A road trip that doesn’t involve an oil change halfway through it is no road trip at all!
The vehicle you select for this trip is a fairly important decision. We’re not saying you need a new vehicle or one completely absent of a possibility for something to go wrong. The authors of this site have made this trip in a 20 year old rig with 275,000 miles on it. So every extreme is possible, when done safely and with mechanical soundness. The point is that you need to realize that there’s a lot of miles involved, a fair bit of wear and tear, rough roads and long distances between adequate repair facilities.
What Not To Do:
As travelers of the Alaska highway system, on multiple occasions, we’ve encountered breakdowns. On one particularly memorable one, we stopped to find a carload of younger women with no clue of how to change their flat tire. We were aghast to find the tires bald, with metal showing. The tires were completely inadequate to take the snowy mountain passes ahead.
We helped to change the tire. Afterwards and with our greatest “mom or dad” tone, advised the girls to pull into the next town and have new tires installed. We have no idea whether they made it to their destination safely, but with the state of those tires, I guarantee their tire repair place insisted on new tires or they wouldn’t touch it. If somehow they figured out how to get by, that wasn’t their only flat.
General Vehicle Preparation:
Maintenance is key and you need to know where you’re at on maintenance is important. There’s no reason to go about changing fluids or parts just for this trip, although that certainly won’t hurt anything. The idea here is that if you’re 25,000 miles into a 30,000 mile fluid, you probably should just get that fluid changed before you leave so you can make sure your vehicle is running properly and will keep up its life throughout the trip. You don’t want to have a go at this trip with transmission fluid that’s all ready burned up and is barely protecting your expensive vehicle!
While this site isn’t an authority on vehicles, especially your vehicle, these are some common maintenance items that you’ll want to make sure are good to go for the distance you intend to travel.
- Oil (You will likely have to change this somewhere along the way)
- Transmission fluid
- Differential and/or transaxle fluids
- Power steering fluid
- Brake fluid
- Brake pad wear
- Suspension / shocks
- Cooling systems & fluid
- Spark Plugs
- Lamps & Indicators
- Timing Belt / Water Pump / Thermostat
If you don’t know where you’re at on these things, it might be best to bring the vehicle to an experienced and trustworthy mechanic to check the various items on a typical maintenance checklist This isn’t typically very expensive, but they’ll be able to tell you where you’re good and where you’re not. Be sure to tell them you’re planning on taking a good size, multi-thousand mile trip as this can often change their perspective of what’s imminent. If they recommend something, it’s likely best to just get it done.
If there are any serious things wrong with the vehicle you want to take, it will be best to get these things fixed before leaving. Don’t underestimate things like your suspension, which will get a full workout once you hit the Yukon where frost heaves are rather common. If your vehicle is in disrepair, remember, Canadian customs can deny you entry just because they don’t want your liability on their roads. Trust us, you don’t want to be stranded because of a broken belt or something entirely preventable across much of this trip! So, just make sure things are at a point where they’re not imminently going to fail. If there are any deficiencies, you probably should get them fixed.
Vehicle maintenance is often an expensive endeavor, especially if you’re due for a number of repairs or don’t normally keep up on your vehicle’s maintenance. If you have the means and the will, doing the work yourself can save some serious coin. These days, it’s very common to find YouTube videos of common maintenance tasks that can help you through the process. Big road trips were one of the reasons we started getting into our own maintenance, mainly for the cost savings that can come when you’re putting on many thousands of miles every year. We’d rather put the money towards experience and less towards getting to that experience.
A key thing to think about here is not to do maintenance up to the very moment you leave. You should be certain the vehicle is stable and will not experience any leaks or issues that might be much more difficult to deal with on the road. Generally speaking, you want at least a week with the vehicle after a maintenance effort to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Think of this trip as on the same level as traveling through a winter storm warning. It’s likely you won’t hit conditions that bad or even close, but your level of preparedness should be up to the same level as you’d expect for such a trip. In particular, the extreme distances on a road trip and the frost heaved roads up north can cause stresses on both you and your vehicle that aren’t something you typically experience.
You should have a plan for your vehicle. Depending on what you’re driving, that plan may involve bringing an entire set of tools to do a major or minor repair on the road, or just some basics that can make a problem a little easier to deal with. Either way, it’ll be good to have some extra things that you wouldn’t normally take with you on an average road trip.
Even if you would not be prepared to repair a minor thing or perform a maintenance task on the road, some kind soul might stop by. If you are prepared for it, you might be able to get back on the road quicker than you expected if you have what you need. So even if you wouldn’t know what to do with any of the preparedness items shown below, you’ll be better off if you have them with you in the event something does happen.
We recommend having a duffel bag dedicated to vehicle gear such that you know where to go should something happen. Below is a fairly comprehensive list of things you should strongly consider having with you, it’s what we keep in our vehicle. Remember the mantra, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
- Adjustable wrenches or a wrench set
- Screw driver set (Flathead and Phillips, others if needed for your vehicle)
- Socket set (metric or imperial, whatever you need, not both)
- Battery operated tire inflator
- Emergency tire inflator (this is a backup to the spare and pump above)
- Flares or emergency triangle
- Extra water (non-potable OK, best if potable for double duty)
- Two quarts of oil
- Vehicle jack
- Star wrench or other wrench to remove a tire
- Rain jacket
- Tarp (for changing a tire or other maintenance in the rain/dirt)
- Flashlight & spare batteries
- Snack food
- First aid kit (only one overall is needed)
- Work gloves
- Vise grips
- Duct tape
- Spare fuses
- Spare light bulbs (keep in glove compartment)
- Paper towels
- Glass cleaner
- Ice scraper
- Premixed coolant (particularly if your vehicle is sensitive to specific coolant/water mixes)
- Jumper cables
- Pressure gauge for tires
- Funnel for liquids
There might be other things you need or want to consider for your specific vehicle (and space requirements), so make sure you consider your unique situation as well. Overall, being prepared for a few common things that could go wrong makes sure your trip will be that much more successful. At minimum, make sure you’re prepared to change a tire in the worst of conditions!
Having these items would likely help you survive most of the common things that could go awry on a trip like this. You always have the abort option that you can execute, calling a tow truck or limping into a repair shop. There are repair facilities in the north, so it’s not like you’ve passed a point of no return. It just might be expensive.