Prepare your car for a stress-free vacation.

The open road calls. Wind in your hair, beautiful scenery, stunning sunsets, can all be found on a road trip, along with the freedom of going where you want to go on your own schedule. But before you turn the key in the ignition, take some time to plan, prepare, and pack so your adventure doesn’t turn to disaster.

From car emergencies, to injuries, to simply finding yourself with a dead phone and no google map, we put together a list of essentials to keep you and your car running smoothly.


What To Pack

You can buy prepackaged emergency kits, but we recommend building your own to make sure money is spent on only what you really need. Plus, often it’s just cheaper to build your own. Whatever you put in the emergency kit, store it in a bag, and keep it in your car all the time. And make sure to replenish anything you’ve used.


For the car:

  • A basic tool kit with screwdriver, hammer, and pliers. We like to keep something like a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman in there as well.
  • Flashlight or Headlamp
  • Jumper cables or portable jump starter (a portable can often charge other things too so we like them)
  • Flares or reflective triangles
  • Electrical tape
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Blanket-we recommend a reflective emergency blanket since it can keep you warm in the winter and provide shade in the summer

Emergency items:

There are some items for car emergencies that don’t fit nicely in a bag, but that you should absolutely carry on a long trip. Some of these are, of course, weather dependent, but keeping them in the car at all times can’t hurt.

  • A spare tire
  • Jack stand
  • Windshield wiper fluid
  • Gas can
  • Oil
  • Tire chains
  • De-icer
  • Ice Scraper
  • Shovel

For the passengers:

Putting items together to help keep your car running is critical, but don’t forget about the passengers. There are times on the road where services are hard to find. Thirst and hunger may not wait until the next exit, especially if you have kids and pets aboard. And accidents will happen, whether the bee that was interested in your lunch turns to you, or the hike to that amazing waterfall, proved more treacherous than planned. As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared.”

  • Water-at least one gallon per person
  • Non-perishable snacks
  • Sunscreen
  • Band-Aids
  • First Aid Ointment
  • Tweezers (splinters, thorns, stingers—ouch!)
  • Preferred pain medicine
  • Dog food and treats, as well as a collapsible bowl

A word on maps:

In our modern world, nearly everyone has access to some type of digital map app whether on a phone, built into the car, or even the older generation GPS. Having a voice give you turn by turn directions has prevented people around the world from ending up in the wrong place. However, those devices are only as good as the signal is where you are driving. If you want to get into the woods, high up in the mountains, or cruise the coast, there will be places without a signal. Make your grandparents proud and put a paper map into your car before you take a road trip. Open that map before you leave too and tentatively trace your potential routes. You don’t want to spend an hour in the dark with a flashlight trying to find your location in a map that covers an entire state.

Planning your trip

Jumping in the car to just start driving and see where you end up, might sound adventurous and like complete freedom. But after you’ve gone through five towns that each looked alike, with the same strip malls, fast food joints, and manufactured homes, you might start to wish you’d had a better plan.

Resources to planning

We encourage taking some time before you start the car to decide a basic destination or destinations, as well as time frame, and budget. Will the trip be two days or two weeks? Will you sleep under the stars or in 5-star hotels? Will meals be gas station hot dogs or hot dogs grilled on your propane grill? Making these decisions will not only erase some potential frustration and disagreement as you travel but will make choosing your route much simpler.

  • Build an itinerary—There is no end to sample travel itineraries online and friends will always want to offer advice on the best trip ever. Check out our favorite road trips and make your own.
  • What attractions do you want to see and how close are they to each other and to your home? Find out if attractions require reservations or advance tickets.
  • Check in with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest or National Park Services. They often have tips for finding beautiful locations that may be further away from the crowds.
  • Look at the weather—A week of car camping might be great, but not during a heat wave or tropical storm.
  • Decide if highway or rural roads are preferred—is it about the destination or the journey getting there?
  • Determine how many hours a day you want to drive.
  • If hotel stays are in the cards, make reservations or at least determine what area you may be in each night and check out the hotel selection and vacancy. Don’t count on a room being available when you’ve decided you’re done driving for the day.

