Have you decided to make a long road trip? Well, if you have, you should know how to prepare your car for a long road trip before you start the travel.
Long road trips mean long driving which will put extra strain on your car and if it isn’t in good shape, problems can happen.
Also, if you haven’t made the proper preparations, there is a good possibility that your road trip may turn in to a nightmare riddled with car problems and dangerous situations.
All of these tips go double and triple if you’re going with your family or other passengers. Since you’re the driver, it’s your responsibility that everything is in order.
Preparation is especially important if you drive a high-mileage car as they are more susceptible to breakdowns and malfunctions. Newer or low-mileage cars are, of course, less risky.
So, through this article we’ll try to give you some basic guidelines and hopefully help you in making your road trip a pleasant experience.
Towards the end of this article, you have a downloadable checklist which can perhaps give you a better overview of what you should do. Just download it (maybe print out) and as you go, check the boxes on the list.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO PREPARE YOUR CAR FOR A LONG ROAD TRIP?
Some of the most important reasons that come to mind are:
You’ll ensure, as much as you can, safety of your passengers, other participants in traffic and yourself
In traffic, safety is above all. Safety is the main reason why you should prepare your car for a long road trip. The truth is that through proper preparation you’ll less likely get in a tight spot (like accidents or other mishaps).
Significantly reduces the possibility of a breakdown or malfunction
Making a good check up on your car may mean the difference between standing helpless on the side of the road or a carefree drive.
Gives you a sense of security making driving more comfortable
I don’t know about you, but sitting behind the wheel with a sense of calmness is priceless. It means that you can focus on the road and driving instead of thinking will something break or malfunction.
HOW TO PREPARE YOUR CAR FOR A LONG ROAD TRIP?
The list stated below is focused mainly on the mechanical condition of the car (which is probably the most important in order to prepare your car for a long road trip).
1. ENGINE OIL LEVEL
This is very important because if the oil level is low there is a good possibility you can damage the engine, especially during long drives.
Most important on this part is:
Check the oil when the engine is cold so you can get an accurate reading.
The correct oil level is between minimum and maximum on the oil dipstick gauge.
If the level is low, add the same oil you already have in your engine. Just don’t overdo it. A higher level, as well as a low level, may cause engine damage.
Also, take a look when the engine oil and filter we’re changed the last time. If the replacement is due in the near future, best do it before starting the road trip.
If you’re not certain how to check the engine oil on your car, you can see the whole procedure in a separate article which you can read by clicking here.
You can also watch a video tutorial on our You Tube channel.
2. COOLANT LEVEL
After the engine oil, this is the most important check up to make.
Take a look at the coolant reservoir and make sure the level is between minimum and maximum.
If you have to add some coolant, make sure it’s the same as the one you already have in the system.
3. BRAKE FLUID LEVEL
See that the level is between minimum and maximum.
If a small quantity of brake fluid is missing and you haven’t checked it in a long time, then just top up to the proper level.
However, if there is a significant amount missing, best check the brake system for leaks or other problems, just in case.
This goes double if you have to add brake fluid frequently. In this case, you probably have some sort of brake problem and tend to it as soon as possible.
If you want to prepare your car for a long road trip, the brake system has to be flawless.
4. TRANSMISSION FLUID LEVEL
Automatic transmission cars
With automatic transmission cars, pull out the dipstick and make sure the level is between minimum and maximum. If not, replenish with the same type of transmission oil that’s in the car.
Manual transmission cars
Checking the oil on a manual transmission is a bit more complicated.
Main reason is that the oil is checked by taking off a screw on the lower side of the gearbox.
The screws are in most cases, hard to access and mostly demand going under the car.
If there’s no weird noise coming from the gearbox or some other kind of anomaly, you don’t have to check it. This goes double if you’ve had a transmission oil check up in the recent past.
5. POWER STEERING FLUID LEVEL
Just like the transmission fluid, the power steering fluid doesn’t demand that much attention.
Nevertheless, if you want to prepare your car for a long road trip, taking a peek won’t hurt.
Like with other fluids, find the steering fluid container and check the level.
If you have to add some, use the same type of steering fluid that’s already in the system.
This check is, however, obligatory if anomalies with the power steering appear (like strange noises when you turn the steering wheel, the steering wheel turns heavily or else).
Even if the slightest of these symptoms are present, check out this problem as soon as possible and don’t go on the road before solving it.
Just like with the other systems, in order to properly prepare your car for a long road trip, the steering system has to be in 100% good condition.
6. WINDSHIELD WASHER FLUID LEVEL
Low level or lack of windshield washer fluid means a smudgy view and reduced visibility. No need to say how dangerous this is, especially during the winter season.
If you want to prepare your car for a long road trip during the winter, use windshield washer fluid that has a high level of freezing resistance so the system doesn’t freeze or clog during driving.
In summer, you can add regular washer fluid.
If the situation demands so, you can add water, preferably distilled one.
Avoid using tap water (except for an emergency) as it can cause scale build up in the system and eventually clog it, especially if you use it for a prolonged period of time.
Also, don’t top up to the brim of the reservoir, leave a few centimeters empty towards the cap.
