How To Prepare a Truck for a Young Driver

Updated on Feb 16, 2024

For most parents, a child’s sixteenth birthday brings mixed emotions. That 16th year grants adolescents the legal right to a driver’s license, which reduces the driving load on parents but instills fears of break-downs, accidents, and other road hazards. It’s these reasons that help dictate a child’s first vehicle. After all, would you rather trust your 16-year-old with a quick, compact sports car or a large, safe, and less-than-exciting pickup truck? If you chose the latter, you’re in the majority. 

Presenting a young driver with the keys to an aging pickup includes its share of upsides and downsides, though overall safety and relative reliability tend to outweigh fuel economy. Still, we recommend preparing the pickup before passing off your aging work truck or dump runner. 

In this guide, we’re tackling preparing a pickup truck for a young driver, ensuring maximum reliability and safety! Read on as we cover general maintenance, protection, and basic considerations when picking out a new driver's first pickup.

Perform Maintenance Inspections

Before passing over the keys, performing a thorough once-over of the truck is essential. The goal here isn’t perfection but safe and reliable transportation. Let’s cover the various areas to inspect to ensure safety and longevity.

Check Tire Age, Tread, and Overall Condition

One of the first areas to inspect is the pickup’s tires. Tires significantly impact driveability, traction, and safety. They’re also an excellent indicator of suspension condition, as uneven wear can indicate worn components on the chassis.


To inspect tires, we’ll consider a few different areas. First, verify the age of the tire using the TIN (Tire Identification Number) stamp found on the inner/outer sidewall. This number typically begins with ‘DOT’ (Department of Transportation) and ends with a four-digit numeral, indicating the tire’s age in week/year format. For example, a tire with a tin of ‘DOTXXXXXXX3815’ was manufactured during the 38th week of 2015. As a general rule, tires should be replaced at least once every six years.

Tread Depth

Another factor to consider is tread depth. The Department of Transportation states that a replacement is due once a tire’s tread depth reaches below 2/32 inches. To accurately measure a tire’s tread depth, consider stopping by a tire shop. For DIY inspections, consider ordering a tire gauge or performing a Penny Test. This test consists of holding a penny upside down between tread blocks. If the top of Abe Lincoln’s head is hidden, you’re still in good shape! However, if Lincoln’s entire head is exposed, your tires have reached the end of their lifespan.

Wear Pattern

Lastly, let’s cover tire wear. With proper rotations, every 5,000–7,500 miles, wear should have relatively even wear across the tread surface. However, it’s common to find signs of uneven wear on aging vehicles. This uneven wear stems from suspension issues, such as worn components (ball joints, steering linkage, shocks/struts, bushings), poor alignment, or over/underinflation. Common wear patterns include: 

  • Cupping: Scalloped tread blocks indicating worn suspension

  • Inner/Outer Edge Wear: Underinflation

  • Center Wear: Overinflation

  • Inner Edge Wear: Improper camber/toe alignment

  • Outer Edge Wear: Improper camber/toe alignment

If it’s time to replace your pickup’s tires, check out our resources on RealSource, including: 

Inspect Brake Condition: Rotors, Pads, and Calipers

Next, let’s take a look at the pickup’s brake system. Brakes are an integral safety and driveability component, bringing the pickup to a stop in a safe, controlled, and timely manner. Unfortunately, years of use can take a toll on brake components, reducing effectiveness and requiring replacements, typically every 25,000–65,000 miles, depending on driving conditions and driving style. Typical drivability symptoms indicating excessive brake wear include: 

  • Extended stopping distances

  • Pulling to one side while braking

  • Pulsing brake pedal while braking

  • Squealing or grinding while braking

  • Illuminated ABS/Brake light

  • Sinking brake pedal while depressed

  • Uncharacteristically hard/soft brake pedal

Your pickup’s brake system comprises various components, including rotors, brake rotors, brake pads, and brake lines. Some older applications also feature drum brakes, which utilize brake shoes, brake drums, and the brake cylinder. Aside from drivability tests, you can also conduct visual tests for brake wear. 

