If you’re anything like me, you look at the insides of a machine and think, “ew.” All those little parts, fitting together just so, in a way that you just know that if you mess with it you’ll damage everything beyond repair. It’s almost worse than dissecting that frog during high school biology.
Unfortunately, avoiding the insides (or at least some knowledge of) and the operations of your car is a luxury for those content to travel via mass transportation. You don’t have to know how to rebuild your carburetor (or even what your carburetor is), but if you’re serious about solo road-tripping, there are some things you must know about your car. You can do it! It’s time to embrace the spirit of your inner Go Girl and step up to the plate.
- Where your manual is. Don’t laugh. This is important. The manual to your car will answer many, many of your questions, and is a great cheat sheet for what all those little emergency lights mean and any other design oddities about your car. If you don’t have a manual, try to get a copy online or through the manufacturer. Trust me — it will save you the embarrassment of having to confess you don’t know where the release trigger is to open the hood. Speaking of which…
- How to pop the hood. Know how to pop the hood. There are some other things you’ll need to know once you get it open, but let’s start with the basics. Another helpful thing — most cars have a little rod that folds up and props the hood open. Know where that is, too. You’ll impress everyone by looking like you know what you’re doing.
- How to check the fluids. Oil, brake, and windshield wiper. All are important. Windshield wiper fluid is vital to being able to see out the window of your car, and you should always have an extra jug in the trunk to refill the reservoir…and know how to refill it. This is especially important in the winter. Checking your oil and brake fluid is also easy, and the oil involves using a dipstick, which is just fun to say.
- How many miles you get to a tank of gas. My current car counts it down for me, but I also know offhand that I can go over 430 miles on a tank (highway driving). While the gas gauge is helpful, it’s also nice to know that when you pass a gas station, with a sign that says “next exit 40 miles” you still have 150 miles to go before you really need gas.
- Where your jack, tire iron, and spare tire are — and how to change a tire. I’ve never actually changed a tire. The couple of times I tried, I couldn’t loosen the bolts (though I didn’t feel so bad because when the auto club showed up, they had to use a machine to do it). However, in theory, I know how to do it, and so should you. You should also know if your spare is a full-size or a donut, and how far/fast you can travel on the donut.
- How to check/fill the air in your tires. Seriously, this isn’t hard. Get yourself a tire gauge and keep it in your glove compartment. The manual might tell you what the tire pressure (“psi”) is supposed to be, or sometimes it’s on the tire itself. My car has it on a sticker just inside the driver’s side door. Don’t forget to screw the little caps back on the valves when you’re done.
- What your car’s annoying oversensitive emergency light is. Mine is a scary little orange one that claims the tire pressure is “dangerously low.” It lies. It lights up anytime it gets cold, and won’t go off until the weather gets warm again. I’d imagine it would also get nervous at changes in elevation. The manual says to immediately seek service, but every time I’ve checked the tire pressure, it’s fine.
- How to keep your car from overheating. Turn on the heat. Even if it’s crazy hot outside.
- Your VIN number. Or where to find it. Just in case.
- The number for your auto club. I use AAA, but there are others. Some new cars come with a rescue plan. This is important. Sometimes, you don’t know what’s wrong with your car, and you need a little help. There’s nothing wrong with that.