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How To Fix a Flat Tire in the Field

A must-have kit to get your 4x4 back on the trail.

How To Fix a Flat Tire in the Field

Getting a flat tire on the side of I-64 may not be that big of an issue, but when you're wheeling through the Baja there's a whole different set of tools needed. (Photo courtesy of Atmosphere1 | Dreamstime.com)

From the pages of Wheels Afield

As a kid, there was a special feeling when you could head out for the first day of school with some brand-new duds. A new backpack, some new pants, and, most of all, a new pair of shoes and you were riding high. Heading into a hunting season, nothing gives me that same sense of confidence like a new set of tires—it’s a special occasion since I don’t typically burn through them in a single year.

Not everyone needs 10-ply mud tires on their hunting rig, but having quality rubber in good condition should be a given. Regular inspection of tread levels, wear patterns and weather checking are a must. If you don’t put on a ton of miles every year, know the age of your tires. (Did you know there’s a manufacture date code on every tire?) It’s good practice to pitch them at six years, but never run a tire that’s more than 10 years old.

Tires are expensive. There was a time when I ran old, used tires with dreadful tread wear and a date code made unreadable by the years. Looking back, it was incredibly stupid, but I was also incredibly poor, and they kept me rolling (albeit with a bit of a shimmy).

So step one is to have a decent set of tires that match the type of driving and terrain you plan to encounter. The tools detailed here will help keep those tires up to snuff, and they’ll also help get you out of a jam if something tries to sideline your trip.


Tire Gauge

Though I’m tempted to call this the most basic tool on the list, tire tools, in general, aren’t exactly the most advanced devices on the planet. Having a tire gauge in your vehicle is a no-brainer, and yet I’ve still found myself without one on a number of occasions—and felt like a bonehead.


Keeping an eye on tire pressures over the course of a road trip can save a whole lot of headaches, gain you more miles out of the set of tires, and help you avoid some potential failures.

How To Fix a Flat Tire in the Field
Tire gauges come in all shapes and sizes. No matter what you pick, make sure you have one (or two) in your rig. (Wheels Afield Photo)

First, let’s talk highway miles and heat. The biggest killer of tires is heat. The vast majority of the heat in a tire isn’t generated from the friction between the ground and the tread of the tire: It’s generated in the flex of the sidewall and casing as the tire rotates, hits the ground, and deflects. The more air in a tire, the less it deflects, meaning the less heat it generates internally. If a tire is especially low on air, that deflection is much, much greater and generates a good deal of heat, which can result in delamination of the tire and a blow-out.

If you’ve ever watched road race drivers fishtail back and forth at the beginning of a race, they’re trying to put heat in their tires, inducing as much flex in the tire sidewall as they can, which results in more heat and more grip.

For a hunting rig running down a clean, dry highway, more grip isn’t an issue, but heat is. If you load up and head out on the road with one of your tires under-inflated, not only are you going to wear that tire in an odd way, but also the lower the tire pressure the more heat the tire will generate, jeopardizing the lifespan of that tire.

Some wisdom from a colleague who has done serious windshield time: He looks forward to rainy drives because the rain cools the tires and results in longer life for the entire set. That’s a neat tidbit of knowledge, but my lids get a little heavy just thinking about the miles he put down to glean that info.

Back to the tire gauge. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but my suggestion is that you have a primary tire gauge inconvenient spot for regular use and another one stashed at the bottom of the glove box you plan to root around for when you can’t find your main tire gauge.

I keep a good gauge as my primary and a cheapo gauge in the glove box as well as another in my tire plug kit. The well-worn, but still true “two is one, one is none” adage comes to mind.





Jack, Lug Wrench & Spare Tire

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many drivers assume they have a jack and lug wrench without ever looking for confirmation. At the very least, I strongly recommend you locate and check all three of these items prior to the season, because lacking any one of them, you’ll most likely have to call for rescue, which will no doubt put a damper on your long-awaited hunt.

Confirm that your jack is in good working order. If you’re packed to the gills and relying on the factory jack, make sure that jack is capable of lifting your overloaded vehicle. Also, some factory jacks can be rather rickety. If that’s the case, consider acquiring a simple bottle jack or even a Harbor Freight aluminum floor jack (my personal choice).

Locate your lug wrench. Without it, you’re dead in the water if you need to swap a tire. Also, if your wheels have wheel locks or have a special anti-theft profile, know where the special key or socket is.

The spare tire is something that tends to get overlooked more than anything else. Keep in mind that this tire also needs to be replaced when it hits those age markers discussed earlier. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you’ve put on tires of a different diameter than the factory spec, this tire needs to be of that same diameter. That’s vitally important if it’s going on a drive axle or an all-wheel-drive vehicle. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t used an undersized spare on a non-drive axle in a pinch, but it’s definitely less than ideal.

Equally important is the condition and air level of the spare. Surprisingly often, I pass a car sitting on the side of the road with a donut spare devoid of air, and it reminds me that almost nobody checks the pressure of their spare tire. The result is they slap on the donut, see that it’s extremely pudgy, and then try to limp down the road, resulting in a heat-induced blow-out of a tire that’s likely past its prime.

So ensure these supplies are where they’re supposed to be, are in good shape, and are fit to handle their designated tasks.

Mini Air Compressor

Now we get to an item that seems like it could be an extravagance, but I’d argue that it’s an essential bit of kit. A 12-volt air pump that plugs into the cigarette lighter can be a game-changer. It allows you the ability to utilize a plug kit to fix a puncture-induced flat (since without it you’d have to be sitting next to a source of compressed air), and it also gives you the ability to air down for added traction, then have the ability to air back up when it comes time to put on some highway miles.

