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What To Check In Car Before A Road Trip


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Roxine Hartford



Embarking on a road trip is an exciting and adventurous way to explore new destinations or revisit familiar ones. However, before you hit the road, it’s essential to ensure that your car is in proper working condition to avoid any unexpected mishaps along the way. Taking the time to thoroughly check your vehicle before a road trip can help prevent breakdowns and ensure a safe and enjoyable journey.


In this article, we will guide you through the essential checks you need to conduct before taking that road trip of a lifetime. From inspecting the tires to evaluating the engine and transmission, we’ll cover all the crucial areas that deserve your attention. So, buckle up and let’s dive into the key aspects to consider when checking your car before hitting the open road.


Taking care of these pre-trip inspections will not only give you peace of mind but also save you time and money in the long run. By being proactive and identifying potential issues before they escalate, you can prevent unexpected breakdowns in the middle of nowhere and avoid costly repair bills. So, whether you’re planning a cross-country adventure or a weekend getaway, make sure to allocate some time to perform these checks and ensure that your car is roadworthy.


Without further ado, let’s examine each area in detail to ensure that you’re fully prepared for a smooth and stress-free road trip.


Checking the Tires

When it comes to road trip preparation, one of the most crucial aspects is checking the condition of your tires. After all, they are the only point of contact between your vehicle and the road, making their proper maintenance paramount for a safe and comfortable journey.


The first thing to inspect is the tire pressure. Ensure that all tires, including the spare, are inflated to the recommended levels specified in your car’s owner manual. Properly inflated tires will not only provide better fuel efficiency but also enhance the grip and handling of your vehicle.


Next, examine the tire tread depth. Bald or worn-out tires can significantly reduce traction on wet or slippery roads, increasing the risk of accidents. Use a tread depth gauge or the “penny test” to check if the tread depth is within the acceptable range. If the tread is worn down to the treadwear indicators or is less than 1/16 of an inch, it’s time to replace the tires.


Inspect the tires for any signs of damage, such as cuts, bulges, or punctures. These issues can lead to tire blowouts if not addressed promptly. Additionally, look for uneven wear patterns, which might indicate misalignment or suspension problems that need to be addressed before embarking on a long journey.


Last but not least, don’t forget to check the condition of the tire sidewalls. Look for any visible cracks, bulges, or signs of aging, as these can weaken the tire structure and increase the chances of a blowout. If you notice any of these issues, it’s recommended to have the tires inspected by a professional and replace them if necessary.


Remember, the condition of your tires directly affects your car’s safety and performance. Therefore, before embarking on your road trip, take the time to thoroughly assess the tire pressure, tread depth, signs of damage, and sidewall condition. By doing so, you’ll be on your way to a safer and smoother journey.


Inspecting Fluid Levels

Checking the fluid levels of your vehicle is a vital part of preparing for a road trip. Various fluids play crucial roles in ensuring the proper functioning of different components, and neglecting them can lead to mechanical issues or even engine failure.


Start by checking the engine oil level. Locate the oil dipstick, pull it out, and wipe it clean. Then, reinsert the dipstick fully and pull it out again to get an accurate reading. Ensure that the oil level is between the minimum and maximum markers. If it’s below the recommended level, top it up with the suitable grade of oil as specified in your car’s manual.


Next, move on to the coolant level. Be cautious when checking the coolant, as the engine needs to be cool before opening the radiator cap. Make sure the coolant level is within the acceptable range indicated on the coolant reservoir or radiator. If it’s low, add a 50/50 mixture of coolant and distilled water to the appropriate level. Remember, never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot, as it can lead to serious injury.


Don’t forget to inspect the brake fluid as well. Locate the brake fluid reservoir and check that it’s filled to the recommended level. Low brake fluid can affect the braking performance of your vehicle, so if it’s low, consult your car’s manual for the appropriate type of brake fluid and add some to top it up.


In addition to the essential fluids mentioned above, it’s worth checking the power steering fluid, transmission fluid (if applicable), and windshield washer fluid. Ensure that all these fluids are filled to the appropriate level to maintain the smooth operation of the respective systems.


