The heat has arrived. Outside, the weather is scorching, and the kids are out of school. What does that mean? A road trip across state lines, of course. This summer, you’ve committed to a family road trip whether that means hotel stops along the way, towing a trailer, or popping up a pup tent in the backcountry. The whole family is ready to hit the road, but is your car prepared?
No one appreciates a breakdown, and summer travel isn’t easy on a vehicle. It takes just minutes to get sunburn, so can you imagine the kind of abuse your car takes sitting outside for days or weeks on end? When you consider that, it totally makes sense to get your vehicle ready for a summer trip.
Here are eight things you should do before striking out on a summer road trip, cross-country or otherwise.
Check Your Tires
No system on your car does more for your safety than your tires. Accelerating, braking, or turning, the only parts of your car to ever touch the ground are the tires, isn’t that right? While it’s important to have good tires when you’re driving in the city or commuting short distances, your tires are even more important when you’re loaded up heavy and going across the country.
Measure the tire tread on all four tires across the width in a few places. Tires should have a minimum 3/32nds of an inch of tread depth for safe driving. More is better. Replace your tires if the tread is worn to 2/32nds or less.
While you’re at it, check for sidewall cuts or uneven wear across the tires. Uneven wear is an indicator of a problem in your suspension or steering. And for goodness sake, adjust the tire pressure properly. The yellow and white door placard tells you the right pressure for a comfortable ride that doesn’t burn too much gas.
Get an Alignment
It’s estimated that three out of ten cars on the road need a wheel alignment. Have you noticed a pull to one side when you’re driving at highway speed? Is your steering wheel off-center when you’re driving in a straight line? Is your steering wheel changing positions occasionally? You might be one of the 3 in 10.
A wheel alignment is a low-cost service that saves you money in the long run. It prevents abnormal tire wear, reduces scrubbing that holds your car back from its best fuel efficiency, and reduces stress on components like tie rod ends, shock absorbers, McPherson struts, and the steering gear.
The bonus is that you can release your death grip on the steering wheel.
Change the Engine Oil
You’ve plotted a route and know how many miles you’ll be driving. Will that put you over the mileage interval for your oil change? If so, or if you’ll be close, change the oil before you go.
An oil change will help keep your engine heat down and prevent sludge and corrosion inside the block. An inexpensive oil filter and a good-quality engine oil are fantastic investments for a long-lasting engine.
Test the Air Conditioning
Nothing is worse than a family with teens and tweens cooped up in a smelly car together when the A/C breaks down. Normal summer trip preparations should include an A/C performance test.
Under normal driving conditions and usage, your car’s A/C performance will diminish around 5 percent every year. A car that is six years old will have noticeably weaker air conditioning than a new car. A fast refrigerant recharge may be all that’s necessary, but you won’t know until you test it.
Stick a thermometer in the vents and measure the temperature blowing out. It should be barely above the freezing point. If it isn’t, a refrigerant recharge is in the works. If the air isn’t blowing very cold at all, you might need A/C repairs like a new condenser, evaporator, or compressor. Don’t leave A/C issues too late as they take some time to fix.
Top Up the Fluids
So, you should be checking the fluids every time you stop for gas. You probably don’t, though, right? At least take a peek before you go on a summer road trip.
- Check the engine oil and track when it’s due next.
- Inspect the transmission fluid that should be a ruby red color for auto transmissions or a nearly clear oil with a tinge of brown in a manual trans.
- Coolant may be red, green, or orange but you should test its condition with pH strips to ensure it’s not too acidic.
- Check the brake fluid – it’s supposed to be a honey brown color.
- If your car has hydraulic power steering, the fluid might be red or clear, but it shouldn’t be dark or milky.
- Washer fluid should be topped up to full.
Change any fluids that don’t look right or smell burnt. And if any fluids are overfull, adjust the level.
Change the Wiper Blades
You might not think of your car’s wipers as a safety system… until they no longer clear the windshield well. Wipers have a fine rubber edge on them that squeegies the water off the glass windshield. Any nicks in the rubber or gooey substances stuck to the edge will mean they don’t perform as they should. You’ll have streaks left behind that make it even harder to see.
Once per year, your wiper blades should be changed. Since you probably haven’t done it this year (you're busted!), install a new set of front wiper blades on your car. If you have a car or SUV with a rear windshield wiper, change that wiper blade too!
Scan the Check Engine Light
If you’ve been avoiding a diagnosis on that glaring warning light on your dash, now is a good time to check it. The Check Engine Light is often an indicator that an emissions-related component isn’t working as it should, but that doesn’t mean ignoring it is a good idea. It can lead to bigger issues.
Scan the Check Engine light to identify the root cause. It could be an oxygen sensor fault, a mass airflow sensor that needs to be changed, a misfire that’s easily fixed with new spark plugs, or any one of dozens of possibilities. It might be small or it may be a serious issue, but at least you’ll know before you go.
Mount Your Cell Phone
Talking on your phone while driving is illegal in almost any place you drive. You can even be pulled over for trying to safely navigate while using your phone for maps or directions. The solution? A dash or vent-mounted cell phone holder. It’s cheap, keeps your hands free, prevents accidents, and helps you avoid a fine.