Introduction: Fix a Flat Bike Tire - the Way of the Innertube

About: Dan Goldwater is a co-founder of Instructables. Currently he operates MonkeyLectric where he develops revolutionary bike lighting products.

The Way of the Innertube - aka - How to fix a flat tire with your shoelace

When it comes to fixing a flat tire I suggest first contemplating your philosophy towards life. The theory of the flat tire is simple, the reality can be maddening to the unprepared. Yet, there are many paths to your goal.  In this article I hope to guide your journey and help you to learn The Way.

This article is a complete guide to flat tire repair for anyone from the beginners to experts.  There is no 'one size fits all' method here, instead I have brought together a wide range of best practices and some ideas to help you decide what is best for you.  Even if you already know how to fix a flat, there is much here for you:
  • How to fix a flat tire - the standard method - videos
  • How to fix a flat tire - with only a smile
  • Understanding how flats happen on real bikes, not brand new $3,000 bikes.
  • How to remove a tire without levers
  • How to patch a tire without patches
  • How to inflate a tire without a pump
  • How to check tire pressure without a gauge
  • How to fix a rim without rim tape

This article is sponsored by Momentum Magazine and MonkeyLectric.  An edited version of the article appears in Momentum Issue 49

Step 1: The Responsible Rider

The Responsible Rider – this upstanding member of society believes in full preparedness at all times. They know how to fix a flat tire and always carry their Trusty Toolkit. For the budding Responsible Rider – follow the 3 handy steps below. For the rest of you, I suggest learning about the Responsible Rider and their Trusty Toolkit, then later we’ll see how other life philosophies might approach this challenge.

Becoming a Responsible Rider:

1. Around the web there are hundreds of videos and instructions about fixing flat tires written by Experts.  I spent about 5 hours weeding through the endless fuzzy, grainy, mumbling amateur videos so that you don't have to.  Here's the 5 best ones.

2. Always carry your Trusty Toolkit when biking. I recommend the following: 2 plastic tire levers, innertube patches, a mini-size pump and a bike multi-tool. Your bike shop can hook you up with all this stuff and it will fit easily into any backpack or handbag.

2b. You may prefer a spare innertube instead of patches – its bigger but you don’t have to spend any time finding holes in a popped tube. Carry patches even if you have a spare tube.

2c.  If you have an old or beat up bike, i'd also recommend a roll of fabric sports tape.  This can be used to repair flat-causing problems in the rim and the tire - both of which commonly cause flats on a junker bike. 

3. PRACTICE!!!  Practice changing your innertube and using patches a couple times at home before venturing out into the world beyond.  Use the videos above for help. Try both front and rear wheels. There is nuance to this process.  You don’t want to be figuring out what does and doesn’t work in a rainy bus stop late at night.


Step 2: How Do Tires Get Flat?

Ok, so that was great right? You and your Trusty Toolkit and problem solved! After thinking about all the flat tires I’ve seen in the past 20 years, I keep remembering all the times that theory and practice just didn’t see eye to eye.  All those videos in the last step might lead you to think that the only way to get a flat is from a piece of glass or a nail.  Not so!

Common ways a tire can get flat:

1. Sharp thing in the road.

2. Under-inflated tire: Slamming a curb or pothole with an under-inflated tire causes a “pinch flat” which breaks the innertube even without any hole in the tire. If you ever got a flat and couldn’t figure out why – this is likely the reason.

3. Rim tape failure:  This tape, plastic or rubber strip normally protects the underside of the innertube from sharp bits and holes on the inside of the rim.  The rim strip may wear out after 5 or 10 years, especially on cheap bikes.

4. Mechanical failure of the rim:  This mostly happens on junkers.  Spokes can poke through the rim and into the underside of the tube, or the wall of the rim can get cracked so a sharp part gets against the tube or tire.

5. Valve leak:  Sometimes they leak through the nozzle, which may be fixed with a little oil.  Other times the valve may separate from the tube at the base, which is usually not fixable.

6.  The flat is not even on your bike!  Read on...

Step 3: The Unprepared Rider

Oh, I see you over there Unprepared Rider! Yes, it’s you on the side of the road shivering and drawing smiley faces in the mud. What went wrong? Forgot your phone, wallet, patch kit and brain back at home? Well that’s ok, now that I am pulling up I see you are not just anyone, you are Manic Pixie Dream Girl. What luck for both of us that I am Responsible Rider to the Rescue. If only we could meet this way more often!  Lets both wish upon a stereotype more often, shall we?

