How to Prepare Your Car For An Epic Road Trip

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About 6 hours into my first solo road trip, I watched my car being loaded onto a tow truck. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I had a sneaking suspicion that my road trip was over. 

Admittedly, this wasn’t where I wanted to find myself at that or any other moment. And yet, I’m glad that it happened. 

You see, like most breakdowns in life, this one was a treasure trove of lessons learned. Which  have served me well down to this day. 

The first lesson is that I didn’t die (you could probably tell by my writing style). This one is a personal favorite, if I’m being honest. 

And not just for the obvious reason either. Like the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Or “wiser” in this case. (I use that term very loosely).

Anyway, among the most valuable gifts that breakdown bestowed upon me are the tips that I will share with you today. These are the practical nuts and bolts of things that you can do to make sure your car is in tip-top shape before setting off on a road trip. 

Ready? Then buckle up and we will cover some of the basic things that you should know to get you safely to your destination and back.

Is my car ok for a road trip?

By this point you have probably already read our article 21 Reasons Why a Road Trip is Better Than Flying. And you are ready to start planning your own road trip.

But you are left wondering: How do I know if my car is safe for a long trip?

This is a frequent and important question to ask. Especially if you are planning to drive an older car on a long distance road trip.

However, the age or odometer do not need to be a barrier to adventure. In fact, last year we drove our car on two road trips of about 20 hours each way. And that was with a car with just under 200,000 miles on it.

The only reason that I trust it is because of the regular maintenance that has been done over its lifetime. Taking care of the small things prevents the big things from breaking down at the worst time. 

Here are some essential routine maintenance tasks that you can do to make sure your car is reliable for the long haul.

Regular Maintenance Checklist:

  1. Regular fluid changes (6 fluids at various intervals – see owners manual)
  2. Tires (tread and pressure)
  3. Brakes (pads and rotors as necessary)
  4. Belts and hoses (check owner’s manual for timing belt replacement intervals)
  5. Regular tune-ups (check owner’s manual for tune-up intervals)
  6. Battery

For a more detailed maintenance schedule, see the Car Guru’s maintenance schedule

Maintenance is an investment. Your car and its parts can last a long time just by doing some of these basic things.

 Most of these you can learn on your own. But always have a mechanic that you can trust if something is beyond your comfort level.

Either way, just before your road trip you will want to do a thorough inspection of the critical parts of your car. Let’s cover some of the essentials to prepare your car before you hit the road.

Here is Your Pre-Trip Car Inspection Checklist

Now that we have the regular maintenance out of the way, we are ready to cover the essentials before heading off on your highway adventure. You will notice that a lot of this is the same as your regular, routine maintenance. 

So even if you haven’t been as diligent about keeping up with a maintenance schedule, follow this checklist to give yourself the peace of mind before hitting the road.

Here are 7 things that you can do yourself as a pre-trip car inspection. Click on the image below and save or print it for future reference.

Road Trip Maintenance Checklist Infographic jpeg

  1. Check the fluids
    1. Oil
    2. Transmission
    3. Coolant
    4. Brake Fluid
    5. Power Steering Fluid
    6. Windshield Wiper Fluid
  2. Check the tires
    1. Inspect the treads
    2. Check the pressure
    3. Look for any cracks, punctures, or bulges.
  3. Brakes
    1. Pads (or shoes)
    2. Rotors (if necessary)
    3. Check for any leaking brake fluid
  4. Air Filters
    1. Cabin (for fresh air)
    2. Intake (for fuel efficiency)
  5. Bulbs
    1. Headlights (High and Low Beam)
    2. Tail lights (driving and brake lights)
    3. Turn signals
    4. Interior lights (dome, dash, doors, glove box, map light)
  6. Belts and Hoses
    1. Serpentine belt (aka accessory belt)
    2. Radiator hoses
    3. Brake lines
    4. Power steering lines
    5. A/C lines
  7. Battery and alternator
    1. Check battery terminals for corrosion (easy to clean)
    2. Test battery power (Autozone, O’Reilly, Pepboys, & others check for free)
    3. Check alternator (Autozone, O’Reilly, Pepboys & others check for free)

Do You Need a Mechanic To Prepare Your Car for a Road Trip?

Of course, you can learn to inspect all of these yourself. For a detailed video, Eric the Car Guy has an in-depth inspection as a guide if you want to learn what to look for. 

At the very least, you should learn how to change your tires and wiper blades. The less you are at the mercy of a passer-by the better. And the knowledge gives you confidence that you can always get yourself back on the road in case of a flat tire or torn wiper blade. 

However, if you are unsure of any part of the inspection process, you can take your car to a reliable mechanic to inspect all of this for you. I recommend having someone that you trust do regular maintenance on your car. 

For this, I prefer a local shop as opposed to a dealer. I find that having a good relationship with my mechanic puts my mind at ease when they recommend a part or service.

Usually your regular mechanic is just as interested in keeping your car on the road as you are,  and not simply in upselling unnecessary services. 

