Part of the fun of 4 wheeling is the inevitable problem out in the wild. Sometimes someting breaks like suspension, steering, u-joints, or maybe the engine quits. Other times it's as simple as a flat tire. Flats only become a problem when you had decided that you wouldn't need a spare and left home without one. At that point, fixing a tire on the trail could be as simple as screwing on a can of Fix-A-Flat, or as major as leaving your rig on the trail while you carry the flat out to get it repaired at the nearest tire store. That's one of the reasons why, like scuba diving, you always want to go with a buddy (who has another Jeep, of course). It really sucks to carry 100lbs of wheel and tire 5 miles through the woods. After you finally do fix it, you're left with that great feeling of successfully overcomming certain disaster and managing to make it home!
This is the story of one such brush with death and how, using what we had on hand, we repaired it and still got home in time for dinner!
Several years ago I had just bought a new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and thought it might make a great chase vehicle for ballooning. No matter how far off road my wife managed to land the balloon, I knew the Rubicon would be able to get there, retrieve the balloon, and make it back. At WHAMOBASS
(a balloon rally in Colinga, CA.) I ran into my friend Eric, who had a Toyota 4WD pickup that was set up with a lift and off-road tires. Since ballooning only takes place in the morning, we thought it would be a great idea to take our rigs on an off-road adventure that afternoon at nearby Clear Creek
We played around the park for a while, then decided to climb one of the tallers hills, a somewhat challenging one since the trail ran diagonally up the side. I made it to the top, but when I stopped and looked behind me, Eric was no where in sight. I turned around and headed down the hill to see what happened to him, and half-way down I saw his was truck stopped, with Eric and friends milling around it. When I got closer I saw that the truck had a flat tire on the downhill side, the worst place to have it when you're on a hill (If the truck falls off the jack, I'd MUCH rather be on the uphill side of it). Thinking about how to position my Hi-Lift jack
in order to change it, I asked Eric to get out his spare. Looking at me rather sheepishly, Eric mumbled "Um, I don't have one".
At that point, we started to take stock of what we did have with us, with which we might be able to patch the tire and make it home. Nobody had a can of Fix-A-Flat, and even if we did, the dime-sized hole a dead branch had poked through his sidewall wasn't going to be plugged with some goop. I had a spare on my Jeep, which I had inflated to 80psi so I'd have extra air to inflate a flat, but the Jeep bolt pattern didn't match the one on his Toyota, so that was out. We were going to have to figure out how to patch the hole, and of course, no one had a patch kit. What we did have was a general tool kit with some miscellaneous nuts and bolts, and a can of ether starting fluid Eric used to power his spud gun.
We tried a couple easy (stupid) things first, like putting a screw in the hole, and actually trying to seal it with some gum. The hole was much too wide for a screw, and it turned out the gum we used was bubble gum. We found that out when the tire started blowing an enormous bubble! We finally resigned ourselves to the reality that we would have to seal the tire from the inside. The first thing we did was jack the truck up and get the tire off. We had to prop the Hi-Lift jack at an angle to compensate for the slope of the hill, and hope the truck didn't fall on us.
After succeeding at that without injury, our first challenge was how to break the bead, which is a wire embedded in the tire specifically to keep the tire on the rim and usually only comes off using a powerful machine in a tire shop. Luckly I remembered a trick from my youth where you lay the tire on the ground and use a bumper jack to push on the side of the tire, thereby breaking the bead. Eric's jack was at home with his spare, and my Hi-Lift was holding up his truck, but fortunately I still had the factory bottle jack that came with the Rubicon. It's mostly useless once you lift your Jeep and install big tires (hence the need for the Hi-Lift), but was the perfect item for what we needed that day. you can see Eric in the picture cranking the jack and breaking the bead.
Once the bead was broken we had access to both sides of the damaged tire sidewall, we just needed something to patch it with that would create an air-tight seal. As I had mentioned before, we didn't have any actual tire patches, so it was time for another brainstorm. Although the screw idea didn't work, we had some larger bolts that would fill the hole better, and we could get a washer and nut on the inside so the hole would be covered. We still needed some way to seal it though. Looking at Eric's truck, I saw that there was a rubber flap covering the space between the engine compartment and the wheel well needed to have room for the suspension to move. I suggested we cut some "washers" out of the rubber to act as a seal. That gave us pieces of rubber on both sides of the hole squeezed tight with a bolt, nut and, washers. With that problem solved, the next issue was getting the bead to seal on the rim again. (Remember - the bead is so stiff we had to jack a car on top to break it. Getting it to re-seal would be equally tough.
Once again, all that time I spent watching off-road adventure shows paid off! I remembered seeing an Antarctic expedition where they popped a bead due to hitting an obstacle when they had low air pressure in the tire. To set the bead and partially inflate the tire, they sprayed some starting fluid into the tire. When they lit it, the resulting "explosion" forced the bead onto the rim, allowing them to inflate the tire and continue. As luck would have it, Eric happened to have a can of starting fluid (remember the spud gun?). Since it was his truck (and he was the one who forgot to bring a spare) Eric was "elected" to do the dangerous work of lighting his tire on fire. After filling the tire with probably way too much starter fluid, Eric lit a match and BOOM, the bead was set on the tire. I think we were all half surprised it worked, and half surprised we didn't set ourselves, the truck, and the surrounding field on fire.
After that amazing bit of technological magic, Eric did the "YEAH, BABY" posture that all guys do after they've done something incredibly stupid and yet survived. Using the extra air I had put in my spare, we were able to inflate the tire to around 20psi - hopefully enough for us to drive the truck. We carefully reinstalled the tire, lowered the truck, and gently drove down to the bottom of the hill. It seemed to be holding air so we decided to attempt the drive back to Coalinga, about an hour away. Surprisingly, Eric made it with no issues - we checked the tire when we got back and it had not lost any pressure. A tire sidewall flexes as the vehicle rolls on it, which is why you cannot normally patch a tire with a hole located there. To patch it with a nut, bolt and a couple of pieces of rubber and still have it hold air while driving for over an hour is nothing short of fantastic! (Rumour has it that a week later, Eric was still driving around with the bolt in the tire). All in all, a fitting end to an amazing day.