7. CAR BATTERY AND ALTERNATOR VOLTAGE OUTPUT
This check is also important as you wouldn’t want the car battery to die on you in the middle of a road trip.
A standard check up means:
Check that the battery clamps are tightened. Budge the battery clamps by hand. If they don’t move then it’s OK.
See that the battery terminals and clamps are clean and corrosion-free. If there is a sulfuric corrosion build up make sure to clean it. The detailed procedure for cleaning battery terminals is written here.
However, if you have a multimeter it wouldn’t hurt to do this also:
Hook the multimeter to the battery and check the voltage with the engine off. Anything under 12 volts is suspicious. 12.5 volts is best.
After that, check the voltage when the engine is running. Anything under 13.5 volts is not good and should be inspected. The ideal alternator voltage output is 14.5 volts.
Making a multimeter reading is great for finding out if you have any alternator or car battery problems. This comes in very handy when you want to prepare your car for a long road trip.
8. SERPENTINE BELT
Since you’re already under the hood, take a glimpse at the serpentine belt and check if it’s cracked, frayed or worn out all together.
Also make sure that it’s properly tightened and that there isn’t any kind of strange sound coming from it (squeaking, screeching or else).
If the serpentine belt is faulty, replacing it is mandatory before starting the trip.
A snapped serpentine belt can cause engine overheating, loss of power steering, loss of electric power or other drastic problems.
For more information on the serpentine belt problem, click here.
9. VISIBLE IRREGULARITIES UNDER THE HOOD
While you’re looking under the hood, take brief look around the engine bay and the engine itself.
Check for things like:
leaks (coolant, engine oil, transmission oil etc.)
suspicious oil or coolant smudges
Worn out or punctured hoses (coolant hoses, air hoses) etc.
hanging or loose wires
loose screws or holders
These are the main things I recommend to inspect.
You can, of course make a more thorough inspection; this will increase the chance of finding a potential problem.
This can even mean taking off the plastic engine cover if you suspect something. If you want see how that’s done click here for a separate article on that topic.
Two thing are most important on this part:
Make sure the pressure is within the measurements recommended by the car manufacturer.
Most manufacturers have data tables for these values and for various situations (like different number of passengers, extra load in the boot etc). They are located in places like the gas tank cap, on the door sill, in the maintenance book etc.
Use a tire pressure gauge or a compressor pistol with a gauge to check the pressure.
If the tire tread is worn out, then best forget about a long road trip. This goes double for a trip during the winter season.
Having worn out tires on your car means that you’re a serious risk on the road.
You can check the tire tread by using a gauge made specifically for this purpose. If you don’t have one, you can use a caliper. Even if you don’t have that, then there is the old “penny in the tread” hack.
If the tread is OK, you can also inspect for other damages like tears, small punctures or else. Make sure to check the inner side of the tire also.
A worn out or damaged tire will almost certainly mean a tire problem which means you’ll have to replace it with a spare one.
The whole procedure for changing a spare tire is explained here, in a separate article.
11. WINDSHIELD WIPER BLADES AND REAR WIPER BLADE
Raise the wiper arms and take a look at the wiper blades (both for the front and rear wipers).
If they’re cracked, chipped or worn out altogether, replace them as soon as possible. Worn out wiper blades mean less visibility which is dangerous and annoying, especially during long drives.
You have two options on this part:
- replace with new wiper blades
- replace only the wiper blade refills
On the other hand, if the wiper blades are OK, just give them a good cleaning with a clean cloth or a “plas chamois”.
This check up may seem as a nuisance but how many times have you seen a car with non-working brake lights or a faulty head light?
You can drive like this for week’s even months at a time not noticing the problem. No need to say what kind of danger this can be, especially during a night drive.
A properly working car signalization is essential if you want to prepare your car for a long road trip.
13. FILL UP THE GAS TANK
This is obvious but nevertheless worth mentioning.
Filling up the gas tank prior to the road trip will mean a decent amount of travel autonomy, less stops, and less lost time (if that’s a factor for your trip).
One useful tip on this part: almost every car has a small valve located on top of the gas tank pipe (the one where you insert the nozzle of the fuel pistol). Its location is just under the gas tank cap.
You can reach it and activate it by pressing it with the fuel pistol. Pressing this valve will let out excessive air from the gas tank leaving space for a couple of more liters of gas.
This is a good option if the gas stations are rare on your trip route.
14. WASH THE CAR (OPTIONAL)
This is optional and has no real purpose (except aesthetic) in order to prepare your car for a long road trip.
Nevertheless I hope you’ll agree that starting a road trip with a nice and shiny steed is a bit better than driving a dirty rag.
Of course, this has no sense if it’s snowing raining or the road is dirty and muddy. You can then do it somewhere along the road in a self-served car wash or else.
It’s all up to you, your own will and available time.
If you want see more about this, click here to read an article on that topic.
15. CHECK THE SPARE TIRE OR TIRE REPAIR KIT
When you want to prepare your car for a long road trip, checking the spare tire or tire repair kit is necessary.
