Saturday, July 30, 2005

Driving through...

I got a message from a young friend of mine heading off to college, basically asking for some advice; since I have done the cross country, mountain, and desert drive many times.

His trip will be from central California, to south texas, crossing through AZ, NM, and then into Texas. Not that big a deal for an experienced long distance driver, but it's his first drive half way across the country so hey...

Also, I'll be flying out to jersey to help Jim drive back across country when he moves to AZ at the end of August.

Anyway, here's what I think everyone should know about how to deal with desert and mountain travelling.

Okay first, just on the car front (all of this assumes a basically sound vehicle):
  1. Check your AC out before you leave, and make sure it is fully charged. You very definitely do not want your AC to go out in the middle of the desert at 135 degrees on the blacktop (its from 20 to 40 degrees hotter on the road surface than the "official" temperature).

  2. Check your belts, hoses, tires, and windshield wipers/washer system. All of the first three are absolutely critical, and put under a lot of stress by the heat, and the mountains. If your belts fail, and you dont notice for a while (which is entirely possible) you are going to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.

    Oh and VERY important, make sure you check your tire pressure every time you get gas (or at least every other time), and inspect the tires for damage.

    Also every time you get gas, wash your head and tail-lights, and your windows.

  3. Change your oil, coolant, and transmission fluid (if you have an automatic). You are going to be spending a lot of time at low speed and high RPM, which is very tough on oil and coolant. Mountains and heat are especially bad for automatic transmissions.

    First, you want to use a heavier viscosity oil (preferably a synthetic); I personally use a 15w50 full synthetic, though some recommend not using such a wide viscosity range.

    Next you want to change your coolant out, and instead of 50:50, you want to mix 1/4 antifreeze, 3/4 water, and a bottle of water wetter . In fact, if you dont drive or live in environments that freeze at all; you should just run straight up water and water wetter. Trust me it's great stuff. Oh, and ALWAYS use distilled water.

    As to your transmission, I HIGHLY recommend a heavy duty synthetic trans fluid (red line is your friend, but expensive).

    If you have a manual, you should probably get your clutch and shift linkage checked, and change the fluids; but it may be prohibitively expensive to do so depending on your vehicle.

  4. Change your air filter. You will be driving through dusty nasty environments, for several thousand miles, and a clogged air filter is a BAD THING. While you're at it, use the opportunity to use a better filter like a K&N etc...

  5. Check out and possibly change your plugs, wires, and battery. Hot weather does bad things to batteries (as bad as very cold weather), and if your battery is iffy, now is the time to change it.
Second, dealing with the desert:
  1. Bring LOTS of water.

  2. BRING LOTS MORE WATER. Just for emergency purposes in case you brake down or overheat, I like to keep at least 2 gallons per person in the car (I usually keep 2 one gallon jugs behind my seat, and a 5 gallon emergency container in the trunk).

  3. Gatorade is your friend (diluted fruit juice is about as good). You can become dehydrated quickly drinking nothing but water, and without electrolytes you'll get some nasty headaches, which brings the next two points up...

  4. Caffeine is not your friend. Caffeine is both a stimulant, and a diuretic, and people tend to overdo it when they are driving. Then when their stomach or nerves complain, they cut off entirely, which casues withdrawal. Tired, wired, and dehydrated is BAD, especially at the 5000-8000 feet you'll hit in the high desert. More nasty headaches...

  5. Eat salty and starchy foods. Salt and carbohydrates let you keep and use the water, and keep your energy up. Helping you to avoid those nasty headaches.

    Also, avoid greasy, very fatty, or very spicy foods; or much dairy. Diarrhea is a VERY bad thing, as are the many and varied forms of indigestion. Yes, truckers and professional drivers LOVE their grease, but they are also used to driving those long distances; plus I don't know a single pro driver who doesnt use tons of antacids etc...

  6. Wear a hat. I hate hats, but I wear them anyway. Also sun screen. You may not realize it, but driving all day inside tinted windows can still give you a nasty sun burn (especially on your left arm).

  7. Bring, and keep easily available; changes of shirts and underwear. You soak t-shirts pretty quickly driving in hot weather for a few hours, even with AC. This makes you itchy and crawly, and jsut generally uncomfortable. You wouldn't believe how much more comfortable you will be if you change your T-shirt (and possibly undies) every time you get gas.

  8. Buy sun shades for your car. Put them in place every time you park for more than a few minutes. They aren't a miracle, but they help.

