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Unprepared's Guide to Roadside Emergencies: Part One
The first in a multi-part series on preventing and dealing with roadside emergencies.
The holidays are here, which means two things: travel and inclement weather. Now is the time to be prepared for roadside emergencies. For the next few weeks, Unprepared will be publishing a series on how to prevent and deal with them. This first installment is free to all. Future installments will be exclusive to paid subscribers.
If you drive a car, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with a flat fire or a dead battery. You don’t have to be a gearhead to know how to get out of these jams.
Just as important as knowing how to handle a roadside emergency is knowing how to prevent one in the first place. Getting regular oil changes, tire rotations, checking fluid levels, and inspecting your tires can go a long way toward preventing roadside emergencies and making you more self-reliant.
If cars are completely alien to you, YouTube is your friend! There are good YouTube videos for all basic car maintenance tasks, and there are often videos for complex repairs. While your owner’s manual is an essential resource, and aftermarket repair manuals are helpful, videos are able to show complex automotive systems with more detail than books, and they also do a better job of demonstrating important details.
Some of our favorite car repair channels:
Every mechanic has different styles and approaches, which often causes conflicts. 1A Auto’s videos are very professional but may assume you have special equipment that you don’t have and don’t need on a regular basis. A lot of people call Scotty Killmer an idiot because he’s more of a “shade tree” mechanic, but he often has handy tips for amateurs, like using a cigar to find a vacuum leak instead of an expensive machine. And Scotty Killmer often criticizes ChrisFix’s videos, but Chris makes clear and professional videos that are good for newbies. They’re all fine for the basics we cover in this guide.
Preventing roadside emergencies
You can prevent many roadside emergencies with proper automotive maintenance. The most bang-for-your-buck maintenance items are gas, oil, coolant, batteries, tires, and brakes. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but will help prevent the most common roadside problems.
Be smart with gasoline
We recommend never letting your fuel gauge drop below half. This is one of the simplest ways to prevent getting stranded, but there are other advantages as well. If you have to bug out in the middle of the night, the last thing you want to worry about is your fuel level. Gasoline lubricates your fuel pump, and when you run your car on fumes it increases the chance that your fuel pump will fail.
Also, make sure you use the correct octane fuel for your vehicle. If your vehicle requires premium gas and you regularly fill it up with regular, it could cause engine problems. On the other end, adding high-octane fuel to a car that takes regular offers little benefit.
Beyond octane, there is a difference in gasoline brands. Opt for gasoline brands designated as Top Tier, a standard set by eight major automakers which goes above and beyond the government minimum standards. According to AAA, the Top Tier gas is worth the extra price.
Common Top Tier brands include Chevron, Gulf, Marathon, Mobil, Shell, and Texaco. A notable exclusion is Murphy USA, which usually operates gas stations outside of Walmart stores. Also note that Costco gas is Top Tier, while Sam’s Club gas is not.
The single most important maintenance step to keep your car running is to change the oil at regular intervals. The recommendation used to be every 3,000 miles, but with newer vehicles and synthetic oil, you can often go 7,000 miles between oil changes. Check your owner’s manual and/or the brand of oil you use for specific recommendations.
As oil circulates through your engine, it accumulates deposits and thickens up. If you go too long without changing the oil, it turns into sludge that can either ruin your car or lead to a big repair bill. Never skip regular oil changes!
Many newer cars will tell you when you’re due for an oil change. If your car doesn’t, note the mileage when you change the oil and keep an eye on your odometer for when it’s due for another. Also, change your oil at least once a year if you don’t drive it much, and go ahead and change the oil before a big trip if it’s due soon.
You can take your car to a mechanic or an oil change shop, but changing the oil in most cars is a simple job you can handle yourself. The big exceptions are German cars (like Volkswagen) that make the job excessively complicated.
ChrisFix has a detailed video explaining how to change your own oil:
Whether you do it yourself or pay a professional, there are a few things you need to know:
The proper oil weight your vehicle takes, most commonly 5W-30 or 10W-30. Many newer vehicles are using lightweight oils like 0W-20. Check your owner’s manual or under the hood. The manufacturer may also recommend different weights for different seasons, one weight for cold-weather driving and the other for warm-weather driving.
The four types of oil: standard—which is natural stuff out of the ground, synthetic—which is created in a lab, synthetic blend—which is a mix of standard and synthetic, and high mileage, which is oil with additives that cause seals to swell in older cars, which prevents leaks. Most cars run best with pure synthetic, and many newer cars demand it. Note that if you use high-mileage oil once, you need to keep using it or the seals could shrink and cause leaks.
Check for leaks after the job. Get under the vehicle and wipe oil from around the drain plug and filter (it’s not unusual for those to get covered in old oil during a change). Then get under the vehicle later and check again. If you see fresh oil, you have a leak.
Common causes of oil leaks are drain plugs and filters that haven’t been sufficiently tightened, and failing drain plug crush washers. If your car uses a crush washer between the drain plug and oil pan, be sure to replace it every time. They’re extremely cheap and if the crush washer fails, you’ll have no choice but to change the oil again to replace it.
And a few other tips:
If you’re unsure what brand of oil to buy, it’s hard to go wrong with Mobil One.
Wear disposable gloves. Oil changes are messy.
You can take the used oil to most auto parts stores to properly dispose of it. (You can also use old motor oil to treat exterior wood like fence posts.)
Many cars, especially trucks and SUVs, don’t need to be jacked up to replace the oil because they have plenty of clearance already. Any time you can get away without jacking up your vehicle that’s a big win for safety and time.
Change your air filter while you’re at it. It’s a simple and cheap task that will keep your car running well.
A common cause of being stranded is a dead battery, especially in cold weather. With a bit of foresight, you can prevent this.
First, note your battery’s age and stated lifespan. Most batteries are rated to last one to four years. If your battery has hit its age limit, or if it’s cranking slowly, go ahead and replace it. It’s cheaper than a tow truck! You can also have your battery tested for free at most auto parts stores. If you have a multimeter, you can easily test the voltage yourself to see if it’s getting too old.
I always buy the battery with the longest warranty. I’ve found that they’re the most reliable and last the longest, often a year or two past their warranty period.
Another common problem with car batteries is corrosion that builds up on the battery terminals and cable ends. That reduces the reliability of the electrical connection and can keep your car from cranking or cause your battery to die sooner. You can prevent this by coating the terminals and cable ends with petroleum jelly. Check the terminals and cables a couple of times per year and clean off built-up corrosion with a cheap battery terminal brush. This only takes a few minutes.
If you see excessive corrosion on your battery terminals, it could be evidence of a bad battery or an electrical problem with your vehicle.
In a pinch, pouring hot water on the corrosion can clean it off quickly and get your car going.