Step 4: The Zen Rider

The Zen rider takes life as it comes. She has the confidence of the Responsible Rider, but she knows that being totally responsible every hour of every day is a burden to living life to its fullest. Knowledge, Technique and Creativity are the tools in her kit. The Zen Rider does more with less, and finds joy in the occasional unexpected adventure life throws her way. As you grow on your own path to innertube enlightenment, I will provide you with my thoughts on the Way.

We’ve covered the basics – what remains is a vast store of situational methods to help you solve any problem with whatever is at hand.  The following steps assume you already know the traditional way of changing a flat shown in the earlier videos.

Step 5: The Way of Tire Levers

Most tires can be removed and replaced without levers.  Take a look at this video:

The beginning of this video shows the best method for creating the slack in the tire:

If you still prefer levers, handy substitutes include your axle quick-release levers or metal spoons. Sharp tools like a screwdriver must be covered in layers of tape or cloth first.

Step 6: The Way of the Patch

Stick-on patches are so small and light you can easily tuck them into every bag you own, or tape them to your frame tube.  Even so, the Way of the Innertube guides us with other options since we can never predict what life will bring. 

You CAN fix an innertube without patches, but doing so is more for emergencies. You’ll want to fix it properly later. What are your options?

1. Using only a shoelace or innertube (and maybe bubblegum):
  • If you have a large hole squish some bubblegum, pine sap or other tarry goo over the hole. This isn’t even needed for small holes.
  • Fold the innertube 1 or 2 times on top of the spot with the hole, keeping the hole facing inwards and squashed against another fold of the tube.
  • Wrap the area tightly with either a shoelace, or a strip from another broken innertube.
  • When you replace the tube, you must fold over the patched area so the inflatable portions touch. If you don’t the ends will blow out as soon as you inflate.
  • This method will hold 60 psi, I wouldn't push my luck going higher.
  • Done well this method will not leak air, however I would not trust it for long term riding.  Replace your innertube as soon as possible. 
2. Using only trash:  Remove the tube and pack your tire as tight as possible with dirt, grass or rolled-up newspaper. The idea here is to give enough padding to protect your rim and also keep the tire from falling off. If you have tape, tape all around the tire and rim to help hold the tire onto the rim.

3.  Using "fix-a-flat" for cars:  Most gas stations will have this.  I have not tried it, let me know if you have.

4. Using tent patches:  The identical material used by the brand name stick-on tire patches is available in bulk rolls here: Its also great for fixing tires, panniers, rain jackets, backpacks and other waterproof gear.

Step 7: The Way of the Pump

There are some really tiny mini-pumps out there (as little as 6" long), but if you don’t have one seek out a gas station.  Many gas stations have an outdoor coin-op pump available 24 hours.

Your bike shop can get you a very small Schraeder-to-Presta valve adapter that will let you use the gas station pump on any type of innertube.  Gas station pumps will fill a bike tire in just a couple seconds – keep your hand on the stick and be ready to pull out fast!   In more remote areas, locals with pickup trucks often have a tire pump.

There is also the Vampire pump, but I can't recommend it both due to impracticality and immorality.    Its just as large and heavy as a mini-pump, but it won't fill your tires to full pressure and if used carelessly will leave its host in a dangerous condition.

Many gas stations also have "fix-a-flat" made for car tires. This is a combination glue + pressure aerosol that should work on a bike too, although I have not tried it myself.

The Pump Challenge:  do you know any other way to pump a tire without a pump?  assume you are at the side of a road with a flat tire, not in your well equipped shop.   Can you figure out how to connect a 2 liter soda bottle you found in a dumpster to your valve, and stomp on it to pump up?

Step 8: The Way of Tire Pressure

Use a floor pump at home with a pressure gauge. Every time you fill up, check the firmness of the tire with your thumb. You’ll learn how to feel the right pressure without the gauge and you can use less savory pumps on the road.

Step 9: The Way of Rim Tape

one or two layers of fabric sports tape ("friction tape") is a good replacement for rim tape.  Duct tape can be used, but avoid the cheapest stuff which is weak and gets melty in heat.

With a couple layers of fabric tape you can keep a sliced outer tire together at pressure - just apply wide strips of tape on the inside of the tire, this will last a long time.

If you have a severely damaged rim with sharp cracks or spokes sticking out - you can probably use a bunch of tape to layer over these problems.

If you don't have any suitable tape:  On the rim-side, Any tight-woven fabric or even cardboard can be used to protect the tube from sharp bits of the rim, just be careful it doesn't get out of place when putting the tube in.

If you have a rim strip but it's a bit worn and has holes:  you may be able to just rotate the strip 1 inch along the rim, so that fresh bits of the strip are now covering the rim holes, and the worn-out bits are in non-critical areas.