Once upon a time I patched twelve thorn punctures in one day. TWELVE!
Alone on the dirt roads of central Oregon with a dwindling supply of patches, one spare tube, and an unexpected minefield of goat head thorns to navigate, I made a vow:
If I ever make it back to civilization, I WILL figure out this tubeless thing.
Spoiler alert: I made it, and true to my word I eventually took the tubeless leap. In my garage one day with an under-powered air compressor running off my car’s cigarette lighter, I set up tubeless tires for the first time on my own bike and my husband’s.
A little while later we took them to the New Mexico desert, where we accidentally stuck all kinds of sharp things into them while trying to bypass deadly mud pits and outrun snow storms. It’s a long story.
But the point is, the tubeless tires worked! On several occasions I pulled a massive thorn out of my tire, spun the wheel, said a prayer to the bikepacking gods, and all was well.
There’s no shortage of tubeless tire setup tutorials out there already. But sometimes the pros leave out important details that may seem obvious to them, but can easily elude a first-timer. Those are the details I want to tell you about.
In this post I’ll share the things I wish I’d known when setting up tubeless tires for the first time. Read on to learn from my mistakes.
How do tubeless bike tires work?
First a quick explanation. Everything that follows will make more sense if you understand how tubeless tires work. If you’re already clear on this, feel free to skip to the next section.
In “normal” bicycle tires, the kind with tubes, the tire’s job is to provide traction – our interface with the road or trail – and also protect an internal air-filled tube. The tube’s job is to provide shape and firmness to the tire and keep it pressed tightly against the rim of the wheel. The tube needs to be airtight (this is why you fix a flat by patching your tube) but the tire doesn’t (you can still ride with small holes in your tire, as long as they adequately protect the tube inside).
In a tubeless tire system there is… forgive me for stating the obvious here… no tube. The tire is given shape and firmness and held against the rim of the wheel by the pressure of the air directly inside the tire. Essentially the tire is now performing the jobs of both the tire AND the tube.
There’s an important implication here: the tire in a tubeless system needs to be airtight, like your tube needs to be in a… tube-ful (I know that’s not a word) system, in order for the bike to be rideable. So our focus now turns from protecting our tubes from punctures to protecting our tires from punctures. It also means that the rim, which is part of the space holding the air, needs to be airtight (which is why we carefully tape over the spoke holes), as does the tire-rim interface (which is why we need tubeless-compatible rims and tires).
This is where sealant comes in. It’s a gooey sticky liquid which hardens into rubbery consistency when exposed to air in small enough cross-sections. In other words, if you get a small hole in your tire or the tire/rim interface isn’t perfectly air-tight, you can slosh some sealant in there and it will plug the hole or gap. This is the tubeless magic. This is why you can stick a cactus spine into your tubeless tire and just keep riding. The sealant plugs the hole (usually).
That’s how tubeless tires work, in a nutshell. Much of what follows is about how to get the air to stay in your tubeless tires as you put it in. Air, it turns out, is an unruly and slippery substance.
Not All Rims + Tires are Tubeless Compatible
Technically I learned this before starting the setup, but it’s important to mention. The reason I was running tubes in Central Oregon to begin with: I was bikepacking on my Long Haul Trucker, a pavement touring bike with non-tubeless-ready rims.
When I eventually upgraded to a Fargo for off-pavement exploration, the tubeless-ready rims and tubeless-ready tires were the final motivation I needed to try it out.
If all the parts of your system aren’t tubeless-compatible, I can’t recommend that you try a tubeless setup. People certainly do set up in “ghetto tubeless” mode, but you run a danger of “burping” the air out of your tire, which could result in a nasty spill. I’m certainly not one to discourage experimentation, but, try at your own risk!
Tubeless Tire Setup Video
I love Park Tool’s videos for learning DIY bike repair and maintenance. If you’re still wondering how the basics work, watch this before moving on:
It’s a good video, but in my opinion he makes it look way too easy. My first attempt was significantly clumsier, messier, and slower. They also left out a few crucial pieces, like how to get the valve stem sealed tightly in place to prevent leaks. And what happens when you’re using a weak compressor or floor pump?
