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How to Prepare Your Car for a Road Trip

car driving away on road to mountains
Tatyana Vyc/Shutterstock

About 85 percent of American vacations don’t involve leaving the country. With just your car, a destination, and a few preparation tips, you can have a dreamy vacation on the road. Here’s how to get your vehicle ready for a road trip.

Troubleshooting problems on the road requires a different approach than navigating issues from a hotel or airport. During a road trip, you won’t always have access to amenities like a store or a mechanic. Getting prepared means taking steps to prevent problems, while also getting ready to tackle any problems that you can’t prevent ahead of time.

This prep work will keep you out of worst-case scenarios like getting stranded with no cell service.  Just follow this step-by-step guide, and you can drive into the sunset with confidence.

Catch up on Regular Maintenance

closeup of hand checking tire pressure with guage
Pakpoom Phummee/Shutterstock

The first step for getting your car ready to go is catching up on any necessary maintenance. Begin this process at least a few weeks before your trip, so you have time to fix any problems you find.

Start with these basic maintenance tasks:

  • Check the oil and change it if needed
  • Inspect the battery
  • Gauge tire pressure and check tread condition
  • Check the headlights, taillights, brake lights, and turn signals
  • Make sure your brakes have been inspected recently
  • Inspect wipers and wiper fluid level

Most cars will be road-worthy once you complete this list. If you find a problem, such as bald tires, you’ll have time to fix it before you leave.

Not the DIY type? No worries! Take your car into a shop you trust, tell them you’re planning a road trip, and they’ll check things out for you. Most of the bigger quick oil change places will also do a quick inspection of your car that includes all the stuff on that list.

Of course, if you suspect your car might have more serious issues, make sure to take it into a shop for professional care.

Gather Necessary Equipment

Close up of hands charging car battery with jumper cables

Now, put together a toolkit so you can navigate whatever might happen with your car on your trip.

First, you’ll need items that allow you to do basic maintenance and repairs on the road. These might include:

  • Extra oil: A quart or two should do. If your car’s losing oil, that’s the kind of thing you need to get fixed before you take your trip.
  • Funnel for adding fluids: You can buy a cheap plastic funnel or even disposable paper funnels for this.
  • Spare tire: Hopefully, you’ve already got a spare tire. If so, make sure it’s in good shape and is properly filled with air. If you don’t have a spare and can’t fit one into your plans (or your car), at least carry some tire sealant and maybe an inflator. You can even get them in a bundle for under $20
  • Jumper cables: We recommend heavy gauge jumper cables, which you can get for around $20. You can get by with a lighter gauge if you drive a compact car, but you’ll need the heavier gauge for full-size cars, trucks, and SUVs.  
  • Portable jump starter: These lithium-ion battery starters are great for jump starting your car when there’s no one else around to help you. Most brands hold enough charge to jump-start a car more than ten times. As a bonus, most of them include a built-in LED flashlight and even USB ports you can use to charge your gadgets in a pinch.
  • Tire pressure gauge: Keeping your tires at the right pressure makes for a safer and more fuel-efficient ride. Whether you go digital or analog, you can pick up a good gauge for under $10.

Depending on the conditions and terrain you intend to navigate, you might also add some other tools to your kit, like snow chains or a towing rope. Don’t forget to pack your owner’s manual too.

In addition to these tools for basic car trouble, you should also pack some things to help you stay safe in other unexpected situations. Consider these essentials:

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Trash bags
  • Flashlight
  • Rags or paper towels
  • Spare key
  • Safety flares
  • A map of your route
  • Some bottled water and long-lasting snacks, just in case

While you might find many other useful things to pack, these basics will keep you safe in most emergencies. You should also consider signing up for a roadside assistance program like AAA, in case you run into a problem you can’t fix yourself.

Get Clean and Organized

Traveling in a sparkling-clean car won’t just make your trip feel more special—it will also help things go smoother once you leave.

If you want to skip washing the outside of your car, that’s fine. But you should at least clean out the inside of the car, and pack everything in a neat and organized way. That way, you won’t have to tear apart your luggage or dig through clutter to find the spare key or new lightbulb you’re looking for.  

Pack carefully, so you’re not obstructing your view of the mirrors or windows. Try to pack everything inside the cab or trunk, not on top of the car unless you can’t avoid it. When you pack things on the roof, you’ll hurt your gas mileage and performance.

Do a Test Run

Now, it’s time to do a final check and a test run.

Visually inspect your car for any problems you might have missed. Double-check that your insurance, registration, license, and owner’s manual are where they should be. Keep the paper map of your route handy, too, as a backup to your navigation app.

If you usually use your car for short trips only, take it out for a drive that’s a little longer than normal and see how it fares. Try to find terrain like what you’ll encounter on your trip. For example, if you’re planning to drive into the mountains, take your car up and down the biggest hills you can find. This will help you catch any last-minute issues before you get going.

Ready to Hit the Road?

Happy Couple Driving on Country Road into the Sunset

A road trip takes a lot of planning, preparation, and packing. In between choosing snacks and picking the perfect photo-op destinations, make sure you take the time to get your car ready, too.

These simple steps can eliminate a lot of common road-trip headaches. Just follow the guide above, and then you can turn your attention to enjoying all the sights, sounds, and experiences of the open road.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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