TIP! Important Warning Signs Your Car May Be Telling You

  1. LOOK: Fluids dripping?
    1. What color is it?
      1. Dark brown or black – oil
      2. Red – transmission fluid
      3. Green – radiator fluid
    2. Where does it seem to be coming from?
      1. Under the hood? – oil, radiator fluid
      2. Closer to the front seat? – transmission fluid
      3. Near the wheels and red – brake fluid! Do not drive your car if you are leaking brake fluid!
  2. FEEL: Shaking, bouncing when driving?
    1. Do you feel shaking in the steering wheel?
      1.  It could be anything from tires to wheel bearings. 
    2. Does it bounce excessively over bumps? 
      1. Parts of your suspension could be wearing out. Check shocks and struts
    3. Does the steering wheel seem to pull to the right or left?
      1.  It may need an alignment.
      2. If it pulls when braking, it could be a problem with the brakes
    4. Are the brakes easy to push down, spongy?
      1. You may have a leak in the brake system.
        1. Do not drive your car if the brake fluid is leaking!
    5. Is the steering wheel difficult to turn?
      1. You may have a problem with the power steering.
    6. Does it shake when at a stop?
      1. It may be time for a tune-up.
  3. SOUNDS: Squeaks, squeals, grinding
    1. Squeaking going over bumps?
      1.  It’s not usually critical. But worth checking out suspension and chassis
    2. Squealing under the hood?
      1. It’s probably a belt; Check or replace serpentine belt
    3. Grinding or squealing when braking?
      1. The brake pads are probably worn. Replace them
  4. SMELLS: Burning, feet?
    1. Burning radiator fluid smells sweet
    2.  Burning oil smells…oily
    3. Smell feet? 
      1. It’s probably your passenger (just checking if you’re still reading)

Finally, you will want to make sure you are prepared for an emergency. Here are some important things to ensure you are prepared in case of a breakdown or accident.

What should be in a car emergency kit?

At the very least, you will want to be prepared for some basic unexpected events. For a full list that covers a variety of problems, see our 5 Frequently Asked Questions About a Road Trip

You can make your own emergency roadside kit based on the list provided by The National Safety Council

Or you can buy a premade kit. did a review recently and rated the Lifelne AAA Premium Road Kit as their favorite. 

For this article, we will cover the 2 most common emergencies that may arise on your trip:

A dead battery or a flat tire.

Emergency kit for a dead battery: 

A dead battery can happen if you leave the lights on for too long or are using accessories like the radio or 12v socket to inflate an air mattress. 

However it happens, you want to be prepared to quickly get it recharged to keep your car running.

You have 2 options:

  1. You can carry jumper cables. As long as there is a second vehicle around, jump starting is no problem
  2. You can get a portable jump starter. These new models are small enough to fit in your glove box, but powerful enough to get your car started again

Cnet did a rundown on the best portable jump starters.  Antigravity makes the top 2 on their list. 

Before I tried out the Antigravity jump starter, we had left our car parked at a hotel while we were on a 10 day trip. When we came back, I had left the interior lights on and drained the battery. 

Fortunately we have a roadside assistance program and simply called them to get a jump start. Unfortunately it took 4 hours for the mechanic to show up. And when he did, he used this very jump starter that I recommend. 

It would definitely be worth keeping in your car at all times. 

Emergency kit for a flat tire:

A flat can come along slowly from a puncture you pick up along the way. Or it could happen more quickly from a blowout along the way.

Either way, you want to have the available tools and know-how to change it wherever you are.

  1. Roadside jack (most cars come with one)
  2. Lug wrench (they come with most jacks)
  3. Owner’s manual (if you don’t have the book, download to your phone in case you are out of cell range)
  4. Reflective triangles

The most important part of this is staying safe. At a minimum, follow these steps:

  1. Pull a safe distance off of the road 
  2. Set up reflective triangles or cones to alert other drivers
  3. Read the owner’s manual for proper jack placement
  4. Set the parking brake at least; blocking the other wheels is better
  5. Tighten your lug nuts before you lower the car back down (the weight of the car may misalign the wheel; causing loose lug nuts)

It is highly recommended to practice this in your own driveway. Watch a couple of Youtube videos. Just Google “how to change a tire on” and enter your vehicle. There’s a good chance it will be on there. 

Even if you don’t find your exact car, the process is almost identical for most cars with a few differences usually involving special tools for hubcap removal on higher end cars.

Consider Roadside Assistance Membership

Even with all of this knowledge, you still want to prepare for the worst. Especially when far from home, having roadside assistance available gives you peace of mind.

AAA has been around for years and has provided emergency and towing services to thousands of members. It is definitely something to consider before you hit the road.

Your Car is Prepared! Are You?


To be sure, this is not an exhaustive list of automotive maintenance. It is more of an awareness tool with the most common and important things to keep in mind.  

I hope it strikes the balance of being informative, without being overwhelming. But most of all, I hope it helps you to prepare your car for your next epic road trip.

While my first road trip was interrupted by a breakdown, yours doesn’t have to. 

Simply be as prepared as you can. Learn what you can about your own car for minor inspections and maintenance. For anything else, find a mechanic you can trust and stick with them. 

Now you are ready to start planning your own road trip! Where do you start? Check out our 7 Best Road Trips in America to get you primed for your own highway adventure.  

Or, if you are of where to stay along your route, have you considered camping on a road trip? Check out our Road Trip Car Camping 101 post. I think you will like it.

Then, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section below.

And remember, the road begins where the driveway ends. We’ll see you on it!

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