Road trip! How to prepare your car for a long drive

The cross-country road trip. The family vacation. The annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage. The weekend jaunt out of town to get away from it all for a few days.

So many of us like our cars, and love our road trips — but if it has been awhile since you last drove further than your commute to work, you might want to make sure your car is up to the task.

Here’s a list of tips — based on many years experience behind the wheel and under the hood — of things you should check out before you drive off.

Road trip - How to prepare your car for a long drive

Road trip recommendations

First off — if you don’t feel comfortable with all or part of this, that’s okay. A good, reputable shop should be able to do a simple pre-trip inspection for a reasonable price. However, by spending a few minutes learning, looking, and poking around, you can probably save yourself both time and money — even if you end up paying someone to repair/replace the problem you find.

  • Tires: First off, do your tires have enough tread on them? If not, replace them. See any little bits of cord showing through the rubber? Replace them immediately, because that’s dangerous. Check the tire pressures on all five. Five? Yes — don’t forget the spare! Fat lot of good it does you if you get a flat and your spare is flat too. A tire gauge is $1.99 at any gas station or auto parts store, and you can find the correct tire pressure for your car on the sticker on the frame where your driver’s side door closes or in the owner’s manual. Pressure low? Most gas stations have air hoses. Fill ‘er up.
  • Oil: When was the last time you had your oil changed? Are you close to needing a change? If so, go ahead and just do it. Not due for a change yet? Make sure you check the level on the dipstick (check your owner’s manual if you don’t know how — it’s in there) and it’s never a bad idea to keep a spare quart in the trunk (again — check the manual for the correct type).
  • Engine coolant: Look for a clear/translucent white looking bottle near the radiator towards the front of the engine bay. It should be labeled on the cap “coolant” or similar. Check the manual if you can’t find it. Make sure this is topped off to the appropriate level (usually marked on the side of the tank).
  • Brakes: Do your brakes need to be replaced? If so, get it done before you go. Stopping is important. If the brakes themselves are okay, make sure you check out the brake fluid reservoir under the hood. Look at the fluid — if the level is low, top it off. If it’s the color of maple syrup, it’s a good idea to flush and replace the brake fluid. Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water over time, reducing its effectiveness — and possibly rusting the inside of your brake calipers, which is bad.
  • Transmission fluid: Everyone forgets this one. Your transmission need lubrication to work properly. This is also typically checked via a dipstick like your oil, but the dipstick is usually lower down in the engine bay. Can’t find it? Read the manual. If it’s low, top it off with the correct type — if it’s black as night and smells burnt, have it changed.
  • Hoses: Look for bulges, blisters, and cracks. If you find a hose with any of the three, replace it. Those are all good indicators that the hose isn’t long for this world.
  • Belts: Look around under the hood for the belts. Examine them for fraying, cracks, or cord showing through the rubber. Don’t be afraid to twist them a bit to see the underside — that’s where a lot of the damage will be. See any of those symptoms? Get ‘em replaced.
  • Battery and charging system: Take a look at your battery — look at the terminals (where the cables attach) and make sure there’s no corrosion. You can scrape it off with a wire brush if there is any. Make sure the cables are tight on the terminals. If you see any cracks or leaks, replace it. If it’s over four years old, consider replacing it. Finally, most auto parts stores will test your battery and charging system for free — stop by and have them check it out to make sure everything is working properly.
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Finally, before you go, take the car out for a test drive. Turn off the radio, listen carefully and pay close attention. Do you hear any unusual noises? Are there any wobbles or shakes that are out of the ordinary? When you park it again and let it sit for a few minutes, do you see any leaks? If so, get these diagnosed before you go — they might be nothing, or they might end up stranding you in the middle of nowhere at night.

Parting thoughts

This might seem like a lot of stuff to look for and worry about, but the simple truth is if you keep your car maintained regularly, this whole process should take you about 30 minutes to an hour at most. Because if your car is maintained and taken care of, all you’ll be doing is verifying that everything is as it should be.

However, if you’ve been slacking on your maintenance (and be honest — most of us do, from time to time) these simple steps might catch a problem that could leave you stranded and waiting for the tow truck — or worse.

That’s worth a couple bucks and a few hours of your time.

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