Off-road adventures can be exhilarating, but muddy tires and wheels can make the journey less enjoyable. In particular, they can cause corrosion and damage to a vehicle. Moreover, filthy tires can hide dangers such as sidewall cracks, nails, and uneven treadwear. That said, this guide provides some of the best tips on cleaning your tires, effectively giving you peace of mind in every one of your adventures.
How do you clean muddy off-road tires? First, identify the type of off-road tire used and the mudding activity participated in. Knowing these will be easier to determine which cleaning step needs to be adhered to and which ones you can skip.
Depending on the aggressiveness of the tread pattern and the severity of mud accumulation or incurred damage, the entire cleaning process may consist of more than seven steps.
In most instances, sprucing up those hardworking tires is all there is to restoring their off-road adeptness. Occasionally, however, a simple cleanup is not enough — meaning a tire replacement may be warranted.
So before you make that impulsive purchase, try giving those knobbies some well-deserved TLC. And freshening them up by eradicating caked mud and debris is a good place to start.
Different Types of Muddy Tires
Before we delve into top tips on how to clean tires, let us briefly get acquainted with the different kinds of off-road mud tires — to better understand whether nuances in composition affect their cleaning process:
Mud Terrain (MT) Tires
MT tires like BFGoodrich Mud Terrain T/A KM3 Radials (view on Amazon) are designed with an aggressive tread pattern featuring deep and widely spaced lugs. These lugs provide excellent traction in mud and loose terrain by digging into the surface to gain maximum grip. Their downside is that they make cleaning MT tires quite challenging.
All-Terrain (AT) Tires
These tires have a more moderate tread pattern than MT tires and are designed to perform well on and off the road. They offer good traction in challenging conditions (mud included) while still providing a comfortable ride on the freeway. Due to their less aggressive tread pattern, these tires are generally easier to clean than MT tires.
Extreme Mud (XM) Tires
XM tires have an even more aggressive tread pattern than MT tires since they are specifically designed for extreme mudding. Their deep grooves and widely spaced lugs provide maximum traction in deep mud and other soft terrains. However, the ability of these elements to effectively trap mud and debris is what makes XM tires challenging to clean.
Rock Crawling Tires
Rock crawling tires, while predominantly used for slow-crawling sections, are designed with a softer rubber compound and a more flexible sidewall to allow for better grip and traction not only on the types of terrain just described but also on mud. So despite not collecting as much mud and debris as other tires, they are still challenging to clean simply because of their design (which makes them adept in rough and uneven off-beaten surfaces).
These tires have a paddle-like tread pattern providing maximum flotation and traction in sandy conditions — and plenty of surface area for grime and mud to latch on. But because their treads are widely spaced out, these knobbies do not collect as much mud and debris, making them relatively easier to clean than more aggressive off-road tires.
Based on these delineations, we can consider MT and XM tires to be the hardest to clean overall. Conversely, AT and Sand tires are simpler to maintain due to their less aggressive tread patterns not trapping as much debris. Rock-crawling tires are not particularly prone to caking, but they can be more susceptible to punctures or tears, making for a slightly more intricate cleaning process.
Best Way to Clean Tires — 7 Tips
Before you show your off-roading tires some TLC, make sure you have these essentials (Note that this list is non-exhaustive):
- Safety rubber gloves and goggles
- Hose or pressure washer
- Soft-bristled brush or tire brush
- Microfiber towels or old rags
- Wheel cleaner or all-purpose cleaner
- Tire cleaner or degreaser (if you choose to buy versus making your own)
- Wheel and tire brush or sponge
- Tire shine or dressing like Adam’s SiO2 Infused Tire Shine Plus (view on Amazon)
- Wheel rim cleaner
- Wheel brush
1. Rinse them
Especially if you have just been to the Ocala National Forest in Florida or the Gopher Dunes in Ontario, it only makes sense to shower your mud-soaked tires first. Doing so removes most of the topical dirt while leaving plenty to clean. Additionally, it gives you improved tread visibility and preps your tires for step #2.
2. Check for Damage
Inspecting tires for damage is naturally the 2nd thing to do after rinsing. After eradicating all that loose mud and dirt, spotting cuts, bulges, and punctures should be easier. During the inspection, ensure that you cover the entire surface of the tires — sidewalls included.
Press on different sections of the tire and listen for hissing sounds. Run your hands over the rubber and feel for bumps or nails. Also, remember that tread patterns with deeper grooves call for thoroughness when being examined, as small screws or shards of glass could get lodged in them.
3. Plug and Patch up Holes
Depending on the severity of the cut or puncture, you may need to do either or both. A small hole (like a nail puncture) can be remedied using a tire plug kit, whereas a sizeable cut on the tire surface may require patching inside and out. The patch may even necessitate vulcanizing to strengthen the cover on the torn area.
4. Make Your Own Cleaning Solution
Professional cleaning agents are always strongly recommended for specific cleaning tasks (especially if your vehicle is for off-roading). However, it does not mean your options are strictly confined to those produced commercially. You can make your own with products you already have:
Mix dish soap and water for a soapy solution (the ratio is about 1 tbsp. of dish soap per gallon of water). Dip a tire brush or sponge into the solution and scrub the tires, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.
Wash and rinse repeatedly until the tires are squeaky clean. However, let the mixture sit for a few minutes to soften the stuck-on grime.
This household product contains sodium bicarbonate. With water, it becomes a mild alkaline substance that disintegrates grime and tough stains without damaging tire surfaces.
