I am off to visit one of the many beautiful parts of Canada driving along the scenic highways. With my signal light on I conduct a symbolic shoulder check and begin to pull around the car. As I begin to move into the other lane, the car shudders with a bang and I feel a shockwave come up my arms and into my chest. I’m a little disoriented but I’m still driving forward. My heart is pounding and I’m straining to figure out what the hell happened when I hear, and feel, a rhythmic thumping in the steering column.

After hitting the world’s biggest pothole I’m now in the middle of nowhere with a blown tire. If you’ve never changed a tire – don’t worry – it’s not hard to do but I suggest you take a Saturday afternoon and practice on your car. Standing in a blizzard at one o’clock in the morning on the shoulder of the Trans-Canada highway isn’t the time to be learning how to do it properly.

In most cars, there’s a spare tire and some kind of jack in the trunk for situations exactly like the one I faced in the northern part of Nova Scotia. Changing a tire is one of the easiest things you can do yourself on a car but it’s important to do things in the right order and to do them safely.

How to change a tire on the side of the road

  1. Make sure you’ve pulled off onto the shoulder of the road as far as possible. If its night-time make sure you put your 4-way lights on (it’s usually the red-triangle button on your dash). If you’re in a tough spot and don’t think you can do this yourself then try calling CAA, or a friend for help. If the weather is cold, make sure you throw on your winter gear.
  2. Once you’ve got your tools out (spare tire, jack, tire iron), find a good spot to place the jack. The owner’s manual should show this if there aren’t instructions on the jack itself or on the inside of the car door. It’s usually somewhere along the sidepanel of the car, underneath the doors.
  3. Before you jack the car up: loosen the nuts on your wheel.
  4. Jack the car up and replace the flat tire with your spare. While the car is in the air, do not put any part of your body under the car. Crouch, or go down on your knees to work on the wheel. Don’t sit on the ground: it’ll be harder to move if the jack breaks and your car comes crashing down.
  5. Before you bring the car down, make sure the nuts are screwed down hand-tight on your spare tire. It is good practice to tighten them in a star pattern, to make sure they are tightened evenly. For example, if you start with a nut on the bottom left, the next nut you tighten should be across from it (top-right) and so on.
  6. Bring the car back down and use the tire iron to tighten the nuts.

Once the tools are put away, you should head to the nearest gas station or garage. Spare tires are a stop-gap measure designed to get you closer to civilization, not to bring you across the country. Most spare tires have a recommended speed limit printed on the tire wall. I’m not sure anybody wants to see what happens if you go over that.

After I switched to my spare and inspected the car for any other damage I hit the road again, this time looking for the closest hotel. The tire itself was fine; I had only bent the rim. A quick trip to a local garage the next morning had me back on the road, this time under clear, sunny skies. The hours spent on the side of the road, at the hotel, and then at the garage put me way behind schedule, much further behind than if I had simply pulled over for a few hours the night before.

There are lots of things you can do to make sure you are well prepared for long distance drives through severe weather. Packing a road safety kit, knowing how to change a tire, and making sure you have a plan are all good tactics but if you really want to stay safe try listening to what that little voice in the back of your head is saying. Chances are you won’t have to worry about whether or not you have the right size tire iron.