Tunes, snacks, sunnies, there are some road trip basics that are down to personal preference and solved by a quick visit to the servo. But how to prepare your car (mechanically) for a summer road trip is slightly trickier. Luckily Explorer Chris Paola is a mechanic when he’s not exploring and he’s shared some tips for those about to hit the road.
Picture this. It’s a Friday evening, you and the crew are blasting down the highway for your latest weekend adventure. The car is loaded up, snacks are on hand and the designated DJ has got a killer set of tunes playing.
Then, out of nowhere, that occasional clunk you’ve been ignoring returns with a vengeance. Steam pours out from under the bonnet and your trip is over before it ever really began.
As Explorers, we rely on our cars to get us into some pretty remote spots, so it makes sense to look after them like we would our favourite pair of hiking boots. Without trying to sound like your Dad lecturing you on how to look after your wheels, let’s run through a few basic items to ensure you and your mates don’t end up stranded on the way to that special spot.
Oh, and I’m totally going to sound like your Dad.
Before You Go
Your trip is planned and fast approaching. You’re already anticipating all the Insta love you’ll get for that photo of you on the summit #OMG. Cool! But will your fine four-fendered friend make it?
A few weeks prior, have a look at that little sticker in the top corner of your windscreen. Is your car close to needing a service? If so, book it in. It’s kinda like seeing the dentist – you don’t want to go, but the longer you put it off the worse it will be.
Your mechanic will either give you a tick of approval or a list of items that need attention. If there’s a list of issues, tell them your plans and ask them to prioritise the items for you. That’ll ensure you don’t get stuck with a massive bill leaving you with no cash for that sweet new hike pack you’ve been eyeing off.
Basic DIY Checks
If your car is not quite ready for its service there are a few basics you can check at home. If you’re the type that can’t tell your timing belt from your tent poles, check YouTube out for some basic instructional videos.
If the engine is the heart of your car (and it is), the oil is the life blood. Oil is checked by the dipstick, which is located under the bonnet. On a lot of modern cars, the top of it is yellow plastic.
Park the car on a level surface and check the manual to see whether your engine should be warmed up or not before checking and what kind of oil you need. Pull the dipstick out, clean it off with a rag, dip it in and pull it out again. You should get a clear indication of the oil level between two marks. Top it up in 250ml increments until you reach the top mark.
A water/coolant mix helps keep your engine at the right temperature. Most modern cars will have a plastic tank under the bonnet that can be topped up with water. It’ll have marks on the side for full and empty – just top it up with water to the full mark and replace the cap.
If the coolant needs to be completely refilled you’ll want to buy the correct coolant and get the ratios right, but for a top up just adding some water will be fine.
Pro Tip: Do this before you drive the car to reduce the risk of burns from coolant – temperatures can exceed 100 degrees celsius!
It doesn’t matter how good your car is or how good a driver you are, if your tyres are worn out you can end up in a world of trouble quicker than you can imagine. Start by checking your tyre pressures at the local service station. As a rule of thumb, 32-34psi is good for most cars in most situations.
Next, check the tread for even wear – there should be at least 3mm across the face of the tyre. Finally, have a quick look at the spare. Make sure it’s got enough air in it and you know how to change it.
This is an easy one – all you need to do is turn all your lights on and check they’re working. Headlights, parker lights (front and rear), indicators and brake lights are the important ones.
Pro Tip: Get a mate to check the brake lights while you stand on the pedal. Most cars will have three that light up.
Talking the Torque
You don’t need to be a rev-head to understand what your car is trying to tell you. Like a long-suffering bloke with man-flu, your car will let you know when it’s not well.
Below are some of the common issues, their symptoms and how they may impact your next road trip.
Clunks, Groans and Squeaks
Clunks and groans are generally caused by worn steering & suspension components and heard over bumpy roads and when cornering. They’re not likely to leave you stranded but worth getting checked out at your next service.
Squeaks can be caused by loose belts under the bonnet as well as a million other things. If it sounds bad, get it looked at.
A battery that is deteriorating has the potential to destroy your road trip by leaving you stranded in the driveway, or in the middle of nowhere. They can go flat with little warning, but a slow cranking engine is a dead giveaway that your battery needs charging or replacing.
Not the good kind, either! If you’re experiencing vibrations through your steering wheel, especially at higher speeds, you’ll probably need a tyre check up and balance. If you feel them when you step on the brakes, it could be time for some new brake pads. While it shouldn’t ruin your weekend, get it checked out sooner rather than later.
If you can smell something burning, chances are, there’s something burning! Get it checked out before you head bush – leaking oil or fuel on a hot exhaust can cause a fire and that’s really going to ruin the trip!
Diesel Fuel and Cold Weather
A lot of modern cars use diesel, which can pose issues for those of us that like to get away from it all. Unlike regular petrol, diesel starts to coagulate just above freezing and will completely freeze around -8°c.
Even in the middle of summer, I’ve been caught by diesel that has either frozen or started to freeze, rendering the car undriveable until it liquifies. To avoid this, top up with winter mix/alpine diesel, usually available in towns where cold temperatures are common.
If your diesel has frozen, have a deck of cards or a good book handy. It can take a while to liquify!
One more thing…
If you’re not comfortable with any of the above, consult your owners manual or take it to a professional. If you don’t have a regular mechanic, ask your friends and family for recommendations.
If you’re loading your car right up with your four besties and all their gear, lift that tyre pressure up to around 38psi – it’ll make for a smoother ride and be a lot safer.
Finally, even for those of us who are comfortable working on cars, there are just some things that can’t be fixed on the side of the road. Membership with a roadside service company such as RACV that covers you for basic repairs, jump starts and towing is a great investment and could save you hundreds in emergency towing charges. Think of it as ambulance cover for your car.
Not sure your car will make it to your next destination? Hit me up below and I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have!
Oh, and sorry for sounding like your Dad…