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How to fix a flat tire on your car

If you’re armed with the right tools and knowledge, a flat tire is more of a minor setback than a day-ruining disaster. Our step-by-step guide teaches you how to fix a flat tire using a repair kit, and how to replace one with a spare.

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 5 miles 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. You may also want to pick up a tire pressure gauge if you don’t already have one.

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 like fixing a hole in a wall. 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 wrench to loosen the lug nuts, but don’t remove them from the bolts quite yet. Next, after loosening the nuts, put the jack under (or into) the proper jacking point and make sure to do this on level ground, with the car in park or in gear if it’s a stick-shift, and the parking brake engaged to prevent it from rolling. Jacking the car on an incline can be extremely dangerous. When it’s 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 — it could be a nail, a piece of metal, 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 2 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 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.

Replacing a flat

Step 1: Remove the wheel with the flat tire

First, you need to remove the flat tire. Before raising the car with a jack, use a wrench to loosen the lug nuts, but don’t remove them just yet. Put the jack under (or into) your car’s jacking point, lift the car off the ground, and remove the lug nuts when the wheel is no longer in contact with the asphalt. This needs to be done on level ground, with the car in park (or, if it’s a stick, in gear), and the emergency brake engaged. Trust us; it’s much safer this way.

Step 2: Install the spare tire

Before replacing the flat tire, take a minute to ensure the wheel you’re about to put on is in acceptable condition. It’s not uncommon for cars to have their original, 20-year-old spare still in the trunk, and driving on it will likely land you back in flat-tire territory. If it’s good, install it and put the lug nuts back on but don’t fully tighten them yet. Wait until you’ve lowered the jack and made sure the full weight of the car is back on the tire.

With the spare in place, you can now drive your car again. Be careful, however, 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, donut-style spare. Get the tire replaced by a professional, and consider getting your tires rotated at the same time.

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