No matter what kind of car you pilot, the tires on your vehicle play a number of vital roles in driving, affording the traction needed for accelerating, braking, and cornering, and serving as the first line of defense in soaking up imperfections on the road. When a tire is flat, not only does it fail to adequately perform these crucial functions, but riding on a flat will also destroy the rubber (compound) itself, as well as quickly cause catastrophic damage to the rim and potentially a number of other components.
The good news is there are several ways to fix a flat tire and all of them are fairly easy, even if you don’t have any experience with automotive maintenance or repairs. So, to help get you fully educated on all aspects of facing a flat tire, we’ve put together this guide on the primary methods of fixing a flat tire, how to detect if you have a flat, some general tips and tricks for tire changes and repairs, and our picks for some of the best products to use in the process.
Feeling For A Flat
How To Know If You Get A Flat Tire
It can be tricky to describe the sensation and experience of having a flat tire, though there are a handful of telltale signs that should clue you in.
The Sound: Flat tires will pretty much always make a very noticeably unnatural and alarming sound, often in the form of an initial thumb, followed by a steady vibration or sometimes a repeated flapping noise with each rotation of the wheel.
The Feeling: Getting a flat tire will dramatically alter the way the car handles and feels. On top of the aforementioned possible vibration, a flat tire may cause the steering to feel a bit off. If one of your front tires is flat, the effect on steering should be readily apparent as the car will usually want to pull in one direction rather than heading straight. If a tire has a slow leak, this effect will become increasingly dramatic, though if the tire has a blowout, it will happen instantly.
The Test: Ultimately, if you suspect that you may have gotten a flat, the best way to know is simply to pull over and check, assuming it’s safe to do so. It is important to remember that just because you don’t see any nails, holes, or obvious damage doesn’t mean the tire isn’t compromised. Not all flat tires are blowouts either, and you may have a small leak slowly letting air out, so just because the tire isn’t completely flat right away doesn’t mean that it isn’t punctured and on its way to deflating.
Automotive Roadside Surgery
The Main Ways To Remedy A Flat Tire
While there are different ways of handling each method, there are two basic techniques to remedying a flat tire. The first method involves repairing the damaged/punctured tire, resealing the leak, and then re-inflating the tire. The other technique is changing the tire, removing the entire wheel, and swapping it for a fifth replacement item or a spare tire (aka “donut”). Now that you have a cursory understanding of the two primary means of fixing a flat, let’s dive into the specifics of how each is performed.
Tire Patch & Plug Kits
Plugging Up The Problem
Flat tires usually occur through the tread or sidewall being punctured. Patch and plug kits — as their name suggests — plug-up a tire’s puncture. After locating the puncture, you want to remove any nails or foreign objects from your tire before using the reamer tool from the kit to drive into the puncture hole. And while increasing the size of the punctured area may seem counterintuitive, what you’re doing is essentially opening up a gap that allows you to force in a plug. This requires shaving down or reshaping the plug, working it into the hole, and then covering over the patched-up area using a sealant like contact cement (which is almost always included in plug kits).
Overland Vehicle Systems 43-Pc Off-Road-Grade Tire Plug Repair Kit
Though you’re much less likely to run over a screw or nail, off-road environments can nonetheless be extremely hostile towards tires and considering the remote nature of off-grid vehicular exploration, it’s essential to be armed with a proper kit to plug a flat should your tires meet a jagged rock or sharp branch. This all-inclusive kit from the off-road experts at Overland Vehicle Systems packs everything needed to plug and patch a tire, such as a T-handled reamer and probe tool, 20 plugs (which are 7.75” in length and are self-vulcanizing), pliers, valve tool, caps and cores, Allen keys, deflators, pressure gauge, and lubricant — all sold in an incredibly-rugged (13” L x 8” W x 3” H) high-impact storage case and backed by a lifetime warranty.
ARB Speedy Seal Universal Tire Repair Kit
This universal kit from ARB is good for fixing flat tires on just about any kind of non-commercial/industrial car, truck, or SUV. The kit also includes pretty much everything the previous entry has, though this kit’s reamer and probe tools are both made from hardened steel and feature embossed ARB-branded cast-handles. It also includes some 40 self-vulcanizing repair cords, though ARB also sells refill packs by the 50, should you somewhere manage to get a flat tire on more than 40 occasions. The entire kit comes in an organized plastic-molded carrying case that’s adorned in a high-visibility orange to better catch the eye of passing motorists while also being sized to perfectly fit into any of ARB’s roller drawers.
