Trip Preparation Tips

  • Vital fluids

    Check all of your vehicle's fluid levels. This includes engine oil, coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, and windshield washer fluid. Most new cars have transparent reservoir tanks and in many cases, you don't even have to get your hands dirty. Refer to the owners' manual for the proper procedures for checking and adding fluids to your vehicle. In particular, when checking the brake fluid level, also look at the fluid color. It should be clear or light amber. If it's dark and cloudy, the brake fluid is contaminated and should be replaced and the brake system flushed.

    You can also do a quick "leak test" in your driveway. Let your engine run for about 15 minutes so it reaches full operating temperature. Then park it over a large piece of cardboard a while and see if any fluids have dripped from underneath it.

    Very often you can tell what fluid it is by feel and color. A reddish liquid is either power steering fluid or transmission fluid. Engine oil is usually black or brown. Pink or yellow green liquid is anti-freeze. Clear liquids are either water, condensation from the air conditioner, which is no problem, or clutch or brake fluid. If you are in unfamiliar territory, don't wait until the fuel gauge reads empty or the low fuel light comes on. Start looking for a refill at half a tank. Better to make one too many pit stops then one too few.

  • Belts and Hoses

    Check all the drive belts and hoses for any signs of wear and deterioration. Belts that are frayed, glazed, cracked, cut or have chunks missing should be replaced immediately. With the engine off and cold, look at each hose and see if there are leaks, bulges, cracks, or swelling. If they look good, give them a squeeze test. Good hoses are firm but flexible. Any hoses that feel spongy, soft, or brittle should be replaced.

  • Battery

    One of the leading causes of roadside problems is the battery. Check that the battery electrolyte is up to the proper level by removing the battery caps and looking inside. The proper level is about =" to >" above the battery plates. The most common battery type today are maintenance free batteries. Maintenance free batteries have sealed caps and require no checking. But some batteries say maintenance free but do have removable caps. These should be checked in the usual manner. Finally, check the battery to see that there are no cracks or holes in the battery casing itself. If the battery is four or five years old, consider replacing it.

    Also, make sure that the battery terminals and cables are clean and securely attached to the battery terminals. If the terminals and cables are covered with "snow", remove the cables from the battery and thoroughly clean the cables and terminals. You can use a mixture of baking soda and water, which will neutralize the battery acid. You can clean the cables and terminals with a battery cleaning brush or some medium emory cloth. Check the terminals and if they are eaten away, replace them. When they are nice and clean, reattach the cables and make sure they are tight. You can coat the terminals with white lithium grease or Vasoline?? to protect them from corroding again.

  • Brakes

    If you hear any grinding noises or feel unusual vibrations when you apply the brakes, or if the vehicle pulls to one side, take the vehicle in for a comprehensive checkup. It would be a good idea just to have your brakes looked at to be sure they won't need replacing 1,000 miles into your trip.

  • Cooling system

    Sustained high speed driving and hot summer days combine to put a lot of stress on an engine's cooling system. If your vehicles is using conventional green anti-freeze and hasn't been flushed for two years, now is an excellent time to do it. If it has extended life anti-freeze go with the manufacturers recommended change intervals. If this interval occurs during the trip, do it now. The cooling system should be refilled with a 50/50 mix of new antifreeze and water. Don't refill with just straight anti-freeze. If the system needs to be flushed, it is a fairly easy job for a DIY. Just make sure you put the old antifreeze in a container and take it to a proper recycling location.

  • Air-conditioning

    Make sure your car's heating and A/C is working properly. Run it for a while in each of its operating modes and check that the airflow is coming from all appropriate vents. If the A/C system takes an inordinately long time to cool the inside of the car, or if the air never gets cold enough, the system probably needs to be checked for leaks and recharged. If the A/C smells like your sons gym socks, the drain hose is probably clogged or restricted.

    While following this list of checks and inspections are a good idea, you should be aware of other, more general warning signs as well. Ticking, clunking or knocking noises, a sudden vibration or shimmy, or anything out of the ordinary is probably a symptom of a hidden problem that should be checked before hitting the road.

    Keep in mind that no matter how careful and thorough you were in doing your pre-trip preparations, unexpected problems can still happen. So it is a good idea to have some basic emergency gear onboard in something does happen. Jumper cables, flares, a disposable, pre-paid cell phone, a gallon of anti-freeze, a gallon of water, three quarts of oil, a couple of quarts of ATF and a couple of gallons of bug juice can be worth ten times their weight in gold when you need it 50 miles from nowhere. Another good idea is to make a check list of things to check when you make a pit stop so you can be sure to cover all your bases. Do these simple checks and what happened to the Griswalds will not happen to you.

    And finally, not only can a pre-trip inspection help reduce chances of costly and possibly dangerous road trouble, it also provides an opportunity to have needed repairs made at home, with your own technician who knows your vehicle. Especially important, it provides peace of mind. While no inspection can guarantee a car's performance, it's comforting to know proper precautions were taken.