Real life is messier than Park Tool’s perfect workshop. Read on for the extra tips I wish they’d included.
Tubeless Tire Supplies
Wondering if you have everything you need? Here are the basics:
- Tire sealant (I use Stans sealant)
- Rim tape in correct width (usually Stans or Gorilla Tape)
- Tubeless valve stem (I use these from Stans)
- Syringe (optional but highly recommended)
- Valve core remover (or the tiny one that comes with the syringe above)
- Air compressor or sturdy floor pump (I’ve installed 29×2.25″ tubeless tires with this pump from Topeak)
- Tire lever or two (I like these from Park Tool)
- Needle nose pliers (any will do, but I use the ones on my portable Leatherman which always comes with me on bikepacking trips)
- Paper towels or rags
- Your favorite beer or other soothing beverage of choice
- Optional: hair dryer (for helping seal rim tape)
Tubeless Tire Installation Steps
Before explaining the tips in more detail, here’s an outline version of the overall process to help you stay oriented.
- Make sure tires and rims are tubeless compatible, so the tire will make a strong seal against the rim.
- Make sure rim is properly taped with tubeless compatible (airtight) rim tape, so that no air can leak out the spoke holes. Helpful tip: if taping the rims yourself, pull the tape really tight and use a hair dryer to help seal it.
- Install the valve stem into the rim. Helpful tip: coat the base in sealant first to prevent leaks.
- Install the tire onto the rim.
- Helpful tip: Use a tire lever to pre-seat the bead.
- Add sealant to the tire, ideally through the valve stem (remove the core) using a syringe.
- Inflate the tire, shaking the sealant around as needed to plug leaks as they appear. Continue to inflate until the bead pops out fully against the rim.
- Helpful tip: If tire isn’t inflating fast enough to seat the bead, try removing the valve core to let air flow in faster during inflation
- Helpful tip: Be patient and continue alternating pumping with shaking sealant around inside the tire. .
Now, let’s take a closer look at those helpful tips.
Tape the Rims Carefully
It’s easy to overlook this step when learning how to install tubeless tires, but that can come back to bite you later. If the rim isn’t taped carefully to make an airtight seal around the spoke holes, all the rest of your work will be for nothing and it’s back to step one.
First of all, you need tubeless tape in the correct width. Not just any rim tape will work. The typical choice is either Stans rim tape, or the scrappy budget substitute Gorilla Tape (choose the correct width for your rims in both cases). Opinions are divided on which is best. Apparently Gorilla Tape is easier to apply (stickier) but leaves residue when you remove it. Stans can be tough to get sealed but comes off more easily when you need to replace it. Plenty of riders and mechanics swear by both.
To get a good seal with Stans rim tape, I use two tricks:
- Pull it very tight as you’re applying it, and press it all the way down into the channel. For some reason it seems to stick better when pulled tight. If it doesn’t stick right away, don’t worry, it gets easier once you’ve gone about 1/4 of the way around the wheel. Then you can come back and restick the first part.
- Warmth helps rim and tape stick to each other. Once the tape is applied, try lightly blasting it with a hair dryer, then pressing the tape down carefully along both the center channel and the edges.
- If the tape just won’t stick, try roughing up the rim a bit with some steel wool, or just use Gorilla Tape.
If this is your first time taping tubeless rims, I recommend you have some extra tape on hand. It might take a few tries to get it right, and the process of installing the tire can easily pull up the tape even if it seems solid.
Prevent Leaks at the Valve Stem
The video above assumes the valve stem is already placed in the rim, but in my case I had a brand new valve stem to deal with. It turns out the valve stem is one of the most common places for leaks when installing tubeless tires.
To give yourself the best chance of success, coat the base of the valve stem (the part that contacts the hole in the rim) in sealant before installing it. Push it firmly against the rim from the inside as you tighten the nut on the outside as far as possible using your fingers. Then tighten the nut just a partial turn more using pliers, but don’t overtighten it, as that can damage the valve stem.