Regularly inspecting and maintaining proper fluid levels will prolong the life of your vehicle’s components and enhance its overall performance. By taking the time to check the engine oil, coolant, brake fluid, and other vital fluids before your road trip, you can minimize the risk of mechanical issues and enjoy a hassle-free journey.


Checking the Brakes

Ensuring that your vehicle’s brakes are in optimal condition is crucial for your safety and the safety of other road users. Before embarking on a road trip, it’s essential to check the brakes to identify any issues and address them promptly.


Start by inspecting the brake pads or shoes. These are the components that create friction and help slow down or stop your vehicle. Check the thickness of the brake pads visually or, if possible, by removing the wheel for a better view. If the pads are worn down to their wear indicators or have less than a quarter-inch of friction material remaining, they should be replaced immediately.


In addition to the brake pads, assess the condition of the brake rotors or drums. Look for any signs of warping, scoring, or uneven wear. If there are deep grooves or noticeable damage, it’s advisable to have them resurfaced or replaced to ensure proper braking performance. Remember that worn or damaged rotors can reduce braking efficiency and lead to longer stopping distances.


Check the brake lines for any leaks or signs of damage. Damaged brake lines can compromise the hydraulic system’s integrity, affecting the brakes’ effectiveness. If you notice any leaks or suspicious signs, it’s crucial to have a professional inspect and repair them before hitting the road.


Finally, test the brake pedal for responsiveness. Ensure that it feels firm when you press it, without any excessive sponginess or delays in braking. If the brake pedal feels soft or goes to the floor, it might indicate air in the brake lines or a problem with the brake master cylinder. In such cases, it’s recommended to have the brake system checked and repaired by a qualified mechanic.


Properly functioning brakes are essential for your safety on the road. By inspecting the brake pads, rotors, lines, and pedal responsiveness, you can identify potential issues and address them before embarking on your road trip. Remember, maintaining good braking performance is key to a safe and enjoyable journey.


Testing the Lights

One often overlooked aspect of pre-road trip vehicle checks is testing the lights. Properly functioning lights are crucial for visibility and communication with other drivers on the road. Before setting off on your journey, take some time to inspect and test all the lights on your vehicle.


Start by checking the headlights, both the low beams and high beams. Turn on the headlights and make sure they are bright, providing ample illumination. If you notice any dim or flickering lights, it may be a sign of a bulb nearing the end of its lifespan or an electrical issue that needs attention.


Next, assess the condition and functionality of the taillights and brake lights. Have someone stand at the rear of your vehicle while you apply the brakes and engage the turn signals. Make sure all the lights are working correctly, including the third brake light if your vehicle has one. Replace any burned-out bulbs to ensure maximum visibility to drivers behind you.


Do not forget to check the turn signals, both the front and rear. Turn on the hazard lights and verify that all indicator lights are flashing properly. Ensure that both the left and right turn signals are working correctly by activating them individually. Driving with malfunctioning turn signals can be dangerous and may result in accidents or traffic violations.


Take the time to inspect the license plate lights, as they contribute to both the legal compliance and visibility of your vehicle. Ensure they are bright and functional, as having non-working license plate lights can lead to unwanted attention from law enforcement.


Lastly, check the function of the interior lights, including the dome light, map lights, and dashboard illumination. These lights may seem less critical for road trip preparations, but they contribute to a comfortable and safe driving experience, especially during nighttime driving or when reaching for items inside the vehicle.


By thoroughly inspecting and testing all the lights on your vehicle, you can ensure that you have maximum visibility and are visible to other drivers on the road. Road trips often involve long hours of driving and sometimes driving at night, so it’s essential to have fully operational lights for a safe and enjoyable journey.


Evaluating the Battery

The battery is the heart of your vehicle’s electrical system, providing the power necessary to start the engine and run various components. Before embarking on a road trip, it’s crucial to evaluate the condition of the battery to avoid any unexpected breakdowns or starting issues along the way.


Start by visually inspecting the battery for any signs of damage or corrosion. Check for loose or corroded battery terminals and cables. If you notice any buildup of corrosion, it’s important to clean it off using a mixture of baking soda and water or a specialized battery terminal cleaner. Corrosion can hinder the flow of electricity and negatively impact the battery’s performance.


