How To Get The Car Ready For A Road Trip

We have all thought about just checking out of reality for a while and hitting the open road. Just follow it to the end and flip a coin to see if we go left or right. Maybe we end up at the coast listening to the sound of waves crashing against the shore line.

Maybe we end up in the mid west among endless seas of gold watching the wheat blow rhythmically in the wind. Maybe we end up in the mountains high above the lights of day to day life so we can get a better view of the stars.

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Or worse, maybe you end up broken down in the “middle of nowhere” with no cell phone service. (This turns out to be a recurring theme for our family cross country road trips, but more on that in another article.)

That’s what happened to us on our very first cross country road trip. I had taken every precaution I could think of and done all of the preventative maintenance all the “old timers” had said to do in the months leading up to our first trip.

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Yet here we are, for the first time, in an empty parking lot trying to fix the transmission with tape and zip ties to make it back to “somewhere”. (The tape and zip ties worked by the way)

How To Get The Car Ready For A Road Trip
Right after we passed by Oklahoma City, back into the emptiness of the mid-west

Now this breakdown couldn’t have been foreseen (at the time). It turns out one of the lines from the transmission to the transmission cooler just blew itself out of the side of the transmission. It wouldn’t be until years later on our way to Yellowstone that I would uncover why it happened and take steps to cure the problem.

So before I tell you the story of how we got back on the road that night, lets first go over some of the pre-trip steps we took to make sure we wouldn’t end up in this exact situation, and some of the things we didn’t think to do but have now made sure are part of the getting ready phase of our cross country trips.

Let’s first go over some of the more obvious things you want to do before hitting the road like getting a fresh oil change, checking your tire pressure, and topping off all your fluids.

  • Oil Change
    • Are you going exceed the mileage for your next due change? If so, or if you are not sure, Get a fresh oil change just before you leave.
  • Tire Pressure
    • Make sure your tires are filled to the recommended air pressure before you leave. If you are not sure what that pressure is, open your driver door, and look on the door jamb. There should be a sticker with the proper pressure to inflate your tires too.
    • Keeping your tires at the right pressure will extend the life of your tire, as well as help you get better gas mileage.
  • Radiator Fluid
    • Some cars only require that the overflow tank be filled and will top themselves off, others require that the radiator cap be taken off to be filled. Make sure you use the right coolant and procedure for your specific vehicle. If you are unsure, the rep at your local auto parts store can look up which kind you need.
  • Windshield Washer Fluid
    • This is a seasonal consideration. In the warmer months, look for a fluid that will help to clean bugs off the windshield. After hundreds of miles you can have quite the collection gooey smears on the windshield. In the winter months look for a fluid with de-icing properties to prevent it from freezing and to help clean the frost off the windshield.
  • Brake Fluid
    • Do you need DOT-3 or DOT-4? Again, if you are not sure ask your auto parts store rep, Make sure it is filled to the full line, but not past it. The last thing you want is to be coming down a steep mountain road and not be able to stop.
  • Power Steering Fluid
    • Another important one to make sure is filled to the full line but not past. You’re going to be on the road for hundreds, or possibly thousands of miles this trip. Keeping this full will ensure your tires are easy to turn, and more importantly, that they don’t suddenly become difficult to turn at a critical moment.
  • Transmission Fluid
    • Last but not least of the under the hood checks is the trans fluid. This one is on the end of the list because it typically needs to be checked with the engine running, AFTER driving it a few miles to get it warm. Take your ride around the block a few times and get it up to normal operating temperature. When you get back, leave the car running and pop the hood. MAKE SURE YOU KEEP YOUR HANDS AWAY FROM THE RADIATOR FANS.
    • Pull your transmission dip stick. Wipe it clean with paper towel, then slide it all the way back in, and pull it out again. Now check to make sure the fluid is between the “Good” lines. If it is below, then add some with a funnel by pouring it down the same tube the dip stick goes it. Again, it is important to make sure it is not over filled, as that can cause excess pressure, which can lead to a break down in the middle of Oklahoma. (see above picture)

Now that list may seem pretty obvious, but it never hurts to have it on your checklist. The following list is made up of things that have either bitten us in the rear end, and are now on our list, or that we have picked up from other nomads along the way.

The Forgotten Items:

  • Windshield wipers
    • You may not even notice how bad your windshield wipers have gotten over time, or only think about it when it’s raining and you have that one streaky spot right across where you need to see. Throw a fresh pair of seasonally appropriate windshield wipers on your rig before hitting the road. You never know when foul weather will hit, and being able to see the brake lights in front of you isn’t something to leave to chance.
  • First aid kit
    • No one plans on getting a cut on their finger, or stung by a bee, or burned on a camp fire, but it happens. If you have an allergy, make sure you’ve got the right things with you like benadryl, to stave off any unwanted symptoms. You could find yourself 30 or 40 miles from the nearest open drug store when something happens.
  • Jumper cables
    • Definitely want to make sure you have a set under the seat or in the trunk of the car. When was the last time you put a fresh battery under the hood? They don’t last forever, and they never give out while you are in front of the auto parts store.
  • Did you check the air in your spare tire?
    • This is one of the most commonly overlooked pre-trip chores. Odds are you haven’t even given it a second thought. The air pressure will seep out over time, and there’s nothing more aggravating than finally getting the flat tire off your car, putting the spare on, lowering the jack only to find out, your spare tire is flat too.
  • Does your car even have a spare tire?
    • Many newer vehicles don’t even come with a spare. Did you just assume its under the floor mat in the trunk? It may not be. While you are out in the driveway checking to be sure, take a look and make sure you have a way to jack up your vehicle if you need too.
  • Fix-A-Flat
    • I can’t stress this one enough. Whether you have a spare tire or not, keep a can in your car. If you get a flat on a steep mountain road, or on a dark highway, or any other sketchy situation, its much easier and safer to squirt some fix-a-flat in your tire for 30 seconds, and get yourself to a safer, level, well lit parking lot away from the oncoming traffic to work on your car.
  • Tire Plug Kit
    • If you know how to use one, throw one in your glove box. You may get a hole bigger than the fix-a-flat can handle in the tread of your tire, but you may be able to plug it, then hit it with the fix-a-flat to get yourself off the highway.
  • Spare fluids
    • Does your truck burn oil like mine does? What about a transmission or power steering leak? Throw a small milk crate in the trunk with some spare fluids in it to keep them from rolling around, and if you need them, you’ll have them handy instead of being stranded over a five dollar quart of fluid.
  • Toilet paper
    • Keep a roll in the center console for when ya need it. Lets face it guys, we have it easy. If we suddenly get the uncontrollable urge while changing that tire, its an easy problem for us. But go ahead and tell your beautiful bride that she’s got to hold it until the tow truck gets here because you didn’t pack the fix-a-flat, and then when she can’t hold it anymore and has to hold on to the guard rail and lean back without slipping and if that all goes well that she has to use leaves because you threw away the fast food bag with the napkins in it. That should make for a fun evening right?

Obviously you can’t pack a spare everything for every situation, but these few items won’t take up much room and I’ve noticed with an older vehicle like our 97 GMC Suburban they tend to be the things we need most often.

Did you see something on our list that you didn’t think of?

Do you have something on your pre-trip list that we didn’t think of?

Comment and let us know! We’d love to hear from you and your comment could make a difference for a fellow nomad on the side of the road at 2am!

Happy Travels. -Doug

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