My first mini air compressor was a cheesy plastic-encased box bought at the going-out-of-business sale at my local Coast-to-Coast, and man, did I get some miles out of that thing. It may have been 90 percent form and 10 percent function, but it was called into service on probably a dozen occasions throughout my college years.

How To Fix a Flat Tire in the Field
Air compressors can be bought for cheap, but you truly get what you pay for. (Wheels Afield Photo)

Nowadays, I have an assortment of more effective compressors—one in each vehicle. The internet’s favorite seems to be VIAIR, and one is stashed in my Tundra at all times. This year I splurged and purchased an ARB onboard air-compressor system in anticipation of adding their Air Lockers to my 4Runner. The capabilities of such a system are leaps and bounds beyond a simple plug-in pump, but you do pay for it.

Whether you want to go simple and cheap or expensive and efficient, at the minimum give it a once-over at the beginning of the season. Some require a spritz of oil to keep their seals a’sealin, and it takes less than a minute to make sure it’s still running like it’s supposed to.

One thing to note: Never run one of these pumps with your engine off. My experience is that these air pumps can pull a surprising amount of power, so if your vehicle is not running, you might end up with a tire full of air and a battery empty of voltage.

Tire Plug Kit

Once you have the ability to create your own compressed air, make sure you have the power to plug punctures. From nails and screws to thorns and cornstalks, there is no end to the onslaught of hazards trying to liberate the air trapped in your rolling rubber.

How To Fix a Flat Tire in the Field
A tire plug kit can save you a lot of time if you can get things patched before your truck is sitting on the steel of its wheels. (Wheels Afield Photo)

A plug kit can come in many forms, and quite a few basic ones can be had for under $10. I’ve had a handful over the years, but I recently bought a $20 kit on Amazon that looked to be better than the cheapos I’d used previously. Instead of overmolded plastic handles, it has cast aluminum bits. The plug installation tool even has a sleeve that slides down to prevent you from immediately uninstalling the plug instead of securing it in the tire. With a razor to cut the plug tails, a small tub of lube for the installation tool, dozens of plugs, and even its own tire gauge, it’s hard to argue with such a comprehensive kit for $20. I have replaced all of my other plug kits with this one.

Emergency Valve Stem

It’s a little pricey, but a Colby Valve is an emergency valve stem that can be installed from the outside of the wheel. Typically, valve stems are installed when the tire is off, pressed in from the inside of the wheel, which is how they hold air pressure so well. In the rare instance that a foreign object snags your valve stem and damages or dislodges it, that rolling assembly is pretty much dead in the water and will need to be swapped to a spare.

How To Fix a Flat Tire in the Field
If your wheeling adventures are taking you far off the blacktop, then an emergency valve stem is a great investment. (Wheels Afield Photo)

With a Colby Valve on hand, you can remove the old valve stem and install the new emergency valve without having to remove the wheel from the vehicle and the tire from the wheel. Once installed, you just air up with your mini air compressor and be on your way.

The chance of a tire failure of this variety for most individuals is pretty darn slim. If the places you go involves the airing down of tires and the occasional rock obstacle, your chances are a tad greater, but still low.

This is an item to stick in your kit if you tend to head to remote areas on your adventures. It’s a simple item, slightly expensive for what it is, but it could be incredibly useful if an occasion calls for it.

One More Thing: Tire Deflators

Definitely an extravagance, a set of automatic tire deflators can make the task of airing down quick and painless. I used to use the end of my tire gauge to perform that task, but as I got older, I’ve become a bit lazier and my knees aren’t quite what they used to be.

On a recent trip to Ouray, I ended up borrowing some Staun Tyre Deflators and immediately knew that a set needed to go in both of my hunting vehicles. Able to be user-adjusted within a range of different air pressures, you just screw one onto your valve stem and it quickly drops the tire down to your predetermined pressure. I decided to buy the set of four, splitting the set and stashing two in each of my trucks.

As tire pressure drops, the sidewall is allowed to flex more and more, increasing the tire’s contact patch with the earth. This not only gives you more traction due to the greater footprint, but also allows your tires to soak up rough roads and washboard, conform over sharp rocks, and keep your suspension from working overtime.

How To Fix a Flat Tire in the Field
If you're willing to spend the extra cash, tire deflators are a time-saving luxury worth the money. (Wheels Afield Photo)

The more you air down, the more benefit you can see—to a point. Depending on the construction of your tires, the sidewall height and the style of your wheels, going incredibly low can increase the possibility of dislodging the bead, resulting in a flat. It also can open you up to wheel damage if you hit a larger rock and it deflects the tire enough to impact the wheel.

Whereas I typically run 40+ psi running down the highway, when it comes time to spend substantial time in the dirt, I’ll drop them down to 20–25 psi. For actual off-roading, 15–20 psi is as low as I go (partially because I’m a bit of a chicken and also because it takes longer to air back up with a mini air compressor).

Whatever you do, do not forget to air back up when it comes time to put on some highway miles. Again, heat is the enemy of tires, so as they start spinning faster and faster, an aired-down tire will start to heat up quickly.

So no matter if you’re running a dedicated hunting rig or a repurposed daily driver, consider a few of these handy tools as you get ready for hunting season. At the worst, they’ll take up a little space and a bit of money. At best, they could save you an entire hunt. No matter what your choice, I wish you safe travels!

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