A Mechanic’s Guide to a Hassle-free Road Trip
By PJ DelHomme
When he was a kid, Cody Campbell came home from school and went straight to a neighbor’s shop where he’d start working on cars. Later, he joined the United Auto Workers when he worked in a paint shop. Today, when he’s not working as conservation coordinator for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance, he rebuilds and restores classic cars and trucks and takes his modified rigs rock-crawling around the South.
Thanks to his background, his roadside repair kit doesn’t look like most. He’s got a cordless impact wrench and sockets, eye wrenches, a hammer, a jack, tire plugs, and an inflator. When he travels, Campbell says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. He’s living proof of Murphy’s Law.
With his experience in auto repair and bad luck , he is the perfect person to help us put together this guide to keep your ride running smooth on your next road trip.
Pre-trip Check Up
Take the time to get any necessary and recommended maintenance done a few weeks before your trip. This includes changing the oil, checking other fluids, replacing wiper blades, and ensuring the tires are fully inflated—the correct tire pressure is typically on a sticker inside the driver’s side door. Most tires should be rotated every 15,000 miles, so if you’re close, get that done. If there’s an errant screw stuck in your tread, the tire techs should catch it and fix it.
While you’re at it, take a few minutes and walk around the car looking for anything out of the ordinary. This past winter, I was walking around my truck while talking on the phone and noticed a broken leaf spring. If I had taken it turkey hunting, I might still be out there. Make sure the brake lights and turn signals aren’t burned out. Pop the hood and check the battery cables for corrosion. Scrape them with a wire brush if they need it.
In the back of my truck, I typically pack several different fluids—motor oil, coolant, brake, and automatic transmission. I’ve never actually needed any of them. Campbell doesn’t bother packing any at all. “You can really get sucked down a wormhole trying to carry everything you need,” he says. Fair enough.
How to Fix a Flat Tire
“When someone gets a flat, it’s usually at the worst possible time,” says Campbell. You might be on the side of an interstate when it’s 100 degrees or in northern Ohio, at night in January. Luckily, you have options. Call roadside assistance if you have cell service. It might not be the most fix-it-yourself option, but it’s safe, easy, and you paid for it—you might as well use it.
Because he’s more mechanically inclined than most (including me), Campbell will fix his flats if he can find the source of the leak. He carries a tire plug kit and a portable tire inflator. “It’s easier for me to plug and repair it rather than to replace it with a spare,” he says. If you’re old school and want to change the tire yourself, practice before getting stranded in the boonie s. This ensures your spare is fully inflated and not dry-rotted.
What about Fix-a-Flat, the can of liquid tire sealant and air? It claims to seal punctures up to ¼-inch and provide just enough air to get you a few miles to the nearest service station. Campbell says the techs at the tire store won’t be thrilled because it makes a big mess, and he prefers a patch and his inflator. Then again, use every resource that you have available if you’re in a pinch.
When In Doubt, Consult the Manual
When you have a problem with your car, open the owner’s manual and place your ego gently inside the now-empty glove box. Inside the manual, you will find a lot of useful information, such as where the jack is located, where to place the jack under the car, the maintenance schedule, and so on.
Any road trip is going to have speed bumps. Consider that part of the adventure. By taking a few proactive steps to get your rig into road trip shape, you can keep those bumps to a minimum and save yourself a busted leaf spring—or worse.
Basic Roadside Emergency Kit
- First-aid Kit
- Jumper cables
- Spare tire with jack and lug wrench
- Headlamp with fresh batteries
- Roadside reflectors
- Duct Tape
- Fire Starter
- Leatherman Surge or other multi-tool
- Tow strap
- Fire extinguisher
- Flathead and Philips-head screwdriver
- Vise grips
- Tire pressure gauge
Check out other articles in our Summer Road Trip Survival Guide blog series.