Repairing Flats Through Science
Patch and plug kits work by essentially resealing a punctured tire from the outside, as where puncture sealants take something of the opposite approach: repairing a damaged tire from the inside-out. Using an advanced chemical formula, the tire sealant is injected into the tire through the valve stem (where you add air to the tire). From there it coats the inside of the tire, patching it from the inside out by using internal pressure to push the sealant up into the puncture. After waiting (usually) ten-to-fifteen minutes for the formula to dry, you’re good to fully-re-inflate the tire and be on your way. And, while this method is extraordinarily easy to perform, it is worth mentioning that, like riding on a donut or compromised run-flat tires, using a tire sealant is a temporary fix to get your car or truck home or to a shop and isn’t a permanent solution that can be treated like a new tire.
FlatOut is an advanced product that can be put in tires preemptively to hugely prevent the likelihood of a flat — supposedly by up to 95% — or used to fix a flat. Using what the manufacturer calls “Fiber Force Technology,” this particular sealant boasts a formula that’s infused with Kevlar fibers. Furthermore, the formula is non-toxic, so you don’t have to worry about it getting on your hands, and it doesn’t contain any latex or other additives, so it won’t become a gunky mess around your valve stem, and what is left behind can be washed away using water alone. It is, however, important to note that a single 32oz bottle is enough to repair or protect only a single tire, so if you want to use this to prevent flats we’d obviously recommend going with the four-pack, which is offered at a 10% discount.
Slime Digital Flat Tire Repair Kit
Using a regular Fix-A-Flat-style tire sealant is incredibly easy, however, this product from leading tire sealant brand, Slime, takes the connivance of the product space to another level. Housed in a compact box, this all-in-one device boasts everything needed to repair and re-inflate a deflated tire. The box accepts cartridges of Slime Tire Sealant — that you can buy refill cartridges for at around $15-$20 a pop — and has a hose that connects to your valve stem. When activated, this automotive gadget dispenses sealant into your tire, and then uses a built-in air-compressor — which is powered via the car’s cigarette lighter/ 12V outlet — to re-inflate said tire, meaning all you have to do is connect the hose and press a button or two. The whole process takes less than ten minutes, too.
Spares & Donuts
Swapping Out A Flat
Alongside repairing a flat tire through sealants or plug kits, there’s also the most commonly-used option when faced with a flat: throwing on a spare wheel and tire. Most stock vehicles come equipped with a spare tire, usually located under the trunk liner or mounted beneath the back of the car (if you’re unsure you can always reference your owner’s manual). These are typically thin, and are meant to get you unstuck from the roadside, but shouldn’t be driven on for very long, nor should you exceed 50mph while riding on most spare tires.
Changing a flat tire can be broken down into a few basic steps. After double-checking that the car is in park, the hand brake is activated, and your hazards are on, you want to remove your jack and place it beneath the car. Your car’s owner’s manual will tell you exactly where to place the jack, but it’s usually directly in front of the back wheels and behind the front wheels. Jack the car up so the compromised wheel is entirely off the ground and then remove the lug nuts (the bolts securing the rim to the car). Next, remove the damaged wheel, toss on the spare, re-secure it using the same lug nuts, and then lower the car off the jack. Your damage tire can usually be placed wherever the spare was being kept, too.
Flat Tire Pro Tips
General Tricks & Advice For Tire Swaps & Repairs
Regardless of how you go about remedying your flat tire situation, there are a number of tricks that should help to ensure the whole process goes as smoothly as possible.
Be Prepared: You want to be prepared with the equipment needed to quickly fix a tire and be on your way. This not only means the actual tools for repairing or swapping out the tire, but also a charged-up light source should you have to work in the dark, and a sufficient jacket if you get a flat in cold or otherwise foul weather.
Be Observant: You’ll want to double-check that you’re in park, that your emergency brake is activated, and that your hazard lights are on, before beginning the repair or tire change. And, though you should be regularly checking these aspects in your day-to-day life, fixing a flat is always a good time to walk around the car and make sure the rest of the tires are properly inflated (which will give you better mileage), not too worn down, and otherwise healthy.
Be Seen: While you obviously want to minimize the amount of time you spend driving on a flat tire, you still want to find as safe a place as possible to repair your flat. This ideally means somewhere well-lit, not on either side of a blind turn, or just over the crest of a hill. And while it may seem like overkill, it’s never a bad idea to fire up a few road flares (which are now available in reusable high-lumen digital versions) especially when changing or repairing a flat at night.
