Doing your own road trip car care?
You depend on your vehicle to take you wherever the road calls, whether that's a fun family road trip across the country or driving to a new home a few states away. While there's regular maintenance to be done, like oil changes and tire rotation, there also are a few preventative checks to do before a long drive to ensure everything is running, so you can avoid breakdowns, delays and expensive repairs. Even if you're not super handy or mechanically inclined, the ten basic tasks on this car maintenance list are easy to do — we'll walk you through it all.
DIY car maintenance checklist
In just a few hours, you can go over these checks and repairs to make sure your car is in top condition:
- Check and change the oil
- Replace the four filters
- Top off any low fluids
- Test and charge or replace the battery
- Flush and refill the radiator
- Try all the lights
- Check tires and brakes
- Look for leaks
- Examine the wipers
- Replace the spark plugs
Before you get started, you need to find your owner's manual, some basic tools and possibly visit an auto parts store. You might typically keep your owner's manual in the glove box and only consult it when a light comes on, but you'll need it for model-specific detailed instructions on many of these steps.
We recommend doing an initial skim over the entire list and figuring out what you need at the auto parts store. Some of these won't need replacing on your car, but here's everything in the list that you might have to pick up:
- Drain pans (oil and coolant)
- Filters (oil, air, in-cabin, fuel)
- Transmission, power steering and brake fluids
- Battery tester and/or charger (possibly a new battery)
- Radiator flush cleaner
- Light bulbs
- Tire gauge and air compressor
- Windshield wipers and fluid
- Spark plugs
Ready to get started?
Check and change the oil
After a short drive, when the engine is still warm, locate the dipstick labeled "oil," pull it out and wipe off the residue with a towel. Then insert it and remove it again. Look at the end of the stick and see where the oil level is. It should be at the "full" line, and the fluid should be clear. If it's not full or it's dark or thick, it's time to change the oil.
You can take your car to a mechanic for this, but it's actually pretty easy to do on most vehicles. Check the owner's manual for the type and weight of the oil you need (it's critical to follow their recommendations for oil viscosity to prevent engine damage). If they include steps to follow, use your manual.
- Pull the car onto level ground and let it run for about 10 minutes to warm up the oil.
- Jack up the vehicle (follow these safety tips) and use jack stands to secure it.
- Place a drain pan underneath the engine, open the hood and remove the oil cap, then remove the oil plug under the vehicle.
- Wait several minutes for the oil to drain.
- Unscrew the oil filter over the drain pan.
- Prepare the new filter by smearing a bit of clean oil on the gasket ring, then screw in the new filter and replace the oil plug.
- Pour in new oil up to the proper level, and replace the cap.
- Start the engine to ensure the oil pressure light doesn't come on, and let it run for several minutes.
- Turn off the car and check the dipstick to ensure proper levels.
Replace the four filters
Each make and model are different, so consult your manual to find out how to replace the oil, air, in-cabin and fuel filters. See a mechanic if any of the steps seem complicated (some vehicles require you to remove parts to access some of the filters). Don't get into a higher level of maintenance than you feel comfortable with.
Top off any low fluids
Again, consult the manual for steps to check and add transmission, power steering and brake fluid. These will all have reservoirs located under the hood, and you should see the minimum and maximum lines. If the level doesn't hit between these lines, add more.
How to check transmission fluid
Transmission fluid 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 to a mechanic so they can change it out.
Test and charge or replace the battery
Do a visual check of the battery terminal and make sure everything looks clean. If there's corrosion buildup, you'll need to clean the terminals. Then test the battery (or have an auto shop test the battery) to see what percentage the battery is operating at. If it's low, charge it, and if the battery is bad, it will need to be replaced. Follow the steps in your owner's manual if you need to switch it out.
Flush and refill the radiator
The radiator keeps your engine cool, and flushing ensures that the system is working correctly. Coolant can get rust, dirt and particles in it, and contaminated fluids could damage the engine. Check your owner's manual for their recommended intervals for flushing the coolant, and if it's time, here's what to do:
- Start with a car that's been parked for a while (cool engine) on a flat surface.
