Now that we have most of the critical safety items inspected, let's wrap up with a series of quick checks before hitting the road.
We're now in the final stretch of our checklist to make sure your vehicle is in good shape for a much-needed road trip!
The lights on your vehicle serve multiple functions: they're essential for visibility in dark environments, and they're also a critical way to communicate with other motorists on the road. An inoperative light or two may not seem like a big deal, but it can turn into a potential liability. Besides, unless you enjoy having impromptu roadside chats with the local highway patrol or state trooper, a blown brake light is an easy way to put a damper on your trip. Before setting off, take a few minutes to ensure that all of the lights on your vehicle are functioning properly.
First, position your vehicle head-first approximately 5 feet in front of a flat wall. Switch on all the exterior lights fitted to your vehicle. Flip the headlight switch to the "on" position and turn on the hazard lights. Alternatively, you can also move the turn signal stalk to indicate left or right - since we'll be making multiple tours around the vehicle, you'll have a chance to check the other side later.
- Check headlights and front markers
Starting at the front of the vehicle, make sure both headlights are working and are free of any obstructions. Many vehicles also include front marker lights that are integrated into the headlight clusters - these are typically white or amber in color. Check the front turn signals (or whichever side you switched on using the turn signal stalk) for proper illumination. Note any bulb that isn't lighting up so you can replace them later.
Next, turn around and look at how the headlights are projecting against the wall. What we're looking for is proper alignment, and it's pretty easy to spot when it's out of spec. Both beams should just about create a flat, level line against the wall; if they're pointing up at the sky or at the ground, the headlights are aimed improperly and need to be adjusted. Fortunately, Advance Auto Parts has an easy-to-follow primer on how to adjust headlight alignment. Driving with improperly aimed lights can be dangerous (as well as illegal in many cases) to both yourself and other drivers on the road, so this is definitely something you want to correct as soon as possible.
- Check side markers and turn signal repeaters
Moving to the side of the vehicle, take a quick glance at both the front and rear areas for any dark bulbs. All vehicles sold in the US are required to carry front side marker lights from the factory; unless you've personalized your vehicle by altering or removing them, verify that the side marker bulbs are lit. Many newer vehicles also include a turn signal repeater on the mirror housing or front fender; a blown bulb here can cause the dreaded "fast blink" that occurs when there's a malfunction with the turn signals.
- Check tail lights
The rear lights of a vehicle are the most complex, and it's very easy to miss an inoperative bulb here. Start with the tail lights; if the headlights are on, the tail lights should be as well. Here's where it gets tricky - the rear turn signal can either be on its own circuit or share the same bulb as the taillights/brake lights. It's pretty straightforward if it's the former, since the blinking turn signal can be seen switching on and off as normal. If it's the latter, the taillights will switch on and off in coordination with the turn signal.
One of the most commonly overlooked lights are the tiny bulbs above the license plate. Most states have laws that require the rear license plate to be illuminated by an exterior source; this seemingly trivial requirement has led to countless traffic stops over a blown $2 bulb.
- Check high beams
The following checks are best done with another person to assist, as it's not really possible to view the exterior of the vehicle when you're sitting in it. Technically, it can be done by using a brick to weigh down the brake pedal, but that's not exactly the safest way to go about things. Have your assistant sit in the driver's seat and hold the brake pedal. Turn off the hazard lights, then switch on the high beams. Moving to the front of the vehicle, check the headlights to make sure the high beams are nice and bright. These are aimed much higher than the standard headlights and are used to throw light much further down the road; consequently, they can and will blind other drivers if they're not switched off.
- Check brake lights
We'll check for a few more lights on the rear of the vehicle. As before, this part can get complicated depending on how your vehicle's tail lights are wired. All vehicles sold in the US starting with the 1986 model year require three brake lights - one each on the left and right side of the vehicle, along with a center high mount stop lamp (CHMSL, also popularly referred to as a "third brake light") located above the other two. Since your assistant is holding the brake pedal, all three should be illuminated. Make sure all of the brake lights are unobstructed (i.e. no stickers covering the housing) and readily visible from behind. Some vehicles are equipped with a "dual filament" type bulb, meaning a single bulb carries separate circuits for the tail lights. It's possible for one of the filaments to fail while the other continues to function. In this case, it will look like one of the brake lights is dimmer than the rest; alternatively, the tail light will be dark but the brake light will switch on as normal. If this is the case, the bulb needs to be replaced.
- Check reverse lights
Finally, ask your assistant to shift the vehicle into reverse (with the brake pedal firmly held) in order to observe the reverse lights. These are always white in color and should light up only when the transmission is shifted to reverse, though certain GM vehicles tend to use these lights as a "courtesy" illumination feature. Most vehicles have two reverse lights, but a small number of vehicles are equipped with just one.
Although the filters in your vehicle don't carry any safety implications as with the other items we've covered, it's good to check them anyway. The engine air filter (often referred to as an "air cleaner") stops dirt and dust particles from entering the engine, while the cabin air filter (sometimes called a "pollen filter" by some manufacturers) cleans the air coming into the vehicle for better air quality.
- Check engine air filter
The engine air filter is located right in the engine compartment, usually within a plastic (or metal in older vehicles) box. Some vehicles integrate the air filter into the engine cover, though this configuration isn't as commonly encountered. The filter box can be opened via undoing a set of latches or removing some screws, and the filter itself should lift right out. If it's packed full of dirt, replace it as soon as possible. You can always shake it out in a pinch, but it's best to replace the whole filter.
When reassembling the filter box, take extra care to line up all of the seals before replacing the latches or screws. The cover should slot right back in; if it's difficult to close, it's more than likely not lined up properly. An improperly secured filter box will allow air to bypass the filter and go straight into the engine, potentially causing engine damage.
- Check cabin filter
This filter is typically located behind the glove compartment or underneath the dashboard on the passenger side. On some vehicles, you may need to remove the glove compartment door or an interior panel to gain access to the filter. If you haven't replaced this filter in a while, brace yourself! It's incredible how much junk gets caught on this filter over time: leaves, twigs, dead bugs, dirt, etc.
If it looks clean, put the filter back and reassemble the door/panel. If it's dirty, you may want to replace it before hitting the road. While it's not critical, just remember that you and your passengers will be breathing the air that passes through the cabin air filter.
This one's easy - just activate the windshield washer jets and observe the wipers as they go through their arc. If they leave the windshield clear, they're working properly. If they leave streaks, skip over portions of the windshield, or chatter, replace them.
Note: If you've just detailed your vehicle, try using distilled water instead of the washer fluid to avoid stains and spots.
Even if you're not planning on encountering any rain, a pair of properly-functioning wipers will go a long way towards improving visibility after the inevitable bug splatters and road grime end up on the windshield.
If we have smartphones and GPS devices that can help us navigate, what's the need for an old-fashioned paper map? Consider this: cell phone reception can vary, especially in the more rural parts of this country. Likewise, GPS can lose signal if you drive into a tunnel or through an area with thick tree cover. A map is a map, and will be as reliable as it gets.
Need something with more detail? Try a road atlas instead!
Bring a cooler for the trip! Here's a list of our favorite coolers.