(Photo by Donna Kallner)

Like many people with rural roots, I learned how to change a tire when I learned to drive. And when we buy a vehicle I take time to find where the spare and the tools are located and look at the tire-changing instructions in the owner’s manual.

So I thought I was reasonably well prepared to change a flat until a recent incident. Our volunteer fire department was paged out to aid EMS responding to a motorist injured while changing a tire on a gravel Forest Service road. It was one of those situations that gets you thinking about how small miscalculations can have big consequences. When you’re where it can take a long time for help to arrive, here are some things to keep in mind that maybe aren’t in the owner’s manual.

Road hazards. Anything from sticks and metal debris to the antlers and bones of deer, bear, and moose can cause a flat. We try to avoid running over that stuff, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes hazards are hidden by standing water, dappled sunlight, or deep shade. Sometimes critters move into your headlights when it’s too late to avoid them. Sometimes you know you should have backed off from the pickup truck hauling firewood or the trash bag that just bounced off and into your path. Sometimes all the choices stink and you have to risk driving over one hazard to avoid something worse. Sometimes a tire seems okay so you stop to fish and you’re heading home at Oh-Dark-Thirty when you hear the characteristic thwump thwump of a flat tire. Whatever the circumstances, if a loved one calls for help (assuming they have cell service), lead with, “I’m just thankful you’re okay.” If it’s you in the car and the person who promised to love, cherish and change tires isn’t reachable to come to your aid, slow down and think about where you can stop.

Situational awareness. Before you pull off on the side of the road, check your surroundings. You want level, solid ground that is (preferably) out of the roadway or clearly visible to other motorists. In rural areas, traffic may include ATVs, snowmobiles, farm equipment, logging trucks, snowplows, and road graders as well as other vehicles. Where the road is hilly, curvy, or very narrow you may have to creep along slowly as you look for a safe spot with better visibility where the shoulder isn’t steep or soft. In fog, rain, or snow, other traffic needs even more time to process what they see to avoid a collision. Don’t limit your situational awareness to just the roadway. If that big berry thicket looks like a good place for a bear to browse, move on down the road before putting your vehicle up on the jack. And before you get out of the vehicle, have a plan for which way to jump if someone driving faster than you anticipated (from either direction) looks ready to plow into you. 

Shift gears. Make sure the vehicle is in Park (for automatic transmission) or in gear (for manual). Set the parking brake. Take a deep breath. Get the owner’s manual from the glove compartment and review the tire-changing instructions – even if you’ve done it before. Find an empty cup or plastic bag to use for holding lug nuts while you change the tire. Finally, text your location to someone. If you’re not quite sure where that is or if the person you’re texting would know it from your description, get the GPS coordinates: In Google Maps, just press and hold on the blue “you are here” dot and the coordinates will appear in the search box at the top of the screen. Check that your text sent. If it didn’t, step out of the vehicle and try resending.

Make a scene. Turn on your hazard lights and do all you can to alert others of your presence – except, maybe, lighting old-school road flares, which can ignite combustible materials (replace flares with LED flashers). Keep a hi-viz vest in the vehicle to put on before you get out, and one or two blaze orange or hi-viz stocking caps. An orange cap on a stick is a universal hazard sign in the Northwoods. If nothing else it will get people to slow down thinking someone thought to flag a huge pothole.

Scout the jack placement. Compare where the owner’s manual says to place the jack with what you see on the vehicle. Don’t assume you know, because a mistake in placement can damage your vehicle and lead to a serious injury. You’ll be lifting the side of the vehicle to where the flat tire is a few inches off the ground and need enough clearance to get the fully inflated spare on. Once you start jacking, you are not going to stick any part of your body in there to check that placement. So take a good look now. You might even take a cell phone picture to compare where you think the jack should go with the pictures in the manual. Take another look at the road surface where the jack will go. If you have any doubts about its stability there’s still time to move.

Staging. If you’re going to have to change a tire it will be when your vehicle is full to the gills with camping gear, coolers, the rugs you take to the laundromat to wash, booty from an end-of-season plant sale, or some other heavy, bulky, messy or fussy cargo. This will block your access to the spare and/or tire-changing tools and must be shifted before you can begin and again before you can depart. Check for poison ivy before staging all that in the ditch. 

Check the pressure. Once you get to the spare tire, check the pressure before you go any further. On spares that require two pages of How To Access instructions in the owner’s manual, it may have been a while since that was done. No point in replacing one flat with another so save yourself some time if you have to start walking. It’s also worth making sure you can get the spare separated from the rusty round thing attached to the cable that holds the tire under a truck that lives where salt is spread on the roads every time it snows. (Note to self: Bookmark the tire-changing pages in the manual with Band-Aids and make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.)

Check the lug nuts. You also want to check the lug nuts before you jack up the vehicle. Don’t fully loosen or remove them yet, but make sure it’s possible to loosen them (no more than a quarter turn) with the tools at hand. A deep socket that matches the size of the lug nuts and a ratchet or breaker bar can make this easier if you or someone who loves you had the foresight to stow them near the other tire-changing tools or in the glove box. That’s not in the owner’s manual, but it’s probably safer than jumping up and down on a standard-issue lug wrench.

Get to work. Follow the instructions in the manual, which should walk you through popping the wheel cover on the flat tire, loosening the lug nuts, jacking the vehicle, removing the flat, placing the spare, hand-tightening the lug nuts to secure the spare (do NOT use the lug wrench while the car is on the jack), lowering the vehicle, removing the jack, and using the lug wrench to tighten the lug nuts. Review what the manual says about driving on the spare.

Pack up. By now you have stuff scattered hither and yon. It may need to go back into the vehicle in a different order – for example, if you want to drop the flat off to see if it can be repaired. So take a moment to figure out what makes sense. Find the floor mats you used to keep from scooting on gravel when placing the jack. Round up all the tools. Retrieve the blaze orange hat and LED flares used to alert other traffic to your presence. Put the manual back in the glove box. Send another text that you are back on the move (at the maximum speed recommended in the manual) and where you expect your next stop to be.

There’s some peace of mind in feeling prepared to change an unexpected flat. There’s even more in avoiding tire problems that could be prevented. Check the tread and look for wear on your tires regularly when you check the air. Remember that tire pressure can drop about 1 pound per square inch (PSI) each month, and that drop can be greater when the air cools in autumn.

The weather is already starting to turn here in Northern Wisconsin. It’s about time to get the winter kit (snow shovel and sleeping bag) in our vehicles and check flashlight batteries (daylight hours get short too soon). But those blaze orange hats? They stay in year-round.


Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she and her husband were finally able to buy a new used truck she can get into without a milk crate to step up on. The spare tire was in good shape but needed air. When she went to check the air in the spare in their car she found a huge mouse nest – a sure sign that winter is coming.

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