Maintaining your car or campervan during a New Zealand road trip

Maintaining your car or campervan during a New Zealand road trip

The best way to have a safe trip and save money on gas.

Why is it important to maintain your car well?

There an almost unlimited amount of reasons to maintain your car properly during a New Zealand road trip. Sadly, many backpackers overlook this core part of their road trip. Here are a bunch of reasons that should hopefully convince you to take this “how to” very seriously.

  • New Zealand roads are very demanding.
    The roads here in New Zealand are smaller, narrower and windier than what you are used to back home. Driving on them will be very demanding for both the car and the driver. Having a well-maintained car makes the whole experience much easier.
  • It will save you loads on gas.
    A car that is not maintained properly tends to use more gas. This is especially true when the engine air filter or the oil has not been checked for a while. And, to be fair, don’t you prefer spending your money on skydiving than gas?
  • The car or campervan that you will purchase is old.
    The vehicle that you purchase will be quite old since the cheaper models are usually the older ones. For this reason you are likely to end up with a 10-15-years-old car or campervan. This coupled with the New Zealand roads means that extra care is a must if you want your car or campervan to go the distance.
  • Mechanic interventions are not cheap.
    Again, save yourself some money. The cost of calling a mechanic in the middle of nowhere to repair something and the cost of replacing or maintaining a this “thing” are extremely different.
  • You don’t have time for this.
    This is your gap year, the one chance in your life to discover New Zealand and experience the thrill of a year-long road trip. Don’t spend time worrying about mechanic bills and waiting for your car to be fixed. Take care of it and have the time of your life!
  • Reselling a well maintained car is easy as.
    Let’s make it clear: A well maintained car is sold much faster and at a better price than a car that received no love at all. We witness this almost on a daily basis.

Check the car owner’s manual

If you are unsure on how to take care of the car that you just bought, just refer to its owner’s manual.

In it you will find a lot of tips on how to maintain your vehicle properly and the location of everything that you are looking for, even in the engine. Very often this will also include a picture or diagram of most engine parts that you may not be familiar with. It will help you find all the items on the checklist below.

It takes a bit or reading but it is a valuable resource to get to know your car better and take care of it properly.

Maintenance schedule

Engine oil (check every 2 months)

Engine oil should be checked regularly, especially if you notice the level gauge going down. A well oiled engine is a happy engine. Neglecting your oil level may jeopardise the whole engine.

How to check your engine oil?

Park your car on a flat carpark, turn off the engine and wait a few minutes. Look for the engine oil dipstick. It should have an oil logo on it. Pull it out and wipe it dry with a tissue.

Put it back in and take it out again. The oil should be in between the two marks (low and full). At best it should be two thirds up, between the two marks. If it is too low, just top it up.

Also, take a minute to see if the oil is clean. Look at the oil and check that it is not too black. It should be a brown transparent one. If it is black, get it replaced!

How to top up your engine oil?

When the engine is cold, find the cap of the oil tank. It should have letters and numbers on it, for example 15W-40. This is the type of oil that you will need to get. If in doubt, just ask in store when purchasing your oil.

Then pour a bit of oil in the filler neck and wait for 5 minutes. Use the dipstick to check the level again and add some more if needed. Do not overfill it.

Done? Close both the engine oil tank and the dipstick and get back on the road!

Air filter (check every 6 months)

Like a vacuum cleaner filter, the air filter sucks all the dusty particles that arrive into your engine and lets only nice clear air cooling your vehicle. Overtime, it gets dirty, really dirty. The dirtier your filer is, the less air passes through and your engine risks overheating. As a result your car will run less efficiently (and use more gas).

To check or change your air filter, refer to your owner manual as it is different in every car. However, this is a very easy task that usually only requires to open a plastic lid. A new air filter is very cheap too, count $40 max.

Engine coolant (check every 3 months)

Engine coolants are very easy to check as most cars feature a semi-transparent coolant level market with a “Full” and “Low” levels. Again, make sure that you are about two thirds up, and do not overfill.

How to top up your engine coolant?

BE CAREFUL: Engine coolant is under pressure when the engine is running, do not attempt to open the engine coolant lid when the engine is hot. This should only be done when the engine is cold.

Choose the right coolant for your car. To find out which one you need, refer to your owner’s manual and top it up. Note that some coolants need to be mixed with water, so read the bottle before using it. If within 10-15 minutes after a top up the level drops dramatically, this may be the sign of a leak and you should go see a mechanic as soon as possible or risk damaging your whole engine.

