Planning a road trip should be an enjoyable process, however, choosing destinations, booking hotels, planning activities can easily overwhelm even the most organized traveler. But with a little forethought, the results can be epic. That’s especially true during a global pandemic when America’s roadways are the most popular means of travel.
According to a survey conducted by Chevrolet and research firm Harris Poll, 80% of those polled said that going on a road trip has been one of their happiest moments since March. Forty-one percent said they road-tripped to a place they’ve never been before, which underlines an important element that often is left out of the planning process: preparing the family vehicle.
Even the most detailed travel itinerary won’t save a vehicle from a lack of routine maintenance, so it’s crucial to ensure that routine and other preparatory maintenance procedures are performed before setting out for an adventure.
Ideally, vehicle maintenance is a 24/7 proposition, but it is particularly important before a long road trip, especially in the heat of summer and to unfamiliar destinations off the beaten path. Though visiting family and friends has been the number one destination for coronavirus-motivated road trips, as reported by Harris Poll, beach, hiking fishing and national Park exploration rounded out the top five.
No matter the destination, take care in readying the
vehicle that will get you there—and back. Here are some of the best ways to
prepare a vehicle for a summer road trip:
Tires are the only part of a vehicle that are in direct
contact with the road, so extra care is needed to ensure they are correctly inflated,
display even treadwear, are free from any obvious defects and are of the size
and type specified by the manufacturer.
Key considerations for tire maintenance include:
- Air pressure: The specific air pressure required by a vehicle’s tires is found on a small label attached to the inside of the driver’s door jamb. The temperatures listed are usually stated as being “cold temperatures,” which means that tire pressure should be checked before the vehicle has been driven for any length of time. Tire pressures should be checked at least every 1000 miles. If the vehicle is heavily loaded, towing a trailer, or kept on the road for extended periods of travel, the tires should, at a minimum, be checked visually at every stop. It’s a good idea to keep an air pressure gauge in the glove box of your vehicle.
- Rotation: Vehicles come in a variety of drive-wheel configurations, including front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. The wheels that receive power wear tires more quickly than non-drive-wheel tires. This is especially true for performance vehicles, where wheel spin and hard cornering are part of the norm. Additionally, worn or loose steering components can promote the uneven wear of the front tires. Rotating tires moves them front-to-back or side-to-side, promoting even wear. (The proper rotation pattern for your car is located in the owners manual.) This service should be performed every 5,000 to 8,000 miles or sooner if uneven wear is observed. Many shops include tire rotation in the price of their oil change specials.
- Condition: Bulges, gouges, and other
visually observable damage should be inspected by a professional to ensure that
the tire’s structural integrity isn’t compromised. Even a minor impact from a pothole
or curb can damage a tire. Visual cues, such as uneven tread wear and odd wear
patterns on other parts of the tire are an indication that a checkup is
Maintaining a vehicle’s fluids is an essential step toward
ensuring that a summer road trip goes off without a hitch. While motor oil is sometimes
referred to as the lifeblood of an engine, modern vehicles use a variety of specialized
fluids vital to your vehicle’s operation and longevity.
- Transmission fluid: Many new vehicles come with sealed transmissions that don’t allow for easy checking or topping off of the fluid, but it’s still important to understand the role transmission fluid, or oil, plays in its operation. Depending on the vehicle, the transmission may have a service interval of up to 100,000 miles and require special equipment to replace it. A good rule of thumb for vehicles equipped with a traditional dipstick should be to check the fluid regularly and replace it according to the specifications outlined in your owners manual. Old fluid can accumulate dirt and debris and dramatically reduce your transmission’s performance and lifespan and burnt fluid can indicate severe wear of the internal components. Automatic transmissions can be finicky, so if you have any doubts, see your dealer or a qualified independent mechanic.
- Power steering fluid: While electric and electrically-assisted power steering systems become more common every day, plenty of vehicles still utilize hydraulic power steering systems. These power steering systems use a fluid that can become contaminated over time, hampering performance and possibly causing leaks or damage to the system components. The fluid reservoir is generally located in an easily accessible location under the hood, making it easy to check each time vehicle’s engine oil is changed.
