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How to Prepare Your Vehicle for a Trip to a National Park

Car driving down road through scenic park

If you plan to be among the hundreds of millions of people who drive to one of the nation’s 63 national parks this year, you’re in for an incredible experience. Whether you’re heading east to visit West Virginia’s New River Gorge (the nation’s newest national park); driving west to Yellowstone (the oldest); or planning to stick close to home and tour Ohio’s own Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the natural beauty combined with the thrill of the open road make for unforgettable summer road trip memories. 

Before you head out, it’s essential to ensure your car is in road trip-ready shape. In this blog, we’ll discuss the following:

  • How to prepare your car for a road trip (with a checklist for your mechanic)
  • What to watch (and listen) for during your trip
  • Post-trip best practices for your car 

Pack up the car, grab the kids and get ready to head out for a national park adventure! 

Before Your Trip

It’s important to start out on the right foot — or wheel, as it were. Here are a few things to evaluate to make sure your car is ready to go. 

Inspect your tires. Start by checking the tire pressure, ensuring it matches the manufacturer’s recommendation. (You can usually find this number on a sticker inside the driver’s side door or in your owner’s manual.) Remember to check the spare tire, too. Look your tires over for any signs of uneven wear, cuts or punctures. 

If your tires are worn or damaged, consider replacing them before your trip. Finally, make sure your tires are properly balanced and aligned to avoid uneven wear and improve handling.

Check and top off essential fluids. Fluids are the lifeblood of your vehicle. They include engine oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid and coolant. Consult your owner’s manual or a trusted technician for recommended fluid types and levels.

Remember that some fluids, like engine oil and coolant, may need to be changed periodically. If you’re due, take care of it before your trip.

Test your battery. The last thing you want to hear is the click of a dead battery in the middle of a national park, miles from the nearest service station. Make sure yours is in good working order. Inspect the terminals for any corrosion or signs of failure, like bulging. Also, check out the age of your battery. If it’s more than three years old, consider replacing it before the trip. 

Inspect your brakes. With narrow, winding roads and steep inclines, good brakes are critical for safe driving inside national parks. Check your brake pads and rotors for signs of wear, and replace them if necessary. Also, make sure your brake fluid is at the correct level and has no contaminants. 

Replace wiper blades and top off wiper fluid. Driving through a national park often means encountering unpredictable weather. To maintain good visibility, ensure your wiper blades are in good condition and replace them if worn or damaged. Also, ensure that your wiper fluid reservoir is full. It will come in handy when cleaning off bugs and dirt from your windshield.

Examine belts and hoses. A broken belt or leaking hose can lead to engine damage or even a complete breakdown. Inspect your belts for signs of wear or cracking, and check your hoses for leaks. Any hose or belt that shows damage should be replaced immediately. 

Test your lights. Visibility may not be the best when winding around national park roads, especially during early morning or late night drives. Test your headlights, taillights, brake lights and turn signals to make sure everything works correctly. If you see clouding on any light covers, now is the time to replace them. 

Prepare an emergency kit. Even with the best preparation, unforeseen issues can arise during a road trip. Stock up your emergency kit with jumper cables, a tire repair kit, a flashlight and a first-aid kit. You may also want to include bottled water and snacks, a sleeping bag, and an extra power bank to charge your phone. It’s also a good idea to have a paper map of the park, as cell service can be spotty in some park locations. 

Plan your route and stops. Before you embark on your adventure — even if you’re just heading out to the falls for the day — take some time to plan your route. Consider the distance, travel time and fuel stops you’ll make. Additionally, research nearby service stations and auto repair shops in case you run into issues during your trip. Knowing where to find help can save you time and stress if you encounter car troubles.

Plan Your Trip: Things to Do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Your Pre-Road Trip Car Checklist

Schedule a preventative maintenance visit a few weeks before you plan to leave. Then, take this list along and let your trusted technician know you’ll be embarking on a national park journey. 

  • Inspect your tires
  • Check and top off essential fluids
  • Test your battery 
  • Inspect your brakes
  • Replace wiper blades and top off wiper fluid
  • Examine belts and hoses
  • Test your lights

During Your Trip

The sites and sounds of the nation’s national parks truly are a wonder. Depending on how long of a trek you plan to make, and the age and condition of your vehicle, your car may need some mid-trip attention. Here are a few things to look out for during your road trip. 

Check your pressure. Did you know that changes in altitude can affect tire pressure? While usually not significant, if you’re headed to one of the nation’s highest national parks (like Sequoia, which has an elevation of 14,505 feet), keep a tire pressure gauge handy to monitor your tire pressure. If you notice any significant deviations, adjust the pressure to maintain the manufacturer’s recommended levels. Keep in mind that temperature changes can also affect tire pressure.

Pack light. Be mindful of your vehicle’s maximum load capacity and avoid overloading with toppers or gear carriers. When a car is overloaded, it can put excessive stress on various components and systems, leading to reduced power and acceleration, reduced braking capacity and increased risk of overheating. This is especially dangerous when navigating the steep inclines and narrow roads often found in national parks. 

Keep it clean. Clean your windshield, windows and mirrors regularly for maximum visibility. 

Listen to your car. Pay attention to any unusual sounds, smells or warning lights that pop up during your trip. Address them as soon as possible to avoid damage. 

After Your Trip

Schedule a post-trip inspection. Your vehicle has worked hard, and your technician can take stock of any wear and tear it experienced and address it right away. 

Rotate your tires. If you’ve been on a cross-country trek, ask your technician if it’s time for a tire rotation to ensure even wear. 

Clean your car. Post-trip is also a great time to clean your vehicle inside and out. Regular cleanings can prevent body damage from rust or corrosion and prolong the life of your car. 

Getting your vehicle ready to ride when planning a national park adventure is essential for a safe and enjoyable trip. By following these tips before, during and after your national park road trip, you’ll be well-equipped to handle the challenges of the road. With your car in top shape, you can focus on the breathtaking scenery and incredible experiences that await you in the great outdoors. So go ahead and hit the road — the wonders of nature are calling!

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