How To Change A Flat Tire Off-Road

What To Do When You Get A Flat In The Dirt

Photography: Harry Wagner

While tire technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, flats still happen. Errant road debris on your way to work, a nail in your tire, or a sidewall blowout on the freeway can all destroy a tire on the pavement. Venture into the dirt and your chances of a flat go way up. Branches, rocks, and other obstacles can all easily tear through a sidewall. Any of them can leave you with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. But if you didn’t want to take any risks in life, you would probably be driving a hybrid instead of a 4×4.

Most of us probably know the basics of changing a tire on pavement. But changing a tire in the dirt is a bit more complicated. And, you can’t just call roadside assistance to help you out. So what do you need to know to swap out a flat tire on the trail? Read on and find out.

Once you have found a flat, safe location to work and determine that you need to change the tire, make sure to set the emergency brake and chock the wheels, so the vehicle does not move unexpectedly. If you are on the trail, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find something to chock the wheels with. If you are on the road, you might have to get creative. We have used our receiver hitch in the past.

Did the tire just come off the rim? This isn’t that uncommon if you are running non-beadlocked wheels at low pressure, particularly in terrains like sand or snow. If you have onboard air, you can typically reseat the bead with a quick blast of air. This is easier with a Powertank or a system that has a tank rather than just a compressor. Remember to clean out the bead first and push the tire against the rim to start the sealing.

Assess The Situation

The first thing you want to do if you notice you have a flat, or even suspect as much, is to find a safe location to change the tire. Driving on a completely flat tire, even at trail speeds, will chew up the sidewall between the rim and the ground and make the situation worse. That said, don’t change a tire while hanging by the end of your winch line or while about to fall off an obstacle. Ideally, you want to find as flat of an area as possible. You will also need to find some hard ground too. Otherwise you jack might just sink into the terrain. Use prudence and find a safe location; you are going to be there for a while. Remember, the best tool you have off-road is your brain.

Plug Or Replace

Whether you can safely plug a tire with a tire plug kit or not depends on how and where the tire was damaged. If the puncture is small, it can often be plugged easier and more quickly than swapping out your spare. We have put plugs in sidewalls for low-speed use to limp off the trail. At high speeds sidewalls heat up and flex, which can cause plugs to spit out. This can cause a sudden loss in tire pressure and control. If you are on the street, only use a plug if the puncture is in the tread of the tire. Otherwise, swap it out for your spare. Check out our story on how to plug a tire if you don’t know how.

Ratchet straps are one of the handiest tools you can carry on the trail. They are inexpensive and serve a variety of purposes. In this instance, we are using the strap to prevent the suspension from extending. We don’t have to lift the truck as high before the tire comes off the ground. This makes the process not only easier, but safer as well.

The next step is to lift the flat tire off the ground. You need a jack capable of raising your vehicle to accomplish this. That could be a bottle jack, scissor jack, Hi-Lift, or in our case, an ARB Jack. Position the foot of the jack on flat, level ground and never put your body between the jack and the vehicle in case it slips and the vehicle falls to the ground.

Spare Tire Location

On a Wrangler the stock spare is easy to find. It is hanging off the back of the Jeep! Other vehicles aren’t so simple though. On most pickup trucks, the spare is underneath the vehicle in the rear. There is a cable mechanism that holds the spare. Typically, tools that come with your truck are used to lower the spare down. Instructions on how to accomplish this can be found in your owner’s manual since it is a little different for each truck. Some SUVs position the spare tire under the vehicle similar to pickups. Others put the spare tire inside the cargo area under the rear floor.

Note that neither of these locations allows for spare tires that are much, if any, larger than stock. If you have oversized tires, you need to look at options such as the Wilco HitchGate to mount a full-size spare tire. Jeeps have the option of countless bumpers that can hold a spare tire. Trucks can always throw a spare tire in the bed or use a bed mount.

Don’t plan on using the factory spare if you are running larger tires. Using two tires with different diameters on the same axle means that one set of gears in the differential is turning faster than the other. This can cause overheating or binding inside the differential and eventually failure. A blown differential is a much bigger problem than a flat tire.

Lifting Your Vehicle

You might also not even know where the factory jack and lug wrench are if you have never had to use them before. They could be under the hood, in the rear cargo area, or under the passenger seat. The owner’s manual can be helpful to locate the jack for the first time. Typically the lug wrench and other accessories are in the same place.