Next, test the battery’s voltage and its ability to hold a charge. You can use a voltmeter or a battery tester to measure the voltage. A healthy battery should have a voltage reading of around 12.6 volts. If the voltage is significantly lower, it may indicate a weak or discharged battery that needs to be replaced.


If possible, perform a load test on the battery. This test simulates the battery’s ability to supply power under a heavy load, such as starting the engine. A weak battery may not be able to sustain the necessary voltage during the test, indicating the need for a replacement.


It’s worth noting that extreme weather conditions, such as excessive heat or cold, can impact battery performance. If you live in an area with extreme temperatures, it’s even more important to evaluate the battery’s condition before a road trip, as temperature fluctuations can accelerate battery deterioration.


If your battery is several years old or shows signs of weakness, it’s advisable to replace it before your road trip. The last thing you want is to be stranded due to a dead battery, especially in remote areas with limited assistance available.


Taking the time to evaluate the battery’s condition and address any issues beforehand can save you from the frustration of a failed start or battery-related problems during your road trip. If you’re uncertain or uncomfortable with performing these assessments yourself, it’s recommended to have a professional mechanic check your battery’s health and replace it if necessary.


Checking the Belts and Hoses

Belts and hoses play a vital role in the proper functioning of your vehicle’s engine and various systems. Before embarking on a road trip, it’s important to check these components to ensure they are in good condition and won’t cause any issues along the way.


Start by visually inspecting the belts for any signs of wear, cracks, or fraying. Look for any noticeable damage or looseness. Check the belt tension by applying gentle pressure with your finger. Belts should feel tight and have minimal deflection when pressed. If you notice any signs of aging or damage, it’s best to have a professional inspect and replace the belts if necessary.


In addition, pay attention to the timing belt if your vehicle is equipped with one. Timing belts are responsible for synchronizing the engine’s camshaft and crankshaft. Consult your car’s manual to determine the recommended interval for replacing the timing belt. If you are close to or exceeding that interval, it’s essential to replace the timing belt before your road trip to prevent a potentially catastrophic engine failure.


Next, inspect the hoses for any leaks, cracks, or bulges. Hoses are crucial components that transport coolant, oil, and other fluids throughout the engine and other systems. Any signs of damage can lead to fluid leaks, overheating, or engine damage. Replace any hoses that show signs of wear or damage to avoid breakdowns during your road trip.


Check the radiator hoses for soft spots or leaks, as these can cause coolant loss and overheating. Examine the heater hoses and bypass hoses for any visible damage. It’s also essential to inspect the power steering hoses and vacuum hoses for signs of wear or leaks, as they can affect the vehicle’s steering and overall performance.


Regularly inspecting the belts and hoses and replacing them when necessary can prevent unexpected breakdowns and avoid potentially costly repairs. Additionally, proper maintenance of these components can contribute to smoother engine operation and better fuel efficiency.


If you’re uncertain about the condition of your belts and hoses or uncomfortable performing these checks yourself, it’s recommended to have a professional mechanic inspect them before your road trip. Taking the time to ensure the integrity of the belts and hoses will give you peace of mind and help ensure a trouble-free journey.


Inspecting the Wipers and Washers

When preparing for a road trip, it’s essential to ensure that your wipers and washers are in good working condition. Clear visibility is crucial for safe driving, especially during adverse weather conditions. Taking the time to inspect and maintain your wipers and washers can make a significant difference in your road trip experience.


Start by examining the condition of the wiper blades. Look for any signs of wear, such as cracks, tears, or uneven edges. Worn-out wiper blades can leave streaks or even skip across the windshield, impairing your vision. If you notice any damage, it’s recommended to replace the wiper blades with new ones. As a general rule, consider replacing the blades every six months to ensure optimal performance.


Test the wiper blades for proper operation. Turn on the windshield wipers and observe their movement. They should smoothly glide across the windshield, effectively clearing away water, dirt, or debris. If the blades are leaving areas of streaks or not making proper contact with the windshield, it may be a sign that the blades need to be replaced or adjusted.


Check the windshield washer fluid level and ensure that it’s topped up. Adequate washer fluid is essential for removing dirt, bugs, and other debris from the windshield. Make sure to use a windshield washer fluid that contains antifreeze if you’ll be traveling in cold temperatures.


