Prepping your car properly for a road trip is often overlooked during the vacation planning process. Even if we do remember to check the tires and top off fluids, our noses might not be so happy nobody bothered to vacuum up snacks the kids dropped a few weeks ago. When it comes to emergencies, knowing what to do may save your vacation from disaster. I’ve broken the process down into three stages: maintenance, preparedness, and supplies. These simple steps will get you ready for your journey and also get you more familiar with taking care of your car.

Car Maintenance (Creative Commons License)

Road Trip Vehicle Maintenance

Getting ready for the road begins with making sure your vehicle is ready for the adventure. If you do not already do so regularly, schedule an oil change and have your car looked over by a mechanic. I prefer the dealership for this since the technicians are trained for your specific vehicle and more likely to spot anything amiss. They will also know the manufacturer’s recommended intervals for certain fluid changes, engine tune up, etc. Also have them check the wear on your tires and brake pads. Once that is accomplished, you can do the rest yourself.

For even short road trips, there are a few common items to check over. Get familiar under the hood; know how to check and fill fluids, air filter, battery terminals. Many new cars also have cabin air filter to help keep dust and pollen out of the interior. Your user manual will have all of this information handy. Look over your tires for any unusual wear or damage and check the tire pressure. The correct pressure is located on a sticker inside the driver’s door frame. Tire pressure will affect both handling and gas mileage. Windshield wipers should be change about every six months or if not performing properly.

Clean your car inside and out. Wash the exterior to ensure your windows and lights are clear. I stopped in Tennessee for an extra car wash to remove a heavy layer of road salt on the way from Michigan to Florida one winter. Bugs can be equally as bad in some areas. The interior is just as, if not more, important for a long road trip. Those of us with kids know all too well how many different types of food can find their way between seats. Clean the inside of the windows, vacuum up the dirt, and attempt to chisel out whatever that sticky substance is under the car seat. A few sprays of fabric freshener on the carpets goes a long way too.

Tow Truck (Creative Commons License)

Road Trip Emergency Prep

We never want to find ourselves stranded on the way to our destination. Being prepared for hiccups along the way will get you back on the road quicker and with less hassles. The first step is to keep a few essential items handy: a flashlight, first aid kit, jumper cables, and cold weather gear if needed. A stash of extra supplies, such as water and snacks, is always a good idea.

The second step is being ready to take action when stranded. Assess the situation. Flat tire, engine trouble, stuck in snow, etc. Keep a set of emergency phone numbers ready in case you need to call for help. Belonging to a service like AAA for roadside assistance is much easier than trying to seek out a towing service in an unfamiliar area. There are even apps through some insurance companies that will hook you up, as long as you have cell service. I always recommend learning how to change a flat tire when you purchase a new car. However, if you are stranded on the side of a busy highway at night, an unstable surface, or just not comfortable with the process, call for a tow truck. It’s not worth risking an injury.

One more safety tip, always let a friend know where you are headed and when to expect your arrival. If you somehow become lost or stranded, at least somebody will have an idea where to start looking.


Open Road (Creative Commons License)

Useful Items to Keep on Hand for a Road Trip

We often pack our luggage, toss in a few items in the back seat for entertainment, but forget the little items that make road trips easier. Here is a list of supplies which are helpful to keep on hand for traveling.

  • Paper maps and guidebooks. Internet connections and directions aren’t always 100%. Local guidebooks often point out interesting side trips and unique restaurants.
  • Flashlights
  • Wipes for hands, faces, etc. Oh so many uses, especially with kids in tow.
  • Rain ponchos
  • Garbage bag. Stash a regular trash bag in the car plus some plastic shopping bags for keeping the car clean.
  • Snacks and drinks. I like to stop for meals on long trips, but it’s always a good idea to keep some good snacks in the car for when you run low on energy or get delayed. Always keep extra water in stock.
  • Bag of coins for vending machines plus a bit of cash for toll roads.
  • Charging cords for all your electronic devices.
  • Hide a small stash of cash in case in case your wallet gets lost or stolen. At least enough for food and gas in an emergency.

Road Trip (Creative Commons License)


Whether setting off on a cross-country road trip, or just a short adventure, prepping your car for what’s ahead should always be part of your vacation plans. In the process you’ll also get more familiar with your vehicle and be better prepared for your daily drives.