Planning your next summer road trip? Odds are you’re more focused on what you’re packing in your ride than the tires on your ride. But tire failure can easily bring a road trip to a grinding halt. Here are a handful of things you should be checking before
Tread wear pattern
Seasonally correct tires
Spare tire check
Tire tools and jack
Inflator and stop-leak kit
Constant tire pressure checks
Yes, it’s the most obvious item on the list, but check your tire pressurebefore taking off for a longer trip. Inspecting, and properly inflating, your tires to their recommended pressures will not only prevent uneven wear patterns, but could help you catch a potential puncture on an under-inflated tire. (It’ll also improve fuel economy—for every five psi [pounds per square inch] below the recommended pressure, your mileage worsens by close to two percent.) The correct tire pressures for your vehicle should be listed on a sticker on the driver’s side B-pillar or door jamb, and also in your owner’s manual.
Any time you’re expecting to put some miles on your car, it’s a good idea to look at how much tread is left on your tires. Tread depth gauges are dirt cheap, but even a quick look will give you an idea of whether your tires are reaching the end of their life. Inside the grooves of your tires there are small raised sections referred to as ‘wear bars.’ If you’re creeping up on being a millimeter or two above those bars, you’ll be due for some fresh rubber shortly.
While you’re having a look at tread depth, have a look at how evenly the tread has been wearing down. Issues with both wheel alignment and tire inflation can cause uneven wear, and even if less than a quarter of the tread is worn all the way down (while the rest is fine) your tires will need to be replaced. To make it easy on yourself, crank your steering wheel all the way to one side to get a proper look at the tread on the front wheels.
Just because there’s plenty of tread left on the tires doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. Gouges in the tire sidewall can seriously compromise the structural integrity of the tire, and although the tire may be able to maintain pressure standing still, the strains and stresses of speed and cornering forces could lead to a failure. Surface scuffs aren’t a big deal, but if you peel back a part of a gouge and can see torn cords inside the cut, you could be in for some trouble.
Tire age is frequently overlooked these days. Countless owners of low-mileage older cars look only at their odometer and the mere 10,000 km they’ve logged over the last decade and assume those fifteen-year-old tires are right as rain. Rubber has a nasty habit of deteriorating over time, and many manufacturers recommend replacing tires once they’re over six years old. As a general rule, if you pass that milestone and start to see cracking in the rubber on the sidewall and between the tread, new rubber is in order.
This might sound like another no-brainer, but if you care about getting the most life out of your winter tires, it’s best to swap them out before heading on a road trip in 15- to 20-degree Celsius weather. Hot asphalt chews through the soft compound of winter tires at a rapid pace, and driving around on them in late spring and summer is just plain wasteful.
Everything you’re looking over on the tires on the rims bolted to your car’s four corners should also be checked out on your spare tires. Spare tires are often neglected because they’re buried in the bottom of your trunk, but much like your road tires, they can lose air pressure over time; it’s best to make sure your spare’s properly topped up in case you have to use it.
You’re driving along when you pick up a nail and get yourself a flat. You empty your trunk, dig out your spare—and realize you have no idea where the lug wrench and jack are. Many car owners these days have no idea what these tools look like, so do yourself a favour: dig them out and spend a couple minutes lifting up a corner of your car. You don’t want to have to figure it out for the first time by the side of the road. At night. In the rain. (Oh, and if your car has locking lug nuts, make sure you know where the key (for the locking lug nut socket) is—otherwise, even a garage will have trouble getting your wheels off.)
If you’re heading on a trip that involves long stretches of road with no towns for hours, it won’t hurt to pack a tire inflator kit. Modern inflator kits will include a small air compressor and a stop-leak injection kit, which will bring your tire up to proper pressure and allow you to keep cruising until you’re somewhere a touch more urban. Your spare tire would do the trick as well, but if distance is a factor the 80-km/h speed rating on many spares is bound to put you off schedule.
Having all the bases covered is a good start, but don’t forget to keep that tire pressure gauge handy as the road trip rolls on: just because you didn’t pick up a nail before you left doesn’t mean you can’t snag one along the way. (Plus tire pressures can change based on air temperature, making this especially important if you’re traveling somewhere warmer or cooler.) A quick walk around the car every morning should let you know whether a tire is going low, and an actual pressure check halfway through the trip might save you from getting stranded on the open road.