Activate the windshield washer system to test its functionality. Ensure that the wiper fluid is spraying onto the windshield evenly and with sufficient force. If you encounter any issues, such as weak spray or no spray at all, check the washer nozzles for clogs or blockages. Clear any debris and try again. If the problem persists, have the washer system inspected and repaired if necessary.


Additionally, inspect the rear wiper blade and washer system if your vehicle is equipped with them. Rear visibility is just as important, especially during rainy or snowy conditions. Make sure the rear wiper blade is in good condition and that the washer system is functioning correctly.


Properly functioning wipers and washers are essential for maintaining clear visibility during your road trip. By inspecting and maintaining the wiper blades, checking the windshield washer fluid level, and testing the washer system, you can ensure optimal visibility regardless of the weather conditions you encounter.


Verifying the Air Conditioning and Heating System

When preparing for a road trip, it’s important to ensure that your vehicle’s air conditioning and heating system is in proper working condition. Comfortable temperature control inside the car can make a significant difference in your road trip experience, regardless of the weather outside. Taking the time to verify the functionality of these systems can help ensure a pleasant and enjoyable journey.


Start by testing the air conditioning. Turn on the AC and assess whether cool air is blowing out of the vents. Make sure the air is cold and that the system can maintain a consistent temperature. If the air conditioning isn’t as cool as expected or if it’s not blowing cold air at all, it may indicate low refrigerant levels or other issues that require attention. Consider having the AC system inspected and serviced by a professional mechanic.


Next, check the heating system. Turn on the heat and verify if warm air is being emitted from the vents. Ensure that the system can maintain a comfortable temperature and that there are no unusual odors or noises coming from the heating system. If you notice any issues, such as weak heat or strange smells, it’s advisable to have the heating system inspected and repaired before your road trip.


Don’t forget to test the defrosting capabilities of the system. Proper defrosting is crucial for maintaining clear visibility during colder weather conditions. Turn on the defrost mode and check if it effectively clears the windshield and side windows from fog or frost. If the defrosting function is weak or ineffective, it may indicate a problem with the blower motor or a clogged air filter.


Regular maintenance of the air conditioning and heating system, including periodic filter replacements and professional servicing, can help ensure optimal performance. If you haven’t serviced the system in a while or if you notice any issues during the pre-trip inspection, consider having a professional mechanic inspect and service the air conditioning and heating system before your road trip.


During a road trip, being able to maintain a comfortable temperature inside the vehicle can greatly enhance the overall comfort and enjoyment of the journey. By verifying the functionality of the air conditioning and heating system, you can ensure a pleasant environment inside the car regardless of the weather conditions you encounter.


Examining the Vehicle’s Suspension and Steering

Before embarking on a road trip, it’s crucial to examine the suspension and steering components of your vehicle. The suspension system not only provides a smooth and comfortable ride but also plays a critical role in maintaining control and stability on the road. Similarly, the steering system ensures that you can maneuver the vehicle effectively and safely. Taking the time to inspect these components will contribute to a safe and enjoyable road trip.


Start by visually inspecting the suspension components for any signs of damage or wear. Look for leaks, cracks, or excessive rust on the shocks or struts. Inspect the control arms, bushings, and tie rods for any signs of play or excessive movement. Any visible damage or wear should be addressed promptly, as compromised suspension components can lead to poor handling and reduced stability.


Next, test the vehicle’s suspension by bouncing each corner of the car. The car should return to its normal position without excessive bouncing or oscillation. Excessive bouncing could indicate worn-out shocks or struts that need to be replaced.


Check the integrity of the steering system by turning the steering wheel from lock to lock. It should turn smoothly and without any unusual noises or resistance. If you notice any stiffness, play in the steering wheel, or clunking sounds, it may indicate problems with the steering components that warrant further inspection and potentially repairs.


Inspect the steering linkage and joints for any signs of wear or looseness. The tie rod ends and ball joints should have no excessive movement or play. If you notice any issues, it’s advisable to have a professional mechanic inspect and replace these components if necessary.


