How to prepare a car for a long road trip

Updated: June 25, 2017
Cars on a long trip

A long trip is a serious test for your car and even a small problem such as a worn windshield wiper, out-of-balance tire can cause a lot of troubles. We have prepared a few 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 the last moment, do it few days before your trip.

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. The owner's manual contains plenty of useful information from how to tow a trailer to how to change the flat tire and where the jack is located. If you need to top up the engine oil or other fluids, your owner's manual has the instructions. You can also find the information on how to jump-start the car if the battery dies, what to do if the engine overheats, or how to change a headlight bulb. 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

First, check under the hood. Are there any leaks? Are the battery terminals clean? Does the drive belt look worn out? If the belt appears cracked or glazed, have it replaced before the trip. Check all the fluids. Start with the engine oil:

Check engine oil

checking engine oil

To check the engine oil, park the car on a level spot, warm up and stop the engine. Wait for a minute to allow the 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 the 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 the 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 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.

Other items to check under the hood

Under the hood

Check the brake fluid level. Low brake fluid level may indicate worn out brake pads - have your brakes checked.
Check the power steering fluid.
Top up the windshield washer fluid. You can find the correct procedure in your owner's manual.
Look for anything irregular - leaks, loose clamps, kinked hoses, etc.

Lights and other electrical equipment

Brake light is off

Check the horn, wipers and all the lights. A couple of spare bulbs (one for the headlight, one for the back) might be useful. Make sure your heater / air conditioner works properly. If you haven't changed the cabin air filter (pollen filter) for a long time, consider replacing it. When it's dirty, it restricts the air flow for the air conditioner or the heater. Have a broken or cracked rear view mirror? Fix it before the trip.

Windshield wipers

Changing wiper refills

Replace the wipers if they don't clean the windshield properly. If you still have the original wipers installed, you can just replace the rubber refills; they cost just a few bucks and can be purchased from your local dealership's parts department. Check if the windshield washer jets are working properly. If the roads are wet or slushy, it's a good idea to take an extra windshield washer fluid with you.


Measuring tire pressure

Check the tire pressure. Recommended pressure is indicated on the manufacturer's label, which usually located in the driver's door frame or in the glove box. You also can find it in the owner's manual.
If you feel a vibration at highway speed, have your tires balanced. There is a safe limit of the tread wear. If the tire is worn below this limit, it's unsafe to drive. Uneven tire wear indicates alignment problem.

Brakes, steering, suspension and drivetrain components

I recommend to have your car inspected in a garage before the trip because many components of the brakes, steering, suspension and the drive train can only be properly inspected in a repair shop when the car is on the lift.
Here are just a few signs of possible problems:
Feeling any vibration in the steering and the pulsation in the brake pedal while braking - have your brakes checked for possible warped rotors.
A clicking or popping noise when turning could be an indications of a bad or worn CV joint.
Having a knocking or rattling noise coming from the suspension while driving over bumps? One of the suspension components is probably loose. Have it checked, it might be unsafe to drive.
Look inside the wheel arches - do all four struts (shock absorbers) appear dry? A leaking strut or shock absorber should be replaced before a trip. Once the shock absorber will lose enough oil, the car will start bouncing like a boat and any road roughness can throw the car out of the road.
Does the car feel unstable and wander from side to side at highway speed? Is the steering wheel out of center? Does the car pull aside while driving straight? Have the wheel alignment checked. Improper wheel alignment can cause handling problems, increased tire wear and it's very uncomfortable to drive when the car constantly pulls to one side.

Spare tire, wheel wrench and the jack

Spare tire and the jack

Check the spare tire pressure. If it's a full-size (the same size as the others tires) spare, the pressure should be the same as in the other tires. If it's a small temporary-use tire, the proper pressure is indicated on the sidewall of the tire (usually 50-60 psi). Check the owner's manual for the exact data. If your car has a spare tire that is secured underneath, make sure it can be easily removed; the mechanism could be rusted. Check if the jack is still operable.

Wheel lock key

Wheel lock key

If you have wheel locks installed, make sure you have the key and the wrench to open the wheel nuts.

Bottle of engine oil

Oil bottle

Many modern cars consume some amount of engine oil. Running the engine low on oil will cause it to wear faster. For this reason, it's a good idea to have a spare bottle of engine oil. It takes no more than couple of minutes to top up the engine oil during a pit stop.

Basic emergency kit for your car

Emergency car kit

A basic emergency kit for your car can include:
- Jumper wires
- Tire sealer-inflator can
- Tire gauge
- Couple of rags and work gloves
- Flashlight
- Basic tool kit with screwdrivers, pliers and set of most common sockets.
Consider also a spare headlight bulb and a bottle of windshield washer fluid, an emergency stop sign or flares, an electrical tape, spare ignition key, etc.
Don't forget your personal emergency kit with First Aid kit and items like a blanket, a bottle of water, couple of energy bars, etc.

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