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  • Writer's pictureTrail Guide Joe

How to Properly Maintain Your Vehicle for Overlanding Adventures

Updated: Feb 11

Whether you are overlanding or just driving your daily commute, car maintenance is a must! By following a maintenance schedule, you can often prevent major problems before they occur. It might seem overwhelming keeping up with car maintenance but it really isn't all that bad. In fact, all cars come with an owner's manual that details out what should be done and at what mileage which should ease the fears of not knowing what to do or when to do it. Don't have an owner's manual? Not to worry, in cases where a manual or other official maintenance schedule is not available, you can use the 30-60-90 schedule as a guide! The name of this guide is in reference to the intervals when certain maintenance tasks need to be performed - at 30,000, 60,000, and 90,000 miles. Does this mean that some things, at the earliest, will only need to be replaced every 30,000 miles? Absolutely not! Some items, like rubber gaskets and hoses, windshield wiper blades, and tires, will wear out at shorter or more irregular intervals. These items will need to be checked periodically and replaced as necessary. For everything else, this car maintenance guide explains what you should do and why you should do it.

Very Regular Maintenance

  • Oil and Oil Filter Your engine oil and oil filter are key to keeping your engine and vehicle running smoothly for many thousands of miles. As your engine runs, metal shavings, carbon build-up, and even dirt will find its way into your oil. Part of the oil's job is to keep those particles from doing damage to your engine by carrying them to the filter to be removed. Your older cars, using conventional motor oil, would recommend an oil change every 3,000 miles while newer cars, using synthetic motor oil, can run anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 miles between oil changes. It certainly wouldn't hurt to check your oil regularly and even consider changing your oil before any long road trips.

  • Tires You should also check your car's tires regularly to ensure they are in good shape. Your tire inspection should include checking the tread depth across the whole tire, side-to-side, looking for uneven wear, checking for less obvious issues like a broken band which can lead to a spot of higher tread wear compared to the rest of the tire, and tire pressure which can indicate a slow leak or overinflation which bring their own sets of issues. Proper tire maintenance should include tire rotation every 6,000 or miles or what comes recommended in your owner's manual.

  • Windshield Wipers & Washer Fluid Depending on your regular driving conditions, you may need to tend to your windshield wipers and washer fluid more regularly than others. When it comes to windshield wipers, there are two main types commercially available - traditional rubber and silicone. Traditional rubber blades are often less expensive but tend to wear out faster than silicone blades. Silicone blades are not as easily found and do cost more than a rubber blade equivalent but they tend to last twice as long and operate quieter than rubber blades. Washer fluid can be found in almost every store in the United States. There are so many variations out there it's hard to distinguish what's what! You'll know what you need by the conditions you expect to encounter regularly. For instance, if you are in areas that see freezing temperatures, opt for a fluid with a low freezing temperature or you risk rupturing your washer fluid lines. Me, personally, I run Rain-X 2-in-1 Washer Fluid year round. In winter, it deices quickly and in summer, it does a fantastic job removing bugs from the windshield. The best perk of all, the addition of the Rain-X water beading technology. I like this because if your wipers ever should fail when you need the most, the rain beads up and rolls off your windshield so well you almost wouldn't need wipers at all expect in the most extreme downpours.

Maintenance Before 30,000 Miles

  • Air Filter Your air filter, as the name implies, filters the air going into your engine of particulate matter that would damage the engine if allowed in. Because of this function, it is important to visually inspect your air filter regularly to ensure it doesn't get clogged. Your first signs of a clogged air filter will be a decline in fuel economy which no one wants. Consider changing your air filter every 12,000 miles or less if you live in or travel frequently to areas with a lot of dust.

  • Fuel Filter Like your air filter, if your fuel filter gets clogged, your engine will be starved for fuel making it, at best, underperforming or, at worst, unable to stay running. Servicing your fuel filter can be tricky as some can be found within the fuel tank while others in-line between the fuel tank and engine. Consult your owner's manual for specific mileage or consider having your filter changed around 30,000 miles especially if a fuel pressure test shows lower than typical fuel pressure.

Maintenance Before 60,000 Miles

  • Battery Your car battery is one that everyone reading this should know about. What you may not know about is roughly how long your battery should be considered good. Most batteries will, at most, give you 5 years of service however, it is not something you will want to take a chance on lasting too much longer. After all, having a good battery makes all the difference in whether your car will start or not. If you feel your battery may be too old, you should consider having it tested at your local auto parts store for free.

  • Brake Pads/Shoes Maybe more important than actually starting your car is the job of stopping your car. To do that, you need good brake pads and/or shoes. These are designed to wear out as the friction material wears away during braking. This actually helps prevent glazing of the surface of the friction material which drastically reduces braking power. Checking your brake pads and/or shoes is an easy task that should be done regularly and your pads or shoes replaced when nearing the end of the friction material.

  • Brake Rotors & Drums Also responsible for stopping your car, your brake pads will need a rotor to clamp down on or your brake shoes a drum to press against. The pads and shoes create friction against the rotors and drums to bring the vehicle to a stop. Over time, your rotors and drums will take on wear as well, though not as fast as the pads and shoes. When the brakes experience too many high heat cycles, largely during heavy braking events, your rotors in particular can become warped which will lead to a pulsing sensation throughout the vehicle. Consider replacing your rotors around 60,000 miles or as directed in the owner's manual and, if you are really serious about brake maintenance, purchase a micrometer to gauge wear on the rotors and drums to determine when it's time to replace them completely.

