How to Rotate Tires

No puns about it: What we mean by rotating tires, is swapping them around to different corners of your car.

byAustin Fracchia, Peter NelsonMay 20, 2022 5:05 PM
How to Rotate Tires
Peter Nelson, Andrew P. Collins
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Rotating car tires is an easy and useful form of automotive maintenance. It involves swapping a car's four wheels and tires between each corner of the car to help evenly disperse tire wear. In turn, you'll get more mileage out of a complete set. More mileage means more value and more value means less money spent.

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In some scenarios, rotating tires is also necessary maintenance, such as when it comes to all-wheel drive/four-wheel drive-equipped vehicles. Typically, you want to make sure that an axle's tires are wearing as evenly as possible, as changes in tread depth between each end can accelerate wear on the car or truck's drivetrain.

Whether you're trying to get the most out of your car's tires and save a little scratch in the long run or you're concerned about having to shell out for some major drivetrain repairs down the line, rotating tires is an easy and effective way to do so.

Car Tire Rotation Basics

Estimated Time Needed: Carve out around an hour of your valuable time

Skill Level: Seasoned NASCAR Pit Crew Member… just kidding! This is a beginner's task.

Vehicle System: Wheels and Tires

Car Tire Rotation Safety

Even though this short piece of maintenance is generally very easy and straightforward, it's still a good idea to be well-prepared by reviewing the process a couple of times, having the proper tools on hand, and paying special attention to the safety aspect.

Rotating a car's tires involves jacking it up onto jack stands and removing its feet. If the car slips off of a jack stand (or stands) without a wheel (or wheels) attached, it could be catastrophic. Not only could it very seriously harm you, it could also incur significant damage to its brakes, suspension, body, or more.

That's why you must ensure the car is properly jacked up and supported on a flat, sturdy surface. We've got a great guide on how to do so, as well as how to safely use jack stands, so give them a thorough reading before attempting to support your car by what are effectively four small pieces of metal (jack stands).

If any of this seems like too much to handle, or you're not properly equipped to do so (maybe your driveway is at an angle?), luckily shops charge small fees to rotate tires. Here’s what you’ll need to stay safe.

Everything You’ll Need To Rotate Car Tires

To effectively rotate your car's tires, there are a couple of tools that you'll need if you don't already have them.

Tool List

Keep all of these items organized and in working order. Especially the torque wrench: Be sure to loosen it up before putting it away in storage for the next job. Also, ensure there aren't any tripping hazards while performing this task, as you don't want to trip and fall into your car and knock it off of one or more of its stands.

Thankfully, no harmful chemical agents, fluids, etc. are a part of this process, unless you're using anti-seize on the wheel hubs. If you are, it's a good idea to wear safety goggles just in case. Also, keep your hands covered, that stuff is nasty and can make your hands look like those of the Silver Surfer if you spill it.

Here’s How To Rotate Car Tires

Let’s jump right to it!

Loosen the Lug/Wheel Bolts or Nuts While the Car Is on the Ground

  1. Put the car in park or put the e-brake on, and put it in gear if it has a manual transmission.
  2. Begin by lightly loosening the car's lug nuts or bolts just enough so that they'll come off easily once they're hanging in the air.
  3. This is done by taking the breaker bar or wrench, installing the proper socket size, and giving 'em a lefty-loosey twist. You might have to put your weight into it, especially if the car was previously at a mechanic's shop where the bolts are often overtightened with an impact wrench.

Determine Which Tires Can Go Where

  1. If the tires are directional (the tire will say, otherwise they usually have a tread design that's pointing like a series of arrows in a certain direction) and all the same size, you can swap them between the front and back, but not between the passenger and driver sides. 
  2. If the tires are non-directional and all the same size, you can swap them that way, as well as between passenger and driver sides. 
  3. If the tires are staggered, meaning they're a different size in the front than in the back, you can only swap them between passenger and driver sides across their respective axles. 
  4. If they're directional and staggered, unfortunately, you cannot rotate your tires.
  5. Check out these handy-dandy visual guides that outline this:
For non-directional tires of the same size.
For directional tires or staggered setups (larger rear tires).
For non-directional tires with a full-sized spare.

Slowly, Safely Jack the Car Up

  1. If you're only swapping the wheels between the front and rear axle, keeping them on their respective passenger and driver's sides, you can work one side at a time or have the whole car sitting on four stands. It's up to you.
  2. Again, refer to our guide on how to safely jack up your car to refresh your memory on how to do this.
  3. If you're swapping the passenger-front wheel with the driver-rear wheel, as well as the driver-front with the passenger-rear wheel, you'll definitely have to have the whole car sitting on four safely positioned jack stands.
  4. Generally, there isn't a threat of being completely crushed, but act as though there is: Never crawl underneath a car that's not sturdily supported by jack stands. For added safety protection, keep the jacks underneath the car, as well.

