How to Safely Change a Tire on the Side of the Road: 10 Simple Steps

Deflated tire.

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Changing a flat tire seems easy, but nothing is straightforward when two-ton metal machines are flying by at 50 miles per hour. Many things can happen with you and your vehicle so vulnerable. Here is a 10-step guide on how to safely change a tire on the side of the road.

1. Plan Ahead

The average driver experiences five flat tires in their lifetime, so you should assume it can happen to you on any given day. Prepare early by keeping the following equipment in your car:

  • Spare tire
  • Owner’s manual
  • Car jack
  • Lug wrench
  • Wheel wedges
  • Warning triangles
  • Reflective vest
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Gloves
  • Towel
  • Headlamp

Bad weather might also come into play, so it’s a good idea to keep a poncho, umbrella and a heavy coat in your car. Always keep your roadside-assistance service’s contact information in your wallet if you need additional help.

Also, prepare for longer trips by giving your vehicle a thorough inspection beforehand. Learn how to check your tire pressure and adjust it for the type of terrain you plan to tackle. Most of the time, you’ll be on standard blacktop, but long country drives that take you down bumpy dirt roads might cause you to reduce street pressure by 60% to account for the terrain. 

2. Get Out of The Way

What does a flat tire feel like? You’ll rarely experience a blowout featuring a loud pop unless you roll over something that punctures your tire. Most often, you’ll feel a strong pull to one side, making it hard to steer — that’s one reason getting over right away protects your safety. You might also hear a flapping noise or feel your vehicle start shaking and vibrating. 

What’s the best place to change a flat tire? If and when you feel a flat, turn on your hazard lights and pull over as quickly as possible. Driving on a flat tire to find a better spot might cause further damage to the vehicle, further threatening your control. Pull over at the first paved level surface you see, even if it’s uncomfortably close to oncoming traffic. 

If you’re on the freeway and the ground next to the shoulder is even, consider getting all the way on the grass to protect yourself, especially if the flat is on the driver’s side. However, be aware that muddy conditions or uneven terrain might leave you stuck. 

Wait until the traffic lightens up and give yourself a moment to gather your thoughts before tackling the flat tire. Practice a few moments of deep breathing to calm your nerves before swapping your tire.

Tire on a black car

3. Immobilize the Car

How long does it take to change a tire? A pit crew can do it in 12 seconds or less, but most mere mortals can’t match their expertise. Your job is to slow down and act mindfully to avoid getting hurt or making an already bad situation worse — hence the deep breathing. 

The first step to safely change a flat tire is to demobilize the vehicle. Put on the emergency brake and double-check the road before stepping out of the car. Then put the wheel wedges against a front and back tire. If you don’t have these in your car, use heavy rocks or bricks. 

This step is especially important if you had to pull over near a road construction zone. Forward-moving pedestrian vehicles are responsible for 61.5% of work zone fatalities, and 9.4% resulted from a vehicle propelling another vehicle into the victim. You can eliminate both possibilities by immobilizing your car as soon as you pull over.

Walk around the vehicle’s far side as you put the wedges in place. Avoid walking between your car and oncoming traffic, as getting pinned between vehicles is one of the most common roadside injuries. Keep this tip in mind throughout the other steps to safely change the tire without further mishap.

4. Make Yourself Visible

Next, you must make yourself and your car visible to other drivers. Put on your electric vest and place the warning triangles 50 feet apart behind your vehicle. This step is crucial if you get a flat tire at night or in a dimly lit area. Don’t ever assume that drivers can see you. In 2022 alone, 562 people lost their lives from tire mishaps. Drivers could have prevented many of these casualties by following proper safety rules. 

Here’s another reason a headlamp rules supreme over a flashlight. It keeps both hands free for making repairs while simultaneously increasing your visibility to oncoming traffic. Additionally, you should apply your vehicle’s hazard lights. You can also use flares if you have them, placing the first one 15 feet behind your vehicle and the second 30 feet behind. 

Side view of black car

5. Remove the Hub Cap

Assemble the spare tire, jack and other tools from the trunk and place them near the flat tire. Taking fewer trips to and from the back minimizes the risk of getting struck by a vehicle or road debris. Take the lug wrench and remove the damaged hub cap if the wheel has one — it varies between different models. Most lug wrenches have a flat, “screwdriver” side that inserts into the jack that you can use for this purpose. 

Please note that removing the hubcap isn’t always easy. You may need to take a smaller screwdriver and pry around it in several locations before it comes loose. If something feels like it is going to snap or break, stop and begin prying again in another spot. Remain patient — and remember, a bent hubcap isn’t the end of the world. You can find affordable replacements for most models after-market or at scrap yards. 

