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06.29.

Road trip prep: 10 things to check before you hit the road

It’s the busy summer travel season and with gas prices dropping around the country, it’s a great time to head out on a road trip. Whether you’re driving a short distance or across the country, here are some tips to ensure that your car and your family are prepared for your next adventure.

  1. Schedule a checkup. Perform basic maintenance on your vehicle before you head out such as checking wipers and fluid levels. Also, schedule any necessary service such as oil changes or tune ups. A vehicle in top shape will have a better chance of staying reliable and efficient. See our guide to car maintenance.
  2. Stay charged. Check your battery to make sure it’s strong and has clean terminals: A little baking soda and water will do the job. A road trip is no fun if your car won’t start. Learn more about battery care, and see our car battery ratings.
  3. Read the rubber. Inspect your tires for any tears or bulges in the side wall. The tires should have a good amount of tread left. The easiest way to measure this, if you don’t have a gauge, is to hold a quarter upside down in the tread. If the top of George Washington’ head is visible, you need new tires to ensure traction in all weather conditions. Make sure the tire pressures are set to the figures that are printed on the placard on the driver’s door jam, or what’s listed in your car’s owner’s manual. If you need to replace your tires, our car and truck tire Ratings will help you choose the best model.
  4. Give it a break. Have your service station inspect your car’s brake pads to make sure they aren’t worn or need replacing.
  5. Be prepared. Bring supplies in the event of an accident or medical issue. Stock your car with an emergency kit—especially a flashlight, blanket, first-aid kit, and some basic tools. Also, bring water and extra snacks, just in case.
  6. Pack smart. Check your vehicle’s load capacity to make sure you aren’t putting too much weight in the car. On most new cars, the total weight you can carry is printed on the door placard inside the driver’s door jam. This load rating includes all the passengers and cargo. Be aware that fuel economy is reduced with extra cargo. Roof-top cargo boxes should only be filled with light bulky items. Heavy loads on the roof can make the vehicle more difficult to handle in emergency situations and increase the risk of a roll over. If not in use, remove the roof rack as if can significantly worsen your fuel economy.
  7. Track it. A portable GPS navigation system will help you get where you’re going, making it easy to find gas stations or restaurants along the way. Traffic-enabled devices can warn of roadway congestion, and all units can assist in finding an alternate route. Also, a navigator can help direct emergency services to your location, should something happen. (Read: “Best GPS navigators for summer road trips” and “Video: Don’t let a GPS navigator steer you wrong.”)
  8. Kid prep. If you’re driving with kids, make sure you pack enough snacks, water, games, videos, and music to keep them comfortable and occupied during your journey. See our 10 tips for a stress-free road trip with kids for more advice.
  9. Be patient. During busy travel times expect to hit traffic. It may make sense to drive late at night or early in the morning to avoid the rush and ensure you get to your destination on time and with minimal stress. Make sure you count on stops for refreshment and restroom breaks, and time your fuel stops to ensure you don’t run low. A GPS device with traffic information and an exit guide can help you navigate around congestion and help find desired pit stop locations.
  10. Be safe. Make sure you are driving safely and follow the rules of the road. See our list of Simple things you can do to drive more safely.
06.29.

Do’s and don’ts of washing your car.

For many vehicle owners, the weekend act of washing a car by hand is a therapeutic act as beneficial for the person’s state of mind as to the vehicle’s appearance. That’s good, because frequent washing is also the best way to maintain a new-car finish. But as simple as washing your car may seem, there are some things to watch for so that you don’t accidentally scratch or degrade the finish. Here are some basic car-washing tips.

When should I wash the car?

Don’t… wait for a layer of crud to accumulate before washing. Dead bugs, bird droppings, and chemicals from the atmosphere all leach acids that can strip away wax and eventually eat into your car’s paint. If left too long, they can cause damage that requires sanding and repainting the area to correct.

Do… wash off dead bugs, bird droppings, and tree-sap mist as soon as possible. Other than this, a weekly car wash will keep the finish in its best shape. In addition, if you live in an area that suffers from acid rain, rinse your vehicle off after a period of rainy weather. Otherwise, acidic chemicals in the rainwater will be left on the surface after the droplets have evaporated, leaving a mark that can permanently mar the paint.

What kind of products should I use?

Don’t… use household cleaning agents like hand soap, dishwashing detergent, or glass cleaner on the paint. These aren’t formulated for use on a car’s paint and may strip off the protective wax.

Do… use a dedicated car-wash product, which is milder and specifically designed for use on automotive paint. Apply the suds with a large, soft natural sponge or a lamb’s-wool mitt. See our car wax report for tips and advice on all types of waxes.

Grease, rubber, and road-tar deposits picked up from the road often accumulate around the wheel wells and along the lower edge of the body. These can be stubborn to remove and may require a stronger product, such as a bug-and-tar remover. Use a soft, nonabrasive cloth to remove these deposits, as they can quickly blacken your sponge.

Use a separate sponge to clean the wheels and tires, which may be coated with sand, brake dust, and other debris that could mar the car’s finish. Mild soap and water may work here; if not, a dedicated wheel cleaner may be required. Be sure the cleaner is compatible with the type of finish (paint, clear-coat, chrome, etc.) used on the wheels. A strong formula intended for mag wheels, for instance, can damage the clear coat that’s used on the wheels that come on today’s cars. To be on the safe side, choose a cleaner that’s labeled as safe for use on all wheels.

Are there any general guidelines I should follow when washing a car?

Don’t… wash your car when the body is hot, such as immediately after driving it or after it has been parked in direct sunlight for awhile. Heat speeds the drying of soap and water, making washing more difficult and increasing the chances that spots or deposits will form.

Don’t move the sponge in circles. This can create light, but noticeable scratches called swirl marks. Instead, move the sponge lengthwise across the hood and other body panels. And don’t continue using a sponge that’s dropped on the ground without thoroughly rinsing it out. The sponge can pick up dirt particles that can scratch the paint.

Do… rinse all surfaces thoroughly with water before you begin washing to remove loose dirt and debris that could cause scratching. Once you begin, concentrate on one section at a time, washing and rinsing each area completely before moving on to the next one. This ensures that you have plenty of time to rinse before the soap dries. Start at the top, and then work your way around the car.

Work the car-wash solution into a lather with plenty of suds that provide lots of lubrication on the paint surface. And rinse the sponge often. Using a separate bucket to rinse the sponge keeps dirt from getting mixed into the sudsy wash water.

When rinsing, use a hose without a nozzle and let the water flow over the car from top to bottom. This creates a sheeting action that helps minimize pooling of water.

How should I dry the car when I’m done?

Don’t… let the car air dry, and don’t expect a drive around the block to do an effective job. Either will leave watermarks, which in areas with hard water are the minerals left after evaporation. In addition, don’t use an abrasive towel or other material that can leave hairline scratches in the paint.

Do… use a chamois (natural or synthetic) or soft terry towels. If you choose towels, you may need several. It’s best to blot the water up instead of dragging the towel or chamois over the paint. The drying process can be speeded up by using a soft squeegee to remove most of the water on the body, but be sure the rubber is pliable and that it doesn’t pick up bits of dirt that can cause scratches.

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