  9. Books on tape/cd are lifesavers, as is satellite radio. Having done the long distance thing with Sirius radio, I can't tell you how much more pleasant it is.

  10. Bring a two way radio; ham if you're licensed (kb1dxj here), and a CB if you're not (and even if you are really). There are LOTS of places where cell phones dont work, and you may be stuck out somewhere for a couple hours if something goes wrong. Oh and speaking of cell phones and radios, make sure you bring chargers for all of them, preferably car chargers.
Mountain driving:

The mountains are gorgeous, but the prettier they are, the more dangerous they are; PAY ATTENTION.

  1. Get your brakes checked before you start out. They are the only thing keeping you alive. This is doubly true if you are heavily loaded, or carryign a trailer. Oh and if you are towing a trailer through the moutnains, you really should have trailer brakes. The electric ones aren't so bad to hook up. If your brakes are marginal, then change them; with somethign better than the factory pads. Factory pads are designed for low noise, and low dust in normal driving conditions, and almsot to a piece they SUCK for high heat, heavy duty applications. Remember, mountain driving feels the same to your car as running a road race.

  2. Going down is a hell of a lot more dangerous than going up. First thing, dont use your brakes unless you absolutely need to. Most cars brakes are only good for a few minutes on serious mountain roads before they are toast. When that happens you need to find a safe place to pull over and stop for at least half an hour. If it's night time you can watch as your brakes cool down from cherry red.

  3. Those speed limit warnings, and grade warnings arent jsut for truckers. Yes those limits are set pretty low, and no a decent car doesnt need to follow them as much as a truck does; but remember your vehcile will handle very different downhill, heavily loaded, than it does in the flat. Give yourself more margin, and keep close to the limits. But wait, I jsut told you not to use your brakes, how do I follow the limits?

  4. USE LOWER GEARS. Unfortunately most of us dont have jake brakes, but thankfully a few hardy souls still have manual transmissions and can get some decent engine braking going. Yeah autos can use engine braking too, but nowhere near as well, or with as many options; in fact some autos will drop the engine out of gear in an engine braking scenario (optimizing for economoy).

    This is equally true going up as going down. When you are using lower gears, not only do you have the engine braking factor, but the lower gear gives you more throttle control. Select a gear that doesnt require lots of shifting as the road changes in grade and your vehicle changes in speed. The frequent shifting is harder on your transmission (and clutch) than the somewhat higher RPMs. That said, remember those high RPMs are hard on the engine and accessories. Watch your temperatures and fluid pressures if you can, and make frequent stops to rest, and let the car cool down.

  5. Watch the weather. Weather in the mountains can change faster than you could believe. Also darkness can come very quickly after an extended twilight.
Some other random things and supplies for general long distance driving...
  1. Keep some extra maintenance items, and spares of everything expendable (fuses etc...). At the minimum take a decent tool kit, and a replacement bottle jack sized to your car.

    Personally I also keep an air compressor, duct tape, electrical tape, patching wire, safety wire, spare nuts bolts and screws, a tire repair kit, tire sealant (slime super duty, or ultra seal), every fluid in the vehicle, paracord, braided multi core heavy line, bungy cords, tie downs, tow straps, and a couple of ponchos.

  2. Have extra oil, coolant, and bug removing windshield washer fluid (trust me on that last one). Also bug wipes and general cleaning wipes are a good thing.

  3. Big, strong cupholders help a hell of a lot. If you don't have good cupholders, see if you can get some aftermarket cupholders.

  4. 12 volt cigarette lighter power splitters are remarkably useful.

  5. Always bring toilet paper, napkins, and paper towels. Also a couple of real towels and babywipes are great. Oh and hand sanitizer is also a good thing.

  6. Have a good first aid kit, and keep it accessible. When I say, good first aid kit, I mean by my or Doc Russias standards. Also keep a small simple one in your glove compartment. You may never need them, but if you do...

  7. Make sure you keep a good medium sized knife (large folder or small sheath knife), a multi tool, a pair of EMT shears, and at least two flash lights handy.

  8. Have immodium AD, antacids, pepcid/tagamet/zantac, ipuprofen (or your other painkiller of choice), eye drops, and allergy/sinus medications handy; as well as refils of any prescription meds you may need.

  9. Keep a spare pair of glasses, contacts etc.. if you have them; and ALWAYS have a decent pair of sunglasses, and a spare.

  10. Keep copies of your prescriptions of any kind (medical, optical etc...).