Summertime is one of the best and busiest times for road trips! If you are planning on hitting the road this summer, experts at Consumer Reports (CR) break down everything you need to know for planning a safe, but memorable road trip, including the “truly complete car emergency kit.”
The Pretrip Checkup:
Your vehicle will be where you spend the bulk of your time during your journey, so make sure all its functions are fine-tuned and operating at maximum performance levels.
- Battery. Make sure the terminals and cables are securely attached, with no corrosion. If the battery has removable caps, check its fluid level—especially in warmer climates. Top off as needed with distilled water. (See our car battery buying guide and ratings.)
- Brakes: You might need a comprehensive checkup if you apply the brakes and there are grinding noises, or unusual vibrations in the brake pedal or steering wheel, or if the vehicle pulls to one side.
- Fluids. Check all levels: oil, coolant, brake, and windshield-washer fluids. Inspect power-steering and transmission fluid levels, if applicable. If you’re taking a long trip, schedule a service appointment to double-check these levels. (Read “How to Check Your Car’s Engine Oil.”)
- Glove box: Be sure you have up-to-date registration and insurance paperwork.
- Infotainment. Reduce distractions: Pair your phones and transfer your contact lists ahead of time. (Make sure the roadside-assistance number is programmed.) Confirm that any subscriptions for satellite radio, traffic services, and streaming music are up-to-date. Add radio presets and program all destinations before you hit the road. REMEMBER GEORGIA’S HANDS-FREE GEORGIA ACT IS IN EFFECT.
- Lights: Check exterior lights, including taillights, brake lights, turn signals, and fog lamps. Make sure lenses are clean, so the lights are as bright as possible. A good time to clean your lights is at the gas station. If you see bug slapper on your windshield, it’s probably on your headlights as well. Use the complimentary squeegee that’s provide at most gas stations.
- Tires: Check the pressure on all tires, including the spare, before starting the trip. Use the pressure recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer, which usually can be found on a front doorjamb and in the owner’s manual. Inspect tires for abnormal or uneven wear, cracks, cuts, and any sidewall bulges. Replace tires that are 10 years old or overly worn.
- Wipers: Based on CR tests, windshield wiper blades last about six months. If they’re a few months old, consider replacing them before a long trip. If the wipers are newer, clean the blades with washer fluid or glass cleaner.
Here’s how to check the wear on your tire:
Place a quarter upside down in a groove on your tire. The distance from the coin’s rim to George Washington’s hairline is about 4/32 inch. If you see all of Washington’s head in any one groove where a treadwear indicator appears, you should start shopping for new tires while you have some grip left.
Use a penny to check for uneven wear. That can be a sign of misalignment, improper inflation pressure, or aggressive driving. Any major groove worn to 2/32 inch, the distance between the top of Lincoln’s head to the edge on a penny, should warrant tire replacement.
How to Pack like a Pro:
- Don’t overload your car: Weight limits are listed on the driver’s doorjamb and in the owner’s manual; the figure is for the combined weight of passengers and cargo. Don’t exceed manufacturer recommendations, which vary widely.
- Stow the heaviest items low, particularly in SUVs: This keeps the center of gravity lower, reducing the chances of a rollover. Smaller items should be packed into duffel bags or safely tucked into storage areas. Strap larger items down with cargo anchors. Don’t place heavier items on top of the cargo pile, because they can become dangerous projectiles in a panic stop or a crash.
- Use the cargo space in the seatbacks to store electronics devices like laptops, tablets, etc. NOTE: You could opt for a roof cargo carrier, but CR tests found that a cargo carrier atop a midsized sedan can reduce fuel economy by as much as 5 mpg. Instead, use a hitch-mounted carrier for luggage, if you aren’t using the hitch for a bike rack.
Your Truly Complete Car Emergency Kit:
Prepare for breakdowns and make sure you have these items on board.
- Phone charger: In addition to having a charging cord and power adapter on hand, carry a small battery-based charger in case your car’s battery dies.
- Basic tools: Have standard and Phillips screwdrivers, pliers, and a compact socket set.
- Warning light, hazard triangle, and/or flares: These can alert motorists to your presence along the side of the road.
- Tire tools: If you don’t know how to change a tire, consider learning before the trip. Check if your car has a spare tire, jack, and lug wrench. Many newer cars don’t have spare tires; instead, they have “mobility kit.”
- Flashlight: This or a head-mounted light can be especially helpful during nighttime breakdowns or tire changes.
- Jumper cables or a jump-starter: Cables can be handy, but a paperback-sized jump-starter can get your motor running on its own. Plus, many can also be used to charge portable devices.
- Reflective vest: This safety measure will make you more visible in the dark.
- Fire extinguisher. Pack a compact dry-powder unit for fires fueled by solids and combustible liquids and gases (class ABC). Of course, the safest response may be to get passengers far away from the vehicle and call 911.
If you do not have roadside assistance, consider purchasing it. When considering a plan, be sure you read the fine print exceptions. Also, know how to reach roadside assistance when there is an emergency.
You can view the full article and get more tips on how to plan and prepare for the best road trip at ConsumerReports.org.