Road trip vehicle prep and recommended service

For road trips, we advise people to check everything that
and lights their vehicle
before they leave on an adventure

A lot of people don’t regularly drive much, but for example, our trip to Wyoming and back is at least 2,000 miles plus other touring you might decide to do.

When you are at home you can usually quickly get issues with your vehicle resolved at a nearby mechanic or dealer of your make/model, so many people don’t regularly check their vehicle’s fluid levels, tire pressure, brake wear, etc. People on a budget often put up with not-essential-for-safe-driving problems with their cars. But deferred repairs and maintenance can spoil a road trip.

This webpage includes things people can do without paying a mechanic.


On the road, there are often businesses on the way and near your destination to help you with your vehicle troubles.

The Yosemite garage, for example, can handle most minor emergency repairs such as battery charge, radiators, water pumps, brakes and tire repairs, (IF they happen to have a needed part in stock, otherwise they will have to order it or you will need to look for help elsewhere, which could include expensive towing out of the park.)

Jackson, Wyoming, the main town near our Grand Teton National Park adventure, has major parts stores and repair facilities, but it is over 40 miles from where most people stay in the park on our trip.

I usually have a Code Reader that we can plug into most modern vehicles and find out why that light on the dashboard is warning you that your vehicle is having trouble. (It has been a relief for some trip participants to find out that the warning light was just the gas cap not securely tightened – and find that out without having to drive all the way in to town and pay a mechanic to look at their vehicle!)

But on the highways across Nevada and Idaho on the way to Wyoming, you can be very far from help.

welcome to idaho sign 2010 late at night.: photo taken after dark, vehicle lights in foreground, Welcome to Idaho sign in background


Things you can do, usually without paying a mechanic,
in advance of your adventure include:

Consider doing this even if you do not have a road trip planned:

Thieves steal license plates and or registration validation stickers from license plates,
thousands of them every year

WHY? Because: They don’t have insurance

They have a suspended license

To put yours on a car they stole.

Replacing them is time consuming, costs you extra money, and you risk being repeatedly pulled over without them, so these next roadtrip preparation steps should be done soon, even before a road trip. And imagine how difficult it will be to replace your plates/ registration stickers when you are out of state. has advice on keeping your license plate date-of-expiration registration stickers from being stolen, which starts with thoroughly removing all the old stickers when you put on the new one, so a thief can’t as easily scrape off the stack of stickers and use yours. includes that same sticker theft prevention advice and:

“Buy special security screws that are difficult to remove with common screwdrivers.
You can order them online or get them from a local auto shop.”

Catalytic converters are being stolen from Priuses at an alarming rate, it only takes a couple of minutes. Some Prius owners have prevented this hassle by having anti-theft shields or bars installed, or by having the catalytic converter welded into the exhaust system.

If you intend to drive a convertible and it has an electric power top, be sure you know how to put the top up manually in case the push-button function stops working. Rain storms can come in quickly and heavily.


Do these as a courtesy to others,

You can find the instructions to turn off the loud beep your car makes when you use the keyless ‘remote’ pushbutton on your keychain to unlock the car. Then you won’t forget about it and wake up everyone in the campground or nearby cabins / rooms in the middle of the night.

The Outdoor Club requires: If you park at the campground or anywhere next to hotel buildings / cabins

you will turn off your car alarm,

you will disable the loud beep that goes off when the keyless remote is used to unlock the car OR you will take the remote off the keychain and use the key to unlock the door(s).

You will disable the beep that goes off when the trunk is opened / any other beep.

In the interest of letting others sleep, if you can’t disable the beep(s) (or disconnect the beepers) you will not drive that vehicle or you will park it at a day use parking lot, away from overnight accommodations.

If you rent a vehicle please learn how to turn off car alarms/disable beeps at the rental business, BEFORE you leave for the trip. (AND if you rent a vehicle make sure well in advance they will let you use chains on it, as you are required to carry chains all winter even if it does not seem like you will need them!) It has snowed in Yosemite valley in April and chains were required.


–Keep at least a half-full gas tank

During power outages (PG&E rolling brownouts, storm damage, a truck runs into a power pole, after a major earthquake), gas stations can’t pump gas. And you might not even be able to get home.

You’ll also want to keep at least a half-full gas tank
in case you need to turn back completely and change your route,

huge chucks of rock on roadway

or just idle, drive slowly.

sign road closed due to impassable conditions: sign that says road closed due to impassable conditions

In the winter, to prevent gas line freezeup. Why? Any space above the gas in the tank has moist air in it. In the cold, especially overnight, the moist air can condense into water. The water will sink to the bottom of the tank and if enough builds up it can end up going to your fuel line and cause hard starting or even block the fuel line completely.

If any chance of snow, and on all fall/winter/spring trips to Yosemite, for example, ALWAYS CARRY TIRE CHAINS OR CABLES! Make sure they are the proper size for your tires and are in working condition. This test is best done at home, on a dry day, in your driveway, before it snows.