Depending on how strong a cleaning solution you need and whether or not it is meant for the rims or tires, you can mix it with water, lemon juice, or vinegar. You may also need to let it sit for a few minutes before scrubbing off dirt with a tire brush, microfiber towel, or sponge.
If you choose the baking-soda-lemon-juice mixture, the recommended ratio is 2 tbsp. lemon juice for every cup of warm water. Only mix lemon juice and water in a spray bottle and set aside half a cup of baking soda for later use.
Spray the citrusy concoction on the section of the tire or wheel being cleaned. And rub off tough stains with a baking soda-sprinkled microfiber towel.
The above cleaning solution works best with dirty wheels — same with combining baking soda and dish soap. It is like a homemade degreaser, with Dawn dish soap recently increasing in popularity as the go-to brand for this mix.
To create this solution, follow the ratio of half a cup of baking soda for every teaspoon of dish soap and every gallon of hot water. TIP: This all-purpose cleaner works best if applied to tires and rims using a sponge or an old toothbrush.
Mixing white vinegar and water equally in a spray bottle works exceptionally well on normal stains and chrome wheels. This cleaning solution is a great alternative if your knobbies are not heavily sullied and merely need freshening up after a well-enjoyed adventure.
Because this mix lacks the abrasive properties of baking soda, have it sit for a few minutes before wiping the part where you sprayed with a sponge or cloth.
This cleaning solution consists of equal parts lemon juice and water. It also requires letting the mixture sit for a few minutes before wiping it off.
Although a solvent, rubbing alcohol does not thin out your tires. It is a great cleaning solution for tires and rims if you do not have all the ingredients or time to create a concoction or paste.
To apply, dip a microfiber cloth or sponge in rubbing alcohol and rub the substance over surfaces with stubborn stains or marks. You should be able to see results immediately after application — and a lot of empty bottles too!
Cola or soft drinks
Sodas’ carbonation and phosphoric acid content make it an effective stain remover on copper, chrome, and other metal alloys. You can use it on rims, but it is best for cleaning lug nuts.
Combine 1 cup of soda with 1 cup of dish soap, 1 cup of vinegar, and a bucket of water. Just make sure not to use stale soft drinks, especially since unexpired ones still leave a sugary, sticky residue that would further damage the tires and rims instead of cleaning them.
Cream of tartar
Not only is cream of tartar a tasty dip, but it is also a very effective rust remover (at least, for early signs of tire corrosion). Apply this ‘paste’ onto the rim surface with a wheel brush to remove rusting.
Toilet bowl cleaner
Although not as popular, a toilet bowl cleaner is more effective than the other options in this guide. That said, it is ill-advised to use it in its concentrated form without a neutralizer. To avoid damage to your rims and tires, choose a toilet bowl cleaner with hydrochloric acid. For your neutralizer, mix half a bottle of water with 6 tsp. of baking soda.
When applying, put the substance in a glass or ceramic bowl. Next, use a brush to scrub your tires and wheels, and apply a small amount of toilet bowl cleaner on areas you intend to clean for no more than 15 seconds.
Follow this up with your neutralizer sprayed all over the rim, and thoroughly rinse it off with a pressure washer. Repeat these steps until your tires and wheels are sparkly clean.
5. Wash and Scrub them
Now that you are done removing debris and plugging holes, it is time to start cleaning. Your knobbies may no longer have caked mud all around them, but they are still filthy. Hence, a tire cleaning solution specifically designed for the type of off-road tires you have would be ideal for the job.
Before you begin, however, give your tires another rinse while pressing different sections — to double-check if there are any punctures or holes you may have missed.
If none is confirmed, proceed with mixing your cleaning solution (if you have not done so already). You can skip this if using a store-bought solution. Otherwise, the water-cleaning-fluid ratio for your cleaning solution will depend on your household product of choice. On that note, see item #3 for the most widely used options.
6. Use Different Brushes for Different Areas
A mid-size, stiff-bristled brush works great for thorough scrubbing. A smaller brush helps get you into all the nooks and crannies. Meanwhile, an old toothbrush is best for sprucing up the lettering and other intricate details on your off-road tires.
7. Gloss Them up With Baby Oil or Vaseline
Again, this is a readily available-at-home alternative. If you are concerned about hygiene products attracting dirt and grime more easily, you can always opt for commercial tire shine products and silicone-based tire protectants. Otherwise, create this cleaning solution by mixing 1 3/4 oz. of baby oil, a drop of dish soap, and 32 oz. of water in a spray bottle. Then use a rag or old cloth to spread it all over your tires.
When Is It Time to Clean Your Tires?
Loss of traction and compromised on-road safety are only two of the many outcomes resulting from driving with a set of filthy knobbies. While the rest of this article tells you how to clean tires, this section will provide you with the “when:”
- Dirt, mud, or debris buildup on the tire surface
- Brownish or grayish discoloration on tire sidewalls or treads
- Reduced luster or glossiness on the tire surface
- The appearance of white or brown spots or stains
- Uneven wear or degradation of tire tread pattern
- Decreased traction or grip on a road surface
- Increased road noise or vibration while driving
- Cracks or cuts in the tire sidewall or tread
- Reduced tire pressure or inflation level
- Dampened cornering ability and fuel efficiency
- Hesitation under load (for significantly caked tires)
Conclusion — How to Clean Muddy Off-Road Tires
In addition to the information I shared today, I highly recommend doing your own research and reverting to OEM recommendations for the best way to clean tires — regardless of whether they are mud/off-road tires or not. Doing so not only ensures the cleaning process’ compatibility with your knobbies but also helps maintain critical tire properties (for instance, grippiness and cornering ability) and improve tire longevity.
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.