  • Brake Fluid Last but not least, your brakes are engaged through a hydraulic system activated at the brake pedal and sent through the brake lines, via brake fluid, to the wheels. This fluid will wear out over time just like your other brake components. The greatest enemy of brake fluid is heat. With too much heat, your fluid can develop air pockets which can be compressed, unlike the brake fluid, which will rob you of stopping power. So how does your fluid build up too much heat if it's designed for this job? Contaminants of course! The lines and seals in your brake system will degrade over time leaving particulates in the fluid. The particulates will hold heat longer and better than the fluid which will cause the fluid itself to degrade much sooner. Consult your owner's manual or plan to replace your fluid every 60,000 miles or sooner if you experience sluggish braking or a spongy brake pedal.

  • Coolant Heat, if you couldn't tell, is one of the biggest threats to your car and its essential components. The engine itself is no different and to beat the heat, your engine circulates coolant through the engine to the radiator to dissipate heat. Like your brake fluid, coolant will build up contaminants that hold heat and degrade your coolant over time. If your coolant can no longer effectively cool your engine, you may find your engine overheating which will result in engine failure. Replace your coolant as directed in the owner's manual or around 60,000 miles.

  • Transmission Fluid Transmission fluid is something I am no stranger to. My Ram liked to regularly burn out transmissions every 100,000 to 150,000 miles. As someone who has paid for two transmission rebuilds, you really want to keep up on transmission maintenance. Signs you might be in need of service would be erratic or poor shifting, dark and burnt smelling fluid, or a light on your dashboard indicating a transmission issue. You will definitely want to consult your owner's manual for the schedule in changing your transmission fluid as it heavily depends on what you subject your transmission to. If you are hauling heavy loads or towing trailers regularly, for example, you will want to change your fluid more frequently than if you just commuted back and forth to various places. Depending on your driving habits, your transmission fluid should be changed as needed between from every 30,000 miles to 100,000 miles in some rare cases. Again, consult your owner's manual to avoid costly repairs

Maintenance Before 90,000 Miles

  • Hoses You probably won't find this in your owner's manual but your rubber hoses for things like coolant, transmission fluid, and power steering fluid should be inspected regularly and replaced when needed. Depending on the quality of the hoses from the factory, you might want to start inspecting them around 60,000 miles with a target of replacing them around 90,000 if not sooner. Signs of wear include rubber that no longer acts rubbery (may have hardened and lost its rubberiness) or has started to crack from rot. If you notice these signs in your hoses, consider having them replaced before you suffer a blowout on your trip.

  • Power Steering Fluid Like all the other fluids in your car, power steering fluid should be inspected for contaminants and replaced as needed as you approach 90,000 miles. After all, it directly impacts your ability to steer your car which is pretty important if you ask me.

  • Spark Plugs/Ignition System There are a few components at work in your ignition system. For older cars, you have a distributor, distributor cap, and rotor, ignition coil or coils, spark plugs, and wires. More modern cars may have some of these components or only the spark plugs having invented ways around needing spark plug wires or a distributor. Whatever you have, your ignition system is what starts your car and keeps it running so maintaining it properly is essential. As someone who has replaced spark plugs, wires, distributor cap, rotor, and multiple times at that, I can tell you... Ignition problems suck. Inspect your plugs and wires regularly. Measure your spark plug gaps and replace the plugs when they've been worn sufficiently. The rest of your engine will thank you!

  • Timing Belt/Serpentine Belt With a truck or SUV, you probably won't need to be too concerned about this one. In the off chance that you do have a timing belt rather than a timing chain, you will want to be ready to change your timing belt when the mileage comes. Unlike a serpentine belt that you have easy access to, your timing belt is likely hidden behind a cover or other components that make it hard to visually inspect. If you do have access, or in the case of your serpentine belt, you will want to check both sides for cracks or other signs of wear. Having a belt fail will stop you in your tracks if not cause a major engine failure when it breaks. Check your owner's manual or plan to have your belts checked and replaced the closer you get to 90,000 miles. Be warned, do not take a chance with your timing belt as a failure or the belt will result in a serious failure in the engine itself.

What Else? As noted many times throughout this post, consult your owner's manual for the schedule you should follow regarding maintenance. With resources being as readily available as they are online these days, you should not have any trouble looking up the information you need as recommended by the manufacturer. If for some reason you still don't want to do things "by the book" but want to do the maintenance, you can certainly use this as a guide to the 30-60-90 schedule of maintenance.

Although I heavily reference scheduled maintenance, the real takeaway, of course, is not the schedule but the fact you need to be mindful of maintenance in the first place. You can certainly replace things that look bad, or at the very least questionable, whether it needs it or not just for the piece of mind that it shouldn't give you trouble once done. Aside from piece of mind, the best maintenance practices will help you avoid troubling breakdowns and costly repairs. Do yourself a favor and, whether it's your schedule or the manufacturer's schedule, get your maintenance done!

Happy Trails!

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