First, inspect the rotors for excessive grooving. If you can visually see sizable ridges, cracks, or heat marks in the brake rotors, they’re likely due for a replacement or resurfacing. Next, inspect the calipers and brake lines for any signs of fluid leakage. Lastly, measure the brake pads, verifying that plenty of pad life remains. The truck’s brakes are in good condition if all tests check out!  

However, if it’s time to replace your pickup’s brakes, check out our resources on RealSource, including: 

Verify Fluid Levels and Conditions (Coolant, Oil, Transmission Fluid, Differential Oil, Brake Fluid, Washer Fluid)

With tires and brakes covered, let's assess the pickup’s fluids, specifically levels and conditions. A vehicle’s fluids serve several functions, from cooling to lubricating to cleaning. Let’s cover the most vital fluids to monitor and when to replace them. 


Coolant, or antifreeze, circulates through your truck’s cooling system, including the radiator, water pump, engine block, heater core, and various heater hoses. This fluid helps your truck’s engine and transmission quickly reach and maintain ideal operating temperatures. To check fluid levels, inspect the coolant reservoir when cold, ensuring the fluid level reads at or above the ‘Cold Minimum’ marking. 

Additionally, inspect the coolant’s overall condition. While coolant types vary in hue, fresh coolant should be relatively bright, transparent, and sweet smelling. If the coolant is thick and muddy, there's likely oil/coolant contamination. If the coolant is opaque and rust-colored, the truck's likely due for a coolant flush. Coolant lifespans vary by vehicle, though most manufacturers recommend routine replacements between 2–5 years and 25,000–100,000 miles. Consult the owner’s manual for your pickup’s specifics.

Engine Oil

Engine oil is an essential lubricant pumped from the sump in the oil pan, through the engine’s oil galleys, and to metal-on-metal contact points and bearing surfaces. This lubricant prevents excessive friction and, thus, wear. In most cases, engine oil requires servicing every 5,000–7,500 miles or every six months, whichever comes first. 

When inspecting your truck’s oil, do so with the engine off and cold. Pull the dipstick and verify that the oil level falls in the appropriate area on the dipstick, typically between dots or hash marks. Also, monitor the oil for color and condition. Milky oil may indicate a breach between the combustion chamber and the coolant system, while dark and burnt-smelling oil indicates an oil change is due.

Transmission Fluid

Like engine oil, transmission fluid is an essential fluid that cools and lubricates transmission components, ensuring a long lifespan and proper operation. Most modern automatics utilize ATF, or automatic transmission fluid, which features a strong odor and vibrant red color when new. Typically, ATF requires replacements every 60,000–100,000 miles. 

When inspecting ATF, first verify the level at the dipstick. This procedure is typically performed with the engine running, the gear selector in park, and the vehicle stopped on a level surface; consult the owner’s manual for your pickup’s specific instructions. The level should fall in the appropriate area on the dipstick, typically between dots or hash marks. 

Next, verify color and smell. The fluid should be bright red and transparent; if dark, brown, or burnt-smelling, it’s time for a transmission service. If thick and milky, this indicates a breach between the transmission fluid and cooling system, likely at a radiator-mounted transmission cooler.

Differential Oil

Differential oil is found in every drive axle, cooling and lubricating bearings, seals, clutches, and gears to ensure long service life. This oil is typically golden in color and carries a strong odor; once deteriorated, the fluid darkens and may smell burnt. Typically, differential oil requires replacement every 40,000–60,000 miles. 

To verify differential oil levels, pull the inspection plug and feel for a fluid level, which typically sits just below the fill plug. Alternatively, we recommend installing aftermarket differential covers with integrated dipsticks, like the Rugged Ridge Boulder Aluminum Differential Cover!