Another crucial aspect to examine is the wheel alignment. Proper alignment is essential for maintaining even tire wear and ensuring that the vehicle tracks straight on the road. If you notice uneven tire wear or the vehicle pulling to one side while driving, it may indicate the need for a wheel alignment. Consider having the alignment checked and adjusted if necessary before your road trip.


Proper suspension and steering functionality are vital for your safety and the overall handling of your vehicle. By examining these components before your road trip, you can identify any potential issues and address them before hitting the road. Maintaining a well-functioning suspension and steering system will contribute to a smooth, stable, and controlled driving experience during your journey.


Checking the Spare Tire and Jack

When preparing for a road trip, it’s important to inspect and ensure the functionality of your vehicle’s spare tire and jack. These components are critical in case of a flat tire or emergency roadside situation. Neglecting to check them before your journey could leave you stranded without a proper solution. Taking the time to inspect and verify these items will provide you with peace of mind and the confidence to handle unexpected events along the way.


Start by locating the spare tire in your vehicle. Depending on the vehicle, it may be located in the trunk, under the floor, or mounted on the rear tailgate. Once you find it, check its overall condition. Inspect the tire for any signs of damage, such as sidewall cracks, punctures, or bulges. Ensure that the tread depth is within a safe range for driving. If the spare tire is damaged or has insufficient tread, replace it with a new one before your trip.


Next, verify that the spare tire is properly inflated. Many spare tires are not equipped with a pressure monitoring system, so it’s essential to manually check the tire pressure. Refer to your vehicle’s manual for the recommended tire pressure, and use a tire pressure gauge to ensure that the spare tire is inflated to the correct level. If it’s underinflated, use an air pump or visit a gas station to inflate it to the appropriate pressure.


Inspect the spare tire’s jack and related tools. Ensure that the jack is in good working condition and that all parts are present. Check for any signs of rust or damage that might affect its functionality. Familiarize yourself with how to properly use the jack and locate the jacking points on your vehicle.


In addition to the jack, make sure you have all the necessary tools to change a tire. This typically includes a lug wrench or tire iron to loosen and tighten the lug nuts, as well as any specialized tools specific to your vehicle. Having these tools readily available will ensure you can handle a flat tire efficiently.


Lastly, practice using the jack and changing a tire in a controlled setting, such as your driveway, to familiarize yourself with the process. Knowing how to safely and effectively change a tire is essential in case of an emergency during your road trip.


Checking the spare tire and jack before your road trip will ensure that you have a reliable backup plan in case of a flat tire. It’s always better to be prepared and equipped with a functional spare tire and the necessary tools rather than being stranded on the side of the road with no immediate solution. Take the time to inspect and verify these components, and you’ll be ready to handle any unexpected tire-related incidents on your journey.


Assessing the Engine and Transmission

Before embarking on a road trip, it’s crucial to assess the condition of your vehicle’s engine and transmission. These two components are the powerhouses of your vehicle, and any issues or malfunctions can greatly impact your journey. Taking the time to assess the engine and transmission will help ensure a reliable and smooth road trip.


Start by checking the engine oil level and condition. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean, and reinsert it fully. Pull it out again and check if the oil level is within the recommended range. Additionally, inspect the oil’s color and consistency. Clean, amber-colored oil is indicative of good engine health, while dark or dirty oil may require an oil change.


Inspect the transmission fluid level and condition, if applicable. Locate the transmission dipstick, typically near the firewall or engine bay. Follow the same process as checking the engine oil to assess the fluid level and ensure it is clean and free of any burnt smell. Low or contaminated transmission fluid should be addressed before your road trip to prevent transmission issues.


Listen for any unusual sounds or vibrations coming from the engine. A quiet and smooth-running engine is a good sign of its health. Pay attention to any knocking, grinding, or rattling noises that could indicate potential problems. If you notice anything unusual, have a mechanic inspect the engine to identify and resolve any issues.


Check for any warning lights illuminated on the dashboard. These lights can provide valuable information about the state of your engine and transmission. It’s important not to ignore any warning lights, as they may indicate serious issues that need attention before embarking on your road trip.


Evaluate the performance of your vehicle during test drives. Take note of any hesitation, slipping, or rough shifting when accelerating or changing gears. Transmission issues can lead to poor performance and even complete failure. If you experience any abnormal behavior, it’s advisable to have the transmission inspected and serviced by a professional.


