Search "portable tire inflators/air compressors" online and you'll find dozens, if not hundreds, of devices that claim to be the "best" at inflating car tires. Which one is the best for you? We're here to cut through that clutter.
In order to find the truth, we rounded up a truckload of top sellers and renowned brands and pitted them against one another in our testing garage. Which one came out on top? Which tire inflators surprised or disappointed us?
Our Top Picks
How did we pick our contenders? First, we polled the editorial staffs of Car and Driver, Autoweek, and Road & Track for the inflators our experts recommended. Then, we perused the internet to find out which inflators were the most popular, the best sellers, and the highest rated. Ultimately, we leaned into our expertise and automotive knowledge to whittle the list down to a manageable 13.
In order to get a fair and impartial sample of portable tire inflators, we selected several brand names we know and trust, as well as a bunch of best-selling off-brand compressors with (usually) lower prices and (often) better ratings. We assembled a wide range of sizes, power, and styles to represent the many types of portable tire inflators on the market. Finally, we purposely avoided the plethora of tiny handheld inflators that look more like game controllers or smartphones than air compressors.
Once we had our final tire inflator lineup, we ran them through the Gear Team wringer to see how they performed: which ones stood out, which ones dominated the competition, and which ones left us wanting more. And we photographed the whole process. (Editor's Note: The above time-lapse GIF is around two minutes of actual time; that Milwaukee inflator is a BEAST.)
What to Look for in a Portable Tire Inflator
Portable tire inflators come in many shapes and sizes, but they effectively break down into two distinct types: handheld devices and console units. The most important consideration when shopping for a tire inflator is what you'll be using it for.
Handheld is the way to go for a tire inflator to keep in your car in case of emergencies. A handheld inflator should be easily stashable and simple to use. Shop for a handheld inflator that features a work light for nighttime situations, a digital gauge for accurate readings and auto-shutoff, a clamp-style valve connector, and a 12-volt plug to reliably power the device with your vehicle when you need it.
Console units are ideal for everyday household and recreational inflation. Consoles should be able to inflate almost anything, from car tires to sports balls to air mattresses for car camping to rafts, toys, and SUPs for fun recreation (inflatable kayak, anyone?). Most feature multiple power options, numerous inflation attachments, and more features you won't find in a handheld.
On the downside, consoles didn't perform as well as handheld units in the one test we at the Gear Team were most concerned with: portable tire inflation. They all got the job done, but up and down the line the portable handheld units we tested were generally faster at tire inflation than the console compressors. Moreover, most console units can hardly be considered "portable." Yes, you can pick them up, carry them around the house, and pack them in your vehicle for vacations. But keeping a console inflator in the car in case of emergencies? Out of the question, for most of us.
No matter which portable car tire inflator you buy, look for one that features an alternate power source option. Battery-powered handhelds are portable and easy to use, but they should also have a backup 12-volt car plug, just in case. Your vehicle's 12-volt outlet will always be adjacent to your tires and is a trusty power source—unless, of course, in addition to flat tires your car has a dead battery. Then, you'll need a jump starter/tire inflator combo console.
Pro Tip: Batter-powered items stashed in cars are often and easily neglected. If you're keeping any battery-powered device in your car, such as an inflator or jump starter, fully charge its battery every few months—say, every time you give your vehicle a detail job that includes vacuuming and interior cleaning.
Wall plugs are great for top-offs at home, but the car will have to be moved close to an electrical outlet, or you'll need a very long extension cord. Or perhaps a portable generator or battery pack to plug into. Direct-to-battery power sources, such as on the Viair unit we tested, provide maximum power but can be unwieldy. More on that later.
Accessories and Features
When shopping for a tire inflator, look for benefits such as:
-An integrated work light for dark roadside repairs; some flash to function as emergency beacons
-A digital gauge with auto shut-off, rather than analog dials
-Clamp-style valve attachments are easier and more convenient than screw-on connectors
-Plenty of attachments, such as a tapered nozzle for inflating air mattresses, rafts, and pool toys; a needle for sports balls; and a Presta valve chuck for some road-bike tires
-Rubber feet to keep your inflator planted while operational
Looking for the best tire inflator to buy in 2023? Here's what we found.