Basic pre-trip vehicle service

CW Staff — 24 April 2019

Tackling even a moderate trip without checking over both the tow vehicle and the caravan before setting off  is foolhardy at best, and could be disastrous in the extreme. With a little time and a little care, even a relative mechanical novice can make sure their rig is in the best shape to get them where they want to be with no mechanical issues.

You do need to have a basic understanding of how your vehicle works. As always, if you're not confident you have that, enrol in a basic mechanical or maintenance course to get a grasp of what you need to know.

Even if you do know enough to tackle this, it's always a good idea to have a second set of experienced eyes go over everything afterwards. If need be, book in with a trusted workshop for an hour or so to inspect everything you’ve done, just for that additional peace of mind. This way, you’ll still be saving money and be rewarded with the sense of achievement of having done the job yourself, but also know that a professional has checked it, too.


A basic vehicle service should include the following: an engine oil change, checking the air and fuel filters, check the brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant levels and drive belt condition, checking the tyres for any cracks, excessive wear and correct tyre pressures, as well as checking the brake pads for wear. Also take a general look around the underside of the vehicle and under the bonnet to identify leaks or loose components. 

Cleanliness is close to godliness, so for heaven's sake, take your vehicle to a car wash or break out the pressure washer and give the underside a good tubbing. It's woeful working on things covered in mud and you can see rub marks and cracks more easily if they aren't covered in half the Daintree.

Get the vehicle up to operating temperature. The easiest way to do this is to take it for a 15-minute drive. You could use it to go and buy the correct volume and viscosity (technical word for thickness or grade) of oil recommended for your vehicle and replacement oil, air and fuel filters. During the journey, listen for any unusual noises coming from the vehicle and anything else you notice that is out of the ordinary with the way it usually operates. Check that the brakes pull up the vehicle evenly (be sure nobody is behind you!) and that engine performance is on par with what you expect.

Once you’ve returned home, park on level ground with the handbrake firmly applied. Your manual may call it a Parking Brake or an Emergency Brake. If the vehicle is an automatic, put it in Park and if it’s a manual, put it in first gear or reverse. 

Set chocks against the back wheels.


Now you’re ready for the oil and oil filter change. Remove the oil filler cap, then get underneath the vehicle and remove the oil sump plug with a suitably large oil pan at the ready. Many working vehicles hold more than 5L of oil, so check in the owners manual and make sure your oil-pan is 

big enough.

If the sump plug has a magnet set into it, look at what it has collected: a film of glinting metallic paste is fine, but spiky iron-filings or anything bigger are bad signs. If the plug doesn't have a magnet, consider getting one that does for next time.

If it’s a 4WD, you will probably have enough clearance underneath to do this job without raising the vehicle. If not, make sure you use proper vehicle stands and ensure the vehicle is securely supported by them. 

The engine, the exhaust pipe and the oil will all be hot; wearing gloves and avoiding contact with the oil is a good idea.

With the oil drained out, replace the sump plug. Some vehicles have a reusable washer, others will require a new washer to avoid leaks at the sump plug. 

While you're down there, check for any fluid leaks and any signs of wear or damage. 

Dispose of the old engine oil thoughtfully; you can refill your empty oil container (after filling the engine) and take it to a waste disposal centre. Most will take old engine oil in such quantities for free and send it for recycling.

The oil filter is a mug or cup-sized metal cannister which is screwed onto the side or front of the engine. It may be very tight, but shouldn't be. To get a tight one off, you can either buy an oil-filter wrench, use a strap wrench, wrap an old leather belt around it,  or smack a long screwdriver through the side and use it as a lever to unscrew it. The old filter will likely dribble quite a bit of oil, so have a bucket or pan to put it in. 

Smear some oil on the rubber seal and screw the new filter onto the engine; it doesn't need to be super-tight. Wipe up any spilled oil from the engine.

Refill the engine with fresh oil. Every mechanic who has worked on a car since Henry Ford has poured in oil before refitting the sump plug at least once: it's a really messy, embarrassing rookie mistake — try to avoid doing this.

Be sure you don’t overfill the oil; make a note of the engine oil capacity and, when you think you are within half a litre of capacity, start checking the dipstick for oil level, bearing in mind that cold oil may take a couple of minutes to reach the bottom of the engine and register on the stick. Top it up, check again and replace the filler cap. 

That’s the oil change done. Simple!


While you’re under the bonnet, it’s a good time to check fluid levels and belt and filter condition. 

The power steering will have a screw-on cap to remove and usually a dipstick for you to check that the fluid is between ‘min’ and ‘max’ levels. The brake fluid reservoir should be opaque so you can see that the fluid level is between its 'min' and 'max' level; the coolant overflow reservoir will be similarly constructed and marked as the brake fluid reservoir, so that also should be easy to check.

If any of these levels are way out of bounds, it's not a good sign and may be a task for a professional to correct. Bear in mind that brake fluid is very aggressive to paintwork.

Also, some fluids need to be routinely flushed and replaced periodically — another job for the pro with the right tools. Check the maintenance schedule in the vehicle manual.

Check the drive belts for cracks or any other signs of wear to the rubber. See if you can check the inner (driven) side, because that’s where fatigue cracks are likely to occur first. Carrying a spare drive belt will ensure you never need it.

Remove the air filter and tap it gently on a hard surface. If any dust and grit fall out, it should be replaced. The air filter is a standard service replacement item, so if it’s been in there for more than 10,000km, or you dont know when it was last changed, replace it as a matter of course.

Inspect the battery and its terminals. If they're growing a white, blue or pale greenish fur, you may soon suffer an electrical failure or corrosion is building up. If you have bicarb, mix up a strong solution in about a litre of water, and sluice down the terminal, then rinse with clean cold water to remove any trace. Avoid touching it, it's highly corrosive.


Now you can get down to the wheels. First check tyre pressures, and that they are up to maximum pressures as recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. Have a close look at the tyre tread, looking for cracks or other damage and excessive wear. 

Find the spare wheel, making sure you can get access to it. Some vehicles, such as the LandCruiser and many utes have a drop-down spare under the rear that require you to wind down the wheel on a chain. Make sure this works and you have the right tools and also think about how difficult it would be to reach once you’ve packed (you may have to live with this if your vehicle has its spare under or in the cargo area). 

Do the same pressure and condition checks as for the other tyres.

Check that your jack reaches the chassis and lifts it up enough to change the wheel: some Toyotas don't. Check your wheel spanner fits the nuts on the wheels.

Now for final check: the brake pads. You will need to take off each individual road wheel, so make sure you have jacked and supported the vehicle properly before removing each wheel. 

With the wheel off, you can easily inspect disc brake pads for wear, just look for the brake caliper and there'll be an opening or look at each end of the caliper to see the pads. 

Drum brakes are a little more involved; you’ll have to make sure at least one other wheel is chocked, the handbrake is off, and remove both a road wheel and a wheel drum to get to the brake shoes. Once you can see the shoes, check they are not worn down to the backing plates and that there is no wetness in the show area indicating a fluid leak and also that there is no glazing on the shoes.


Other inspections involve ensuring the radiator (and transmission cooler if there is one) is free of bugsplat, that windscreen wipers are in good condition, that washer bottle/s are filled, with a small amount of screen cleaner fluid, that all lights and indicators work (on the tow vehicle and the caravan), that door locks and the ignition barrel have some graphite powder in them (do NOT use oil in locks!), that extra fittings like bike racks, roof racks, bull and tow bars are tight and serviceable, that door hinges and latches are greased and that you have the keys to external lockers and jerry can racks.

And you're done!


DIY vehicleservice tips technical advice


CW Staff