How to prepare a car for a long road trip

Updated: October 6, 2018
Lake Superior
Lake Superior fall-color drive

Whether it's summer or fall, a road trip can be a lot of fun. At the same time, an hours-long drive is a serious test for your vehicle. How do you know that it's ready to "hit the road"? Here are few tips:

Check your lights and electrical equipment

Brake light is out
One of the brake lights is out in this car

Check the horn and all the headlights and taillights. A spare headlight bulb might be useful on a long trip in case one burns out. If you have to replace a bulb on the road, the owner's manual provides the instructions.

Replace worn-out or old windshield wipers

Changing wiper refills
Change your wipers if they leave streaks or look worn out

Good visibility is vital for safe driving. Replace the windshield wipers if they don't clean properly or leave streaks. If you still have the original wipers, you can replace only the rubber refills. They cost less and can be purchased from your local dealer parts department.

When changing a wiper, place a towel on the windshield to protect it, as in the photo. A wiper arm is spring-loaded and can slam and crack the windshield when the wiper blade is removed. If you need instructions, Youtube will help: How to replace your wipers.

Check front and rear windshield washers

Checking washer jets
Check your windshield washers

Check if the front and rear windshield washer jets are spraying properly. Sometimes washer jets get clogged up, or need to be adjusted. In many cars, the spray angle can be adjusted.

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Top up the windshield washer fluid

Adding windshield washer fluid
Top up your windshield washer fluid

Top up the windshield washer fluid reservoir. If you are traveling in winter, use only the windshield washer fluid graded for cold temperatures. If the roads are wet, it's a good idea to keep an extra bottle of the windshield washer fluid.

Is your windshield clean?

Cleaning the windshield
A dirty windshield hampers visibility, especially when it's dark

A dirty windshield, side mirrors or the rear window hamper visibility and produce glare, especially when it's dark. Clean your windshield from the inside and outside. Clean the side mirrors, door windows and the rear window.

Use a window cleaning spray. If you don't have a micro fiber glass cleaning towel as in the photo, a paper towel will also work. Check these videos on how to clean your windshield.

Does your heating and air conditioning system work properly?

Air conditioner
Test your heating / air conditioning system

Test your heating / air conditioning system. The air conditioner not only cools the air inside the car, it removes the humidity. If the air conditioner doesn't work, the windshield will fog up from inside in rainy or cold weather.

If the air conditioner is not as cold as before, the A/C system might need to be checked for leaks and recharged with refrigerant (R-134A). Many shops offer the A/C system check and recharge services for $49-$149.

When did you change your cabin filter last time?

Air conditioner
Clogged up cabin filter makes your heating or air conditioning system less efficient.

A cabin (pollen) filter is installed in your vehicle HVAC system, in most cars behind the glove box. If a cabin filter is clogged up as in this photo, it restricts the air flow from the vents making your heater or air conditioner less efficient.

If you haven't replaced your cabin filter for a while, have it at least checked. Replacing a cabin filter costs from $39 to $99. In some cars it's very easy to do, in others the filter is hidden inside the dash. Read more about replacing a cabin filter at the bottom of this article.

Is your tire pressure within specs?

Checking tire pressure
Check your tire pressure

Check the tire pressure. Recommended pressure is indicated on the tire pressure sticker. Click on the link to see the photo. In most cars, you can find it on the driver's door frame. You also can find it in the owner's manual. If one of the tires is low, it needs to be checked for nails or other sources of leaks.

Are your tires in good shape?

Worn out tire
This tire is worn out beyond the safe limit, click on the photo to see a larger image

There is a safe limit of the tire tread wear. If one of your tires is worn beyond this limit, it's unsafe. This one in the photo definitely needs to be replaced, click on the photo to see the larger image.

If you feel a vibration at highway speeds, have your tires balanced. Balancing four tires costs from $59 to $99.
Do any of your tires show uneven wear? Does your car pull to one side when driving on a flat road? Does your steering wheel look off-center when driving straight? Have your wheel alignment adjusted. The 4-wheel alignment costs from $59 to $139.

Is your engine drive belt in good condition?