- Place a receptacle under the drain plug and remove it.
- Drain the coolant, then replace the drain plug.
- Remove the coolant cap, add flush cleaning solution and water (based on the manufacturer's instructions), and replace the cap.
- Let the car run for 10 minutes, then drain that mixture out the same way as before.
- Add new coolant in whatever ratio of coolant to water is outlined in the manual.
- Let the car run for a few minutes with the radiator cap off to remove any air pockets, top off the coolant to the fill line (if the level dropped while running), and replace the cap.
- Make sure to properly dispose of the coolant, as it can taste sweet and be enticing to kids and pets.
Try all the lights
Grab a friend and make sure all the lights are working. One person stays inside the vehicle, testing turn signals, brake lights, emergency flashers, headlamps (and brights) and taillights while the other person verifies that everything is working. If you have to check them alone, park in front of a glass storefront at night and use the reflection to confirm that everything is working. If any lights are burned out, head to an automotive parts store to replace those specific bulbs. Many shops will also help install them.
Check tires and brakes
You can do the checks here, but replacements are more complicated DIY maintenance, so it's probably best to take it in if you find anything in need of repair.
Tires. Check both the tire pressure and the tread (and possibly the alignment) to help prevent blowouts and flats. Look up the manufacturers recommended pounds per square inch (PSI), which may be listed differently for front and rear tires. When the tires are cold (at least parked for a few hours), use a tire gauge to check the pressure of each tire. A reading of any more than 2 PSI below the recommended amount means you should add air to the tire. Use an air compressor to inflate it, rechecking to make sure you get the correct PSI (many gas stations have air pumps if you don't).
Next, 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 tire's tread 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.
Brakes. Do a visual inspection of the brake pads. First, check the wheels. Some brake dust is typical and expected but have them inspected by a mechanic if they are dirtier or cleaner than usual. You can also see the brake pads through the wheel on many cars. If it seems less than ¼" thick or the wear indicator slot is gone, you may need a replacement.
Drive test. Now it's time to get behind the wheel. As you drive, if your vehicle feels shaky when going straight, you may want to visit an auto shop to have your tires rotated and balanced before hitting the road. Also, pay attention to the brakes. If they make a loud noise, like metal scraping, that's an indicator that it's time to change the brake pads. You may also feel a vibration in the steering wheel, which can mean you have brake pad issues.
Look for leaks
Park your car on flat, dry ground (or place cardboard or newspaper underneath). Allow the car to sit overnight and look for any spots. Pay attention to the color and location in relation to the tires, which can help determine what system might be leaking. Consult a mechanic if you think there could be leaks.
Examine the wipers
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. Also, do a check and top off the wiper fluid, if necessary.
Replace the spark plugs
Consult your owner's manual to find out the interval for replacing spark plugs. If it's time, try and locate them. Some vehicles require you to remove multiple parts to expose the plugs, and it may be worth it to take it to a mechanic in that case. If you want to replace them yourself, get replacement plugs from the auto parts store (they can help you get precisely what you need for your make and model). Follow the steps in your manual or find a model-specific video tutorial online, because in some cases, the order of steps is critical.
In general, you'll want to work on a cold car parked on a flat, dry surface. You'll remove the old spark plugs using a ratchet and spark plug socket and replace them with new ones, being careful not to damage the plug wires or rubber boot. If the wires look damaged, see a mechanic to replace them (this is a more advanced repair that can be too technical to DIY).
Have questions about getting your vehicle ready for a long drive?
If you have questions about any of these steps, start by checking your owner's manual. I know we keep saying it, but often it gives very detailed steps to help. If that doesn't work, look for a video tutorial that's specific to your model and the task at hand, like "change transmission fluid 2012 Toyota Prius." Lastly, if you feel like one of these steps is above your technical ability, don't be afraid to visit an auto mechanic and have them do the inspection and repairs. The important thing is making sure your car is in tip-top shape before hitting the road.
Have any questions about the car maintenance checklist? Leave us a comment below, and we'll try to find the answer for you.
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