- Brake fluid: Braking systems use fluid to build hydraulic pressure to force the calipers to clamp the brake pads down onto the rotors. If the brake pedal starts to feel spongy or soft, air may have accumulated in the brake lines, which can require a service to bleed the lines. Brake fluid also gets contaminated and can absorb moisture, both of which can reduce performance. Service should be performed according to the service intervals outlined in your owner’s manual or approximately every 24,000 miles in everyday use. Your dealer or local shop can advise you on the best plan of action if you notice reduced braking performance.
- Engine oil: Checking a vehicle’s engine oil is one of the most critical and easy to check maintenance items for an owner to perform. Some new vehicles come with a factory oil-change interval of up to 10,000 miles, but the oil should still be checked at least every 1,000 to 3,000 miles. Modern engine oil contains a number of additives that enhance lubrication properties and help to keep the oiling system clean, and over time they can become depleted. An unprecedented loss or consumption of oil could indicate more significant problems. The owner’s manual will define the type of oil to be used and how often it should be changed. And if you’re doing it yourself, don’t forget to pick up a new filter too.
- Coolant: Often referred to as anti-freeze, engine coolant is nearly as vital as motor oil. Coolant not only keeps engine temps down in the summer but helps the engine maintain the optimum operating temperature in cold climates as well as providing heat for the passengers. Low coolant can cause overheating, especially in hot weather with a fully-loaded vehicle. Like motor oil, coolant is fortified with additives that enhance performance and inhibit corrosion. Most vehicles have a transparent “overflow” tank under the hood that allows for visual inspection of the coolant level. CAUTION: Never attempt to check engine coolant on a hot or warm vehicle. If you suspect the coolant is low or compromised, see a qualified service professional.
- Windshield wiper fluid: Summer road trips
offer several opportunities for bugs to smash into the windshield, and while it
isn’t perfect, the vehicle’s windshield washer provides the only way to clean them
off without making a time-consuming pit stop. Most vehicles have a warning
light that indicates the windshield washer fluid level is low, but the fluid
reservoir should be located in an easily visible place under the hood to allow
for easy checks.
Keep Up With Routine Maintenance
Fluids are essential, but they are far from the only vehicle
maintenance consideration. The following should be performed regularly, but are
especially important before a long road trip:
- Air filters: Most vehicles have two types
of air filters. The engine air filter provides debris-free air to the engine,
and the cabin air filter filters the incoming air to the passenger compartment.
For the vehicle to perform as intended and for the people inside it to breathe freely,
the vehicle’s air filters need to be replaced regularly. The engine air filter and
cabin filters should be replaced according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
Barring that, every 10,000 to 15,000 miles is a good rule of thumb.
- Belts and Hoses: Gone are the days when an average vehicle relied on three, four, or more individual belts to power all the accessories. Although there are exceptions, manufacturers now employ a single ribbed serpentine belt to drive the alternator, air conditioning compressor, water pump and other accessories whenever possible. Still, the belts wear and a quick visual inspection will reveal any cracks or fraying. While you’re at it, give the hoses a quick view noting any cracking sings of leakage at junction points.
- Lighting: A vehicle’s headlights are an
obvious source of light, but there are multiple bulbs inside the cabin that may
occasionally need checking and replacement. There is nothing more irritating
than trying to use an interior light after dark, only to find out that it has
burned out. These are generally easy to replace, and most auto parts stores
carry a wide variety of replacements saving you trip to the dealer.
Clean the Vehicle
Driving a clean vehicle doesn’t just make for a more pleasant experience behind the wheel; it can add up to a fuel economy penalty if there is enough added weight. In addition to a full vacuum and exterior wash, make sure to remove all the excess baggage—athletic equipment, laundry and the rest of the daily detritus—to remove any extra weight. As a side bonus, it will clear room for luggage and other items required for the road trip. Plus, the psychological benefits of hitting the road in a clean, well-organized machine will make the trip even better.