Be Alert: With your hazard lights flashing (and possibly a flare burning), other drivers on the road will hopefully see you on the shoulder, though as countless Highway Patrol dashcam videos have shown, there are inattentive drivers that occasionally clip stopped vehicles. Whenever working on a flat, you always want to stay frosty and be extremely cognizant of approaching vehicles, should you have to get out of the way.
Be Practiced: Having the necessary gear and an idea of how to use it is a great start, but the reality is you don’t want to be getting acquainted with tools or tasks while broken down on the side of the road. For this reason, we advise practicing using your gear in a controlled environment, so you’ll be fully confident and prepared should you have to put fix a flat in the wild.
Standard Issue Roadside Kit
Five General Items For Fixing A Flat Tire
Whether you’re plugging a tire, using a sealant, or throwing on a donut, there are a few basic items that it helps to keep on hand for performing tire repairs, though we’d also argue that these are all-around worthwhile products to possess as a vehicle owner in general.
MCR Safety Memphis Kevlar Gloves
Nitrile-dipped gloves have long been the go-to choice for roadside mechanic mitts, touted for their ability to protect your hands from cuts, scrapes, dirt, and grime, while still affording the dexterity needed for performing basic maintenance or tasks under the hood. Offered in five sizes, this updated take on the nitrile-dipped glove is constructed from a DuPont Kevlar 1500 yarn that earns it a Level 4 ANSI Cut rating. The added protection doesn’t come at much of a premium either, with these high-visibility orange mechanics gloves retailing for around $20. At 0.1lbs, these gloves weigh practically nothing, plus the fingertips and thumbs are fully touchscreen-compatible so you don’t have to remove them to use a tablet or smartphone.
Petzl Tactikka Core Headlamp
As we mentioned above, having a solid light source is vital if you happen to get a flat after dark, and having the ability to illuminate your workspace while still being able to use both of your hands is what makes headlamps so perfect for impromptu roadside duties. This particular headlamp is incredibly compact, super low-profile, and weighs in at less than 3oz, while still putting out a whopping 450 (maximum) lumens and packing an average burn time of 130 hours. The Tactikka Core comes with a potent 1,250mAh CORE rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, too, though it can also run on three AAA batteries. And, with an IPX4 rating, you won’t have to worry about it getting damaged should you get caught working on a flat in the rain.
Motion Pro Digital Tire Pressure Gauge
After repairing a tire or putting on a spare, you’re going to want to make sure the tire is properly inflated, which is where this handy little tool comes in. Made by Motion Pro — one of the most trusted brands in the garage gear space — this top-shelf digital gauge can measure to within 0.6PSI accuracy and reads out in 0.1PSI increments. This product’s unique trapezoid body and its air chuck are also precision machined from aluminum billet, making it extraordinarily durable. Offering readings in four scales on its large display, this tool boasts continuous pressure reading, so it doesn’t need to be reset after bleeding out air. You should regularly be checking your tires and inflating them as needed anyway, so this is a tool every driver should probably own, whether or not they have intentions of fixing flats themselves.
AME Nut Buddy Junior
Lug nuts can sometimes be old, rusty, or just downright stubborn, not wanting to come off no matter how hard you crank. Assuming you don’t have a cheater-bar on hand to provide additional leverage, there’s this clever little gadget, appropriately called a torque multiplier. The AME Nut Buddy Junior provides that additional leverage while being markedly easier to operate than spinning a traditional tire iron. Rated at up to 885ft-lbs of torque, this product includes socket attachments for 17, 19, and 21mm units. The tool itself, the crank, and the sockets all neatly fit into an included travel case, too. And, even without any oiling, maintenance, or upkeep, this product should easily last a lifetime.
DEWALT Digital Power Station Jump Starter
Once you’ve patched and plugged or internally resealed a tire, you’re still going to have to inflate it before you can get back out on the road. And assuming you don’t get a flat directly in front of a gas station, you’re going to want to be ready with a mobile compressor unit. This item from DEWALT not only packs a 120PSI digital air compressor, but is also armed with powder-coated clamps (with 24” braided and insulated cords) to jumpstart a battery, a power bank with 1,400 peak amps and 700 instant starting amps, a built-in LED work light, and multiple USB ports for charging mobile devices. Sold with a one year warranty, the entire device is fortified via impact-resistant housing that includes a built-in handle with a rubber grip.
How To Clean and Maintain Your Car Interior
Interested in further brushing up on some additional automotive upkeep knowhow? Then be sure to check our guide on how to clean and maintain your car interior and you’ll be deep-cleaning and detailing your car’s cabin like a pro in no time.