How to Change a Roadside Flat Tire: The Definitive Guide

Someday, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, you'll find yourself on the road in your car, maybe on the highway, and you'll hear something.

With your air conditioning on full blast and your stereo so loud your ears feel like they are bleeding, you normally wouldn't pay much attention to that noise besides the fact that it's combined with a sudden loss of control to your car. You'll turn your music and air down to hear a constant flopping of rubber with each wheel rotation, and then it's obvious—you have a flat tire.

You'll manage to push your way from the far left lane to the emergency lane through trucks and sports cars honking and screaming at you, throwing coffee at your car, flipping you off, and you'll finally get to the side of the highway, if there even is one. But, now what?

Turn off your engine, take off your seat belt, take a deep breath… relax. You tell yourself it's just a flat tire. Nothing to stress out about.

But wait… you don't know what to do!

That's why you need to be prepared...

Step 1: Call AAA (American Automobile Association)

Okay, maybe not all of you have AAA, but if you do, that's the first thing that comes to mind— have someone else fix your problem. But that might mean getting your car towed if you don't have an inflated spare tire. Plus you have to sit there, and sit... and sit some more, until someone finally shows up. You could have fixed it yourself by then!

Image via fishandcheese.com

If you can't afford the annual premium of AAA, the instructions you'll need to follow are quite different than just talking on your mobile phone (unless you call someone else to fix your flat). If you don't even have a cell phone, than it's all up to you. Though, you might get lucky and have a do-gooder citizen stop and help, but don't count on it.

Step 2: Get Out of the Car

You're not going to fix anything sitting on your ass... um... luxurious leather seat, so open your door, step outside, and perhaps pop the trunk— you'll need to get in there if you're going to fix anything, unless you don't have a trunk.

Step 3: Find Your Flat Tire

To most people, without even stepping foot outside the car, it would be obvious which tire needs fixed. But for those who were multitasking before being a roadside victim, they might not know right away. So look around, find your faulty tire, which should look sadly different than all the rest, a little smaller maybe, not quite as round.

Maybe it will be hanging off that expensive aluminum rim of yours. Maybe you left that rubber about 100 yards back, flapping in the wind. Either way, you know which one's the culprit.

Step 4: Find Your Spare Tire

If you haven't already done so, unlock your trunk and search for your spare tire. If you can't find one, maybe your spare isn't inside your trunk, maybe you don't even have a trunk.

Most cars (small, medium, full-size, luxury, convertibles) have a trunk or hatchback in the rear, where a "limited use" space-saver or compact spare tire is kept. Most refer to this type of tire as a "donut". Sometimes it's right there, in plain sight. Most other times it's hidden under carpet and a stiff sheet of cardboard, locked into the tire well with a bolt and wingnut.

Image via staticflickr.com

Most sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have their spares located in the back, also under some carpet and cardboard. Anytime you have a vehicle that has a spare tire stored on the inside (wherever), it's going to be a "limited use" tire, because there isn't enough room for a full-size spare.

Sometimes, your spare will be hidden on the underside of your vehicle, in a cradle near the rear. You may need to loosen a bolt (which acts as a security feature) inside the trunk to release it. Some are dangling from safety wires. This kind of spare saves tons of space, but in turn, gets extremely dirty, which makes fixing a flat nothing short of filthy. Trucks are another common culprit for undercarriage spares. These are also normally "limited use" tires, due to space.

Some vans, like the Chrysler Town & Country, keep the spare tires on the underside, beneath the driver and passenger seats, which is very inconvenient.

Image via staticflickr.com

Vehicles with full-size spares have the tires stored externally, either on the rear door of the vehicle, the bonnet, the side or even the roof. Maybe that big round circular object attached to the rear of your SUV isn't for decoration after all!

Some pickup trucks are known to simply keep their spares in the truck bed.

Once you've found the location of your spare tire, wherever it is, pull it out and set it down next to the flat tire. If it's not inflated, you have a problem, and you'll need to get on that cell phone of yours and call a local tow truck, or AAA, or some other motor club to come pick you up and take you to the nearest gas station or mechanic. Some will pump it up right there for you, but maybe it would be a good idea if you carried one of those portable air pumps in your automobile.

Image via thegreenhead.com

You can charge those things at home or even in the cigarette lighter socket in your car. Who knows, maybe you'll need to pump a tire up someday anyways, right?

Step 5: Find Your Tools

Just because you have a spare tire doesn't mean you have a fixed flat. You need to work for it, get your hands dirty, which means you need tools. In probably the same place that you found your tire, there will be a jack and a lug wrench. Sometimes, when the spare is stored on the underside of the vehicle, the jack and wrench will be located under the hood.

Image via 300cforums.com

Step 6: Be Safe

Before you start doing anything, you should hope that you're on level ground. Make sure you're in park and apply your emergency brake. Find a rock or a large bag of trash on the side of the road to push under one of the good tires to keep your vehicle from strolling on top you. Don't just set it down though, make sure it's on the correct side of the tire, so it doesn't roll down the hill, cars don't usually stroll up a hill (without a little gas that is). Also, if you're on the side of a busy highway (or other busy road), make sure you are as far away from traffic as you can get. If you're on the shoulder and you have a flat facing traffic, try to keep as much distance between you and moving traffic as possible. You need some room to work, and they won't stop for you. Not in Los Angeles, anyway.

