Get road trip ready: How to prepare your car for a road trip

Is your car too old for a road trip? What's the best vehicle for a road trip? Should you be renting a car for a road trip? Get your questions answered

You’ve been looking forward to it for months, and now the date is almost here—it’s time for that big road trip you’ve been dreaming about. You’ve got your route planned and you know the major attractions you want to hit, but there are still a few more logistics you need to consider. Specifically, you need to make sure your vehicle is up to the task. 

As someone who has spent the last five years more or less constantly roadtripping, I’ve picked up a few things along the way that can help you make sure all of your automotive ducks are in a row. 

What’s the best vehicle for a cross-country road trip?

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for what the best vehicle is for a cross-country (or shorter) road trip, but here are some features to look at depending on your situation. If it’s just you, then the smaller the better. You want something that can hold all of your gear, of course, but generally speaking smaller vehicles are going to get better gas mileage and be easier to park. I love having a separate trunk because it gives me more secure storage. At the same time, if you think you might sleep in the vehicle from time to time, then a hatchback or wagon may be a better option so you can fold down the rear seats and make a bed. 

I’ve been traveling around in a big Sprinter van for the last few years because it provides plenty of headroom, storage, and space for moving about. That said, it’s just rear-wheel drive, which means it’s pretty much a non-starter when things get icy, snowy, or muddy. For most people, a compact SUV is likely the best balance. If you know you’ll be going down some rough roads, look into one that has four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. That opens up a ton more possibilities for things to see and places to camp, and it should strike a nice balance between storage space, gas mileage, and mobility.

Is my car too old for a road trip?

“Is my car too old for a road trip?” isn’t nearly as important as the question “How is it running?” Road trips can be taxing on all of your car’s systems. Try to be as impartial as possible when evaluating how everything is running. Have you been hearing sounds of grinding or rubbing? That can develop into a major problem when you’re driving hundreds of miles at a time. Also consider the kind of terrain you’re hoping to tackle. Are you wanting to get off the grid? If your car’s suspension is getting old and tired, you may want to look into another solution. 

The best thing you can do before a road trip is to give your car a thorough checkup. It’s best to have your vehicle inspected by a professional, or at least someone who really knows what they’re doing. A full inspection is recommended, but here’s a quick checklist of things to pay extra close attention to:

  • Tires: Check your tires for wear and tear. If needed, go ahead and replace them before your trip. And get tires to match the conditions. If you’re going to be staying mostly on the highway, then a pair of highway tires will be the quietest and get you the best mileage. If you’re going to be spending some time on dirt roads, then I’d recommend all-terrain tires, which will offer significantly better traction.
  • Engine and brakes: Check the health of your engine, your brakes, and your heating and cooling system. 
  • Lights: Check all your lights and replace any that appear to be dim or dying. 
  • Wiper blades: If your wiper blades are looking a bit ragged, don’t wait to replace them. You’ll thank yourself when the weather turns ugly.
  • Battery: Check the health of your battery. Replace if needed.
  • Wiper fluid: For winter trips, make sure that you have wiper fluid rated to -40 degrees F (-40 C). 
  • Motor oil: If you’re going to be traveling through cold places, consider getting an oil change. And if you do, ask for a more winter-friendly oil (motor oils are rated by their viscosity levels at different temperatures) that still works with your specific engine. You may need to refer to your owner’s manual.

Should I think about renting a car for a road trip?

If your car passed all of the above questions with flying colors, then it’s probably a good bet that it will hold up for a longer trip. If it didn’t, it may be worth considering renting a car for your road trip. Rentals have the advantage of generally being newer vehicles, which may have more advanced features than the car you currently own. Or, maybe your car is great, but it’s not really built for the snow or sand. A rental could solve that problem for you, too. 

Of course, the downside of the rental is that the costs can add up. Doing your homework will really pay off here. Shop around for long-term rentals. Make sure they include unlimited mileage, or at least the mileage you’ll need for your trip. It could be worth going through a company that rents older cars, as you may be able to get a better deal.

What do I need to pack for my road trip?

Depending on season and location, different trips will have different requirements, but there are a few things that are always good to have in your vehicle. 

  • Flashlights. Have at least two in your car, and do yourself a favor: Make one of them a headlamp.
  • Food and water. If you get stuck in the snow, you will likely need some calories to sustain you. Look for non-perishable items that also won’t freeze into a brick. Because water most certainly will freeze into a brick, I’d recommend keeping spare bottles in the car instead of in the trunk.
  • Road flares. If you end up with a dead car on the side of the road in the middle of a storm, you want your car to be as visible as humanly possible so a driver (or a snow plow) doesn’t hit you. Road flares are cheap and highly visible. Use ‘em!
  • Jumper cables. Having one set of these can save you a lot of time waiting for a tow truck.
  • First aid kit. This is something you should always keep in your car in case of a minor accident.
  • Car charger and portable USB power pack. You likely already have some way to charge your phone in your car. If you don’t, get one. Additionally, carry a portable USB power pack to charge your phone and other gadgets should your car’s electrical system go out. 
  • Spare batteries. For anything that takes batteries (flashlights, your car’s key fob, etc.).
  • Multitool. In addition to the tools you hopefully have for maintaining your car (a cheap socket set, a jack, a tire iron, etc.), it’s good to have a multitool for working on smaller things. It can be helpful for cooking, repairs, and even medical work. 
  • Blankets and warm clothes. Got an old, heavy winter jacket that’s too ugly to wear in public? Keep it in the trunk! Add some warm gloves and a rain poncho as well.

What do I need to do to my car after a road trip?

You made it home safely and your vehicle survived the trip. Congrats to you both! Now give your car some extra love. Take it in for an oil change when you get back, as those long hours can impart extra heat into your system. You’ll also want to take a look at your air filters, especially if you drove down some dusty roads. Get your tires rotated and inspected for wear. 

Check your windshield, windows, and mirrors for any chips or cracks that need to be fixed before they start spreading. There’s also a chance that you picked up more than a few chips in your paint due to flying pebbles flung by other cars. Take the time to patch those up right away, before they start rusting. You can find out what color paint you need from your car’s owner’s manual or from your local dealer. If you wait too long, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time with sandpaper, and believe me, it’s no fun.

Lastly, get the interior detailed. Take your car to someone who can get all the dust and trail mix out of the little cracks, and get everything looking shiny and new. And when it’s all done, it’s time to start planning your next adventure.