If you still end up with a leaky valve stem during inflation, see below for additional advice.
Pre-Seat the Bead with Tire Levers
A central idea when installing tubeless tires is “seating the bead.” This means getting the edges of the tire to pop up against the edges of the rim so they form an airtight seal. It’s the opposite of what you do when you remove a tire to fix a flat: you push the tire inward away from the rim edges to “break the bead.”
As I quickly learned, you can’t just flip the bead into the rim, start pumping, and expect the bead to magically seat itself. At least, not if there are large gaps between the tire and rim; the air will rush out faster than it can create pressure in the tire. This is especially true if you don’t have a high-volume air compressor. So what to do?
Thanks to the very helpful videos below, I realized you can actually use a tire lever (these are my favorite) to push the bead against the rim – the opposite of what you would usually use it for when taking the tire off to fix a flat. By working my tire lever around the rim as they show in these videos, I was able to close the rim – tire gap enough to start making progress with inflation.
You probably don’t need to get this 100% perfect. I found that trying to seat the bead the entire way around caused more trouble than it solved, because the extra fussing messed up my rim tape. Just getting it seated maybe 2/3 of the way around both sides worked for me, even when using a floor pump (specifically this one from Topeak) to inflate.
Another similar recommendation you’ll sometimes see is to put in a tube and inflate it, then remove it by breaking the bead on only one side of the tire, and then inflate tubeless. This leaves you with one bead seated. This method works best with brand new tires, not previously used old tires that may have sharp stuff in them from punctures that sealed in the past.
Seat the Bead and Inflate (As Much As Possible) Before Adding Sealant
If you’re installing tubeless tires for the first time, I highly recommend using the alternate method in the Park Tool video above: install the tire completely and then add sealant through the valve stem (with core removed) using a syringe (this one works great and even includes a tiny little valve core remover).
With experience I’m sure both methods work, but for beginners this is key. If I had tried to pour sealant into the partially open tire and then seat the bead, I’m sure I would have made a big mess, not to mention wasted sealant when it took multiple tries to get the valve stem and rim tape set up correctly.
How far you go before adding sealant is up to you, but I recommend getting far enough to know your valve stem and rim tape aren’t leaking. On my second try at tubeless, I was able to actually seat the bead completely with my Topeak floor pump before adding any sealant. The first try wasn’t as clean, but I could still tell that the tire was sort of holding air before adding the sealant.
Remove Valve Core While Inflating
Assuming you’re using a valve with removable core – which you really should because it makes adding the sealant a lot easier – you can get more air into the tire faster by removing the valve core before inflating. This helps with the process of pushing the tire bead forcefully outward so it snaps into place against the rim.
To remove the valve core, you’ll need pliers or, ideally, a nifty little tool called a valve core remover.
Once the bead is mostly seated (doesn’t have to be completely popped out yet), you can replace the valve core: disconnect the pump, quickly put your finger over the open valve stem to stop the flow of air, and quickly replace the valve core. Of course you’ll lose air during the process, but hopefully the bead will remain seated, and you can easily re-inflate with the valve core in place and finish seating the bead completely.
Fixing Leaks at the Valve Stem
Hopefully you coated the valve stem base in sealant before installing, pushed it securely into the rim from the outside, and tightened the nut firmly. Now you’re trying to inflate the tire, but the area around the valve stem is still hissing with a leak. Try these next:
Tighten the valve stem nut a little more with pliers and see if that stops the leak. Don’t crank it down too hard though, or you can damage it. Instead…
Use this maneuver to get sealant into the area around the valve stem and stop any leaks: hold the tire with the valve stem at the bottom, so that the sealant pools in the tire directly under it. Then quickly flip the tire 180 degrees around its diameter; in other words, flip it perpendicularly to the way it rolls. The idea is to get the sealant to fall downward onto the area around the valve stem and plug any leaks where the stem contacts the rim. Do this a few times flipping in each direction, then continue trying to inflate.
