How to prepare a car for a long road trip

Updated: December 2, 2013
Cars on a long trip

A long trip is a serious exam for your car. Even a small problem such as a worn windshield wiper, out-of-balance tire or improper wheel alignment can cause a lot of troubles during a long drive. Here you can find simple tips on how to prepare your vehicle for a trip. However, this checklist does not include many other important items such as brakes and suspension components that may only be inspected by a mechanic in a garage with the car on the lift. Book an appointment with your dealer or mechanic well before your trip. Ask for one of those maintenance packages with an oil change, tire rotation and mechanical inspection. Don't leave it for a last moment, do it few days before your trip.

• Check the owner's manual
• Under the hood:
- Engine oil
- Transmission fluid
- Engine coolant
- Battery
- Air filter
- Other items under the hood
• Lights and mirrors
• Windshield wipers
• Tires
• Steering, suspension and drivetrain components
• Spare tire, wheel wrench and the jack
• Basic emergency kit
• Consider a GPS Navigation System

Check your car owner's manual

Car owner's manual

Have a look in your vehicle's owner's manual and don't forget to keep it in your glove box on your trip. The owner's manual contains a lot of useful information from how to tow a trailer to how to change the flat tire and where is the jack located. If you need to top up engine oil or other fluids during a trip, you can find the fluid capacity specifications as well as recommended fluid types in your owner's manual. It also contains instructions how to jump-start a car if the battery dies, what to do if the engine overheats, how to change a headlight bulb and many others. If you don't have an owner's manual, many car manufacturers offer to download an electronic copy of the owner's manual. You can order the printed version from your local dealer.

Under the hood:

Under the hood

Have a look under the hood. Does anything look out of place? Are there any leaks? Are the battery terminals clean? Does the drive belt look worn out? If it appears cracked or glazed, or has any other damage, replace it before a trip. Check all the fluids. Start with engine oil:

Check engine oil

checking engine oil

To check engine oil, park the car on a level spot, warm up and stop the engine. Wait for a minute allowing oil to drain down the oil pan. Pull the engine oil dipstick out, wipe it with a clean rag or a paper towel and insert it back fully. Pull it out again and check the level - it should be close to the "FULL" mark on the dipstick.
If engine oil appears too black, it's better to change it now. If the level is low, you can top it up using the same type of oil as you already have in the engine.
If you notice that your car consumes a notable amount of engine oil between oil changes, it's a good idea to take some spare engine oil with you on a trip. Many engine problems are caused by lack of oil changes. If your next oil change is due soon, definitely do it before a trip.

Check the automatic transmission fluid

checking automatic transmission fluid

A long trip with a full load will be another exam for your automatic transmission. If your transmission fluid change is due soon, do it before a trip.
Here is how to check the transmission fluid if your car has a transmission dipstick (some cars don't have a dipstick):
Warm the car up. Place the car on a level surface. Set the hand brake. With the transmission in "Park" position and the engine idling (this procedure may vary on certain cars, refer to the owner's manual) pull the automatic transmission fluid dipstick, wipe it off with a lint-free paper or cloth and insert it back fully. Pull it out again and check the fluid level and condition. A conventional transmission fluid has a red or pinkish-red color when it's new (the lower picture). Over the time under high temperature and load, the transmission fluid loses its qualities and oxidizes becoming more brownish. If the transmission fluid appears too dark, it's better to change it, especially if you are going to tow a trailer. If the trailer is heavy, consider installing an additional transmission fluid cooler.

Visually check engine coolant (antifreeze) in the overflow tank

Coolant level

Visually check the engine coolant level in the overflow tank. Your owner's manual has the directions. The level should be between "Low" and "Full" marks.
(Don't open the radiator cap or the pressurized overflow tank cap when the engine is hot!)

If the coolant level is just a bit low, you can top it up using recommended type of coolant mixed with water. Again, your owner's manual has the proper way to do it. If the coolant level is well below the "Low" mark, have your cooling system checked for leaks. Any leaks should be fixed before a trip, as lack of coolant on the road may cause the engine to overheat which may result in serious damage.

Battery

Battery terminal condition

Check the battery condition visually. If you see any acid leaks, cracks or other damage, the battery must be replaced.
Make sure the battery terminals are tight and not corroded. Corroded terminals will cause troubles.
Unfortunately, there is no way to tell when the battery will die; sometimes it happens unexpectedly with no prior signs. However, if you feel that when you are starting the car, the engine cranks slower than normally, the battery is probably close to its end. Usually a new battery may last from 3 to 6 years, so if your battery is 4-5 year old, it's a good idea to have it tested before a trip.

Air filter

Checking the air filter

If it's been a long time since you changed your air filter, it might be a good idea to change it before a trip. A dirty air filter will cause lack of power. If you want to change it yourself, your owner's manual has the directions.