Finally, ensure that routine maintenance tasks, such as replacing air filters, fuel filters, and spark plugs, are up to date. These components contribute to the overall performance and efficiency of your engine.


Assessing the engine and transmission before your road trip can help identify potential issues and address them before they become major problems. Regular maintenance and proper functioning of these components will provide you with a reliable and enjoyable driving experience during your journey.


Verifying the Safety Equipment

Prioritizing safety is paramount when embarking on a road trip. To ensure a secure and protected journey, it’s important to verify and check all the essential safety equipment in your vehicle. Properly functioning safety equipment can greatly reduce the risk of accidents and mitigate potential harm. Taking the time to verify these components will provide you with peace of mind and increased confidence on the road.


Start by checking the seatbelts. Ensure that all the seatbelts are in good condition and retract properly. Buckle and unbuckle each seatbelt to verify that the mechanism works smoothly and securely. Pay close attention to any signs of fraying, damage, or wear and tear. If you notice any issues with the seatbelts, it’s crucial to have them replaced or repaired immediately.


Inspect the airbags to ensure they are not deployed, damaged, or showing any signs of malfunction. Check for warning lights on the dashboard related to the airbags. If any warning lights are illuminated or if there are indications of airbag issues, it’s important to take your vehicle to a qualified mechanic to address the problem.


Make sure that your vehicle is equipped with a functional fire extinguisher. Locate the fire extinguisher and verify that it has not expired and the pressure gauge is in the green zone. Familiarize yourself with how to properly use the fire extinguisher in case of an emergency.


Check the functionality of the vehicle’s safety lights, including hazard lights, brake lights, and turn signals. Activate each light individually while observing from outside the vehicle to confirm that they are illuminated and working as intended. Properly functioning lights enhance your visibility to other drivers and ensure clear communication on the road.


Verify that your vehicle is equipped with a functional and easily accessible emergency kit. The emergency kit should include items such as a first aid kit, flashlight, jumper cables, reflective triangles, and basic tools. Inspect the contents of the emergency kit to ensure that all items are present and in good condition.


Check for the presence of a spare tire, as well as the tire-changing tools, such as a jack and lug wrench. Ensure that the spare tire is properly inflated. Familiarize yourself with how to safely change a tire in case of a flat or punctured tire situation.


Regularly maintaining and verifying the functionality of these safety components is essential for a safe road trip. By taking the time to ensure that your vehicle’s safety equipment is in good condition, you are prioritizing the well-being of yourself, your passengers, and others on the road. It’s always better to be prepared and proactive when it comes to safety!



Preparing your vehicle for a road trip is essential to ensure a safe, smooth, and enjoyable journey. By conducting thorough checks and inspections, you can address any potential issues before they escalate and avoid unexpected breakdowns on the road. From the tires to the engine, and from the safety equipment to the air conditioning, each component plays a vital role in the overall performance and reliability of your vehicle.


It’s important to allocate the necessary time and effort to fully inspect and assess every aspect outlined in this article. Check the tires for proper inflation, tread depth, and overall condition. Evaluate the fluid levels and ensure they are at the recommended levels. Examine the brakes, lights, and belts for any signs of wear or damage. Verify the functionality of the air conditioning, heating, and suspension systems. Don’t forget to assess the spare tire, jack, and other safety equipment, and familiarize yourself with their use.


By taking these proactive measures and prioritizing vehicle maintenance, you’ll not only minimize the risk of roadside emergencies but also enhance your overall driving experience. Additionally, ensuring that all safety equipment is in good condition and that essential tools and resources are readily available will provide you with a sense of security during your road trip.


Remember, regular maintenance and inspections are key to the longevity and reliability of your vehicle. Don’t overlook the importance of addressing any issues promptly and seeking professional assistance whenever necessary. A well-prepared and properly maintained vehicle will ensure a safer and more enjoyable road trip for you, your passengers, and other road users.


So, as you plan your next adventure, take the time to go through this comprehensive checklist and perform the necessary checks. By doing so, you’ll embark on your road trip with confidence, knowing that your vehicle is ready to take you to your destination safely and without any unexpected surprises along the way. Happy travels!