How to Check Your Car Before a Road Trip

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Before you head out on a road trip, check your car’s fluids, tires, lights, and take a look under the hood. Longer distances mean more potential problems. A breakdown on the way to work is one thing—but on a backcountry road? Yikes.
If you have five minutes, you have enough time to take care of the bare essentials. But if you can, try to carve out an hour or two to get your oil changed and tires rotated.
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Check your car before a road trip

Windshield wipers

Your wipers need to be in top condition, whether for rain or for bugs. Conduct a quick test by getting behind the wheel and turning on your wipers at top speed. They should remove water quickly and be solidly attached.
The good news is that wipers are easy to replace in just a few minutes. Go to a local car supply shop and tell them your car’s make and model. You can get a technician to help you with the installation, if necessary.


Check the air pressure and tread level of your tires before you go. Poorly inflated tires are less safe and they hurt your fuel economy.
Use a gauge to check the psi (pressure per square inch). Most models should be between 30 and 35 psi for optimum performance. Fill up with air at a gas station on your way out of town.
For the smoothest and safest ride, you should check your tire pressure every 1,000 miles or so—or if you drive through extreme temperature changes (like over a mountain range).
Tread is how well your tires can grip the road. Do a quick test by sticking a penny head-first into the divets on your wheel—the top of Lincoln’s head should be hidden from view. If you can see his whole head, it’s time for new tires. Look for punctures, tears, and bulges, and if you see anything unusual, replace them.
It’s worth the expense to keep your tires in tip-shop shape. This is especially true if you will be driving through inclement weather, when you should have all-weather terrain or snow tires. At the very least, get your tires rotated to improve performance.
Key Takeaway Check the tread and pressure of your tires, and replace them if you notice anything unusual.

Lights and horn

You need your lights and horn to work properly so that you can communicate with other drivers. It’s easy to check your horn, but the lights can be trickier.
Test all of your exterior lights, including headlights, brights or high beams, turn signals, and brake lights. Dim or burnt-out lights are dangerous! Not only is it safer for you and other drivers to have working lights, but you could get a ticket if your lights are out.
Here’s how to check your lights in 60 seconds:
  • Keep your car in park and turn on all your lights
  • Walk around your vehicle to check each one
  • If you don’t have a roadtripping buddy, use a brick to hold down the brake pedal and check the brake lights
It’s easier to replace a bulb than you think. Most car supply stores carry standard sizes, and you install them by either pulling the assembly unit out (brake lights) or reaching under the hood (front lights).
Key Takeaway It takes just a minute to check that all your lights work, but it plays a big role in safety on the road.

Belts and hoses

A broken belt can be a costly and dangerous event. Seriously! It could render your car undrivable—or even unfixable—if your serpentine breaks while you’re catapulting down the freeway.
Lift the hood and do a quick visual inspection. The tubes and belts should be in good condition, with no cracking or fraying. Look for any signs of leakage or wear. Feel free to gently pinch the hoses and belts to check for proper tension.
Loose belts or worn-out tubes need to be fixed and replaced before you hit the road.

Air filter

Don’t get stuck with bad air quality—or without good air conditioning! It’s easy to change out your air filters and it will improve your road trip experience. If you’re road tripping, there’s about to be a bunch more dirt in your system.
Most vehicles can go a long time without changing air filters, but you should check before you head out. You’ll know immediately whether it needs to be replaced (visible dirt).
Make sure you check both the cabin filter and the engine filter, which are both inexpensive to replace and easy to change. A clogged engine air filter can impact engine performance and fuel economy. The cabin filter helps to keep interior air fresh and clean.
Key Takeaway Inspecting your vehicle takes only a few minutes, but it could save you from dangerous and costly accidents.

Resolving issues that arise

Warning lights on your dashboard

Absolutely do not ignore warning lights on your dashboard! You can use an OBDII scanner or check your manual to see what the error codes mean before you leave for a long road trip. The OBDII plugs into a port on the driver’s side, below the dashboard.
It’s usually a simple fix, so don’t get yourself too worked up. It will only become a problem if you wait too long. If you can’t figure out the problem, pay for an hour of labor with your local mechanic to get everything checked out and the light turned off.