6. Loosen the Lug Nuts

The next step in how to change a tire is to loosen the damaged wheel’s lug nuts. Don’t remove them yet, as they need to stay on to keep the wheel in place during the next step. Some lug nuts will be more stubborn than others, so use all your weight on the wrench to gain extra leverage.

Real talk time: If you weigh 115-pounds soaking wet, and your 240-pound ex-Marine husband was the last person who changed your tire, you’re probably going to need more force than your skinny arms can generate. You might even jump on that wrench like a kangaroo and get nothing but a twisted ankle, not a loosened lug nut. Your best bet is keeping a cordless torque wrench in your vehicle — it will spare you much roadside cursing and may just save your marriage. 

7. Raise the Car

Consult your owner’s manual to determine the best spot to put the car jack. The ones that come standard on many vehicles are often small and seem complicated — practice changing a flat tire at home on a level surface before trying it in the wild. You might find your base model too unwieldy and decide to invest in an upgrade before your next road trip. 

Once you find a good place for your jack, keep turning the handle clockwise until the damaged tire is several inches off the ground. You should be able to spin it freely. Here’s another area where knowing your upper body strength, or lack thereof, comes in handy. A floor jack will run you a few hundred dollars, but it gives you way more leverage. 

Don’t put any part of your body under the car while raising it. Keep yourself on the side at all times throughout the changing procedure. Jacks do not provide sufficient stability for performing undercarriage work, an important tip to keep in mind if you later decide to change your oil at home. 

How do you change a tire without a jack? Please, resist the temptation to use blocks or stones to elevate your car — it’s too dangerous. However, in some cases such as slow leaks, a can of tire repair gel can get you back on the road without all the extra equipment. Simply attach it to the valve stem and follow the directions on the bottle to inflate your tire to the suggested pressure. 

8. Replace the Tire

With the vehicle in place, you can remove the lug nuts. Keep them in a closed container so you don’t lose or knock them over. Placing them in the hubcap isn’t the best idea — remember what happened to Ralphie in “A Christmas Story?” 

The old tire should come off easily. Prepare yourself for its weight, which is about 20 to 25 pounds for most models but can be more for SUVs, especially those intended for offroad use.

Now, place the new tire on the bare wheel by lining up the holes with the bolts. Screw the lug nuts back into place by hand, but don’t try tightening them yet — you’ll find yourself literally spinning your wheel instead. 

Place your old tire in your trunk, truck bed or other secure location for repair or disposal. Many shops will take your old tire for free or recycle it for a small fee when you go in for a replacement. You can also take them to a specialized recycling facility. 

You’ll want to get to the shop as quickly as possible if you end up driving on a donut afterward. You should travel no more than 50 miles on donuts before taking in your vehicle for a full tire rotation and proper replacement. 

9. Lower the Car and Tighten the Lug Nuts

Turn the jack clockwise or lower it sufficiently so the new tire gently rests on the ground. Tighten the lug nuts as much as possible, then continue lowering the car until its full weight is back on the ground. Give the lug nuts one or two more good twists to ensure they’re nice and tight. 

Remove the jack and wipe everything clean. The wheel, lug wrench and your hands are likely filthy, and you probably don’t have a sink handy. Should you wear gloves to avoid the inevitable mess? Sure, if you have a spare plastic pair that won’t disturb your grip. Heavier, mechanics gloves also work but can make it harder to remove lug nuts. 

Pro-tip: The rubbing alcohol in hand sanitizer can remove a lot of that grime. Wipes also help, although they may not be as effective as gel and a nice, absorbent cloth 

10. Check the Spare Tire’s Air Pressure

How do you know how much air to put in your tires? Use the tire pressure gauge to check the spare tire’s pounds per square inch. If you used a donut tire, the measurement should be at least 60 PSI to hold you over. Manufacturers make spare donut tires with higher PSI because they lose air over time and need more pressure to support the vehicle’s weight.

If your spare tire was identical to your other tires, then the PSIs should be within the standard 28-32 range. Do yourself a favor and learn how to check tire pressure and do so regularly. Many experts recommend doing so at least once per month, although you may need to do so more often if you frequently shift between on-road and offroad driving. 

Furthermore, inspect your tires when you check the pressure. Many tires come with wear bars that indicate the need for a change when the bar wears down to the level of the standard tread.  You can also use the dime test to see if your tread appears worn. Place it upside down between the treads — if you can see Lincoln’s entire head, it’s time for new tires. Other signs that you may need a replacement include sidewall cracks, bubbles and uneven wear. 

Remember to make your appointment for routine tire rotations, too. Many experts recommend doing so every 6,000 to 7.500 miles, or every second or third oil change. Doing so shifts the location of the tires on your vehicle, providing more even wear and reducing your chance of a flat. 

Stay Safe On the Road

Many things can go wrong while driving, including flat tires. Keep a cool head and follow this guide on how to safely change a tire. You’ll be back on the road in no time.

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