Even with all of the coronavirus-related craziness that seems to keep dragging on, millions of Americans will hit the road for a summer trip this year. We've come up with a checklist to ensure that your drive is as safe and reliable as possible.
Compared to planes or trains, cars are a great way to see the country while maintaining a high degree of social distancing. The surrounding atmosphere may seem surreal, but that won't change the basics of making sure your ride is prepped for a long road trip. Since there's a fair bit of information to digest, we've split it up into several parts.
First, we'll have a look at tires. Your vehicle's tires are among the easiest components to check. Sadly, tires are also neglected far too often; this can lead to potentially catastrophic failures such as blowouts, hydroplaning, increased stopping distances, and loss of grip at unexpected times.
To perform a DIY tire inspection, start the engine first and turn the wheel all the way (either side - doesn't matter). As an added precaution, make sure the parking brake is set before walking around your car or truck.
- Check tread
Turning the wheel all the way to one side exposes the front tires and makes it easier to visually examine the tread. After your initial walk-around, turn the steering wheel the other way to view the other half of the front tires. Check all four tires for any irregularities or foreign objects, then measure the tread depth on each. It's best to use a dedicated tread depth gauge for an accurate reading - either an analog tread depth gauge or digital tread depth gauge will work depending on your personal preference.
Make sure to get a reading in three spots: on the innermost tread groove, in the middle, and the outermost groove. Keep in mind that each groove has raised portions called "wear indicators" that are designed to lay flush with the tread with enough wear. If all three measurements come in at 6/32" or higher, you're in good shape. Most states have laws that declare tires worn to 2-3/32" as "legally worn", meaning you'll need new tires before you go on a trip. Here are the best all-season tires that we can recommend. If you are driving in colder conditions, then check out our review of the best winter tires here.
If you do need new tires, always get an alignment at the same time. Not only is this good preventative maintenance, but many tire manufacturers' warranties require proof of an alignment having been performed alongside the installation of new tires should any defect (i.e. premature tread wear, unreasonable material degradation, etc.) show up down the road.
- Check pressure and adjust (if needed)
Before you begin to check tire pressures, you'll want to do it in the right environment to ensure you get an accurate reading. You may have heard the term "cold pressure" thrown around occasionally: this simply means measuring the tire pressure before any heat has gotten into the tires. Driving your vehicle will heat up the tires and cause the pressure to read high (remember, air expands as temperatures rise) but even something as simple as the sun beating down on the tires will cause inaccurate readings.
To properly check tire pressures, you'll need to know the manufacturer's recommended spec for both the front and rear tires. This information is usually found on a sticker on the inside of the driver's door - some manufacturers place the sticker on the body of the vehicle where the door shuts, while others place the sticker on the door itself. If you can't find the sticker there, try checking the inside of the fuel door or even the inside of the trunklid.
You'll need a tire pressure gauge to get a measurement. There's a vast array of different styles out there, but the ones we recommend for the most accurate readings are the dial-type gauge (if you prefer analog) or a digital gauge. We recommend staying away from the pencil-style gauges with the pop-up measurement indicator; while they're convenient for carrying around, they're harder to read and won't always provide an accurate measurement.
Locate the filler valve on each tire (usually on the outermost part of the face of the wheel) and unscrew the valve stem cap. Then, firmly press the gauge against the filler valve until the reading stabilizes. If the pressure reads too high, angle the gauge on the filler valve to let air out. If it reads too low, you'll need a suitable air compressor to fill the tire to proper spec. If one tire pressure reads significantly lower than the others, it may be leaking; in this case, check the tread again to make sure there are no objects that have punctured the tread.
- Check sidewalls for damage
Since you'll be up close to the tires while checking their pressures, it's a good time to visually inspect the sidewall (the flat part of the tire that goes from the rim of the wheel to the beginning of the tread) for any signs of damage. This part of the tire can take a beating from potholes and curb impacts, and severe damage can compromise the integrity of the tire and create unnecessary safety hazards.
Look for tears, punctures, and bubbles; if you see that type of damage, replace the tire. One more thing to keep in mind: if the other tire on the same axle measures 7/32" or less, it's best to replace the axle pair together to avoid uneven wear and drivability issues.
- Check spare (if equipped)
Up until 2010 or so, many new cars were equipped with spare tires as standard equipment. Manufacturers began removing the spare tire from newer models to save weight, manufacturing complexity, and cost, resulting in fewer cars being delivered with the added peace of mind of having a 5th tire. If your vehicle is equipped with a spare tire, make sure to perform the same checks as you would with the tires that are already installed on the car.
Compact or "donut" spare tires are commonly found on lighter vehicles and require special care. These tires don't match the dimensions of the standard tires and are designed for emergency use only. Not only are they much thinner and lighter than standard tires, they also require exorbitant tire pressures to safely (but temporarily) handle the weight of the vehicle while they're installed. This will typically be in the range of 55-65 PSI; in other words, higher than many 12V air compressors are rated to handle. If you need to adjust the pressure on a compact spare tire, a gas station or tire shop are your best bets.
- Emergency equipment (optional)
Even with all the preparation in the world, you can't plan for every single potential situation. Flat tires can happen anywhere at any time, and the usual culprit is an errant nail or screw that ends up puncturing the tread.
While roadside assistance is always an option, they're often an hour or more away from being able to come to your aid. Rather than depending on an outside service provider to get you back on the road, consider packing a roadside tire puncture repair kit in the (statistically) unlikely event you end up with a repairable flat tire. This particular kit comes with instructions and all the tools necessary to perform a roadside tire repair; combined with an air compressor, it'll help you get back to exploring the country in no time.
In a breakdown, also prepare yourself with jumper cables.