Preparing your car
for a road trip

Once decisions are made and everyone agrees that driving to visit Aunt Edna is fine provided there are side visits to a beach, a water park, and a peaceful cabin in the woods, the next step is preparing the car. If making sure your car is road-worthy is something you’d rather leave to the experts, Sherwood Auto Repair is happy to look things over, top off fluids and air, and get you on your way. But if you prefer to get your hands dirty in anticipation of the adventure ahead, here’s a list of things to check.

Check those fluids. Some can be visually inspected for levels, while others rely on a dipstick. It’s fairly simple to fill up fluids that show low levels.

The six fluids in your
car to check are:

  1. Oil
  2. Coolant
  3. Transmission fluid
  4. Power steering fluid
  5. Brake fluid
  6. Windshield wiper fluid

    In addition:

    • Check hoses and belts for signs of fraying or cracking as well as odd bulges or signs of glazing. Anything that looks amiss likely indicates it’s time to replace it.
    • Brakes are perhaps the key to car safety so take a look at them by turning the wheel of your parked car all the way in one direction until you can see the pads. If they look worn, have them replaced. And if you notice a shaking or wobbling when you press on the brake, take it to your local auto repair shop to assess if you need new rotors.
    • Make sure your lights work. Switch on headlights, high beams, turn signals, and interior lights to confirm they work. Simple and replacing anything not working now will save you hassles on the road.
    • Check the pressure on your tires and make sure they don’t have excessive wear and tear that indicates it’s time for replacements. Remember, if you slide a penny head first into the tread and  can see the top of Lincoln’s head, your treads are too shallow, meaning too worn. Time for new ones.

    Safety (and fun!)
    on the road

    As we mentioned early on, things can go wrong on a road trip despite perfect planning. However, knowing what warning signs to look for can help a bad situation from turning worse.

    Warning lights:

    Most cars are full of warning lights that alert you to low tire pressure, low oil, or the dreaded check engine. Sometimes those lights shine when nothing is truly amiss, but a road trip is not a time to test that theory.

    • Oil-That means there’s been a drop in oil pressure. Let the car cool down, open the hood, and pull out the dipstick to see if you need oil. If you do, grab that can you stashed in the trunk as part of your emergency kit, and get back on the road. If the light remains on, get to a repair shop or call for assistance.
    • Temperature-a rising engine temperature means pull over and call roadside assistance.
    • Tire pressure-whip out your tire gauge that you keep in the glove box and figure out what tire needs some air. Then get to a gas station and fill it up.
    • Check Engine-The bad news is the only real way to do this is to get to an auto repair shop and have them run diagnostics to figure out what’s wrong. Look at your manual. Most cars have different levels for the Check Engine light that sometimes are a different color or maybe flashing. Know which one means stop the car and call a tow truck, and which one means you are safe to drive to the next garage.
    • Brakes-This comes on to alert of low brake pressure which could be as simple as adding brake fluid but could be something more. Drive to a nearby auto shop.

    Warning signs:

    Warning signs on a car aren’t always as obvious as a flashing light. Feel, see, and smell the car.

    • White smoke coming from the engine-pull over and check your car’s temperature. If it’s not rapidly rising, you can continue driving to the nearest auto repair shop. If the engine is overheating, call a tow truck.
    • Steam coming from the engine-check under the car for a coolant leak. If it’s a slow drip, keep driving to a repair shop. If it’s leaking rapidly, call that tow truck.
    • Squishy brakes-whether or not the warning light comes on, the brakes should be checked by a professional, but you’re safe to drive on to a repair shop.

    Oh—and don't forget the fun!

    We've got a newsletter where we share occasional comics, coloring pages, and jokes every Friday. Why not get free fun for the road? You can sign-up here.

    Other things can go wrong when you’re on the road and we always recommend stopping to let a professional take a look if for no other reason than to give you peace of mind that your car can safely get you where you want to go. An impromptu 3-day stay in a motel in the middle of nowhere and an abrupt end to a long-anticipated trip are not what you want.

    To keep your adventure rolling along smoothly remember to plan, pack, and prepare, and then heed any warning signs along the way. The road can take you anywhere you want and our tips will help you get there worry-free.