Chains must be installed on the drive wheels. Make sure you know if your vehicle is front or rear wheel drive. If you don’t know ask your mechanic or check your vehicle owner’s manual.

Properly inflating your tires can give you up to 3% higher mileage / lower gas cost (and a safer ride).


Car inspection checklist:

Horn operation (Easy, just try honking it)

Headlights, taillights, turn signals (turn them all on, one at a time, and have someone stand at the rear of the vehicle and watch to see if your blinkers really do blink, brake lights really do go on when you press the brake pedal, for example).

Windshield wiper operation (You might have been putting up with wipers
that are squeaky,
have squeegee rubber edges that are cracked or torn,
are worn enough that they create streaks when they don’t really contact all of the windshield as they wipe),

We can expect a lot of rain at times on club adventures. Below are brand new wipers trying to keep up with heavy rain:

wiper blade on windshield with huge raindrop splatters

(Hmmmmm, when was the last time you thoroughly cleaned the inside of your windshield?)

Windshield washer operation (Fluid level in tank and does it squirt on windshield?) On a budget? The Yosemite Daily report said: “Top off your wiper fluid reservoir with freeze-proof fluid, a few tablespoons of rubbing alcohol added to standard fluid works as well.”

Windshield glass – no cracks that could spread, for example

Interior lights (including instrument panel)

Driver’s floormat securely installed

Fuel tank cap gasket (unscrew fuel tank cap, and look if the gasket is worn out or broken. If any question about it, be sure the mechanic also looks at it if you have the vehicle inspected)

Tire pressure

Tires – sufficient depth of tread

(These next ones often are Easy Do It Yourself depending on model of car. Your owner’s manual might give instructions.)

Air filter

Cabin air filter

Fluids (coolant, power steering, brake reservoir, manual transmission clutch reservoir, antifreeze)

Check brakes for a spongy pedal

Corrosion on battery terminals (white powder) – – – If the owner of the Buick below had cleaned the battery terminals before the trip, the half hour spent trying to get his car to start the last morning of the 2016 winter Yosemite trip could have been spent on something more fun.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

It could be worth your while to have a mechanic look at all of these
– (and not right before your road trip when it turns out you don’t have enough time to fix them):

Brakes (worn, or would be too worn by the time you get to your destination)

Fluid leaks in brakes

Brake lines, hoses

Parking brake operation

Battery condition (cables/clamps/corrosion)

Battery state of health (open circuit voltage)

Cooling system (leaks)

Hoses (cracks/damage/leaks)

Drive belts (cracks/damage/wear)

Radiator core/air conditioning condenser/transmission fluid cooler/power steering fluid cooler

Fluids: Transmission/transaxle, Transfer case (if equipped), Differential (not used on front-wheel drive; front and rear differentials on 4-wheel drive)

Propeller shaft/driveshaft (damage/leaks/U-joints)

Drive shaft/axle shaft rubber boots (damage/deterioration/leaks)

Axle hubs and bearings (leaks/noise)

Steering linkage (damage/leaks/worn components)

Suspension front and rear (damage/leaks/worn components)

Fluid leaks (engine/transmission/transaxle/differential(s))

Exhaust system (damage/leaks/corrosion)

Fuel lines and connections

Fuel tank (mounting security, corrosion, damage, leaks)

Evaporative emission control system (damage/leaks/corrosion)

If your vehicle has a distributor (common before 2000, and on some vehicles after that), have the rotor, cap and condenser checked and replaced if necessary. If your owners manual says that the spark plugs need to be replaced periodically, check the vehicle’s mileage to see if it’s time to replace them. If you’re uncertain of the spark plugs’ condition, it’s a good idea to have them checked.


Animals can run quickly out onto the roadway.

bear cubs running on road

Big animals can do big damage to your vehicle if you can’t stop in time, either because of
lack of maintenance to your brakes,
or speed in excess of your needed stopping distance.
Here a Chevy after it hit a bison:

NPS photo Chevy after collision with a bison: NPS photo Chevy with front end damage after collision with a bison.



strip of a photo of mountains with some snow

Fall can turn into winter unexpectedly.

drawings of emergency supplies for car in winter


AAA had this winter advice:

“• Keep a snow brush and ice scraper in the car. Also, carry a clean cloth to “defog” and clean the inside of the windows.

Carry an extra ignition key. Many motorists lock themselves out of their vehicles when installing chains or attending to problems.

• Carry an emergency kit for winter. Items to include are: a flashlight with extra batteries, a first-aid kit, flares or emergency triangles, window washer fluid, jumper cables, a tool kit, a blanket or sleeping bag, gloves, paper towels, drinking water and energy bars. Also include, abrasive material such as sand, salt or non-clumping kitty litter and a small shovel. (Floor mats placed under the “drive” wheels can be used in an emergency to help free a vehicle.)”