Oil change or refill

Check your oil before your trip to keep your engine functioning at top capacity. You’ll need a rag or a paper towel. Pop open the hood and locate the oil cap. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it off, and then dip it back in again. The oil level should be between the two notches. If not, you’ll need a top-up.
Most cars need a full oil change every 5,000 to 10,000 miles depending on your car and the type of oil it requires. If your oil comes up translucent or slightly yellow, it’s in good condition.
If it’s dirty, you’ll need a full drain and replacement—this is usually available with same-day service and takes 45 minutes or so.

Check other fluids

It’s a good idea to check other fluids, too: wiper fluid, coolant or antifreeze, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, and brake fluid.
You don’t want to get stuck on the road without any of these! Luckily, all the canisters are located close together under your hood and they’re easy to check and refill.
Coolant keeps your engine from overheating, which is especially important for hot areas and desert road trips. Wiper fluid will help keep bugs off your windshield.
Does your steering wheel lock up sometimes? If you’ve never experienced this firsthand, count your lucky stars. It’s absolutely terrifying when a power steering wheel gets locked up while driving on the highway. If you have power steering, check your fluid levels before you go.
Finally, brake fluids keep your brakes functioning well for safe driving. You might need new brake fluid if you get a spongy pedal feeling when braking, which points to air bubbles in the system. You can find most of these liquids at any car supply store, and you can refill most of them yourself.

Battery corrosion

This probably won’t have a huge impact on your driving experience if you’re only gone for a day or two. But longer trips—especially through intense climates or multiple states—definitely require a quick battery check. Corroded terminals lead to weak connections in your car’s electrical system, which could lead to you getting stranded.
Fix corrosion with baking soda and water. Make sure the car is off and has cooled down. Then, bring a toothbrush, baking soda, and water to gently scrub down the terminals. Buildup happens over months and years, but cleaning it can take just a few minutes.

Brake pads

It’s unlikely that your brake pads need changing, but do you really want to find out while you’re on a road trip? If you’ve heard any squealing, grinding, or you haven’t been able to stop as quickly as you’d like, get your brakes checked out.
A mechanic can easily remove your wheels to access the brake pads and switch them out for new ones, if necessary. This can be pricey, but it’s definitely worth it for safety’s sake. You won’t need to replace your brake pads again for another 50,000 miles.
Key Takeaway From brake pads to antifreeze, preventative care is the best way to enjoy a safe road trip. Do it yourself or visit a mechanic to ensure your vehicle can handle the adventure.
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Getting ready to embark on your adventure

Bye bye, trash

Clean out your vehicle before you leave. You’ll need plenty of storage for gas station snacks and overnight bags if you’re road tripping.
Plus, it will smell nicer if you remove old garbage. Take two minutes to clean out the trash, get the interior organized, and wipe down your dash.
Go through your trunk and the passenger cabins, too:
  • Make sure there’s room for your luggage and a spot for your passengers to ride along comfortably
  • Tie up electronic cords and chargers and stow them out of the way
  • Grab an over-the-seat organizer to keep backseat passengers entertained
  • Add a small trash bin (or reusable cereal bin) between the two front seats

Make sure documents are up to date

On the off chance you get pulled over—or get into an accident—you’ll need to show documentation. This means your driver’s license, proof of insurance, and warranties. Driving without insurance is illegal in 49 states and can earn you a sizable ticket.
Keep your documents handy in the glovebox next to your gum and chapstick, or get an app that provides digital proof in states where that’s allowed. Reference Jerry’s guide to minimum car insurance by state to make sure you’re covered.

Put together an emergency kit

Even if you have a roadside assistance membership, it’s a good idea to carry your own emergency kit. Here’s what to include:
  • Flares
  • Jumper cables
  • Water
  • Food
  • Flashlight
  • Spare tire
  • First aid kit
  • Blanket
Tailor the contents depending on your destination and your passengers. If you’re driving through snow, you may want to bring cat litter in case of slippery roads. If you’re bringing along a pet, pack emergency food for them.
Even if you don’t use your kit, you may be able to help out another driver in an emergency.

Final tips

Try to keep more than half a tank of gas in your car at all times—especially if you are driving through remote areas. Gas stations can be far and few in between in rural areas. You may even lose cell service and be unable to look up the nearest station.
Bring spare drinking water in case you get stranded. You can stay alive much longer without food if you have water.
Tell someone how long you’ll be gone and where you’re going. No one likes to imagine the possibility of an accident, but the simple act of leaving a note for a friend could end up saving your life.
Your car works hard on a road trip, so give it some love before you peel out. A little preventative care goes a long way, and a few minutes can make a big difference.
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