It’s a Lug Nut – What Could Go Wrong?

Messed up lug nuts

Tires. Axles. Control arms. Body and frame. You name it. Just about anything that could get damaged while off-road will at some point. More than once, for those who drive frequently. And some of those issues can be serious.

But a lug nut? Who would think that a humble lug nut could derail a ride? Yes, that simple yet important part can be an issue, as was the case recently with one four-wheeler.

He just wanted to change a tire

Brian, a client, wrote me about a very perplexing incident that happened to him. Fortunately, his episode occurred while at home. But it just as easily could have taken place off-road. Indeed, I’m sure many four-wheelers can relate to Brian’s experience.

Brian needed to do some work on his Jeep. Part of that involved removing a wheel. Socket wrench in hand, Brian zeroed in on the first lug nut. Applying a “good hard lefty-loosie,” Brian was surprised when the lug nut didn’t budge.

“Lefty-loosie, that’s all we think we need to know,” he explains. “We’ve taken them off scores of times; it’s not like we need to practice or anything.”

Ah, but this one wouldn’t budge.

So he added a 2-foot-long breaker bar to the end of the wrench and applied thrust. Still nothing. Only when Brian put his entire 195 pounds onto the breaker bar did the lug nut come loose.

This can be a big issue off-road

Lug nuts are one of those parts you forget about until you have to deal with them. Due to the nature of four-wheeling, tire-related issues crop up frequently. That means drivers contend with lug nuts on a pretty regular basis.

Unfortunately, it’s during those events that four-wheelers discover the service station set its impact wrench to “gorilla mode” (as Brian likes to call it) during a recent visit.

Swollen Nuts

A severely stuck lug nut is one thing. But this one was a two-piece unit – and in tough shape.

Sporting a cap of chromed steel, one of the lug nuts had suffered damage when it was last removed. The result: The socket no longer fit properly. The cap was swollen.

After hammering on the socket, Brian literally stood on the breaker bar. The nut finally broke free. “I got the nut off,” he says, “but getting that lug nut back out of that socket was probably the hardest part of the entire debacle. This represents another thing you don’t want to find out while out in the field!”

Brian discovered three more damaged two-piece lug nuts and replaced those with solid lug nuts.

“Two-piece lug nuts are nice and shiny because they’re made from two kinds of metal. Steel is used to make the lug nut. Then a chrome sheet metal covering is added to make it shine. Rust can form in between the two layers of dissimilar metals over time, causing them to expand and warp. It can become swollen over time due to moisture and corrosion. Swollen lug nuts can become difficult to remove using standard tools.’”

William Guzenski, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Proactive measures help prevent stuck lug nuts

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Many issues can be prevented with regular vehicle maintenance. That includes problems with lug nuts.

At various times during the year, pull the wheels and inspect the brakes and other components. This is especially true before a long or punishing trip (like the Rubicon).

Loosen the lug nuts, then reset to spec. (An accurate, properly calibrated torque wrench is a must.) Then you know the lug nuts are set correctly – and that you’ll be able to remove them, if necessary, while off-road. And if the socket doesn’t go on you will know before the trip you need to replace a swollen nut.

Options for loosening lug nuts

Backup – something will give.

There are several ways to loosen a stuck lug nut.

  1. Extend the length of a lug wrench or rachet wrench with a cheater (breaker) bar. A piece of pipe or the handle from a Hi-Lift jack will do.
  2. Stand on the cheater bar. Put your 200 pounds (or more) onto that handle.
  3. Try an impact wrench, if you or a buddy happens to carry one.
  4. This last method is tricky, but it worked for one driver recently. With the cheater bar in place, slowly more the vehicle forward (passenger side) or backward (driver side) until the breaker bar touches the ground. Don’t get this wrong. Continue moving very slowly. Now you’re using the vehicle’s motion to force the wrench to move and the lug nut to loosen. Make sure no one is standing near that wheel in case something goes flying off. If the breaker bar doesn’t touch the ground, place it on top of a block of wood.

Additional recommendations for dealing with lug nuts

Torque wrench

Several recommendations come to mind in light of Brian’s experience:

  1. Buy a 4-way lug wrench. Use that instead of the wrench supplied with the vehicle. Its size and shape provide for better leverage. Make sure the lug wrenches are the proper size for your lug nuts. 4-way lug wrenches come in a variety of dimensions.
  2. Buy a torque wrench. They’re a bit pricey but worth it.
  3. If your vehicle has two-piece lug nuts, replace all with regular, solid lug nuts.
  4. Before going on challenging trails, loosen and retighten all lugs nuts. Use the torque wrench to ensure the lug nuts are tightened to spec. Don’t worry about the lug nut being too tight. Even if the spec calls for 120 foot-pounds of torque (a rather high value), know that you can break that at any time.

Try to fix the tire first

Stuck lug nuts are an annoying problem, and they can upset a four-wheeling experience. Keep in mind that not all tire-related problems require that the wheel(s) be pulled.

Consider fixing the tire while the wheel is still mounted; many tire-related issues can be solved this way. Minor punctures and even a broken bead can be addressed without pulling the wheel. But you need the proper gear to perform a repair.

Purchase a tire-repair kit and keep it in the vehicle at all times. Learn how to plug a leak when one occurs.

For bead-related matters, learn or refresh on the steps to reset the bead.

Lug nuts are somewhat invisible until you need to remove the wheel. That’s when you find out whether you’re able to. Over time a lug nut can get rusted on or simply be installed with a high torque.

Occasionally loosen and reset all the lug nuts – especially before a challenging course. Using a torque wrench, set the lug nuts to spec, and you can be assured they’ll hold your wheels in place yet be removable if necessary.


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At almost 300 pages, “San Rafael Swell Off Road: A Trail Guide to 42 Destinations for Automobiles, 4WD Trucks & ATVs” is a guide to the in the San Rafael Swell area of Emery County. The desert area is ringed by small towns like Price, Green River and Castle Dale.

“Every chapter includes helpful advice for novice or experienced explorers of the area, such as, “Easy dirt road for high clearance automobile, although four-wheel drive is recommended to several sandy sections along the road. “according to Ed Helmick the author.

The San Rafael Swell area of south-central Utah. This is an area that provides approximately 2,000 square miles of fantastic scenery, fascinating history, and fun off-road adventures. The only paved roads in the San Rafael Swell are Interstate 70, which bisects the Swell in an east-west direction for 67 miles, and a spur of I-70 called the Moore Cutoff. The major difference between off-roading in the Moab area and the Swell area is fewer people, and the area is more remote in regard to the distances to small towns with services. Utah towns that ring the Swell are: Price, Green River, Hanksville, Cainsville, Emery, Castle Dale, Huntington, and Cleveland.
The companion map, the National Geographic San Rafael Swell (#712) comes as a package deal with your book order.

I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.

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