Factory scissor and bottle jacks lift the vehicle from the axle. If you are lifting a Wrangler or the rear axle of a pickup, you don’t have to deal with the suspension drooping while raising the vehicle off the ground. But if you have a lifted vehicle with oversized tires, the factory jack might not even contact the axle when it is fully extended. This is where aftermarket options (see below) come into play. Regardless of what jack you are using, make sure to set the parking brake and chock the opposing wheel before lifting your vehicle.

We don’t necessarily expect you to carry an electric impact gun with you, but they do speed up the tire changing process. They also let you remove the lug nuts after the tire is off the ground. If you are using a lug wrench, you will want to break the nuts loose before lifting the tire off the ground. A cheater bar, such as a Hi-Lift handle, can be useful if the lugs are super tight.

Your spare tire does have air in it, right? If you have onboard air like a compressor or CO2 tank, you can always fill up your spare. But if you don’t have onboard air, you will want to ensure that your spare tire is full. Get in the habit of checking the air in your spare each time you change your oil to ensure that it is properly inflated. Also, check your spare tire for age and sun damage.

Off-Road Jacks

The most common jack for off-road use is the Hi-Lift. They are relatively inexpensive, durable, and can lift up to sixty inches in the air. If you have a 4×4 with steel bumpers or rock sliders, you can place the foot of the Hi-Lift assembly under them and lift from there. Some bumpers, such as ARB Bull Bars, even have cut-outs to hold the foot of the jack in place securely.

Stability is key. If the jack is lifting at an angle, it is possible for the base to slip or for the entire vehicle to pivot and slide off of the jack. Take your time and ensure that you have a solid base for the jack and can lift straight up and down. If you don’t have steel bumpers, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can only use a bottle jack or scissor jack. Hi-Lift makes a variety of accessories such as their Lift-Mate, which raises the vehicle from the wheel, and the Bumper-Mate that works on most stock bumpers. If you lift from the wheel, you won’t be able to remove it unless you put a jack stand under the chassis first. Check out our story on how to use a Hi-Lift jack if you haven’t used one before. 

Wheel Removal

Now that you have the tire off the ground, did you remember to break the lug nuts loose? Did you remember to chock the tires and set the parking brake? Oops, we have made these mistakes before ourselves plenty of times. It is easy to get ahead of yourself. If you have an electric impact with you, they generally have enough instant torque to remove the lug nuts with the wheel off the ground. Otherwise, you need to lower the vehicle down. Sometimes you can wedge something under the tire to keep it from spinning or set the parking brake to keep it from turning.

You might need a breaker bar to get lug nuts loose depending upon how tight they are. A Hi-Lift handle is perfect for this task. Deep wheel offsets and splined lug nuts also require specialized tools like adapters and extensions to remove the lug nuts. On the trail with a flat is not the time to find out that you don’t have what you need. It is worth practicing a tire change in the safety of your driveway to ensure you have what you need. Keep track of the lug nuts as you remove them. Put them somewhere within reach but not in the dirt where the threads can get galled up. If the threads do get dirty, we recommend blowing them off before reinstallation.

Our Toyota Tundra stores the bottle jack and tools in a compartment under the rear seat. This isn’t immediately obvious, and it varies by vehicle. You might need to refer to the owner’s manual to determine where your jack and lug wrench are located. And, hopefully they are still there if you bought a used vehicle.

We were able to fit a 33-inch spare tire under our Toyota Tundra to match the other tires on the vehicle, but any larger and we would have to leave the spare in the bed or come up with another solution. Factory tools are used to lower the spare to the ground via a cable that runs off the rear crossmember.

Wheel Installation

Putting on a stock sized tire is a relatively easy job, and can be accomplished without getting too dirty. Larger, heavier tires aren’t nearly as easy to put on though. This is particularly true on semi-float axles or unit bearings where you can’t set the tire and wheel on the hub assembly. When installing 37s or larger, we typically sit on the ground with the tire between our legs. The lug studs are at eye level making them easy to line up, and our legs are considerably stronger than our arms. We use our feet to line the tire and wheel up with the hub and wheel studs. After that, we reinstall the lug nuts by hand for a few threads, then tighten them down in a criss-cross pattern. While a torque wrench is handy, we don’t know too many people who carry them on the trail. Just get the lug nuts as tight as you can.

Back On The Road

Once the vehicle is back on the ground, you are ready to continue on your way. Make sure to properly store your flat tire, jack, and lug wrench before you get too spirited on the trail though. And remember, you don’t have a spare tire anymore. You need to drive with care for the rest of your journey until you can swap out the damaged tire for a new one. The only thing worse than a flat tire is two flat tires.

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