Whether you drive over road debris or go wheeling in sharp rocks like shale, flat tires happen even to the best tires. That doesn’t mean that you need to hide in the corner at home though or have AAA on speed dial. Like nearly any situation, the difference between success and failure comes down to being prepared and having the skills and knowledge necessary to address the issue at hand. Sometimes that means replacing the flat tire with your full-size spare (you do have a full-size spare tire, right?). But just as often you can plug the leaking tire and be on your way in a matter of minutes.
Swap or Plug
Whether you can safely plug a tire or not depends on how and where the tire was damaged. If you are on the road and drove at speed on the punctured tire for a significant amount of time, it is likely damaged beyond repair. In this situation, the entire sidewall becomes compromised due to excessive heat. Similarly, off-road if you tear a hole in your sidewall that you can put your fist through or pinch flat a tire (where the rim actually hits the ground and cuts the tire) your best course of action is swapping on your spare tire.
Sometimes you just put a small cut in your tire. Or you are off-road without a spare or may have already used it. If you just ran over a nail on the street and notice a tire going low either visually or via the tire pressure monitor system (TPMS), that is a candidate for being plugged too. In these instances, a small, inexpensive tire plug kit makes the difference between driving home and walking. We recommend getting a kit that is specific to off-road tires, as they will have a big T-handle reamer and insertion tool, plenty of plugs, and additional items like needle nose pliers and spare valve stems.
Evaluate the Situation
There are limits to how many plugs you can put in a tire and where. If you are just trying to get off the trail, keep shoving plugs into the damage until it holds enough air to limp back to civilization. This sort of fix shouldn’t be driven down the road at highway speeds though. The heat and flexing of the tire carcass can spit the plugs out and cause a loss of control. Also, plugging a small hole in the tread surface of a tire is typically no big deal. But most tire shops won’t touch a repair on a sidewall for the reasons listed above; namely the flexing of the tire carcass and heat generated. This is unfortunate since most punctures on the trail do involve the sidewall. In these situations plan to purchase a new tire once you return home.
Plug It Up
None of that really matters, though when you are in the middle of nowhere with no phone service and have miles to go before you are back to civilization. In these scenarios, a tire plug kit is a lifesaver. Typically, you don’t even need to remove the tire and wheel from the vehicle to plug the hole in the tire. You just locate the puncture, which is easier if the item that caused the hole is still present. Remove the object, install one or more plugs into the hole, trim the plugs, and air the tire back up. If you have onboard air, we recommend removing the valve core or waiting until the tire is completely deflated before installing the plugs so there is less resistance. If you don’t have an air source, you will likely want to install the plug as quickly as possible so you don’t lose more air than necessary. Even more important is to not lose your cool. Remember, fixing a punctured tire is no biggie as long as you have the right tools and knowledge to address the situation. Flats happen, but so do fixes. Let’s walk you through how to plug a tire.