Continue Loosening Bolts/Nuts

  1. Now it's time to remove each wheel you're swapping from its hub or rotor face (whichever part touches the wheel when it's installed). This might involve giving it a smack with the rubber hammer to free it, as over time some light corrosion occurs between the wheel and hub, lightly fusing them together. 
  2. To prevent this from happening in the future, apply a thin layer of anti-seize on the hub or rotor face where the wheel contacts it. Keep the stuff away from lug nuts and bolts though, and only use a very thin layer.

Begin Rotating

  1. Now's the fun part: Swap the wheels between corners using the aforementioned strategy. It should be said that how you drive the car will affect which wheels will swap where. 
  2. If it's rear-wheel drive and you drive it spiritedly, the rears might be a little more worn than the fronts. If they're non-directional, too, then it's a really good idea to not only swap the rear tires straight forward, but between passenger and driver, too. So, you'd swap the driver-front tire to the passenger-rear corner, and the passenger-front tire to the driver-rear corner.
  3. Just swapping between the passenger and driver sides is less effective. Though it could still eke out more tire life, especially if you drive alone a lot, and therefore more weight is on the driver-front corner.
  4. Generally, if the car is front-wheel drive, the fronts will wear faster. Therefore, swap the front tires straight back, and then move the driver-rear to the passenger front, and the passenger-rear to the driver front.
  5. For four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive cars, simply swap the tires in an x-pattern.

Begin Re-Assembly

  1. Once you've got the tires swapped where you want them, reinstall each wheel's nuts or bolts finger tight, or as tight as they'll go without spinning the wheel on the hub.
  2. Grab the jack and jack up the car to begin removing it from the jack stands. Work slowly so as not to upset the weight balance and make the car prematurely drop off of other jack stands in the process.
  3. While lowering the car, be sure nothing will get stuck under the tires, including not only a small animal or bolt, but also your hands or feet.
  4. Once the car is back on the ground, grab the torque wrench and tighten the bolts or nuts in a star pattern to the car manufacturer's recommended setting, which is typically somewhere higher than 85 foot-pounds.

Pro Tips to Rotate Car Tires

Over the years, us nerds have learned a few tips and tricks to be even more effective in our tire swappery. Here are a few of them to get the most out of your rubber investment.

  • If you're swapping wheels a lot, such as between sets for street driving vs. track driving, or you just like changing up your wheels frequently, write RF, LF, RR, LR (right front, left front, right rear, left rear) or DF, PF, DR, PR (driver front, passenger front, driver rear, passenger rear) on each tire in either tire paint or shoe polish to designate which tire goes where. This'll help you put them in the proper orientation after having them in storage. Write it on the sidewall so that it doesn't wear off while rolling down the road, and on the outside or inside of the rim. It's a good idea to designate between the two, such as RF OUT for the right-front wheel, outside.
  • While you're working on them, it's a good idea to check your tire pressures and set them to the manufacturer's recommended PSI.

FAQs About Rotating Car Tires

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers… which we aren't tired of sharing!

Q. How often should car tires be rotated?

A. This depends. Some manufacturers have recommended service intervals, but really it's a good idea to do so at least every 5,000-10,000 miles. Or, take a look at the tires and see if there's a difference in wear that ought to be changed up to help all four tires bear the brunt of consumption, as tires are considered a consumable item.

Depending upon the tires' wear rating, the service interval changes, too. 200-treadwear tires wear faster than 500-treadwear tires, therefore should be rotated more frequently.

Q. What is the general rule for tire rotation?

A. A general rule that's easy to remember, is to cross the free-rolling axle. Meaning, if it's rear-wheel drive, swap the rear wheels straight forward, but swap the left front to the right rear, and the right front to the left rear.

Q. Do tires need to be balanced when rotated?

A. It's not necessary, but it doesn't hurt. The weights that keep a wheel balanced can detach over time, so if you can let your vehicle sit for a while on jack stands while you go have the wheels balanced by a local tire shop, go for it.

Q. Do you need alignment after rotating tires?

A. You do not. This is because the wheels and tires do not physically alter your car's alignment. However, if the tires are unevenly worn, such as noticeably more on the passenger side than on the driver side, the car might track slightly differently than you're used to.

Video

We're not all good at text-based learning, so we found the following video on the internet that's a solid instructor on how to properly rotate car tires.