening here…
Your Vehicle Emergency Kit Should Cover Spares
If you have not read our article on making a vehicle emergency kit I recommend you do that now and if you don’t have one you should at least assemble a basic kit.
You can save time and trouble and just buy a roadside assistance kit, but most omit some important item or another (but you can just add them to a store bought kit).
Cheap vs The Best
A quick note here, there are two schools of thought about tool quality. Some believe that you should only have the best tools on the market, like this 12v air compressor inside an ammo can, or this very high quality (and tiny) jump starter and air compressor kit that can just about fit in your back pocket.
I say you should strive for that goal when possible and within reason. This is because you don’t want to depend on something that might let you down when you need it the most, but a cheap adjustable wrench is better in an emergency than no wrench at all.
So, if you can get the best then get it but if not at least get something until you can replace it with the best a few years down the line.
Cheap tools will usually work at least a few times and since these are emergency tools they won’t see much use (hopefully never).
If you don’t have a vehicle emergency kit yet then see our post on building a personalized kit. If you would like some quick suggestions, you should get these:
- 12-volt mini air compressor
- high quality thick gauge jumper cables
- emergency flashlight with flood and spot
- adjustable wrench
- multi-bit screwdriver
- Fix-a-Flat (but be warned many places will charge more to change the tire later)
- a quality multi-tool
- warning triangles (flares are optional, but nice to have for a variety of uses)
- air pressure gauge
- electrician’s tape
- spray lubricant (such as WD-40)
- tire plug kit
This really is not an extensive travel emergency kit (see the above linked post for more) but it will get you started in the right direction. And again, there’s no shame in buying a pre-assembled roadside kit. Many kits, such as this 104 piece kit from Thrive, are actually very good quality.
I am not a fan of Fix-a-Flat spray cans. Yes, they work and can get you out of a real pinch (which is why I still recommend them), but some tire service centers won’t change the tire if you used one (and they can tell, it’s a real mess).
I also highly prefer a small and portable battery booster/jump starter instead of jumper cables. Not only do they let you jump off your own vehicle in a much safer way (for you and the vehicle electronics), but most come with usb charge ports. You can also find the larger units with built in air compressors.
Carrying 3 reflector triangles that fold up and a reflective vest is recommended, and maybe some new technology like the reusable LED flare kit shown above. At night you want to be seen from afar and this is the best way.
Add some leather or mechanics work gloves, a hat, and a rain poncho (Murphy’s Law again) and you’re good to go for any weather.
If You Have A Flat
First thing is first, do not panic. Slow down and immediately look for a place to pull over. Don’t keep driving or you’ll ruin your rim.
You want to be off the road as much as possible, on level ground, and hopefully on gravel or pavement. Parking lots are obviously the best place if you’re lucky enough to be near one.
Once you’ve pulled over it’s a good idea to call a significant other and let them know what’s happened. This way if you don’t show up after a while they can come looking for you.
Check The Damage
Set out your hazard reflector or flares then take a second to determine the cause. A blowout will be obvious, usually the side of the tire will be ripped. In that case you’ll need to put on a spare as there’s no way to save it.
If there’s no obvious damage it might be a slow leak that’s finally caught up to you. Metal wires and white strings will show at any obvious wear spots. A nail or screw could be stuck in the tire. Many times the nail head will break off and the nail could be embedded so deep in the rubber that it’s practically invisible.
In that case try the fix-a-flat, read and follow the instructions on the can. If it works drive home carefully and change the tire in your driveway. If it fails you’ll need to put on your spare.
Changing A Spare
If you need to change the tire, hopefully your vehicle is on the closest level ground you can find away from traffic. If not and you see a good spot not far away try carefully driving it over very slowly. Be aware of any soft, wet, or muddy ground around ditches that could get you stuck.
Next, chock your tires so the car doesn’t roll once you’ve jacked it up. If you’re changing a front tire the parking brake should be adequate, but follow the instructions in your manual.
Work quickly to take the spare out, break loose your lug nuts, jack your vehicle up, finish removing the lug nuts and replace the tire with the spare. Tighten your lug nuts back up, then save the final tightening of your lug nuts after you’ve lowered the vehicle back down. Remember to go in a pattern where every nut you tighten is opposite of the last one.
Check the air pressure in your spare and if it needs any more pressure use your mini air compressor to top it off.
One of my favorite car guys on youtube is Scotty Kilmer. Here’s his very quick video on changing a tire.
Changing your own tires is one of the many ways we can be more self sufficient. If all else fails or if you’re not in a safe situation, don’t be afraid to call a tow truck that operates nearby or phone a friend.
Remember to check your spare at the same time that you check your other tires. Most flat tires can be avoided with simple periodic checks and a little maintenance.
Don’t ride around on your spare either. It’s important to get a new tire as soon as possible so you’ll be prepared for the next flat and most spares are not made to be used but at low speeds for short distances.