The arrival of spring always stirs up a longing for adventure. After months cooped up inside and navigating wet or icy roads, blue skies and warm weather are reason enough to load up your car and hit the highway.
However, your best planning will be undone if you can’t depend on your car. A breakdown on your daily commute is one thing, but what if your car leaves you stranded miles outside the middle of nowhere? Car care is necessary year-round, but especially before a road trip, so complete these basic maintenance tasks before becoming a horror movie
Fluids are the lifeblood of any car. Service intervals on your car’s six essential fluids usually depend on mileage, so consider how far you’ve driven since your last one, and how far you plan on driving on your trip, to decide what needs attention.
Oil: You don’t need to be a car expert to know that oil is critical for an engine. It lubricates moving components like the pistons, crankshaft, and camshaft so they can move smoothly without friction. Oil should be changed every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. If you’ve gotten an oil change within that range, use the dipstick to check the oil condition and fill level. If it’s black, gritty, or below the minimum, get it checked out right away.
Radiator fluid: Engines produce a lot of heat and the radiator keeps it cool. Radiator fluid, also known as coolant or antifreeze, works to extract heat from the engine and dissipate it through the radiator. A low coolant level will also likely result in overheating, so check your coolant and top it off if need be, and make sure to flush the system at 50,000 mile intervals.
Brake fluid: When you push the bake pedal, fluid—yes, fluid—compresses inside the brake lines, forcing the brake pads to clamp on the rotors and slow your car. If you ever notice that the pedal feels spongy or has extra travel, the fluid may be contaminated. Be sure to top off the brake fluid if necessary, and flush it every 36,000 miles.
Power steering fluid: Modern cars use power steering to make turning the wheel easy at any speed, but this fluid can also become contaminated, making your steering wheel less responsive. About 24,000 miles you’re going to want to get your braking system checked out.
Transmission fluid: Not much ruins a drive like a transmission that jerks when it shifts. Transmission fluid helps gears mesh smoothly, and when it goes bad, uncomfortable shifts can be the result. Fortunately, transmission fluid lasts a long time, and some cars are even sold with so-called “lifetime” transmission fluid. Generally, though, it’s a good idea to replace the fluid at 60,000 miles. Increased problems are likely with transmission fluid older than 100,000 miles.
Windshield fluid: Long drives mean a dirty car, and there’s nothing on your car’s exterior more important to keep clean than the windshield. After all, you have to be able to see where you’re going. Adding windshield washer fluid is super basic – get a jug of fluid at any gas station, then simply use a funnel to fill up your reservoir if it gets low.
As you’d expect, tires are paramount to safety, comfort, and fuel efficiency, so it’s important to check their condition.
Air pressure – 1,000 miles: Every road tripper wants to get the best fuel efficiency, and underinflated tires are guaranteed to waste gas. Conversely, overinflated tires make ride quality worse because they’re less compliant. Incorrect air pressure also causes tires to wear unevenly and need replacement sooner. Be checking tire pressure every 1,000 miles, so depending on the length of your trip, that could be a few times.
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Rotation – 5,000 to 8,000 miles: Even if tire pressure is correct, variations in suspension calibration, weight balance, and road conditions make tires wear out at different rates. Because of this, it’s important to periodically rotate tires between different locations on your car. Swapping between the right and left side or front and rear helps tires last longer because they’re each exposed to similar variations. Tire rotations should be completed every 5,000 to 8,000 miles.
Replacement – 25,000 to 50,000 miles: If you think your tires are nearing their expiration date, the penny test is an easy way to check. While tires last anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 miles depending on their type and use, if damage like punctures or sidewall bulges occur, replace them immediately.
Timing belts are critically important in keeping your engine running properly, and as they age they become more prone to snapping. This can result in catastrophic damage to internal engine components. Again, stockings come to the rescue. If your timing belt does break, safely stop the car as quickly as possible. Turn the engine off, open the hood, and remove the old belt. Tightly tie the stockings around the engine’s pulleys, following the same path the belt did. It might be just enough to get to home so you can have a new timing belt installed.
Cars have numerous components that need maintenance to stay in good working order, so make sure to check these parts before you hit the road.
Brake pads: Brake pads provide the friction needed to slow and stop your car. They wear away with use, becoming too thin to work effectively. Usually it’s obvious when this happens due to irritating screeching or squealing noise they make. Replacing the brake pads should fix the noise and, more importantly, make your road trip safer. Depending on what your brake pads are made of and how they’re used, they can last anywhere from 25,000 to 70,000 miles.
Air filters: With dust, debris, and bugs everywhere, the road is a dirty place. Cars use air filters to prevent gunk from entering the engine or interior. Eventually air filters reach capacity and can become clogged, potentially impacting engine performance and fuel economy, and definitely affecting interior air quality. Air filters should be replaced about every 12,000 miles, but fortunately, they’re usually inexpensive and easy to change.
Light bulbs: Having a burnt out light is an easy ways to get pulled over on a drive. To check, turn on your car, switch on the headlights, make sure it’s in Park, and take a walk around to see if any are burnt out. Repeat the process for the left and right turn signals. With the gear lever in still in Park, use a brick to hold the brake pedal so you can check the condition of your taillights.
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Belts and hoses: Looking under the hood of your car can be intimidating, but there are a few trouble signs anyone can spot. Give the belts a squeeze to make sure they’re tight–there should be very little slack. Also look to see if there’s any visible cracking, fraying, or missing teeth in the belts, which indicate it needs to be replaced. Check the hoses to see if there’s any fluid leaking, especially near joining points. Having a hose fail in the middle of a drive can spell disaster for an engine.
Yep, it’s not secret that car care can be a pain. But it’s not nearly as bad as having an adventure ruined by a preventable problem. Your car works hard on a road trip, so give it what it need to keep running.