How to Change a Tire

Replacing a flat tire may be a basic car repair task, but knowing exactly what to do could not only save you hassle, but could also save your life.

Car tires lined up in a rowShutterstock

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Whether or not you carry roadside assistance coverage for your vehicle (highly recommended), all motorists should be familiar enough with their vehicles to know how to change a tire. It is a basic life skill that can get you out of trouble or, in the most dire circumstances, save a life.

According to Consumer Reports data, only about 10% of new cars now come with a full-size spare. 60% have a space-saver spare, the infamous “donut,” which is a narrow tire designed to travel at speeds of up to 50 mph for limited distances, making it only a temporary fix to the flat-tire dilemma.

About one third of new cars do not come with a spare tire at all, and might instead be equipped with a sealant kit and air compressor to temporarily fix a flat. Meanwhile, about 15% of new vehicles use so-called run-flat tires, which are engineered to operate for a limited distance after losing air from a typical puncture.

If your vehicle is a 2008 model year or newer, it is equipped with a tire-pressure monitoring sensor (TPMS) that will activate a warning signal and light in the dashboard if tire pressure deviates significantly from the set factory specifications. Sometimes, changes in altitude and temperature or other anomalies can trigger a TPMS warning signal. Though it was obvious for years when a tire was flat or low on air, run flats can look surprisingly normal when dangerously low on air pressure. That’s why it’s a good idea to always keep a tire pressure gauge onboard so you can check the tire pressure of each one.

Knowledge is Power: Check for Tools and Tires

There are three basic tools needed for changing a tire: a jack, a lug-nut wrench, and the spare tire itself. Their location onboard depends on the vehicle, though most tend to be located under the floor of the trunk/cargo area.

The owner’s manual — usually in the glovebox, or often available online in PDF form — contains the location and usage of the various tire-changing components and also the jacking points underneath the car. Read it, locate the tools/spare, and consider practicing a tire change in a safe place, like a driveway or parking lot, to cement the skills so you’re not trying it for the first time in a stressful, and likely dangerous, situation.

Also, bear in mind that spare tires and tire-changing tools often go missing or get damaged from use, so those considering a pre-owned vehicle should put these items on your checklist of things to verify before purchase.

Other items that can come in handy during roadside emergencies include a pair of gloves—disposable or otherwise—a flashlight or headlamp, and a rain poncho.

Assess the Situation and Find a Safe Place to Park

Picture this: You’re driving and you feel a tire going flat. Or the tire pressure monitoring TPMS icon on your instrument panel lights up. You need to quickly decide how to move your vehicle out of harm’s way before the tire goes completely flat. If you’re on a freeway, get into the slow lane and then as far onto the right shoulder as possible.

If you’re on city streets, pick a well-lit spot as far from traffic as possible or perhaps a parking lot. If you’re not immediately able to get to a place that is safe from passing traffic, then consider driving a bit further until you can find an appropriate spot — activating your hazard lights, if necessary — better to sacrifice the flat tire and wheel, than yourself, by getting into a dangerous situation.

Key point: Do your best to park on a paved and level surface, as uneven, angle, and soft surfaces will impede the use of a jack. Another key point: If your vehicle is supported by a roadside assistance service from the manufacturer or from an independent provider such as AAA, give them a call. They’re the experts at getting you going when misfortune strikes.

Secure the Vehicle, Loosen the Lugs, Raise Your Game

Assuming you do have a full-size or space-saver spare, it’s time to get to work. Consult the owner’s manual for tips on how to change the tire for your specific vehicle. Crucially, this section will include important information on where to place the jack before you raise the vehicle off the ground. Placing a jack in the wrong place can damage the vehicle.

It’s also a good idea to take extra precautions to prevent your car from falling off the jack. If you’re driving an automatic, make sure the vehicle is in park and the parking brake is set. For manual-transmission cars, select any forward gear or reverse, and then set the parking brake. If possible, wedge something behind the tires, like a rock or a block of wood, to further prevent any rollback.

With the flat tire still on the ground, loosen the lug nuts with the wrench to the point where they can be turned by hand, but no more. Place the spare tire close by. Position the jack directly under the designated jacking point nearest the wheel with damaged tire and slowly raise the vehicle off the ground, just high enough so that the flat can be easily removed. Loosen the lug nuts completely, place them somewhere easy to locate, like your pocket, and remove the wheel with the flat tire. If you drive an SUV, or something with large wheels and tires, be careful as they are often quite heavy.

With the vehicle still off the ground, place the spare tire on the lug bolts and put the lug nuts back in place. Tighten all the lug nuts with your hands and then lower the jack until the spare tire is in contact with the ground. Secure the lug nuts with the wrench.

It’s important to always do all of the heavy torquing of the bolts—both before and after the tire is changed—while the wheel is on the ground, as doing so when the car is jacked in the air can risk knocking the vehicle off the jack.

Finish the Job

Gather the flat tire and all your tools, and place them back in the vehicle. Make an appointment to have the flat tire repaired or replaced as soon as possible. You never know when lightning will strike twice.

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Mark Hacking
Mark Hacking is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years experience covering the automotive scene for some of the world's most popular publications. Mark holds an FIA International Race license and has his sights set on competing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the future. He was the first automotive journalist to race in the Ferrari Challenge series (in 2013) and the Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy series (in 2019).