Tire Maintenance Safety

How to Change a Flat Tire

Here’s the sad truth: if you drive, chances are there’s a time coming when you’re going to have to deal with a flat tire. If you’re “lucky”, it’ll happen in your driveway or in a parking lot, but it’s more likely that you’re going to have a tire fail while on the move. And when it’s at highway speeds, that’s a whole other matter.

A flat tire might happen for all kinds of reasons; old tires, underinflation, debris in the road. Regardless of why it happens, it’s important that you know what to do and how to handle changing that tire. You don’t necessarily need to know how to fix a flat, but you need to at least know what a flat tire looks like, what your vehicle is equipped with, and how to get back on your way again.

First, be aware that modern tire designs won’t really look like they’re underinflated until they’re drastically low on air. If you’ve got a tire that’s really low and are wondering how long you can drive on a flat tire, it’s best that you don’t. If you absolutely have to, though, pull off to the shoulder, turn on your flashers, and don’t exceed about 15-20 mph until you can get to a safe place to change it. If it’s all the way flat, you’ll know it because it’ll be...well, flat on the bottom and will drive horribly. In fact, driving any distance at all on a totally flat tire will quickly ruin it and render it beyond repair.

What you need to be able to change a tire

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it needs to be said anyway:

  • Lug wrench -Key, if your vehicle has custom rims and locking anti-theft lugnuts
  • Jack
  • Safety triangles or flares
  • Spare tire

It’s a good idea to be prepared for whatever might happen, so think about keeping a safety kit and some other seasonally appropriate items in your car, such as:

  • First aid kit
  • Protein-rich snacks
  • Cell phone power bank and cable
  • Duct tape and multi-tool
  • Reflectors or flares -- if these take up too much space, get a strobe app for your smartphone, since an LED strobe can be seen for ½ mile or more to alert other drivers
  • Blanket, cap, and gloves, in the wintertime

We should also mention something about the spare here. It’s pretty easy to take your spare tire for granted, but you should check it from time to time to make sure it hasn’t lost air pressure or is dry rotted. Remember that tires have a shelf life, and a spare that’s never even been on the ground might not be any good if it’s more than six or seven years old...and a flat spare tire is going to do you exactly zero good in an emergency.

Some new vehicles are no longer equipped with a spare at all. Ditching the spare and jack saves 30-50 pounds of curb weight and frees up some cargo room, but be sure you know if your vehicle isn’t equipped with one. Plenty of models and brands, from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche, to Kia, and Hyundai, no longer include one at all.

The Kia Soul provides free roadside assistance, along with a number of Chevrolet models equipped with OnStar. If that’s the case, they should be able to help you out if things get dicey.

Locating the spare

On your dad’s Buick, chances are the spare was in a little well under the trunk floor, or mounted up on a ledge underneath the rear package shelf. That’s often not the case anymore, though. On a modern vehicle, the spare might be:

  • Slung underneath and toward the vehicle’s middle, and can be lowered from inside with a knob (many minivans use this mounting position)
  • Underneath and in back, under the trunk
  • In the engine bay
  • Under a truck bed
  • In the cargo area (on SUVs)
  • On a swing-away rack behind the rear hatch (SUVs and crossovers) Spares that are mounted underneath in a cradle might be lowered via a wingnut-and-bolt arrangement or cable, or might require a special tool. Check your owner’s manual to be sure.

Space saver spares vs full size spares

The “donut” or space saver spare has been pretty common since the early ‘90s, although plenty of pickups and SUVs still use a full-size spare. These tires are for emergency use only; you should keep your speed at 50 mph or less if you’re driving on one, and replace it with the correct tire for your vehicle as soon as you can.

Some newer cars also feature run-flat-tires, with a reinforced sidewall that will allow the tire to keep its shape even in the event of complete air loss. If you have run-flat tires, remember that you should keep your speed under 50 after loss of air pressure, and try to not go more than 50 miles before you replace it. Going too long on a run-flat tire will completely ruin it.

How to Change a Flat Tire: Step by Step

So you’re driving along and you hear “thump thump thump” followed by “flap flap flap” -- congratulations, you now are the proud owner of your very own flat tire. Follow these steps to safely replace your flat:

  1. Slow down gradually and keep a tight grip on the wheel, but don’t overcorrect. A flat tire on a front wheel can be hard to handle, so don’t oversteer and you’ll be okay.
  2. Find the safest possible place to pull off. That means as far away from traffic as possible, on as flat and level a surface as you can manage. Avoid pulling off in grass if you can, since you’ll need a hard surface to raise the vehicle. For those in hotter locations, be aware that the heat of your car’s catalytic converter and exhaust can start a grass fire.
  3. Once you’ve safely pulled over, set the parking brake.
  4. If it’s after dark, set a reflective triangle or flare about 100 feet behind your vehicle.
  5. Locate your spare and jack.
  6. Securely block the wheels opposite the spare with a rock, chunk of wood or whatever else you can find. This can head off any chance of the vehicle rolling away while it’s up on the jack.
  7. Locate the right jack point -- this could be under the frame, in a slot or other receptacle (check your owner’s manual if in doubt) and mount the jack safely and securely under the vehicle.
  8. Slowly and carefully raise the vehicle until the tire is almost off the ground. Your vehicle might have a hydraulic jack with a crank or a scissors jack with a long handle, so make sure you’ve pulled off far enough to use it safely if the flat is on the traffic side.
  9. Using your lug wrench, remember “lefty loosey-righty tighty” and break loose the lug nuts while the wheel is still on the ground. Older vehicles usually have a wheel cover that was handy for keeping the lug nuts together; if you don’t have a wheel cover, be sure you put them all in one spot.
  10. Raise the wheel the rest of the way off the ground, remove the lug nuts by hand, and remove the wheel.
  11. Mount the spare tire over the lugs and reinstall the lug nuts; take your time and make sure they’re going on straight and not cross-threading. A cross-threaded nut will be a lot harder to tighten and will strip the lug.
  12. Once the lug nuts are finger tight, lower the wheel until it touches the ground and tighten the lug nuts the rest of the way with the lug wrench. Tighten one, then the one diagonally opposite to it, then do the same with the remaining ones in a star pattern. Don’t get too overzealous with the tightening, because you’ll need to re-check the torque of the nuts in 50-100 miles anyway.
  13. Remove the jack from under the vehicle, gather up your stuff, remove the blocks from the other wheels, trade your flashers for your blinker and carefully pull back out into traffic. You’re on your way again!

Other considerations for your flat tire

  • Aerosol sealants: Aerosol products, like Fix-a-Flat, coat the inside via centrifugal force once the tire is inflated again. While that seems like an easy fix, we’d only recommend aerosol sealants in a real emergency; they make it dangerous for a tire shop to work on that tire, and sometimes make it impossible.

  • Roadside assistance: There may be times when it’s impossible to change your tire, or maybe you’re just not comfortable with the job; if that’s the case, roadside assistance is a good alternative. Just be mindful that, depending on weather and your location, you may be waiting awhile.

Remember that you can save yourself from some trouble with regular inspections of your tires and sidewalls, checking for damage, road debris, excessive treadwear, and other problems.

Here’s hoping that you don’t find yourself stranded with a flat tire -- but if you do, you know how to handle it now!

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