A bike tire pump is an essential part of every rider’s kit, because nothing ruins a ride quite like a flat tire. But what if your tire pump breaks? Or it falls off its mount on the downtube while riding? Or you loaned it to a friend and haven’t gotten it back yet…even though it’s been months?
You’re searching around in your garage and manage to find a ball pump. It seems like it may be your only option…but can a ball pump be used to inflate a bike tire?
Unfortunately, a ball pump will not inflate a bike tire. A ball pump features an inflator needle which is incompatible with the Presta or Schrader inflation valves found on bike tires. Tires require an inflator specific to each valve type in order to be inflated properly.
What makes a ball pump different from a pump which would work with Presta or Schrader valves? And is there a way you can still inflate your bike tire if you don’t have access to the pump you need?
Read on to find out!
The Difference Between Bike Pumps and Ball Pumps
There is only one difference between bike pumps and ball pumps; but unfortunately, it’s a pretty important difference that renders them unusable in place of each other.
A ball pump features a needle that threads onto the end of the inflator…a needle that seemingly bends if you even think about inserting it a little unevenly into whatever ball you were trying to inflate (maybe that’s why they sold replacements in mega packs).
A bike pump, on the other hand, has an adaptor that clamps over the top of the bike tire’s valve. The way this adaptor works depends on the type of valve your bike tire has.
A Schrader valve features a wider opening with a needle in the middle which must be depressed in order for air to pass through. A Schrader pump is designed to create a seal over the valve and depress that needle so the tire can be inflated. This is the most common type of bike valve and if you don’t know what type of valve you have, there’s a good chance it’s a Schrader.
A Presta valve (more common on higher end bikes) is narrower and features a threaded lock at the tip which must be unscrewed first, then depressed to allow air to pass through. A Presta pump is designed to fit over this smaller opening.
Many bike pumps will come with adapters to fit onto either valve type…but make sure the correct one is installed before inflating your tire, or you could damage the valve or your pump!
Are valve caps necessary? If this is a question you have, then read our article on bike tire valve caps for an answer.
How to Pump a Bike Tire WITHOUT a Bike Pump
Ok, so knowing the difference between a Presta and Schrader valve won’t do much good if you get a flat tire while riding pump-less. In an emergency, do you have any other options?
Yes! CO2 inflators are typically carried by racers who need a quicker alternative to standard tire pumps when every second matters. A CO2 inflator uses a small metal CO2 cartridge which attaches to an adapter. This adapter is fitted over your tire valve, and the compressed carbon dioxide inside the cartridge quickly fills the tire.
A standard size CO2 cartridge will fill one tire (maybe two if they haven’t lost much air or you just need to inflate both enough to get yourself out of a tricky situation). These cartridges are not reusable, but they aren’t very expensive so it doesn’t hurt to have a few on hand at all times, even if you usually carry a bike pump as well.
However, if you don’t have a bike pump, it seems unlikely you’d have a CO2 inflator on hand…but if you do, bonus points for being extra prepared!
In this drastic situation, could you inflate your tire by mouth if you really needed to?
I’ve seen quite a few articles that say yes. However, I disagree, and also don’t recommend it for two main reasons.
First, this method would only potentially work if your tire has a Schrader valve. A Presta valve is just too small to try and blow air into using your mouth, and it would be difficult to keep the valve tip depressed to allow air to flow.
Even if your bike tire has a Schrader valve, you would need to push down the needle inside with your tongue, which if you’ve tried to do even with your fingernail or multi-tool, is pretty challenging. The tongue may be a pretty strong muscle, but it’s not really up to this task.
Second, even if you were able to get the valve open and inflate the tire by blowing into it, don’t forget about what COULD be in your tire: sealant. Which you really don’t want to eat.
Rubber particles, glycol, organic thickeners and chemical binding agents don’t sound too tasty to me; what about you?
Can a Bike Pump Inflate Balls?
So, if a ball pump can’t inflate a bike tire, is the reverse also true?
A bike pump actually CAN inflate balls IF you have a needle adapter. Sometimes bike pumps will even come with a little needle adapter attached. It typically inserts into your pump’s Schrader valve, and then you can inflate basketballs, volleyballs, etc.
However, this is less likely to work if your bike pump only works with Presta valves. Needle adapters for bike pumps typically are compatible with Schrader pumps.
A ball’s rubber valve requires a needle to be inserted into it in order to inflate. Neither a Presta or Schrader pump valve will be able to create a strong enough seal in order to do this without a needle adapter.
But with the needle adapter installed, that problem is solved and you can inflate balls with your bike pump to your heart’s content. If you have a good quality bike pump, then this can actually be an easier way of inflating balls than using a ball pump, because a bike pump requires less arm strength.
Have the Right Tool for the Job
While it’s nice to have a high quality bike tire floor pump in your garage, it won’t do you much good when you get a flat tire during your ride. That’s why I highly recommend buying a decent portable pump…and maybe a CO2 inflator as well.
There isn’t any practical alternative method for inflating a tire, so make sure you carry these tools with you in your riding gear at all times!