Many drivers neglect this fact until a tire problems happens. If you’ve had a flat tire and no spare, then you know what kind of a problem this can be.
Check the tire pressure on the spare just like on the other tires (either it’s a temporary or regular size one).
Also make sure it’s in good condition and that you can drive on it with all the extra load for at least 50 kilometers.
Regarding the tire repair kit, make sure that it’s complete.
16. CHECK THE CAR EQUIPMENT
The basic things you should have or check that they’re in good order are:
Set for changing a spare tire (car jack, tire wrench, tire repair kit and else)
First aid kit
Set of spare bulbs
Warning sign or warning triangle
Tow hook (on most of today’s cars the hook has to be screwed on in a certain place located under the bumper plastic)
Tow bar or towing cable
These are mandatory by law in most countries anyway so you’re bound to have them.
Additional equipment that would be preferable to have is:
Jump start cables
At least two liters of water (preferably distilled)
A spare liter of engine oil and coolant, just in case
Spare liter of windshield washer fluid. Make sure to bring more if you want to prepare your car for a long road trip during the winter or rain season)
17. BRING SOME CAR TOOLS
The best option is a tool case set, where you have everything in one place. Also, very convenient for storage in the trunk.
If you don’t have one of these then you can pack:
Medium size screw driver (Philips and flat head)
Basic set of wrenches (in millimeters from 8 mm to 22 mm should be OK)
Pair of combined pliers
Basic set of sockets and small ratchet
Knife or scalpel
Some duct tape or/and isolation tape
Pack of plastic straps (you’d be surprised at what you can fix with these)
A longer piece of plain wire
You can also add whatever you think might help. The more useful tools you bring the better off you’ll be.
18. CLEAN THE CAR INTERIOR
Having a clean car interior is necessary, mainly for proper hygiene and for travel comfort.
Papers, crumbs, scraps, full ashtrays are simply not an option.
Thoroughly clean all of the interior as much as you can (vacuum up, clean the dust, wipe etc).
If the car interior is in a very poor state don’t be cheap. Visit a professional and let them clean the car properly.
If you’re doing a DIY cleaning job, I would emphasize this:
Pay extra attention to the glass surfaces and clean them as best as possible.
Smudges and smears are both annoying and mean less visibility which is dangerous.
Don’t go overboard with air fresheners and various plastic-care sprays. They may smell pleasantly in the beginning but with a combination of several people, food, cabin heating etc. that fragrant may easily turn in to a stench.
19. SOLVE DASHBOARD WARNING LIGHT PROBLEMS (IF THERE ARE ANY)
Dashboard warning lights are there for a reason, above all to warn of some kind of problem.
These include the check engine light, warning lights for low coolant, oil, brake fluid or other fluids, service warning and else.
Don’t neglect these (especially the oil, coolant and brake warning light), rather inspect the problem and solve it before starting a long road trip.
If you want to learn more about dashboard warning lights, click here.
20. CHECK THAT THE AIR CONDITION SYSTEM WORKS PROPERLY
Driving without AC is unimaginable in today’s cars. You can perhaps live without it in the winter but in the summer it’s a necessity.
Before embarking on a road trip, turn on the AC and see if the whole system works. Does it cool properly, is the air flow OK and is it going in all directions.
Do this especially if you haven’t used the air conditioning for a prolonged period of time.
If the air flow is weak or a bad smell is coming from the ventilation system, maybe you should check the cabin filter.
ROAD TRIP CHECKLIST
Here’s a checklist that’s divided in to a few categories in hope that it will give you a better overview.
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO OR PREPARE
Make a travel plan (overview and route of travel)
Make sure that there are enough gas stations on your route(it would be good to know the fuel consumption of your car)
Bring some food and water (preferably food that won’t spoil quick)
A warm blanket
Charger(s) for the cellphones and tablets
Flashlight, possibly a quality one with a good beam and endurance. Also, a flashlight powered by the car installation is a good option.
Some cash money (if your credit or debit cards aren’t excepted, may not work for some reason or else)
Put a small garbage can in the car
Check the child seats
Bring some animation for the children
Again, bring whatever you seem fit to help you get out of a tight spot.
Just don’t go overboard and cram the car with unnecessary junk. The car will be heavier, meaning you’ll consume more fuel, you’ll perhaps have reduced view, and the overall comfort will be less.
If you’re having children on the road trip, then perhaps reading this article will help to make it a more pleasant experience.
There is a saying: ˝you can never be too prepared˝.
Before you sit behind the wheel and start driving know that what will be, will be.
Car problems happen even on new cars and even to the most prepared drivers. That’s a fact of life and driving.
But one more fact is: you have a much better possibility of overcoming (or avoiding) potential car problems if you did the necessary things to prepare your car for a long road trip.
Making all of these preparations may seem a tedious task but it will only take about half an hour of your time.
From my own experience, a few minutes more of preparing can mean a few hours less sitting helplessly by the side of the road.
For the end, I wish you clear roads, a safe and comfortable drive and to enjoy your road trip.
Written by: Sibin Spasojevic
Former car technician, life-long car and DIY enthusiast, author for Despairrepair.com