Battery (check every 6 months)

Look at the overall state of your battery. If there are any leaks or cracks, you should change it immediately. Then have a look at the battery terminals. This is where the electric cables connect to the battery. One very common problem is the creation of some kind of white powder around it.

How to clean battery terminals?

Be careful, this white powder is acid, so you are best wearing gloves when dealing with it. However, cleaning it is surprisingly easy. Just mix baking soda and water, then damp a cloth in the mix and use it to clean the terminals. They should look like new in only a few minutes.

Automatic transmission fluid (check every 6 months)

If your car is an automatic, then you will need to make sure that your transmission fluid is at the right level. Note that some car models do not have a dipstick to check its level. In that case, only a mechanic shop will be able to check the level for you.

How to check the automatic transmission fluid?

Drive your car for a little while so the transmission fluid has time to warm up. Then park your car on a flat carpark and leave the engine running (set your car on “park”).

Look for the automatic transmission dipstick. If it should be of a different shape and colour than your oil dipstick, pull it out and wipe it dry with a tissue.

There should be two types of markings on the dipstick. One that says "hot" (between two marks) and one that says "cool" (between two other marks). Note that some dipsticks have temperatures instead of words on them.

If you have driven your car for half an hour, your fluid should be between the two “Hot” marks. If your engine has not been running, it should be between the “cold” marks.

Check also the state of the fluid. If it is dirty (not transparent anymore or with bits and pieces) or if it smells burnt, then you may have a transmission problem. This is pretty dangerous and you will want to get that checked as soon as possible.

How to refill your automatic transmission fluid?

This is critical that you do not overfill your automatic transmission fluid as it can cause problems. To top it up use a funnel in the dipstick hole a pour the recommended type of fluid for your car. It is stated in your owner’s manual.

Once you have poured a bit of fluid, wait a few minutes, re-check the level, and assess.

Windshield wipers (check every 2 months)

A quick clean with a wet cloth every 2 months goes a long way to get your wipers to last longer. Remember, New Zealand has very unpredictable weather. You will need to be ready for rain at any time! We also advise you to replace the rubber part of the wipers once a year or when you feel that they do not wipe properly anymore. Rubber replacements are extremely cheap, so be safe and get some new ones.

While checking, also take a minute to use the windshield spray to see if they still do their job properly.

Tyres (check every 2 months)

There are three points of focus when checking tyres on an old car. First you will want to check their pressure, then their wear, and then consider tyre rotation.

How to check tyre pressure?

You can check your tyre pressure in almost every gas station in New Zealand. Just look for a big sign saying “Tyre Pressure”. Best is to check the pressure when the tyres are cold - that’s less that 10-15 minutes driving. Your owner manual should have the recommended pressure for your tyre. It can also be found in a little plaque in the corner of the driver’s door when opening the door. It is measured in Psi.

Be aware that you are looking for your tyre to be at the “recommended pressure” not the “maximum one” so deflate or inflate your tyre if necessary to get the gauge to the right pressure.

How to check tyre wear?

Pick a random spot on each tyre and check the crack in the tyre (it is called the tread). It needs to be 1.5mm or deeper. A good tip to check this is to use a NZ$2 coin: when placed in the crack it should cover exactly the half or more of the word: “TWO DOLLARS”.

Do you have to do tyre rotation?

Because front tyres and back tyres do not wear out at the same pace, it is wise to switch your front pair and back pair regularly. This is called tyre rotation and is very common on front wheel drive cars (most cars) as the front wheels wear off much faster than the back ones. We recommend rotating tyres mid-trip.

This is also a great opportunity to check if your tyres are wearing off evenly. If they are not, this might be a sign of misalignment and you should get a mechanic to have a look at it.

Get a professional check up (every 4 to 6 months)

All the points above only scratch the surface of what a car goes through during a road trip in New Zealand. Those are only the things that you can check yourself with little to no knowledge about mechanics. Your brakes, transmission, belt, exhaust system and more, need to be checked regularly. We recommend doing a quick check up at a local mechanic every 4 to 6 months depending on how much you drive. This will help uncover upcoming issues and you will be able to fix them at a fraction of the cost. This will save you money in the long run. Again, changing something about to break is far cheaper than repairing something broken that might damage also other parts of your car or campervan.

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