Do you remember back in 2019—before the start of the pandemic—when you were free to take a summer road trip without having to worry about travel restrictions? Well, those “normal” summer road trips might soon become a reality once again.
Millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have already been administered, which means many of the pandemic-imposed restrictions will likely be lifted by summertime. Naturally, when that happens, lots of drivers may choose to take a summer road trip.
If you’re one of those drivers who plan to hit the open road, you’ll want to make sure your car is in tip-top shape prior to departing. Our pre-road-trip checklist will give you an idea of what to consider before embarking on your journey.
Note: As the situation continues to develop, we still strongly advise checking official state and local government guidelines as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for official updates and announcements.
The Essential Summer Road Trip Checklist
As the weather is getting warmer and restrictions are beginning to ease, a summer road trip starts to sound more and more enticing. But wait—what about your vehicle that’s been sitting idle since the pandemic began?
Regardless of whether your vehicle has been parked or driven every day since the onset of COVID-19, you’ll want to make sure it’s ready for the open road. The following pre-road-trip checklist will help you and your ride gear up for a summer full of adventure.
1. Repair Any Known Problems
It’s easy to put off fixing your car—especially if you haven’t had to drive much during the pandemic. Before you embark on your road trip, however, you’ll want to have your car running and driving its best. Now’s the time to take care of any known problems that could cause a breakdown and ruin your road trip.
2. Take Care of Outstanding Maintenance
Staying up-to-date on routine maintenance is the best way to keep your car running right. Regular service includes everything from changing your oil to replacing your spark plugs.
If your vehicle is due (or overdue) for routine service, you’ll want to get it taken care of prior to your trip. You can determine when maintenance is due by consulting the service schedule in your owner’s manual or supplemental service booklet.
3. Check the Fluids
Even if you keep up on routine maintenance, your car may develop leaks between service intervals. That’s why it’s important to inspect all of your vehicle’s underhood fluids before setting out on a road trip.
You can usually check your engine oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid (if your car has a dipstick), power steering fluid (if equipped), and coolant from under the hood. But remember: You should never check the coolant by removing your cooling system cap while the engine is hot. Doing so can result in severe personal injury.
Many vehicles also have fluids (e.g., differential fluid) that must be checked from underneath the car. If you have the know-how, you can safely support your vehicle on jack stands and check these fluids yourself.
Otherwise, the next time your car is in for an oil change, you can ask a professional to do the job for you.
4. Inspect the Tires
It’s always important to check your car’s tires before a road trip. If your car has been sitting idle during the pandemic, you’ll want to pay especially close attention to your tires’ inflation pressure since tires tend to lose air when a vehicle is stationary for too long.
To inspect your tires, you’ll first want to look for any obvious signs of damage, such as bubbles in the sidewall or chunks of missing rubber, which indicate the need for replacement.
If everything looks okay, you can move on to measuring your tires’ tread depth with a dedicated gauge. Most professionals recommend replacing a tire when there’s 4/32” of tread remaining at any point.
You’ll also want to check your tire pressure with a dedicated gauge. Inside the driver’s side door jamb, you’ll find a placard that lists the correct tire pressure for your vehicle. Do NOT inflate the tires to the specification written on the tire’s sidewall—that’s the maximum pressure, rather than the recommended pressure.
5. Check the Cooling System
Before taking a summer road trip, it’s a good idea to check your car’s cooling system to ensure it’s in good condition. Even though your car can overheat during any season—including winter—sizzling summer temperatures are far more likely to push a failing cooling system over the edge.
While inspecting the system, you’ll want to look for obvious problems, such as leaks and deteriorated hoses. Also, take note of whether your temperature gauge is working and your engine is operating at the correct temperature. Most engines run somewhere between 195 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit once they’re warmed up.
6. Test the Air Conditioning System
When taking a road trip in the middle of July, you don’t want to discover that your car’s air conditioning (A/C) system only blows hot air. So, before you venture into triple-digit temperatures, you’ll want to test your A/C system to make sure it blows nice and cold.
7. Inspect the Brakes
Regardless of whether you’re driving in the winter or summer, you need all of the stopping power you can get. You (or your mechanic) should check the brakes a least twice a year to ensure they’re in good condition.
If you haven’t looked at your car’s brakes in a while, now is the time to do so. Most professionals recommend replacing a set of brake pads (and machining or replacing the rotors) when there’s 4mm of friction material left. Pads with 3mm of friction material or less are considered unsafe and should be replaced right away.
8. Check the Wipers
Even though wiper blades are probably the last thing on your mind when it’s sunny and 90-degrees outside, you’ll still want to remember to check the wipers periodically. After all, you never know when you’re going to encounter a summer rainstorm.
Checking a set of wipers is easy. All you need to do is turn on both the wipers and windshield washers. A good set of blades should produce a streak-free sweep and leave the windshield clear.
If you find the wipers are worn-out, you’ll want to replace them right away.
9. Inspect the Battery
When a car isn’t driven enough, the battery usually goes dead because it isn’t getting charged by the alternator. A simple jump-start can bring the battery back to life in some cases. In other instances, the battery cannot be rejuvenated and must be replaced.
If your car has been sitting since the beginning of the pandemic—or you question your battery’s health for any other reason—have a professional test the battery before your trip.
10. Remember to Pack Summer Essentials
Hopefully, by the time summer rolls around, you won’t have to worry quite as much about packing hand sanitizer and masks (but we still highly recommend bringing them and practicing social distancing to be safe!), and can focus on bringing along items like your favorite sunglasses and a great road trip playlist.
In any case, don’t forget to pack these essential items:
- Your car insurance information
- First aid kit
- Jumper cables
- Phone charger
- Spare tire and tool kit
- Items to keep children safe and entertained (car seats, games, etc.)
Most importantly—remember to have fun! The open road is calling. Make this summer one you’ll never forget.