Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Goin' To The Desert

As people who live in these areas know, driving in desert and mountain regions is not like driving in other places. The conditions in these areas put added stress on your vehicle due to either extreme temperatures or altitude, which can lead to problems that may cause your vehicle to break down.

So when travelling through a desert or mountain, drivers need to be aware of the conditions surrounding them and prepare accordingly. This is even more important if you are travelling by yourself.

Remember, desert and mountain regions are often remote and don't have places to service your vehicle like you would find in other parts of the country.

Preparing Yourself

The first thing you should do (and this is something you should do whenever you travel) is to let someone know when you are leaving and when you plan to return. Call this person when you arrive at your destination. And if you have a cellular phone, give that person the number in case of emergency. You don't want to get stuck 50 miles from the nearest town without anyway to reach the outside world.

There are several items that you may want to take with you when you travel in the desert or mountains. Some of the items you might want to pack in your survival kit include: bottled water, extra brake fluid, collapsible shovel, concentrated food, emergency blankets, engine coolant, utility knife, matches, extra motor oil, oil filter, spray bottle, wire brush and baking soda (both for the vehicle's battery).

Bring a map of your destination as well as maps that show the best way to get there. Many auto insurance agents offer free maps, or your can purchase them at gas stations or convenience stores. You can get maps that show route and driving directions through a travel club or on the Internet.

Preparing Your Car

Besides taking care of yourself, you also need to make sure your vehicle is ready for the journey. It's a good idea to get full-service tune-up at least a week or two before you leave. Don't wait until the day before because if there is a major problem with your car or truck, the repair shop may need a few days to fix it.

While the car is at the shop, have your mechanic check for "play" in the water pump. Also have the radiator "pressure checked" for leaks that are not as obvious on a visual inspection.

Either do it yourself or have your mechanic check the coolant strength in the radiator overflow reservoir with a hydrometer. The antifreeze should be clean and up to the proper level. Check all belts and hoses associated with your coolant system carefully. Make sure there are no cracks. Replace any ones that you are not sure of and carry extra belts and hoses.

Check all your vehicle's fluids. This includes oil, coolant, brake fluid, power steering and automatic transmission fluid, hydraulic clutch fluid and windshield wiper fluid. If you are unsure how to check these fluids, have your mechanic do it. Change the oil and filter - they should be changed every 3,000 miles.

Make sure your battery is ready for the strenuous task ahead. Triple-digit temperatures of the desert and high altitude of the mountains can wear down a battery easily. Have your battery "load tested" if it's more than four years old. Replace it if it's more than five years old. Check the battery terminals yourself for corrosion. Terminals can be cleaned with a wire brush dipped in baking soda and water. Make sure it is properly secured so it can't tip over and lose electrolyte.

Extreme heat and higher speeds are tough on old worn tires and brand-new ones. Inspect your tire-tread wear and maintain proper tire air pressure according to your owner's manual. Check that your spare tie, jack and tire tools are in good condition. Put air in the spare tire. It is also good tire to carry an extra spare tire. Sharp rocks could render more than one of your tires useless.

When driving get into the habit of watching gauges and warning lights. If the temperature gauge gets too high, turn off the air conditioning. Be sure your headlights, taillights, brake lights and turning signals work, and replace any burnt-out bulbs.

Road Conditions

The conditions of desert and mountain dirt roads are foreign to most people. They can be snow covered, full of potholes and they can change from season to season. A road that might be fine in the summer may be unreachable in the winter.

Low-riding cars with little clearance will have a hard time navigating a rugged road. Pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles will do better on a back road because they have higher clearance.

Regardless of the vehicle, make sure you check its bottom for vulnerable spots. Knowing where important components like your muffler, catalytic converter, air conditioner, oil pan and exhaust pipes are will help you carefully steer you way around a dicey spot. A punctured oil pan is not something you want to deal with while you are driving in the middle of nowhere.

Getting Stuck

If you get stuck in the middle of the wilderness, think before you act. You don't want to try anything that will endanger yourself. A road that is mud in the morning may turn into dirt in the afternoon. If you are not sure of the way out, don't leave your vehicle unless you have no other alternative.

If you have a cellular phone, you may want to try it. However, lonely stretches of back road are often out of the range of cellular phones, so don't count on it working all the time. If you told someone where you are going and when you are supposed to be back, you could sit in your vehicle and wait for help to arrive.

If you didn't tell anyone where you are going, you may have to walk out. A reasonably fit person can walk about three miles an hour. You should consider weather conditions and availability of food and water before you start walking. Leave a note with car describing your walk routing and take a map with you showing your vehicle's location.

Regardless if you are on a dirt road in the middle of the desert or snow-covered path in the mountains, remember to use caution. Being prepared will save you from potential problems that may arise.