If you’re reusing an old valve stem and the area around it is leaking, it’s possible the valve stem needs to be replaced. Before declaring it done, try this trick: cut a circular piece of old tube, cut a small hole in the middle, and push the valve stem through it so the old tube rubber rests where the stem will meet the rim. You’ve essentially making a fresh seal, in case the old one isn’t doing its job anymore.
If the area around the valve stem still doesn’t seal, it’s possible your rim tape isn’t fully sealed. Air leaking in through any of the spoke holes can travel under the rim tape and be released at the valve area. Unfortunately this means checking your rim tape and starting from scratch; see the rim taping tips above.
Be Patient and Iterate
The first time I set up my tubeless tires, it felt like a chicken-or-egg (which comes first?) type of problem. Getting more air in the tires helps them seal better, but getting a better seal helps you get more air in the tires.
In my case, using a relatively weak air compressor, the key was to patiently alternate. After partially seating the bead with a tire lever, adding the sealant through the valve core, and starting to inflate the tire, I could only reach around 10 psi at first due to many small leaks.
Then I shook the sealant around inside the tire, rotating and twisting to get it to flow into any cracks between the bead and rim. Then I tried inflating again and was able to reach 13 psi.
More shaking and spinning to distribute sealant… More pumping… 15 psi. Repeat… 19 psi. Eventually I was able to get high enough pressure to fully pop the bead against the rim, but it definitely didn’t happen all in one go.
It Can Take A Couple Days
Once the tires seemed to be holding air, I laid them flat and flipped sides a couple times over the next day. They lost a little air, and I pumped them up again. Once they held air consistently for a few days, I declared them ready.
Dealing With Sealant
I probably shouldn’t admit this in a post about working on bikes, but I don’t really like getting my hands dirty, literally speaking. So the idea of dealing with sealant was initially unappealing, especially after hearing people describe it as “basically glue.”
If you can relate, let me reassure you: it’s not that bad. At least with the Stans sealant I use, it’s fairly easy to wipe it off things – the rim when it needs retaping, the inside of tires when replacing them, the kitchen floor, the household cat (just kidding?) – with a paper towel or rag. A bit of Simple Green cleaner helps. And once dried, it peels off in satisfying chunks.
A syringe makes it easier to both add sealant to the tire, and to remove it when replacing tires or taking a second (or third, or fourth) try with installation. A pair of latex gloves can help make the messier parts of the job more approachable.
Tubeless Tire Repair Supplies
Though tubeless tires are much more puncture resistant than tubes, don’t forget that they still have failure modes. Your tire is now the critical link in your system, and sealant won’t mend everything. This means you should be carrying the following in your repair kit:
- Tire repair plugs for moderate size holes
- Curved needle and heavy duty thread for large gashes
- Extra sealant
- Spare tube, in case the seal is broken. A portable pump typically isn’t high-volume enough to re-seat a bead.
- Patch kit for that backup tube. (Consider what happens if you put a tube in but your tire is full of thorns from self-sealing punctures…)
- Super glue is often considered helpful (these tiny ones are great for minimalist repair kits)
If you’re interested in more detail on portable repair supplies, here’s a full list of spares and tools for various types of bikepacking trips.
A Tubeless Convert
So how did my first tubeless tire setup work out? It was a great success. We managed to fly with the bikes to New Mexico without breaking the beads (we planned to use a gas station compressor near our hotel as a backup). On the trail our tires were ridiculously robust to the damage of prickly desert foliage. Zero flats. As for how the rest of that snowy, muddy trip went, well, that’s a story for another time.
So if you’re on the fence about setting up your tires tubeless, and you have the compatible tires and rims, I’d say go for it. My first attempt was a little messy, but a great learning experience. Perhaps these tips will help your first attempt go a little smoother than mine.
For more info from people who have far more experience than me, check out bikepacking.com’s post on how to travel with tubeless tires.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re considering tubeless tires, you might want to check out the full bikepacking resources section here, or these popular posts:
- Solving bicycle seat pain for women
- Moosetreks frame bag 4500+ mile review
- Creative ideas for affordable bikepacking gear
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