Women are often unfairly portrayed as damsels in distress at the auto body shop, and yet, it’s true that some of us still lean on our husbands or brothers or fathers to handle “car stuff.” I get it. Changing a tire, checking fluids, or jumpstarting a battery may seem like intimidating, messy, and flat-out hard tactics to master—but really, all you need is a little time and guidance.
Being car-savvy saves you money, builds confidence, and protects you in case of an emergency. Read on for my top five skills to keep in mind.
1. Change a Flat Tire
Where’s your spare tire? Do you have a jack and tire iron? If you got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception, would you be able to fix it and get yourself back on the road safely? Knowing how to change a flat tire is essentially the Holy Grail skill of car ownership—and the one thing most women avoid learning.
I’m guilty of this myself. As a teen, I spent multiple weekends learning how to change the tire on my 1994 Dodge Shadow, and now? I couldn’t do it if someone paid me, not for my current vehicle. That reality makes me pretty uncomfortable, especially since I’m now a new mom who spends a lot of time on the interstate. (Which is why I’ll be re-learning this skill soon!)
If you have a friend or family member who has changed a tire before, ask them to show you how. If you don’t have anyone to ask, or prefer to figure it out on your own, the DMV offers online instructions and YouTube videos (like this one) provide step-by-step visuals. And if you’re a woman who has been effortlessly changing her own tires since age sixteen, kudos to you—now go check to make sure the women in your life know how to do it as well.
2. Check Tire Pressure
Tire pressure sounds boring, but matters quite a bit; it can affect gas mileage, tire longevity, and your general safety while driving. Case in point: If your tire pressure is low, then you are at a higher risk for a flat tire—which, if it happens, could cause an accident at worst and create an inconvenience for you at best.
It is fast and simple to check tire pressure, I promise. I personally keep a tire gauge on hand, since they are super cheap (about $10-15, found anywhere from Target to Amazon to auto parts stores) and user-friendly. Gas stations occasionally have tire gauges available for public use, and the nice thing about this option is that if you discover your tires are low, you can use their air pump to refill. (Sometimes air is free, sometimes it costs money, so keep change on hand just in case!) And if you have no desire to check tire pressure on your own, you can take your car to your auto repair shop, where they will often check it for free or at a reduced rate.
3. Check Oil
If you’ve never read the owner’s manual to your car, now is a good time to start. I know, I know, how dull.
Be that as it may, your manual is advantageous for one important reason: It basically gives you a map of what’s under the car hood. This is where your fluids—engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid, windshield wiper fluid—live. The ability to check and change each of these is valuable, of course, but the main one to understand is engine oil.
- Open your hood and look for the dipstick, a long, thin stick with a little round circle tab at the end.
- Pull it out, wipe off the oil with a paper towel, put it back in, pull it out, and voila! An oil mark should line up accordingly with the dipstick notations.
- If low, add some oil and double-check. Do this about once a month.
Your oil should be changed every three months or 3,000 miles (roughly). Some newer vehicles suggest every 5,000 miles, so pull out your trusty manual to confirm mileage and what kind of oil is best for your car. You can definitely learn how to do this yourself and save money, or you can pay to have it done (anywhere from $30-75, depending on vehicle/oil type and location). In general, understanding how to check and/or refill car fluids can come in handy.
TIP: It’s a good idea to leave a small notebook in your glove compartment to store any maintenance or repair information about your car. Keep all receipts and overviews given to you, and also add a date section to jot down notes—when your tires were last rotated, when your battery was purchased, and at what mileage you purchased new tires. It may seem like overkill, but this information will come in handy and you will be able to respond to repair questions confidently.
4. Jumpstart a Dead Battery
If your battery dies, it’s nice to know how to jumpstart your car. And if someone else faces that same challenge, it’s awesome to be able to help. I really like this easy-to-follow tutorial and recommend printing off a copy to store in your glove compartment for later reference. This car skill is a little harder to “practice,” but you could do a fake run yourself just to familiarize yourself with battery location, jumper cables, and parking brake.
Car batteries are supposed to last 3-5 years on average, but often lose their charge for various reasons. Sometimes they just get too old, but often, you can avoid a dead battery by turning off lights and radio features when your car is not running.
TIP: if you are ever in a high traffic parking area (like say, an airport) and your battery dies, don’t fret! Call security as oftentimes they have a kit for jump starting cars on-hand and ready. You aren’t the first person who left a light on when you were running to catch that 6 a.m. flight.
5. Plan for an Emergency
Ever heard of “normalcy bias?” It’s when people underestimate the possibility of a disaster as well as the potential effects. Or as my husband likes to say, “Don’t assume it won’t happen to you.”
This may sound weird, but part of being car-savvy means being in tune (pun intended) with it, so that you are prepared in case of emergency such as an accident, mechanical problem, or incident of theft.
- Memorize your license plate and VIN number.
- Know the safety features of your car, such as where the airbags are location and how traction control works.
- Sync your electronics correctly in order to safely accept a call or listen to music on the road.
- Don’t ignore warning lights, and pay attention to weird clunk-clunk-clunk noises.
- Save contact information for roadside assistance (such as AAA), a local tow truck, and a mechanic in an accessible location.
- Keep a portable cell phone charger, bottled water, blanket, and a collapsible car shovel in your trunk. You never know when you’ll need it!