Car Maintenance Checklist
Perform a car checkup before a road trip
The bags are packed, the road trip playlist is ready, and the GPS coordinates are set. You’re ready to hit the road — but is your car? Whether you’re taking a fun trip across the country or moving to a new state, it’s wise to take time to prepare your car for the drive. Complete these vehicle maintenance steps so you’ll be ready to set out on your trip with a safe, dependable vehicle.
Important vehicle maintenance
A thorough inspection is a must before hitting the road. Things to check include: tires, fluid levels, belts, lights, wipers, battery hoses, air and cabin filters, and the steering and suspension. Walking through a car maintenance checklist will ensure every aspect of your vehicle, both inside and out, is ready.
Car maintenance checklist: Under the hood
Pop the hood and take care of these tasks before driving long distance.
Check the oil
Running an engine without oil will cause it to stop all together, so make sure to check the oil routinely. The best time to do so is just after a short drive when the engine is warm to the touch. To check it:
- Locate the dipstick, which is labeled “oil” in most vehicles
- Pull the dipstick out and wipe the oil residue off the end. Then insert it and remove it again.
- This time, look at the end of the stick and see where the oil is. It should be at the “full” line, and the fluid should be clear. If it’s not full, or if the oil is dark in color, thick like jelly, or if it’s the recommend time frame by the manufacturer, it’s time to change the oil.
How to change the oil in your car
Changing motor oil is something any DIYer can do. Consult your owner’s manual to find the type and weight of oil you’ll need. It’s especially critical to follow the carmaker’s recommendations for oil viscosity to ensure no engine damage will occur. If they include steps for completing an oil change, follow those. Otherwise, use these general steps:
- Prep the car
- Pull the car onto level ground, put it in park and let it run for about 10 minutes to get the oil warm.
- Jack up the vehicle (follow these safety tips), and then use jack stands to secure it.
- Drain the oil
- Place a drain pan underneath the engine.
- Open the hood of the vehicle and remove the oil cap.
- Move under the car and look for a flat metal pan (it will be closer to the engine than the transmission).
- Remove the oil plug with a crescent wrench and let the oil drain out of the vehicle. Wait several minutes to ensure all the oil has drained out of the vehicle.
- Change the filter
- Locate the filter assembly and unscrew the oil filter over the drain pan so it catches what spills out.
- Prepare the new filter by smearing clean oil smearing it on the gasket ring.
- Carefully screw in the new filter.
- Add new oil
- Pour new oil in, making sure to only replace the correct amount, then replace the fill cap.
- Start the engine and make sure the oil pressure light goes off after it starts up.
- Turn the vehicle off for several minutes and check the dipstick again to ensure that the levels are where they need to be.
- Consult a mechanic if you have any issues.
Top off the fluids
There are several fluids under the hood of your vehicle that ensure different systems run properly. All of these will have reservoirs located under the hood, and you should be able to see minimum and maximum lines. If the level doesn’t hit between these lines, add more. Be sure to check the power steering fluid, brake fluid, coolant, windshield washer fluid and transmission fluid.
How to check transmission fluid
Transmission fluid is what allows a vehicle to change gears smoothly, so checking it before a road trip is a crucial step. Look under the hood for the dipstick labeled “transmission.” Repeat the same steps you just did for checking your oil. The transmission fluid should also be smooth and clean; if you find metal flakes, take your vehicle into a mechanic so they can change it out.
Test the battery
If you’ve ever turned the key to your car and nothing’s happened, you know how essential it is to have a fully charged battery. Your first step is to do a visual check of the terminal and make sure everything looks clean. If there’s corrosion buildup, you’ll need to clean the terminals. You can also have an auto shop test the battery, as they can tell you what percentage the battery is operating at. If the battery is bad, it will need to be replaced.
Inspect the air filter
The cleaner the air filter is, the more air that flows into the vehicle’s engine, which in turn results in better gas millage on the road. To examine the air filter, you’ll first need to locate it under the hood. Consult your owner’s manual to find the location on your vehicle. Once found, open the container and remove the filter. If it’s still mostly white, it’s okay to keep using the same filter. But if it’s dark in color, it’s time to replace or clean it. Consult your manual to see which type of filter you have. If you need a new one, just head to a nearby auto shop, and purchase a new filter and replace it.
Look for water in the radiator
The radiator keeps the engine cool, so it’s vital to make sure it has water. The best time to check the radiator is after the vehicle has been turned off for at least a half hour. Make sure the cap has cooled from the last time the vehicle was running, and then simply unscrew it. Examine the radiator and see if there’s any water in there. If not, add water to make sure it stays cool while running. Those who live in colder climates will also need to add antifreeze to make sure the water doesn’t freeze.
Car maintenance checklist: On the vehicle
Walk around your car and check that these things are in working condition.
Looking over your lights
Not only are lights imperative for night driving, they’re also safety features. Grab a friend to check them. One person stays inside the vehicle, testing turn signals, brake lights, emergency flashers, headlamps (and brights) and tail lights while the other person verifies that everything is working. If you have to check them alone, park in front of a glass store front and use the reflection to verify that everything is working. If there are any lights burned out, head to an automotive parts store to replace those specific bulbs. Many shops will also help install them.
Check the car tire pressure
Since tires connect the car to the road, inspecting them is key. Check both the tire pressure and the tread (and possibly the alignment as well) to help prevent blow outs and flats.
Start by checking the car tire pressure. Look up the manufacturers recommended pounds per square inch (PSI), which may be listed differently for front and rear tires. Use a tire gauge to check the pressure of each tire, just be sure the car has been parked for at least three hours so the tires are cold. A reading of any more than 2 PSI below the recommended amount means you should add air to the tire. Visit a nearby gas station with air pumps to inflate it, rechecking to make sure you get the correct PSI.
Along with tire pressure, check the tire tread (that’s the depth of the grooves on your tires). An easy way to do that is with a penny. Place the coin into the tread of the tire with Lincoln’s head pointing down into the tire itself. If the tread covers up Lincoln’s head, there is ample tread left. However, if you can see all of his head, it’s time to replace your tires.
If your vehicle feels shaky when driving, you may also want to visit an auto shop to have your tires rotated and balanced before hitting the road.
Check the wipers
Windshield wipers are necessary in case of inclement weather. Faulty blades can make it impossible to see during rain or snow. Inspect blades and replace them if they are cracked, torn or worn. Don’t forget about wiper blades on the rear of your car as well.
Prepare a roadside emergency kit
No matter how much maintenance is done on a vehicle, there's no guarantee that you won't have troubles on the road. Having a roadside survival kit at the ready will make an unexpected breakdown a lot less stressful. A roadside emergency kit should include the following items:
- Jumper cables
- Flares or reflectors
- Motor oil
- Simple first-aid kit
- Flashlight with batteries
- Basic tools like screwdrivers, pliers, an adjustable wrench and a pocket knife
- Tire pressure gauge
- Paper towels
- Ice scraper
- Granola or energy bars
- Bottled water
Keep any information about roadside assistance, vehicle insurance and warranty in the glove box. If you do have an issue, stay safe during a breakdown by getting off the road, and then call your emergency car care provider (car warranty coverage, insurance roadside assistance, or auto care club).
Do you have questions about making a vehicle safe before a big road trip? Are there other items you think are important to check before a long trip? Let us know in the comments.