The MakeShift Challenge: Broken Arm in the Wilderness

Education Science
The MakeShift Challenge: Broken Arm in the Wilderness
Photo by Jen Siska

[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 10, 2007. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

You and a buddy arrange to go trout fishing on a favorite isolated stream. You load up your two-wheel-drive wagon with all your fly-fishing equipment, a cooler full of canned soda, food, and ice, and a second cooler of ice for the fish you plan to catch. The spot you’re after is about 25 miles off the highway, down a drivable but pitted and rocky dirt road. But it’s worth the trek, as the stream itself is a shallow, meandering slice of paradise, with perfect sand and gravel bars punctuated by whitewater zones of stream-polished boulders that always make for the best fishing. And, as expected, the day of fishing goes great — at least, that is, until your friend slips on a wet rock and falls hard, breaking his arm.

The Challenge

The immediate swelling, pain, and developing bruise tell you it’s a nasty fracture that needs real medical attention. But your friend is still able to walk back to the car, and you assure him that help is only a short drive away. When you get back to the car, though, you discover that one of the front tires has gone flat, with a tear in its side, probably from a sharp rock. Like most people, you haven’t checked your spare tire in as long as you can remember and then you realize that you took it out to check it … and never put it back.

You know the vehicle will never make it out on this road on only three tires. And the sun is getting low, meaning night will be here soon. Your friend trusts you to get him out of here, but he’s looking more pained and concerned by the minute and you’re worried that if left alone for too long, he might go into shock. So what are you going to do?

Here’s what you’ve got: In addition to everything mentioned above, you have a sharp and sturdy fishing knife among your gear, as well as a basic tool kit in the car: hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, Swiss Army knife or Leatherman tool, duct tape, etc. And, though you don’t have a spare, you do still have the jack and wrenches needed to change a tire. Do you have a cellphone? Of course. Does it work this far out? Of course not.

Analysis and Commentary

This challenge basically had two separate parts to it:

Get your friend with the broken arm stabilized and comfortable enough to travel over a very rough road for as far as 25 miles. This had to be the first priority.
Secondly, get the flat tire with the damaged sidewall repaired so that it is drivable enough to withstand the badly pitted and rough road that will take you back into cellphone service range.

Most of you correctly determined that the best way to cope with the damaged tire was by filling it with sand or gravel — so points all around for that. But many of you either completely ignored the broken arm on your fishing buddy or only mentioned it very briefly, which cost you some of those points. A few of you simply suggested stabilizing the friend and then hiking out until cellphone contact could be made.

Generally, it’s best to stay close to someone who is badly injured, particularly when you’re not equipped to fully assess the degree of the injury, so hiking out 25 miles is probably not the ideal approach. And some of you thought that the weight in the car could be shifted enough that you could either drive out on three tires or just move the flat off one of the drive wheels and ride out on the flat. Having described the road as rough and pitted, we didn’t think those were viable solutions as they might risk seriously damaging the vehicle and leaving you both stranded.

When it came to repairing the tire itself, there was no shortage of inventive suggestions, but time and simplicity were the key factors here. Removing the tire from the car was an unnecessary step, and removing it completely from the rim might only compound the problem. Tires are really tough, and trying to get one off and on a rim with just hand tools would be extremely difficult at best and might not be doable at all. It would also add considerable time to your departure and so, given the waning light and condition of your friend, would not be our first choice.

To us, the most workable solution was to fill the tire with sand and gravel through the sidewall gash, getting as much in as possible. Getting the tire half to 3/4 full is plenty, since gravity will continually keep the solids in the lower part of the tire and give the inner surface of the wheel rim something to ride on that is not compressible. The trick here is to spread the gash open so that the sand and gravel can be poured inside the tire. In this instance dry sand and gravel would work best since they would be easier to pour into the tire.

One entrant suggested filling the tire with water and making a barbed plug to insert into the fill-hole, using the weight of the car on the jack to force the plug tightly into the hole so tight that no water would leak out. Given the nature of water and the probably jagged shape of the gash in the tire, we doubt this would work, but it was certainly a creative and novel approach.

As for opening the gash in the tire, this was generally addressed by cutting the tire or prying it open with some tool. Cutting a modern tire is not that easy and, while inserting a tool or tools such as a jack handle or screwdriver might help, we wondered if that would sufficiently open the gash to any useful degree.

Though it didn’t appear in the entries, we thought the best solution here was to use the weight of the car itself on the damaged tire to spread the gash, by compressing it in a direction parallel to the tear. If force is applied parallel to the tear length, the gash will open up and be much easier to cut a bit if that is required to make it slightly bigger. This force can be applied to the gash by jacking up the car and rotating the tire so that the overall length of the gash is essentially perpendicular to the ground, then releasing the jack until the gash opens up.

Then an object can be inserted into the opening to hold it open while dirt, sand, etc. is poured into the tire. We are not dealing with a liquid or gas here, so not much is going to leak back out of the gash once the tire is filled with the solids. And while duct tape and sewing up the gash to seal it might help, given the toughness of the tire and its flexing as it rotates along the road, we weren’t sure those efforts would make much difference in the end.

All in all, though, you once again rose to the occasion and brought lots of good thought to the problem, convincing us at least that, if we went fishing with you and broke an arm, we’d be in pretty good hands. So thanks again for all your efforts and we look forward to seeing your solutions on the next challenge.


The winners of the MakeShift Volume 13 Challenge are:

MakeShift Master — Most Plausible: James Furmato
MakeShift Master — Most Creative: Stuart Conner

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Lee D. Zlotoff

Lee D. Zlotoff is a writer/producer/director among whose numerous credits is creator of MacGyver. He is also president of Custom Image Concepts (

View more articles by Lee D. Zlotoff


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