Cracked drive belt
This drive belt shows cracks

Most cars have one or two drive (serpentine) belts. Over time, a drive belt wears out. If a drive belt breaks, the car will have to be towed to the shop.

Your mechanic can check the condition of the belts during an oil change. If a drive belt shows some wear or has cracks like the one in the photo, it's better to replace it before the trip. Read more about a drive belt.

Is your engine oil topped up?

Engine oil dipstick
Engine oil dipstick has a bright yellow or red handle

You can find the instructions to check the oil level in your owner's manual in the "Maintenance" section. To check the engine oil, warm up the engine for a few minutes. Park the car on a flat spot and turn the engine off. Set the parking brake and open the hood.

Wait a minute or two to let the oil drain into the oil pan. The engine oil dipstick usually has a bright red, orange or yellow handle that says "Engine Oil" or "Oil". Careful, some parts might be hot.

Oil level on the dipstick
The oil level should be close to the "FULL" mark on the dipstick

Pull the dipstick out and wipe it with a clean cloth or paper towel. Insert it back until it feels fully seated. Remove it again and check the oil level. It should be close to the "FULL" mark on the dipstick, see the picture.

If it has been a while since your last oil change and the oil looks dark or dirty, as in the left image, it's a good idea to change it before the trip. If the oil looks clean, but the level is low, you can top it up using the oil grade specified for your car (e.g. 0W-20 or 5W-30).

Is your coolant level OK?

Engine coolant (antifreeze)  level
Coolant level should be between "Low" and "Full" marks.

Driving with low coolant level can cause overheating. Visually check the engine coolant level in the overflow tank. Your owner's manual has the directions. The coolant level should be between "Low" and "Full" marks.
Careful, the cooling system is pressurized when hot, read safety precautions in your owner's manual.

If the coolant level is just a bit low, you can top it up using recommended type of coolant. If the level is well below the "Low" mark, have your cooling system checked for leaks. Any leaks should be fixed before a trip.

How do your battery terminals look?

Battery terminal condition
The battery terminal on the left is corroded.

Check the battery condition visually. If you see any acid leaks, cracks or other damage, the battery must be replaced.
The battery terminals should be tight and not corroded, see the photo. Corroded or loose terminals will cause a no-start, electric power steering problems and many other troubles.

How old is your battery?

Battery terminal condition
The battery test can tell if the battery needs to be replaced

A car battery last for 5-7 years on average. Some batteries might last for as long as 10 years, others need to be replaced after 3 years. If your battery is old, have it at least tested or replace it if you don't want to take a chance. Many repair shops offer a complimentary battery test. A new battery costs from $99 to $189 plus labor. Signs of a weak battery include slow cranking, headlights getting dim at idle and acid leaks. There is also a simple test you can do, read here.

Is your engine air filter clean?

Checking the air filter
Dirty air filter can cause lack of power

If your air filter is dirty, it might be a good idea to change it before a trip. A dirty air filter will cause lack of power. This will be noticeable when towing a trailer or driving uphill with a full load. If you want to change it yourself, your owner's manual has the directions. Changing an air filter in the shop costs from $30 to $59.

How you ever changed your transmission fluid?

Checking automatic transmission fluid
Check automatic transmission fluid

A long trip with full load, especially in a mountainous area puts a lot of strain on your transmission. If your transmission fluid change is due soon, do it before the trip.

Many cars today don't have a transmission dipstick, so the transmission fluid level can only be checked in the shop. Here is how to check the transmission fluid if your car does have a dipstick: After driving a car, so your transmission fluid is warmed up, park the car on a level spot. Set the hand brake. With the transmission in Park and the engine idling pull the automatic transmission fluid dipstick. Note, this procedure is different in some Honda and other cars, see your owner's manual.

Automatic transmission fluid
This transmission fluid looks OK

Wipe it out with a lint-free towel and insert it back fully. Pull it out one more time and check the fluid level and condition.

The transmission fluid in the photo is not new, but is still in good condition. The dipstick may have two sets of marks "Hot" and "Cold". Since the transmission is warmed up, the fluid level should be within "Hot" marks. If the transmission fluid looks dirty, change it, especially if you are towing a trailer. If your trailer is heavy, consider installing an additional transmission fluid cooler.

