Murphy’s Law says anything that can go wrong will. Which is why flat tires never happen at a good time. But knowing how to change a flat and put on a spare tire can get you back on the road quickly and safely. Just be careful, because changing a tire incorrectly can get you hurt.

Every year about 10,000 people visit the emergency room after suffering injuries while trying to use a jack or hoist, often while changing a tire, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Unless you are confident of your skills, call for help,” advises James Aubrey Solomon, program development and training director of defensive driving courses at the National Safety Council. “Do you have a car insurance policy or warranty which offers roadside service? This is the safest avenue.”

But if you find yourself with a flat tire and nobody to help, here's how to do it yourself.

Practice changing a tire in your driveway or another safe location. You'll work faster and feel more confident when faced with an actual flat. “If you have never changed a tire, [the side of the road] is not where you begin,” says Solomon.

First make sure you have what you need (keep these in your trunk):

  • spare tire
  • jack
  • WD-40 or similar spray lubricant
  • two tire blocks, bricks or heavy pieces of wood
  • flashlight
  • lug wrench
  • flares and/or red warning triangles

Step 1. If possible, park on a level spot at least ten feet away from traffic and set the parking brake. If you have your vehicle owner’s manual, check it for any special instructions specific to changing your tires.

Red warning triangle in road(Photo: iWorkAlone/Shutterstock)

Step 2. Turn on your emergency flashes, deploy flares or place a red warning triangle near your car to make sure other drivers can see you changing the tire. You may even want to open the hood or trunk.

Tire block(Photo: Jan Haas/Shutterstock)

Step 3. Place one of the tire blocks behind the tire that is diagonally opposite to the flat tire.

Step 4. Using the chiseled end of the lug wrench, pry the wheel cover off the flat tire. You'll see a set of large “lug nuts” screwed into the “lugs” that attach the tire to the wheel.

Changing a tire - unscrewing lugnuts(Photo: Jaromir Urbanek/Shutterstock)

Step 5. Using the socket end of the wrench, unscrew the nuts just a little. If they are too tight, try spraying them with the lubricant.

Tip: If your lug wrench doesn't fit over the lug nuts, then your lug nuts are a non-standard size, which is not uncommon. Ask your auto dealer or a parts store for the correct “wheel lock key” or “lug nut key” and keep it in your trunk.

Jacking up a car(Photo: docent/Shutterstock)

Step 6. Clear the ground of debris and place the jack on the ground. Jack up the vehicle 2 to 3 inches above the ground.

Tip: For your safety, check your owner’s manual or ask your dealer for the right place to position the jack underneath the vehicle. Otherwise, it might not lift properly.

Removing flat tire(Photo: docent/Shutterstock)

Step 7. Unscrew the lug nuts the rest of the way, remove them and store them where you can find them. Pull the flat tire off the lugs.

Tightening lugnuts(Photo: docent/Shutterstock)

Step 8. Get your spare tire and place it over the lugs. Using your hand only — not the wrench — screw the nuts back on.

Lowering the car on a jack(Photo: docent/Shutterstock)

Step 9. Using the jack, lower the vehicle until the spare tire barely touches the ground.

Tightening lugnuts(Photo: docent/Shutterstock)

Step 10. Using the lug wrench, tighten the nuts as much as possible.

Tip: To keep the tires balanced, don't tighten them in order. Instead, tighten the first one, then tighten another one opposite or nearly opposite to the first one, and so on. This is called the “star” or “cross” pattern.

Putting hubcap back on(Photo: Steve Collender/Shutterstock)

Step 11. Finish lowering the tire to the ground. Place the wheel cover back over the spare tire and push it in until it catches. If it doesn't fit correctly, put it in the trunk until later.

Step 12. Put the flat tire, jack, blocks and other items in the trunk and drive away.

If your spare tire looks smaller or different from the flat tire, then it may be only a temporary spare designed to get you back on the road. These aren’t meant to be driven on indefinitely. Visit a tire shop right away to replace it with a standard tire.

Then add a proper choice of tires and responsible driving habits for a safe and enjoyable day on the road. 

David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.