Image via staticflickr.com

Step 7: Set Up the Jack

That odd contraption you have in your hands there is a jack. You'll need to place that thing underneath your car, under the frame, next to the tire you are about to change. Just don't slap it down there and start cranking, make sure you put it under the metal part of the vehicle's frame; plastic will break, metal will not. Crank the jack up with its crank tool until it's tight against your frame.

Step 8: Loosen the Lug Nuts

Now it's time to loosen your lug nuts, not all of the way, don't take them off, just loosen them. If you have a hubcap, you might want to take that off beforehand, otherwise you'll be quite confused. Take the lug wrench, that L-shaped tool, maybe it's a cross, take it and loosen up all of the lug nuts on your flat tire, about halfway. Make sure you use the right size lug wrench if yours looks like a cross, or you could be turning for decades and not get anywhere. If you can't figure out how to loosen them, you might have locking lug nuts, the security kind that prevents thieves from stealing your rims. Usually, you'll find the key-lug inside your glove compartment or with your tools. If not, well… you might be screwed. Get it? Screwed?

Step 9: Jack the Vehicle Up

This is where things get a little tiresome, but don't worry – it's good exercise. Return to your jack and pump it up all of the way, until your flat tire is dangling above the ground. If you run out of breath cranking it up, take a break, not a big one though, because sooner or later some other guy with a flat tire will come creeping out of the condensed traffic on the interstate and you're right in his spot.

Step 10: Get Dirty

With the vehicle all jacked up and flat tire off of the ground, it's time for you to take off the loosened lug nuts and remove the tire. If you can't get the nuts off by hand, use the lug wrench again. Pile your lug nuts in a safe pile, where you won't loose them (you'll need them later, and remember how you took them off, the tapered end into the wheel).

Image via blogspot.com

Now, take off your tire. If you have a small car, this could be quite easy, but if you have a huge monster truck, you might be sweating more than you would in an interrogation room. Once your tire is off, throw it under your car by the jack, just in case that jack snaps and comes down; at least you'll have a dirty flat tire there to save you.

Step 11: Install the Spare Tire

Trying to get that spare tire onto the hub could be a pain for those who haven't done it before. Just make sure the rim of your spare is aligned with those large wheel bolts and push it into place. If you have a full-sized spare tire, maybe it will be easier if you sit down with your legs spread, cradling the heavy tire, and push it up until it's in place, at least that's what you would do if you owned a Humvee (HMMWV). Okay, you probably don't own a Humvee, but maybe a Hummer.

Get those lug nuts that you had tucked away safely and tighten them as much as possible with your hands before using the wrench to prevent cross-threading.

Don't do this one at a time though, you need to make sure your wheel is balanced, so take turns, be generous to all of those nuts, give them all an equal amount of quality time with you.

It works best if you don't simply tighten the one next to the one you just tightened, but go across from the one you just tightened, and then across from that one, and across from that one… kind of like a star pattern.

Step 12: Remove the Jack

Your tire is on and you're just about done. Remove the flat tire from underneath your car and any other objects you may have lying under there. Remove the jack by decompressing it, which could be easy if you have one of those expensive high-tech hydraulic ones. With just a push of a button it could be down and fully compressed in seconds. If you're still in the stone age with the rest of us, you're going to get sweaty again, you're going to have to crank that jack until your car is safely on the ground and the jack is ready to stow.

Step 13: Tighten the Lug Nuts

To make sure that wheel is on there good, take that lug wrench and tighten them some more onto the bolts. Don't kill yourself, just tighten them as much as you can and you're about done. Don't forget to put your hubcap back on if you have one.

Step 14: Clean Up

Now that your spare tire is successfully installed, it's time to clean up your mess. Put your jack and lug wrench away, throw the flat tire in the trunk or wherever the spare was before, remove the safety rock or trash bag from your good tire, and brush yourself off— you've just changed a flat tire.

Don't worry about all of that black stuff on you, you can't do anything about it now, just know that when you get home you can take a shower, and that it will feel so good— so clean. Sometimes keeping a spare set of clothes next to your spare tire is just the thing to keep you looking good. Baby wipes are always a good idea, too.

Step 15: Now What?

There's more? What could there possibly be to do now? Wasn't that a horrific experience already, vehicles speeding past you so fast your sunglasses kept falling off from the gusts of wind? Well, that spare tire you're riding on, it's not meant for it, unless you had a full-size spare (you lucky devil). You might get fifty miles if you're fortunate enough, so you better go and replace it with a full-sized tire. If you're sick of the smell of rubber by now, just take it to a mechanic or a local tire dealer and have them do it. You don't really trust yourself anyways— that tire could fall off at any second, so why chance it, right?

Flat tire image via Shutterstock, other photos via InfoCog, Raymond Shobe, 300C Forums, Eole Wind

Be the First to Comment

Share Your Thoughts

  • Hot
  • Latest