From the Centers for Disease control (CDC):

“What to Do if You Get Stranded

Staying in your vehicle when stranded is often the safest choice if winter storms create poor visibility or if roadways are ice covered.

These steps will increase your safety when stranded:

·Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers.

·Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area.

·Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets, or newspapers.

·Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.

·Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe — this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

·As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer.

·Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature.”


Deferred repairs and maintenance of your personal gear can also spoil a road trip

Mend things before the trip, that tiny tear in the rain pants will be easier to fix at home than it will be in the campsite when it’s a big rip and it has started raining heavily.

Your hiking boots do still have tread left on them, correct? Are your boot laces about worn out?

Have you been washing / rinsing / drying clothes with a favorite scented product? Scented attracts mosquitos and other unpleasant insects, so for the wash just before the trip you might want to switch to unscented.

The last time you used your camera, and took out the memory card / chip to look at your photos on a laptop, did you remember to put the memory chip back in? Where is the charger for your digital camera?

Consult with your doctor, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Kaiser Permanente,
to see if you are up to date on your Tetanus vaccination.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends a Tetanus vaccination every ten years for adults.
One of these:
• Tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccine
• Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine

Is it time to see the dentist about that tiny ache?

See a more complete list of things to start on well in advance of your road trip, including pictures of tents you should not bring, at
In advance of the Outdoor Club Grand Teton National Park trip


CSAA or other Auto Association memberships usually give you (or maybe your parent?) free maps.
Paper maps can be easier to use for planning. Yes, you can download maps on your phone, but paper maps can be essential for driving through areas without phone service.
You will want at least the state maps of California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. You might also want, for the drive home through more National Parks, Washington and Oregon or Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

The Grand Teton National park between-summer-and-fall-quarter trip has a trip transportation page with route advice that can save you hours of driving and includes notes about 87 versus 85 octane.


Prepare for winter driving has a link to bad weather driving tips, tips for using tire chains, tricks for dealing with frozen car locks, how to prepare your vehicle for winter driving, a winter survival kit for your car, what to do if you get stranded, how to keep windows from fogging up and tips for driving in snow and ice.

Safe driving in rain and fog includes info about driving in fog, on black ice, driving in rain, driving in floods (don’t) and chain requirements, with lots of links to follow.



park ranger talks to driver
Top reasons not to speed in a National Park has defensive driving advice.



Road trip advice and etiquette has practical advice from experienced and newbie carpoolers on cross country trips, including ways to keep from being so bored; planning before the trip; safety issues; drowsy driving; packing; road trip games, storytelling, debates and discussions; links to gas price watch sites, and how to deal with windows that are fogging up faster than your navigator can wipe it off.

How to not collide with a deer, has park service advice that deer whistles do not work.

See also info on determining safe distances from wildlife, with charts and photos to better be able to determine and visualize how far away from wildlife you need to stay to be safe (and obey laws that do have penalties). The people in the photos below are too close to the wild animals:
people on roadway next to their cars, too close to a bear
a row of cars along a highway and a bison about to pass between some of the cars. People are leaning out of their cars for photos, or are right along the roadway

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Drivers should note that there are sections of road in Yosemite Valley with two lanes (usually) in the same direction, with the right lane ONLY for the free shuttle buses, ambulances, ski bus, commercial vehicles with ten or more passengers. The NPS says: “The bus lane ensures emergency vehicles can respond to incidents when traffic is backed up and provides preference for mass transit.”

Parking and traffic jams in Yosemite valley tips and tricks has the above advice, with maps of each of the three major day-use parking lots, with advice to help you NOT get a Yosemite National Park traffic or parking ticket, and not contribute to preventable traffic backups. And some details of where you can’t park in Yosemite, or can’t park without a permit.

sign that says camp 4 parking permit required 24 hours


Also consider this well before a road trip:

U.S. passport coverIf there is any chance you will decide to go Canada you will need a passport. If you do not have one, or any of your potential passengers do not have one, it can take awhile to get, since you need to bring in a birth certificate when you apply for a United States passport and the birth certificate can take awhile to get.
Logistics for a side trip to Canada from Grand Teton National Park.


This warning from Canada can apply to any long-distance drive: “Visitors to large cities and popular tourist destinations should be aware that parked cars are regularly targeted for opportunistic smash-and-grab thefts, and they are cautioned to avoid leaving any unattended possessions in a vehicle, even in the trunk. Due to the high incidence of such crimes, motorists in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and some other jurisdictions can be fined for leaving their car doors unlocked or for leaving valuables in view. Visitors should exercise precaution to safeguard their property.”

sign that says please do not leave valuables in your car

rocks packed together

(Besides being useful for people thinking about doing some of the recommended work at this webpage, reading vehicle repair safety is an optional extra credit assignment for the HLTH57A Red Cross first aid certification class at De Anza College. Students are asked to read it and “write up five things you personally can do, and encourage friends to do, that can prevent injuries and other need(s) for first aid.”)

colored rocks at bottom of lake