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The student road trip checklist, part 1: car prep

Group of young people sitting in a Convertible car.

Finals are over. You’ve celebrated by burning all your term papers in a communal bonfire. With one or two blissful weeks of nothingness ahead, you and your friends are just itching to do something fun and adventurous.

If you’re planning on hightailing out of town for a road trip, take a gander at the car prep checklist below first. Just as how you wouldn’t take a major test without studying (at least we hope), you shouldn’t embark on an extended tour of Americana without ensuring your car is 100% ready to handle the drive. Not doing so can lead to costly repairs in the future (read: on the road, which would suck).

The experts at NADAguides.com, a vehicle information site, have come up with some handy road trip tips which we’ve abbreviated for you below. DIYers can perform these inspections themselves, but for peace of mind we recommend you take your car to the shop so a licensed mechanic can give you the official go-ahead.

None of these tips require that much money, so you need not worry about going over budget.

  1. Tire test

The expression “burn rubber” exists for a reason. Tires hit the road constantly when you’re driving, so they need extra love and attention. Purchase a tire pressure gauge and a tread depth gauge from the auto parts store. The ideal tire pressure should be indicated in your vehicle owner’s manual, or inside your car’s doorjamb. Inspect your tires before you start driving (when they’re cold), so you can tell how much to properly inflate or deflate.

Next, use the tread depth gauge to determine if you need new tires. Legally, your tire tread should be at least 2/32” or more for adequate traction. And don’t forget your spare! Check that for pressure and tread depth as well.

  1. How are your fluid levels?

A car is a lot like a human body. Both require fluids as a means of transport, heating and cooling, and repair. Both need the proper fluid levels or else vital mechanisms start malfunctioning and shutting off.

You can either check fluid levels yourself by referring to your owner’s manual, or you can take your car to the shop. Inspect your engine oil to make sure it’s clean and at a good level. Then, check your transmission, differential, power steering, and brake fluids to see if you need to replace or refill. If you have no idea what any of these are, DEFINITELY make a shop appointment.

Also, refill your windshield wiper fluid and antifreeze, which prevents your car from overheating as the temperatures rise.

When driving, keep an eye on your temperature gauge. Stop driving when the temperature gauge goes up because your car will overheat.

Top Shop Tip: While it’s immensely useful to prepare for a trip, knowing how to read your car during the journey is even more important. Every modern car is equipped with a computer that monitors all car functions for you, but if you don’t know how to read those dashboard lights then you won’t be able to take the necessary precautions. We recommend learning to read your dash lights by referencing your owner’s manual.

  1. Motor skills

Lift up your hood – yes, there are bunch of scary-looking things in there, but they won’t bite – and examine the battery and cables for corrosion, dirt, and cracks. Since hot weather wears out your battery faster, you may need to replace your battery before your trip. Likewise, check the radiator and hoses for cracks and leaks.

Change your air filter. Your air filter prevents dirt and dust from seeping into your engine. When contaminants get through, your engine is forced to work harder, eating more gas.

  1. Components 101

Air conditioning, interior and exterior lights, and windshield wipers don’t just aid safe driving – they also help with comfort and sanity on the road. Turn your AC on for a little while and then turn it off, listening for any noises and checking the temperature. Inspect your windshield wiper blades if they’re looking a little scraggy. Don’t forget to make sure your defrost function works and your mirrors are at the correct angle for maximum visibility.

Test interior and exterior lights, including blinkers, headlights, and high beams.

While we’re on the topic of quality checking components, if your Check Engine light is on, take your vehicle to your garage so the tech can figure out what’s wrong. Driving with the Check Engine light on could cause a series of unfortunate events.

Furthermore, if your oil light flares on, it doesn’t mean you need an oil change. The oil light signals that your oil is low, and you could blow your head gasket or even your whole motor! Take your car to the shop immediately if you spot that little red light.

Top Shop Tip: Maintenance, a regular oil change, and inspections are the key to a well-oiled car that will carry you safely through your trip. Don’t forget to report any issues, since they can end up biting you in the butt later.

If you plan on visiting the shop, make your appointment for at least 2 weeks before you leave. This will give the mechanic time to fix any problems. Taking your car in the Friday before is a bad idea since Friday is one of the busiest days at a garage. Larger repairs – such as replacing brakes – could take longer than a few hours.

  1. Keep an emergency kit!

You never know where your travels might take you, so be prepared for anything! Here are some supplies you need:

  • A basic tool kit
  • Emergency flares
  • A flashlight with fresh batteries
  • A jumper cable
  • A tire iron
  • A jack
  • Plenty of drinking water

For more car care tips or to find out info on Top Shop, visit our website at Top Shop Automotive, Inc.

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