Road trips are known for being wild and fun, but they require some prepping beforehand. Imagine driving down a freeway in the middle of nowhere and your car suddenly stopping for no evident reason. The view is beautiful, that’s for sure, but the sight of your broken down car and freaked out passengers is certainly not pretty.
To prevent these types of untimely situations, you need to prepare your car before hitting the road. It doesn’t take much time, and it can make your life a whole lot easier, believe me.
That being said, in this article, I’ll give you some tips on how to prepare your car for a road trip. But first, let’s see why it’s so crucial to do it.
Most Important Things to Check before Going on a Road Trip
You know the old Boy Scouts’ motto: “Be prepared.” When going on a long trip, be it on business or for pleasure, there are a couple of important things you should look up and check out before you head off.
Gas Running Out
Something as simple as a lack of gas will turn your trip sour if it happens in the middle of nowhere. It seems very unlikely, but a leaking fuel line or a broken fuel gauge (even not checking your fuel level) can make that impossibility a very real nightmare.
On the other hand, a dying battery may not be as easy to diagnose as a lack of fuel, and it’s much harder to fix without the proper equipment. A jumper cable or a car battery charger could make a difference between a 10-minute fix and a $200 trip to the mechanic.
Other things such as engine oil, brake pads, and calipers, transmission fluid, coolant, even your windshield wiper fluid — all of those need to be checked before a long trip. You can get a bottle of engine coolant for really cheap, but a trip to the mechanic to fix an overheated engine could cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, not to mention the time it takes to get it fixed.
It may even not be your or your car’s fault. Car accidents occur on a daily basis, and even if you’re driving carefully in a car that’s 100% up to spec, someone else could make your life miserable with their reckless driving. If that happens, you are probably better off letting the proper authorities handle the situation.
But what about a minor accident, a fender bender, which you can handle by exchanging your insurance info without calling the authorities? Even if it’s a fender bender, said fender could be knocked down to the ground, and if you don’t have a bungee cord to tie it up till you get to the mechanic, that’s a hefty sum out of your pocket for the tow service alone.
And what about the worst-case scenario? Middle of nowhere, no cell service, no other people on the road — just you and your two hands. Better put them to work, or it’s a bad day for you. To try and evade bad days such as the ones I previously pointed out, you and your vehicle should be in your best condition for your next big trip. Some tools, a bit of know-how, a lot of common sense, and your chances of being in a situation without a way out will be reduced to their absolute minimum.
More Details on How to Prepare Your Car For a Road Trip
1. Check/Change Fluids
Fluids are everything. They are the driving force of the car, so without them, there would be no road trip, basically. That’s why you need to check on them before hitting the road.
• Engine Oil
Everyone knows that the oil is crucial for the car, even the non-experts. The engine oil helps grease up the moving elements of the car, which then makes driving smooth. A car that runs out of oil will not only stop but may also break down beyond repair. So, if you feel like it’s been a while since your last oil load-up, check its status with the dipstick.
The coolant, also known as antifreeze or radiator fluid, makes sure that your engine doesn’t overheat. In order to check its status, lift the hood of your car and find the coolant tank. If it’s reaching the ‘Full’ line, you’re good to go. If not, then you need to load it up. To do so, twist the cap open and pour in the coolant.
• Transmission Fluid
Newer cars that are self-shifting or automatic need the transmission fluid in order to run properly. However, each car has its own type of transmission fluid, so you need to consult with the manual before actually going off and purchasing one. The manual will also tell you how to change it. Most cars enable you to check the transmission fluid level with a dipstick.
• Brake Fluid
The brake fluid requires flushing every 2 years or so. You’ll know it’s contaminated when the brake starts feeling weird when you put pressure on it with your foot. However, you shouldn’t just sit around and wait for it to feel weird. Flush the brake fluid anyway, just in case. It’s best to let the mechanic do this, but if you want to do it yourself, here’s a tutorial on how to do so.
• Power Steering Fluid
This type of fluid is also used by newer car models. The power steering fluid makes turning the wheel smooth and without resistance. However, with time, the liquid can run out or become contaminated, and that’s when you need to change it. You can check the liquid and its level by lifting the hood and taking a look inside the power steering fluid tank with a dipstick. Flushing it is also easy — simply unscrew the cap and fill it up to the ‘Full’ line. Don’t overfill it!
• Windshield Washer Fluid
I don’t have to tell you why your windshield needs to be clean when you’re driving. If the windshield liquid tank feels empty, simply fill it up with a windshield washer fluid, and you’re good to go.
2. Check the Tires’ Pressure and Tread Depth
Another thing you need to check before going on a road trip is whether the tires are good as new. You need to check the pressure, as well as the tread depth.
First of all, inspect the tires thoroughly to ensure there are no cracks or cuts.
To check the pressure, you’ll need a pressure gauge and your car’s manual. Insert the gauge into the tire and look at the number it has displayed. Compare this number to the one in the manual. If needed, add or extract air until the two numbers match. Flat tires can quickly become outright destroyed if you don’t take care of them in time.
Checking the tire tread depth is also crucial. Doing this will let you know whether your tires are worn down or not. The easiest way to check tread depth is with the penny test. It’ll only take a couple of minutes of your time, and the only thing you’ll need is… well, a penny. Here’s how to perform the penny test.
3. Check Your Car’s Battery
The battery is another one of those crucial components of the car. And if it’s not working properly, your road trip will most certainly end up a disaster.
