When you’re out on the road, there’s nothing worse than car trouble. We’ve broken down which (sometimes temporary) side-of-the-highway repairs are DIY – do-it-yourself – and which are DIFM – do-it-for-me – and require a trip to the nearest professional.
DIY: Coolant leak
DIY: Tire leak
DIFM: Wheel alignment
DIY: Burnt-out bulbs
DIFM: Rough-running engine
DIY: The dreaded no-start
DIFM: The more-dreaded still-won’t-start
DIY: Low oil warning
DIFM: Oil pressure warning light
Any kind of fluid leak while out on the road is bad news, but you may be able to manage a coolant leak over the course of a trip, depending on its severity. First, determine how bad the leak really is: when the warning light comes on, pull over and wait for things to cool down before you open the cooling system up. Then find yourself a good four-litre jug, and fill it up with water. Open up the coolant tank and start slowly pouring the water in: if you immediately hear water pouring onto the ground, you’re out of luck; but if the system holds and you see just a drip or two under the car, you’re good to keep moving. Keep a close eye on your temperature gauge, and at the next service station, grab a jug of coolant to top the system off the next time it goes low.
Engines can overheat for a good number of reasons, and outside of running low on coolant none of the causes can really be addressed with a quick roadside fix. If your engine starts to overheat when you’re out on the road, turn the car’s heating system all the way up and try being as light-footed on the throttle as possible. If you can keep the temperature gauge out of the red you might be able to limp your way to the next town, but as soon as you get into that upper warning range, you need to pull over. Driving with an overheated engine could take your repair bill from a $400 thermostat replacement to a $5,000-or-more engine job.
If you followed our pre-road trip guide to checking your tires before you hit the road, they should be in tiptop shape, but there’s always a chance of picking up a nail somewhere along the way. If you have the room, pack a portable compressor and a can of stop-leak. While it’s not the ideal way to deal with a tire leak, it could mean the difference between carrying on with the trip or wasting away an afternoon at the nearest tire shop.
Here’s another unexpected issue that can spring up while driving our pothole-filled Canadian highways. The right bump in the road can sometimes bend suspension links or just knock things slightly out-of-whack, leaving you with a crooked steering wheel while driving in a straight line. Don’t limp along and risk chewing the hell out of your tires—pull into a local tire shop or repair facility and ask for a wheel alignment. This will usually run you about an hour or hour-and-a-half of labour depending on the shop, but if a component is bent there will likely be an added cost to replace it.
A few variables determine whether you’ll actually be able to do this one yourself: some manufacturers make changing head and taillight bulbs way easier than others, so do some homework before tackling this task, especially when you’re on the road. A burnt-out taillight bulb or brake light bulb is typically pretty easy to get to, but certain automakers – German makes in particular – like making some bulbs incredibly complex to replace.
An engine rough-running or misfiring is one of those items you really can’t do much about from the side of the road. Misfires and rough-running can be caused by anything from a bad ignition coil to a cracked fuel line, and sadly these aren’t always the easiest problems to diagnose. If the engine is running only a little off and only under heavy load, you can likely limp along until you spot the nearest garage, but with things like this it’s often best to err on the side of caution and have the car towed rather than risking further damage to your engine.
After a great night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast at the hotel, you hop behind the wheel and your car refuses to start: nothing happens when you turn the key, and the dash lights barely turn on. Your battery is toast, but you’ve got one last hope—booster cables. Hail another motorist, and connect your cars together. Start by attaching the one end of the positive (red) cable to the dead car first, then its other end to the live battery; then it’s the negative (black) cable to the live battery, and the other end to a ground—an unpainted, metal part anywhere under the hood of the dead car. If your car fires up and the battery warning light on the dash doesn’t turn on, you’ve got a fighting chance you’re not going to get stranded. If the battery light comes on and stays on, your alternator isn’t doing its job properly. Drive a good hour or two without shutting the engine off. If your alternator is in good shape, this should be enough time for it to give the battery a bit of a charge. If you have to shut the car off, it’s best to do it at a gas station where someone can give you another boost if needed.
If you’ve gone through the car-not-starting scenario once and it happens again, it’s time to call it a day and take it to the pros. There’s clearly something wrong with your car’s battery or charging system, and unless you want to spend half of your road trip asking strangers for a boost, it’s time to take it in and get it looked after.
I once knew a man with a beater that leaked oil constantly; he used to reason, “Oil’s cheap, and fixing leaks is expensive.” I wouldn’t endorse that thinking generally, but have to admit it makes a little bit of sense if you’re in the middle of a road trip. Much like a coolant leak, if you top up the oil and don’t see a stream of it pouring out the underside of the engine, you’re safe to keep moving to your next destination as long as you make periodic stops to make sure you aren’t losing oil at a rapid rate.
As a general rule, any bright red warning lights on your dashboard are a very bad thing, but when it comes to a red oil can or something that says “low oil pressure,” do yourself a favour and shut the car down as soon as it is safely possible. Low oil pressure tends to mean something’s seriously wrong with your engine’s internals, and it’s definitely not something that can be addressed with a little DIY know-how.