How to fix a flat tire on your car

A bit of patchwork can have you back on the road

Trail Trek Tour
Tim Esterdahl/Digital Trends

It’s not an uncommon scene: You make your way out to your driveway, keys in hand, ready to head off to work, and you notice a sagging, deflated tire. Upon inspection, you find a small nail or piece of metal has punctured the rubber and released the air from within. Now what? Your car should come with a spare, which is usually located underneath the pad of your trunk, along with a jack and lug wrench, which, if not in the same space as the spare, may be hidden in a side panel of your trunk. Locate these, take them out, and prepare some elbow grease. Here’s how to fix a flat tire.

Tools you’ll need

That wheel isn’t going to come off on its own, is it? You’ll need — at the very least — a jack and a lug wrench. We recommend using a hydraulic floor jack for added stability, though you might not have access to one if you get a puncture five miles away from the middle of nowhere. Jack stands and a torque wrench can make your life a lot easier. If your car doesn’t come with a spare tire, you’ll need a repair kit with tire plugs, a probe tool, pliers, and an air compressor. Alternatively, you can use an inflator like Fix-a-Flat to get you to the nearest tire shop.

Fixing a flat

46793471 - flat tire because the screw prick tire.
Naraporn Muangwong/123RF

Normally, one would fix a flat by removing the punctured tire and replacing it with a spare so you can drive to a shop and get a proper replacement.

But let’s say the hole in your tire isn’t very big, and you’re lacking a spare tire. Provided you’ve got the right tools, a patch kit, and can safely remove a tire — and the tire isn’t severely damaged, of course — this is a viable short-term solution. Note that this is a short-term remedy, as patched tires are generally only safe to drive on for about 100 miles, or three days, whichever comes first. Much like using a spare tire, this isn’t going to solve the issue either. The best solution is to take your car to a professional shop to get it replaced.

Step 1: Remove the wheel with the flat tire

First, you’ll need to pop off that flat tire. Use a lug wrench to loosen the lug nuts, but don’t remove them from the bolts quite yet. Next, after loosening the nuts, affix the car jack to the proper jacking point for the vehicle you’re working on. Make sure to do this on level ground, with the car in gear, and the parking brake engaged to prevent your car from rolling, as jacking the car on an incline can be extremely dangerous. When the car is jacked up, you can remove the lug nuts and take off the tire.

Step 2: Find the leak

Once you’ve removed the tire, it’s time to find the leak. If you can visibly identify the object that’s punctured the tire — whether it be a nail or something else entirely — carefully pull it out. A pair of pliers comes in handy here. If you don’t know where the leak is coming from, you’ll need to find it. You can do this by inflating the tire and feeling or listening around the surface of the tire for an opening or escaping air.

Another strategy is to inflate the tire and spray it with soapy water. The escaping air will cause bubbles to rapidly form at the point of the puncture.

Step 3: Plug the hole

Once you’ve found the hole, ream it out to make sure the plug will fit. Usually, a tool for doing so is provided with your patch kit. Next, it’s time to plug the hole. Apply any necessary adhesives from the kit onto the plug, then insert it into the hole until roughly two inches of material is sticking out from the tire. Afterward, let the adhesive dry and cut off the protruding excess of the plug before discarding it.

Step 4: Test the plug

Now, it’s time to test the plug’s seal. Inflate the tire and check for escaping air using the either the feeling or listening method mentioned above. Again, you can also use soap and water if you’re in need of an alternative method.

Step 5: Refit the wheel

Reattach the tire and lug nuts, but only tighten them enough so the tire will stay on. Do not tighten them all the way just yet. Lower the car to the ground and remove the jack. Once the car is safely stable on all four wheels, finalize the process by tightening the lug nuts in a star pattern, or an “X” pattern if you’re dealing with a four-bolt model. Make sure to follow the torque requirements in your car’s manual. This is when a torque wrench can come in handy.

Now, if done correctly, you should be able to get your car to a shop to have your tire replaced. Again, this is not a long-term solution, and you will need to replace your tire within either 100 miles or three days — whichever comes first.

Replacing a flat

how to jack up a car your  by chris chin 7

Step 1: Remove the wheel with the flat tire

First things first: Remove the flat tire. Before raising the car using the included jack, use the lug wrench to loosen the lug nuts on the flat tire, working in a star-pattern as you do. After loosening the nuts — do not remove them yet — situate your car jack to the recommended jacking points for your vehicle, and use it to lift the side of the car you’re working on. Keep in mind that your want to do this on level ground to prevent your car from rolling! Jacking the car on an incline can be extremely dangerous. When the car is jacked up, you can remove the lug nuts and take the tire off.

Step 2: Refit the spare tire

Replace the flat tire with the spare. Take a minute to make sure the spare wheel is fitted with the same kind of tire as the one you’re replacing; you don’t want to drive with three snow tires and one summer tire for any significant amount of time. Reattach the lug nuts to the bolts, but do not fully tighten them yet. Lower the jack until the full weight of the car is back on the tire, and remove the jack. You should now lock down the lug nuts, working once again in a star pattern — or an “X” pattern, if you only have four bolts.

With the spare in place, you can now drive your car again. However, be careful, as spare tires are not built to be driven on for very long, and you should never exceed 50 mph when driving with a temporary spare. Get the tire replaced by a professional, and consider getting your tires rotated at the same time.

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