Your Pre-Trip Truck Maintenance Checklist
Do this and never die from dehydration in Death Valley
Want to make sure your truck doesn’t break down when you’re days from civilization? A simple pre-trip maintenance routine is the best way to achieve that. Here’s mine.
I like to wash my Land Rover before taking off on any big trip. Doing so doesn’t just get it looking nice for photos; it also puts me up close and personal with my truck, allowing me to check everything for damage or other problems.
While washing, I also apply Rain-X to the windshield, wax to the paint, and oil to exposed metal parts. All that makes it easy to clean after the trip and protects surfaces from whatever’s about to get on them. The Rain-X is particularly important, making it easier to clean bugs off and facilitating good vision for the driver, even in a bad storm. For oil, I use Ballistol diluted with water. It protects my rubber window seals from perishing, guards my plastic body cladding from UV deterioration, and makes the black steel protection parts look nice, while preventing rust on exposed chassis parts under the truck. Putting a few drops in your soap bucket while washing also brings the paint up nice and shiny and makes it easier to clean.
This is also a good opportunity to check all your lightbulbs with a simple function check and to examine accessories like auxiliary lighting to make sure they work and aren’t coming loose.
Under the Hood
You should know when you last changed all your fluids, and obviously make sure they have plenty of life in them before a long or challenging trip. Do the same for your belts and filters.
Make sure the battery is strapped down tightly and that the cables are on tightly, too. I once freaked out when my Land Rover broke down through a bumpy off-road section, only to discover that the cables had rattled loose.
Look for frayed wires or ones that could come loose and fray on the trail.
Examine the water pump for weeping—an early sign of failure.
Under the Car
Ensure that all steering components are tight, particularly in trucks with a live front axle. A rubber mallet helps a ton here. You shouldn’t find any play.
Grease driveshafts if they require it.
Examine bushings for signs of cracking.
Make sure all cables, wires, and lines are in good condition and securely zip-tied out of the way of obstacles or moving components.
Wheels and Tires
If you’ve modified your truck to accept larger tires, then achieving exactly equal pressure all way around is crucial to good, safe handling on the highway. While checking and adjusting your tires, closely examine the tread and sidewalls (inside and out) for damage or foreign objects.
Are your lugs tight? Simple things like this are often the easiest to forget.
It’s also a good idea to make sure all your valve stems have dust caps. Mud and other off-road debris can get in there and interfere with their function.
Make sure your full-size spare is healthy, inflated, and mounted tightly.
Find a field, gravel parking lot, or similar loose surface and go through your vehicle’s four-wheel drive equipment. Does it shift into 4WD smoothly? What about low-range? Do the lockers engage? Give it all a low-speed test drive, just to make sure.
Unspool your winch, inspect the cable for damage, and rewind it evenly onto the drum under tension. This ensures that it’s functioning properly and correctly wound and that you’ll be familiar with its use (and you’ll know where its controller is) even if you have to use it after dark in a thunderstorm while you’re stressed out.
Does your air compressor work? Use it to blow out your engine bay to make sure. Do you have all the adapters and hoses you’ll need? If you use a Power Tank, when was the last time you had it filled?
Does your tire repair kit need any parts? Are your rope plugs fresh and pliable? Do you have a few extra valve stems? Is your tire deflator somewhere you can find it easily once you hit dirt?
Is your Hi-Lift secure on its mount? Pull it off, spray it down with lubricating oil so it’ll run smoothly if you need it, and make sure it’s reattached securely. I back up my mounts with zip-ties, because a 50-pound jack falling through a side window while bouncing around off-road would be no fun. Make sure your shovel and/or Maxtrax are secure, too.
Is everything in your recovery bag, and is that somewhere you can reach it from the driver’s seat? Are your shackles in good condition? Do you have a pair of gloves? Is your snatch frayed and worn? Is there a flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries somewhere you can find it in the dark?
Is your portable jump-starter charged? I always plug mine in the night before any trip and put my keys on top of it so I won’t forget it.
Before you pack the truck, pull out your tool and spare-parts kits and make sure everything is there and in good condition. I know I borrow stuff from my truck kit to work around the house or help a friend all the time, and I’m not always good about putting stuff back.
My accessories drawer also tends to fill up with random crap I collect in daily life. Half-empty packs of fire starters. Dead lighters. Old ammo containers. Turkey calls. Blister packs I should have thrown away. You don’t need any of that on the trail, so take the time to clear it out and repack.
As you’re packing, take the time to make sure your load is secure with tie-downs. Stuff that would ride along fine on the highway can get thrown around dangerously off-road. In doing so, make sure you retain easy access to any tools, recovery gear, or clothing you’ll need to grab quickly.
Do you have adequate water, even if you get stuck and have to spend an extra day or two outside? You have a truck, so there’s no excuse not to carry plenty.
At the Trailhead
The drive to the trail should be treated like a shakedown test for the security of your load and the fitness of your vehicle. It’s a last chance to listen for funny noises or feel for anything sloppy going on in the steering.
Once you pull off the pavement, air down, make sure those dust covers go back on, and take the time to give the vehicle a once over, paying special attention to anything mounted externally. Are your jerry cans secure? Has a load on your roof shifted? Is your navigation system working?
Now, at the other end of a long highway drive, is a good chance to run through a mental checklist of essential equipment (or make a physical list!). It’s going to be much easier to fix a problem or turn around and go back for something here than it will be hours into the trail.
I once pulled off the road entering Death Valley, ran through all my gear, and realized I’d forgotten…water. It was a pain driving an hour back to a gas station and grabbing a couple cases, but it was an awful lot easier than dying of dehydration. Following a checklist and performing a pre-trip inspection are the best ways to ensure you don’t ever do the same.