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Essential Car Maintenance Before a Road Trip

Taking a road trip is a traditional rite of passage in America. The first successful road trip across North America occurred in 1903 in a Winton touring car nicknamed "Vermont." It took 63 days to drive from New York to San Francisco. Although this is a long time by modern standards, America's infrastructure system of roads and bridges had not yet been erected at this time. However, as America's cities, particularly those on the east coast, became more densely populated, many people were looking to get away.

Nearly three decades later, the now-famous Route 66 paved the way for easier cross-country travel. Early road trippers had to carry enough supplies to last weeks and contend with abysmal road conditions throughout their journey. Nowadays, road trippers can still encounter potholes and flooded roads, but the advent of the Internet and dozens of travel apps has made them easier to avoid.

Prepping for a Road Trip

Road trips are an excellent way to see the country. Some people like to plot out their route in advance, focusing on a particular region or specific sights. Others prefer to meander to their final destination, stopping on a whim when they see something they want to explore further. Regardless of your road trip style, there are several essential car maintenance items to take care of before you leave.

Maintenance Tips

When properly cared for, your car should run like a well-oiled machine: dependable, smooth, and highly functional. Unanticipated maintenance costs can quickly escalate into the thousands of dollars. Preventative maintenance is the key to minimizing these incidents, particularly during a road trip where your car is the sole source of transportation and needs to function properly for a longer-than-normal time frame.

Depending on the length of your road trip and the conditions of the areas you'll be traversing, you may want to do a cursory search ahead of time for maintenance facilities along the way. The last thing you wish to happen is to be stuck in an area with a broken down car, no cell phone service, and no sense of where the closest garage or towing outfit is.

What You Need to Do

Experts suggest conducting the following maintenance on your car before a road trip:

Owner's Manual

If you are renting a car or plan to drive one you have not driven before, checking out the owner's manual can provide some valuable insights. It is much easier to change a tire when you already know where the jack is located instead of having to search for it on the side of the road.


One of the most important items before heading out on a road trip is to make sure your tires are prepared for the wear and tear of a long drive. Most tires are built to last several years and several thousand miles, so, if you are bumping up against that time frame/mileage, check the tire treads. Once a tread is worn down to 1/16th of an inch, it is no longer safe to drive and should be replaced. The "penny test" is a handy way to determine this: take a penny and place it upside down in the thickest part of the tire tread (towards the center). If you cannot see the top of Lincoln's head, then your tires are still functional. If you can, it is time for a new set.


The life of a car depends on its battery; if the battery does not work, then the car will not start. Check the battery ahead of your departure, and leave jumper cables in the trunk. You do not want to have to wait for a tow truck, particularly if you are in a rural area.


Getting your fluids checked can help prevent thickening, which can damage your car's engine. In most car models, all of the fluid receptacles will be under the front hood of the vehicle. You should be able to assess whether your car needs additional engine oil, brake fluid, coolant, and antifreeze. Coolant is particularly important before a summer road trip, as the engine will heat up more quickly when it is under the sun for hours on end. Antifreeze decreases the freezing point of liquids and works with the coolant to regulate the car's engine temperature.

Other equipment

It is illegal virtually everywhere to drive without a head or taillight, so ensuring that all of your electrical equipment and lights are fully functioning could save you a ticket. If you are unsure, carry extra light bulbs with you just in case you need to do some roadside maintenance along the way. Additionally, functioning windshield wipers are especially important if you are planning to travel during the rain or snow seasons. Test the wipers at all speeds and make sure you have enough wiper fluid to last the duration of the trip.

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