Getting Your Car Ready for the Trailhead

Car driving in snow
Average read time 2 min

We have the 10 essentials, wilderness first aid, leave-no-trace and many other guidelines that are often talked about when referring to outdoor pursuits. One topic that gets a one line mention in some guidebooks is to have your car in good working order.

This cannot be stressed enough in the 4th season

A couple of years ago Chris and I were out hiking in the early winter. No snow forecast for the day, just sun, and light winds. The adage the mountains make their own weather rang true that day as halfway into our climb it began to snow. We got back to the trailhead a few hours later and found 6-7″ of new snow on the ground. The high pass where the trailhead was located had not been plowed; nothing parking area or road.

Chris walking back to our car at a snowy trailhead
Chris walking back to our car at a snowy trailhead. No snow there at the start of our climb!

With extremely steep and winding roads without a car ready for the conditions, we would have been stuck there. When we drove back into the valley it was raining, no snow anywhere.

With some simple tips, you can make sure a great plan for a day hike or extended backpacking trip is not ruined by car problems. Listed below are some key things you should do before heading to the remote trailhead for your next outing.

The tips below are not exhaustive and some items like food and extra clothes are not on the list as you should already have these in your backpack.

Make sure:

  1. You have pampered your car with regular oil changes and maintenance as per the manufactures guidelines.
  2. Get and stock a good first aid kit.
  3. Have a working spare tire (no donut) and jack.
  4. Have jumper cables.
  5. Have some basic tools in the car.
  6. Have a high-quality cell phone charger
  7. Carry a blanket(s) or sleeping bag in the car
  8. In the winter have a shovel in the car.
  9. Take sand or grit.
  10. Have a small gas container.
  11. Have tow straps.
  12. Signal device to mark your car in case of breakdown.

Simple car check a day or two before:

  1. Check your tires (air pressure)
  2. Check your fluids (all fluids including washer)
  3. Check your windshield wipers and spray
  4. Check or fill your gas tank (yes people expect gas stations nearby and sometimes there is nothing)
  5. Check your lights (you may come back in the dark)
  6. Check your battery (cables okay? Etc)
  7. Check that your GPS is working AND that you have road maps for the trip.

Besides checking your car, looking at travel and road conditions which can be found on your state DOT website is important. Closed roads or long reroutes can kill your timing. Make sure your trailhead is open and get plowed in the winter, not all do. Know where the closest amenities are from your trailhead and plan appropriately.

With a bit of planning and proper car maintenance, your trip can go off without a problem. So the next time you’re heading to the mountains. don’t forget to take care of the thing that will get you to where you’re going – your car.

Happy driving!