First of all, you need to test the battery. In case you were already planning on paying a visit to the mechanic, you can have them test it. If you want to do it yourself, though, you’ll need a multimeter. Start your car and use the multimeter to measure the voltage. It should be around 13 or 14, not more than that.
Of course, not everyone owns a multimeter. So, you can also check the battery by simply running the engine and turning on the headlights. If they seem dim, your battery may be running low.
Another way to check your battery is by inspecting it for damage. See whether you’ve connected all the cables and terminals correctly.
4. Check on Your Belts and Hoses
Car belts have a tendency to wear down over time because of all the oil and the heat. Lift the hood and look for any signs of damage or glazing. Replace them if needed.
While you’re at it, take a look at the hoses, too. Inspect them thoroughly and squeeze them with your hands. The hoses need to be firm and flexible. So, if they feel too soft or have marks and cuts, it’s time to replace them.
5. Check the Lights
Driving with your lights out is not only dangerous but also illegal. You can easily get pulled over and receive a ticket if you don’t have all of your lights on. It often happens that the driver doesn’t even notice that one of their lights is not working, but that doesn’t stop the police from giving you the ticket.
Check both the front and the backlights and replace the bulbs where you need to. Luckily, changing a car bulb is a piece of cake. Simply remove the light cover, unscrew the bad bulb and screw in a new one.
6. Clean or Replace the Wipers
Windshield wipers should be replaced every 6 months or so. If you feel like they’re at least a couple of months old, replace them.
Even if they are new, your wipers might not be working properly. If you’ve noticed a rattling or juddering sound coming from your wipers, you should fix them before hitting the road.
When the wipers are all new and working properly, the only thing you need to do is clean them. Use a glass cleaner and a damp cloth to do so.
7. Air Filter
Air filters are there to prevent all the dirt from entering inside the car. And when you’re on the road for a while, the dirt will inevitably overload the filter. With time, the filter can get stuck and clogged up, which eventually leads to several other problems, too. For example, it can compromise the engine performance and fuel usage.
And not just that — when the air filter clogs up, all the dirt will start entering the car and contaminating the air inside. And then it definitely isn’t safe to inhale.
It’s best to go to the mechanic to get your air filter replaced, and it isn’t that expensive either.
8. Pack a Car Emergency Kit
You may do everything off this list and still have your car break down in the middle of nowhere. In that case, you need to be prepared. Here are some items that can be essential in these kinds of situations:
No matter if it’s day or night, a flashlight is a must-have in every car emergency kit. You’ll need a flashlight to check the situation with the engine or the battery, for example. And it can also come in handy if you get stranded on the road during the night.
• Chain or Towing Rope
Most people are not prepared enough for a roadside accident. Even if it’s required in some areas by law to carry a towing rope in your vehicle, there is a great number of cars without one. Having a towing chain or rope could help you help somebody get off the road if their car breaks down, but it could also be a lifesaver for you if something catastrophic happens to your vehicle.
• Car Battery Charger
Even if your battery is fully charged when you’re leaving on your trip, you don’t know when you may unexpectedly run out of juice (you may need to keep your heater or lights on overnight), so a simple car battery charger can come in handy since a new battery is not something you want to spend your money on when you should be out on the road.
• Screwdrivers and Wrenches
Take some time and see what sizes and types of screwdrivers and wrenches you need for your car’s easily accessible components (a good idea is to ask your local mechanic) and pack some of the most common and the easiest ones to carry. It’s not always a good idea to try and fix everything yourself. However, you could be miles away from the closest mechanic. Besides, the problem could be really simple to solve if you have the right tools.
• Bungee Cords
Bungee cords have a million different uses. You can secure stuff on your back seat, in your truck bed (if you have a pickup) or on your roof if you have rails. In the case of an accident, you could even tie down a piece of bodywork so that you can go to the nearest mechanic without it flying off (say, a loose bumper or hood).
Pliers are one of the most versatile tools a man could ask for. Be it a twisted air or fuel line, a loose nut or bolt, or even something stuck in your air filter, you can bet a pair of needle-nose pliers will help you out.
Now, I’m not saying that if something breaks down, you should go crazy on it with a hammer, and it’ll all work out. But, if you have a stuck bolt or you have some really tight fittings you need to change on the fly, a couple of careful strikes with a hammer just might be what gets you going.
9. Some Additional Tips for the Road
• Don’t Forget the Paperwork
Registration, driver’s license, insurance… Those are all things that you should bring on any car ride, not just on long road trips. If the police approach you for any given reason, they’ll ask for your documents. And if you don’t have those on hand, you’ll get in trouble and pay unnecessary fines.
• Research Traffic Laws
As you may know, traffic laws are not the same in every country. That takes some getting used to, sure. But it will be much safer and easier for you to get used to them if you do your research beforehand. Plus, you don’t want to break laws, even if it’s accidentally.
• Research Toll Fees and Gas Prices
Some countries are pricier than others and thus have higher toll fees and gas prices. Nobody likes to come across an unpleasant surprise when traveling, especially if it involves giving away a lot of money.
A map is probably the most obvious must-have traveling item, and for a good reason. Even if you’re familiar with the road, you should have a map with you. In addition, if you want to be that extra level of prepared, get a map that shows you the local gas stations. It could be a lifesaver.
Is Your Car Ready to Hit the Road?
A road trip sure is exciting, but it can become your worst nightmare if you’re not prepared. Going through all the necessary steps will ensure that your car ride is smooth and seamless. And even if something does happen, you have your emergency kit with you. Thanks to your preparedness, even the biggest of inconveniences will only be short hiccups along the road.
Long story short — prepare for the worst. You never know what could happen.