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How to Change a Flat Tire (Without Freaking Out)

When a tire blows, there's no need to panic. Follow these handy tips to get off the road safely, fix that flat tire, and get on with your journey.
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When a tire blows, there's no need to panic. Follow these handy tips to get off the road safely, fix that flat tire, and get on with your journey.

This post originally appeared on Map Happy.

First things first.

The first thing to do when a tire goes flat is surprisingly nothing. Don't hit the breaks; don't turn the wheel. Switch on the hazard lights and let the drag from the deflated tire slow the car.

Once the car is under a reasonable speed (under 30 mph), ease over to whichever side of the road is closest. Only break once the vehicle is out of the way of all other traffic.

Try not to park on the grass.

I was more than a bit flustered when I experienced my first flat tire. I was on I-80 west in northern Ohio during one of the hottest summers I can remember, pushing 80 mph in the left lane. (I had places to be!)

So the tire blew up, I stopped pressing on the accelerator and coasted over to the left shoulder. I should have stopped there, but I kept going onto the grassy median--this was a mistake. Sure, I had positioned myself farther away from oncoming traffic, but jack stands tend to sink into loamy soil.

So keep a level head when figuring out where to maneuver your vehicle. It could save you time and stress.

Keep the hazards on.

It's highway safety 101.

Now on to changing the flat tire...

Don't hesitate to whip out the manual as soon as you're safely on the shoulder. Every car is different, so it's best to know the requirements before making a mistake and going from a bad situation to a worse one. Know where the necessary tools are located in the vehicle at the very least.

Once you've gathered all the necessary components--spare, wrench and jack--use the wrench to loosen the lug nuts. Don't remove them yet!

The wheel bolts are tight for a reason. Otherwise, we'd live in a world where tires would be flying willy nilly. More exciting? Maybe. More dangerous? Definitely. That said, lug nuts are a real pain to dislodge--especially in the beginning. It's akin to tearing open plastic packaging without a sharp pair of scissors. Stomping on the wrench might help or it might just bruise your foot. I've found that slamming it with a rock a few times will loosen the bolt enough that the rest can be done manually.

Place the jack just behind the tire in question. Lift the vehicle off the ground. Now it's time to remove the nuts completely. I suggest removing them in a specific order--in a shape that outlines a star.

Keep track of all the pieces. There's little in this life more frustrating than leftover pieces--or worse, missing ones. Keep them all in one level spot, on a blanket or in some other kind of container. (I used an empty Taco Bell cup, for example.) A few extra seconds for organization will make reassembling that much easier.

Once the nuts are properly accounted for and stored, take the tire off the car. It'll be heavier than you think it is, so take it easy. Place the spare on and replace the lug nuts, repeating the star pattern used for removal. Don't tighten them all the way--just enough to keep the tire on while returning the car to the ground. Once the car is back down and the jack is removed from the undercarriage, twist the nuts as tight as they'll go.

Et voilà! Tire change complete. Be sure to schedule an appointment at the dealership or an auto body shop ASAP. They'll check out the new wheel and perform any necessary maintenance.

...and remember to clean up after yourself.

But you're not actually done.

The only thing worse than blowing out a tire is having the spare fail soon after because it wasn't properly inflated. Check and fill the spare tire as needed during each visit to the air pump.

Keep the phone charged!

I know, I know. Back in the day, folks didn't have them fancy smart phones. "Back in the day" sucked extra hard just for this reason.

I'd rather make a call to AAA (or a friend who can come help me out with the flat tire) and wait it out in my air-conditioned car than hoof it seven miles to the next exit. Any major road trip should be undertaken with a charged cell or backup portable battery in case of emergencies.

Not everyone on the road is a serial killer.

A Good Samaritan saw me struggling and pulled over to offer assistance. I told him I was fine and waved him away, thinking: "I can do this myself. I am a man!"

Had I been blessed with the gift of foresight, I would've asked him if he had any water. After all, it was pushing 100º F and I was performing manual labor in direct sunlight. Tires are heavy! Not my finest moment.

Lesson learned: if someone offers to help, accept it (using those travel smarts, of course). Even if it's not help with changing the flat tire itself.

Sam Wright Fairbanks is an editorial fellow at Map Happy.

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