Do your headlights look dim?

Dim vs restored headlight
It took us 40 minutes to restore both headlights on this car

Dim headlights like in the top image make it very hard to see the road at night, compromising your safety. It takes about 40 minutes to 1 hour to restore both dim headlights to the condition as in the lower photo. You can buy a headlight restoration kit for $15-$30 and do it yourself or find a detailing shop to do it for you. Some even suggest to use a toothpaste to do the job. See these Youtube videos on how to restore dim headlights.

Is your spare tire, lug nut wrench and jack in place?

Spare tire and the jack
Check your spare tire, jack and the lug nut wrench

Check the spare tire pressure. If it's a full-size tire (the same size as the others tires), 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 you have a working jack and a lug nut wrench.

Does your car have wheel locks?

Wheel lock key
Make sure you have a key for your wheel locks

If your car has wheel locks, make sure you have the key and the wrench to remove the locks.

Does your car consume engine oil?

Oil bottle
A spare bottle of engine oil might be useful on a trip

Many modern cars consume some amount of engine oil as you drive. This causes the oil level to gradually drop. Running the engine low on oil may cause many problems and accelerate engine wear.

To avoid this situation, it's a good idea to keep a spare bottle of engine oil in a car. The oil must be of the same grade, e.g. 5W-20 or 0W-20. It takes only a couple of minutes to top up the engine oil during a pit stop.

Basic emergency kit for your car

Emergency car kit
Basic emergency kit

A basic emergency kit for your car can include:
- Jumper (booster) cables
- Tire sealer-inflator can
- Tire pressure gauge
- Couple of rags and work gloves
- Flashlight
- Basic tool kit with screwdrivers, pliers and set of the 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 bottle of water, couple of energy bars, etc.

Winter emergency kit

Winter road emergency kit
Basic winter emergency kit

Winter weather is unpredictable and you need to be prepared for any situation. Consider keeping in your car:
- Basic tool kit
- Ice scraper
- Shovel
- Sand or kitty litter
- Tow cable or chain
- Traction mats
- Road flares, warning light or emergency sign
- Flashlight
- Booster cables
- Extra bottle of non-freezing windshield washer fluid
Plus, first aid kit, cell phone charger, emergency food pack, bottle of water, warm clothing and footwear for each passenger, a warm blanket for each passenger, matches in a waterproof container, reflective vest.

Is your car safe to take on a trip?

Inspecting a car in a garage on the lift
One of the brake lights is out in this car

Before taking your car on any trip, you want to make sure that it is SAFE. A quick-lube drive-through shop won't tell you this. You will need to take your car to a qualified mechanic or a dealer to have your tires, brakes, steering, suspension, driveline and other components inspected on the lift.

Many shops offer maintenance packages that include an oil change, tire rotation and multi-point mechanical inspection. We recommend to book this type of service in advance, so if something needs to be done, you will have enough time.

Is your trailer ready for a trip?

Checking engine oil
Engine all the lights and tires carefully on the trailer

If you are towing a trailer, it needs particular attention. As a trailer is often parked for extended periods of time, many of its components rust. Often trailer lights don't work properly due to corrosion of the terminals and connectors.

Trailer tires may show some dry cracking after sitting outside for months. Tires that show cracks should be replaced. Trailer wheel bearings may also need to be re-packed with fresh grease and adjusted if a trailer sat for a long time. See this video from Autoguide for more tips on towing a trailer. Check out more Youtube videos on the subject.

Oil level on the dipstick
Check the trailer harness connector for corrosion.

Check the trailer harness connectors on your vehicle and the trailer. As you can see, the terminals in the photo already show some corrosion, even though this truck is fairly new.

The corroded terminals will cause poor connection with the trailer harness. This connector needs to be serviced before the trip. Check out these Youtube videos on how to repair a trailer connector.

Do you have your owner's manual in the glove box?

Car owner's manual
Owner's manual

The owner's manual contains plenty of information from how to tow a trailer to how to change a 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.

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