So you’ve picked the perfect road trip route. It’s chock-full of craft breweries, epic scenery, and picture-perfect hiking trails. You’ve stocked up on all the latest and greatest road-tripping gear you’ll want (and need), and you've managed to convince your best buddy (or a few of them) to join you on the road.
If this is your first automotive expedition, whether it be through the Pacific Northwest or across the sprawling Southeast, there are a few important tips and tricks you still need to know. And even if this isn’t your first rodeo on the road, it certainly can’t hurt to brush up on the basics.
And while a few of these must-do's might seem pretty obvious—you'd be surprised how many people forget to hold on to their driver’s license—there are a few things you probably haven't realized. We spoke with Mariam Ali, an expert with roadside assistance provider AAA, to get down to the nuts and bolts of what you need to know before road tripping.
1. Always keep the right paperwork in your glovebox
Put these at the top of your list: driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance card—and be damn sure you don’t forget them. It can’t hurt to always keep your roadside assistance card (like AAA, for example) on hand as well, if you have one. Ali even recommends keeping an “in case of collision packet,” where you can collect information and details in the event of an accident.
For longer trips, you should stow away an extra copy of your driver’s license (because it’s usually the most important thing that goes missing), a list of your medications if any, a paper map of your route (or at the very least a list of all your stops with some addresses), and logistics information like lodging reservations (unless you plan on sleeping in your car), hiking permits, and tickets to national parks. Make sure to keep paper copies, so that way if your phone breaks/drowns or you don't have service, you're not stuck.
2. You may need a special license to operate an RV, depending on where you live and the weight of the vehicle
If you wanna take your road trip to the next level (and then some, depending on what you’re willing to spend), an RV is without a doubt the way to go. But before you jump into the driver’s seat of some ultra-luxe, 10-person camper (or even just Uncle Steve's old Winnebago), you need to make sure you’ve got the right kind of license.
In most cases, your standard-issue driver’s license should be all you need. At the end of the day, however, it comes down to the weight of the vehicle. Anything less than 26,000 lbs and you won’t need a special license. If it weighs over 26,000 lbs, however, you’ll need to get a special license, which varies state by state. To find out exactly what type of license your state (and others) require, check out this handy list from Outdoorsy.
Even if you don’t need extra certification, any vehicle larger than your typical sedan or SUV requires different driving techniques depending on the terrain. Ali recommends getting in a bit of local practice or seeking out expert instruction before setting off on your own.
3. You don’t necessarily need to take your car in for a special pre-road trip checkup
As long as your car is up to date with all of the factory-recommended maintenance, “a special checkup should not be necessary,” says Ali. It’s always a good idea, however, to inspect and (if needed) adjust the levels of things like oil, transmission fluid, and antifreeze, plus the tire pressure.
4. But there are certain things you should make sure are in tip-top shape
If you plan on covering more than a few hundred miles, you should double-check if your tire treads are worn down to 4/32” or lower, according to Ali. If they are, and if you think you’ll be encountering any wet weather or slick roads, you may want to consider getting new tires before embarking on your trip. Additionally, if your car battery is more than three years old, you can avoid an unexpected breakdown by having it tested. This can be done through the AAA Battery Service or at your local mechanic.
5. If your car breaks down, don’t panic
Hopefully you won’t get into a fender bender or have your car break down in the middle of a desert, but accidents can and do happen. And should something go off course, that doesn’t mean your trip is ruined. The first thing you should do is get off the road and move to a safe location. If the place where you’ve been forced to stop isn’t safe, like on a busy road, “exit the vehicle and move to a safe location away from traffic,” says Ali.
Just as common sense dictates, if the damage is serious—to either you, your car, or one of the passengers—you should always dial emergency services first. Otherwise, dial up your roadside assistance provider to give you a hand—more often than not, calling someone for help will be much faster than trying to push or hitchhike your way there.