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Five Tips for a Worry-Free Summer Road Trip

Summer means it’s time for a road trip. (Quick tip: If you need some ideas for where to go, check out these lists of 20 great American road trips from Travel + Leisure and the Travel Channel.) And a road trip means it’s time to get your vehicle ready—really ready—for warm-weather driving.

Where do you begin? Address your vehicle’s most critical factors first. Here are five of the most important car-care tips for summer travel every driver should know:

1. Know the condition of your oil and oil filter.

Don’t take advice from a shade-tree mechanic on this important topic. Instead, your vehicle’s owner’s manual tells you how often to change your oil and what type of oil to use. Can’t locate your manual? Nearly every vehicle manufacturer offers online versions of manuals. This list on Edmunds.com compiled in 2013 provides links for manuals from more than 40 manufacturers, from Acura to Volvo.

Manuals usually run hundreds of pages and admittedly are not easy to navigate. But with enough patience and page-flipping, the information you seek can eventually be located. Some manufacturers (Toyota, for one) publish separate documents (sample title: “Owner’s Manual Supplement/Scheduled Maintenance Guide”) that include their service recommendations. Just can’t find your manual’s advice on which grade of oil to use? Try the online oil guide provided by the German motor oil brand Bizol.

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Oil change shops, meanwhile, are eager to make you a frequent customer and will routinely tell you to change conventional oil every 3,000 miles. But with today’s technology and advanced motor oils, 5,000 miles (and often higher) has become a more common recommendation. And unless your manual advocates the use of higher-priced synthetic oils, it’s usually not necessary to pay extra for them.

Articles published in Car and Driver, Consumer Reports, and The New York Times all point to a new cadence for oil changes at somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 miles. (The website for Advance Auto Parts advises 5,000 to 10,000 as a range.)

Unusual circumstances can affect this advice. If a vehicle is driven infrequently (for example, just 6,000 miles per year), an expert quoted in the Consumer Reports article recommends changing the oil twice a year to keep it fresh. Oil becomes less effective as it ages, he points out.

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Other situations where it is wise to shorten intervals between oil changes: towing (which can include using a rooftop gearbox), driving in high heat, taking side trips down dirt roads that stir up clouds of dust, or making lots of short-distance trips (five miles or less) day after day. All of these circumstances can reduce the customary life span of oil. Consider changing your oil and oil filter roughly every 4,000 miles when these situations apply to your driving. See the “severe use” maintenance schedule (not the normal use schedule) in your manual, if it includes both schedules. Check your oil periodically during a long trip; keep a quart in your vehicle in case you need to add oil as your travel. Few things are as important to your vehicle in hot weather as an adequate supply of good motor oil

2. Make sure your battery is ready for elevated temperatures.

Prolonged exposure to excessive heat (100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher) can cause a battery’s internal components to corrode, weakening its power reserves. If your battery seems sluggish when you start your vehicle in hot weather, heat deterioration made cause its reliability to diminish.

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If you suspect this might be a possible issue for your battery, consider having it tested during your travels the next time you reach a larger city. Many major auto parts stores will test your battery for free, and ethical shop owners will give you the straight scoop on your battery’s condition. If you sense someone might be trying to talk you into a purchase that you don’t need, thank them and track down another testing station for a second opinion.

Keep your battery’s terminals free of corrosion by briefly disconnecting the clamps and wiping away any flakes or gunk. Make sure the clamps are firmly reattached when you return the battery to normal.

3. Check your coolant.

Most manufacturers recommend flushing and replacing coolant after 60,000 and every 30,000 miles thereafter. Some old-school mechanics take the stance of, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it with cooling systems. Many mechanics, if they’re willing to speak freely, can probably recall at least one time when a coolant flush-and-change procedure led a vehicle to exhibit a period of irregular behavior.

It’s always a good idea to follow manufacturer instructions, but on this maintenance topic, it’s sometimes good to trust your instincts. If performance seems good, you might consider letting your cooling system ride after you reach 60,000 miles. Even if you don’t flush your coolant, make sure you have your reservoir topped off during each oil change.

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4. Have your brakes inspected.

In summer, people often head to the high country in search of long-distance views. When traveling downhill on mountainous, you want failsafe reliability in your brake system. Unless you are an ace mechanic, have your brakes checked at a trustworthy shop. Recommended repairs should be addressed before you hit the road for any lengthy trip.

Sometimes drivers sense that their brake pedal seems soft in hotter weather. Most likely, that sensation is a sign or low brake fluid, air in the brake line, or a failing master cylinder. Have a trustworthy mechanic inspect your brake fluid level before a long trip begins.

5. Carry a well-equipped emergency kit. Be prepared for surprises.

Some items you should never be without on a summer road trip:

  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • A tool kit (screwdrivers, adjustable wrench, pliers, duct tape) or a multitool.
  • Jumper cables or a portable lithium jump starter.
  • Reflective roadside triangles or LED flare substitutes
  • A first-aid kit supplemented to address any specialized conditions you or your passengers may have.
  • Paper maps (in case your electronic navigation system fails).

If the idea of igniting and handling traditional road flares with their fire and smoke makes you uneasy, consider an LED flare substitute such as autoAlert, a four-way emergency light from INGEAR, a specialist in portable, multifunction emergency lights and tools.

INGEAR autoalert

INGEAR’s long-handled autoAlert provides both a traditional flashlight setup, with high beam and low beam modes available. But its tricked-out, high-grade aluminum handle includes two additional lighting options: 1) a bank of bright white LEDs that can serve as wide-angle area light for hands-free work during a roadside repair, and 2) a strip of vivid red strobe LED that brightly signals to oncoming traffic that your vehicle is in an emergency situation, so slow down and steer clear.

You can even anchor the light to a metallic surface using the powerful magnet in the base of the flashlight’s handle. Since your emergency kit always needs a flashlight, carry one that can serve multiple functions such as INGEAR’s autoAlert.

Use these tips to boost your peace of mind and focus on all the fun that awaits you on summertime road trips.

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