Brake Fluid

Though we already covered brakes, let’s touch on brake fluid. This hydraulic fluid pressurizes brake caliper pistons and brake cylinders, which clamp pads to rotors to create friction. However, when brake fluid reaches its maximum lifespan (approximately 3 years or 45,000 miles), it’s due for a replacement! 

When new, brake fluid is crystal clear. However, years of service may result in a deep, brown color. If brake fluid appears as any color besides clear, it’s time for a brake fluid flush. During inspection, also verify that fluid levels coincide with markings on your pickup’s brake fluid reservoir.

Washer Fluid

Lastly, check the washer fluid. If you can’t see out of the windshield, you can’t drive! Most vehicles feature a washer fluid level sensor; if the washer fluid light illuminates on the dash or the washer fluid nozzles refuse to spray, top off the reservoir.

Test the Car Alarm

Next, consider testing the truck’s alarm system, if applicable. These systems help to prevent break-ins, and there’s nothing worse than a thief smashing a window for a school backpack! To verify that the alarm system is operating correctly, perform two quick tests. First, press the ‘Panic’ button on the key fob, ensuring the alarm sounds. Secondly, sit inside the vehicle with the doors closed and lock them with the key fob, arming the alarm. Manually unlock and open the door, verifying that the alarm sounds. 

The truck’s security system works as designed if both tests result in an alarm!

Test, Replace, and Upgrade Lighting

Lastly, let’s test all lighting, including:

  • Headlights (low and high beams)

  • Fog Lights

  • Marker lights

  • Turn Signals (front and rear)

  • Reverse lights

  • Tail lights

  • Brake Lights

  • License Plate Lights

To test the truck’s lights, turn the ignition to 'Run' and cycle through the light modes, ensuring all lights illuminate as expected; employ another individual to monitor the functionality of brake and reverse lights. If any lights fail to illuminate, check out our selection of light bulbs! However, if all lights function as designed, it’s time to check the condition of the housings. 

Analyze the condition of the headlight, tail light, and marker lenses. While lenses naturally oxidize with age, any severely oxidized housings should be refinished or replaced with quality headlights or tail lights from RealTruck! Crystal clear lenses not only look superior, but also significantly improve light output, clarity, and low-light visibility. Nothing’s more troublesome than a new driver with dim headlights!

Protect the Truck and Your New Driver

With the pickup in proper working order, it’s time to consider some modifications and accessories! This section covers some of our top products to protect your new driver and their pickup, ensuring maximum safety and longevity.

Aftermarket Bumpers

As every parent knows, it’s not if a new driver will be involved in an accident, but when. Preparation for that inevitable occurrence is key, and there’s no better prep than installing heavy-duty aftermarket bumpers!  

Aftermarket bumpers, like the Steelcraft Elevation Front Bumper, offer exceptional durability and impact resistance via durable alloy constructions. Most also feature accessory mounts for auxiliary lights, tow hooks, and more, enhancing functionality and overall safety.

Floor Mats and Liners

Next, let’s discuss floor mats and liners, offering exceptional protection to a pickup’s interior and cargo area. 

Floor mats help to safeguard a pickup’s interior, particularly stain and wear-prone carpet flooring. With robust, all-weather constructions, form-fit designs, and innovative spill guards, products like Husky Liners WeatherBeater Floor Liners, and WeatherTech DigitalFit Floor Liners will keep your pickup’s flooring in like-new condition, even after a football game, hike, or trek through the snow! 

Moving to the truck's rear, we also offer a wide selection of bed mats and liners to guard painted finishes against scratches, chips, and unsightly dings. Products like the BedRug Classic Bed Liner and Husky Liners Heavy Duty Truck Bed Mat offer exceptional protection, non-slip finishes, and improved comfort via thick rubber constructions or integrated foam padding.

Rocker Panel and Body Side Molding

Guard your truck’s doors against chips and door dings with our selection of rocker panel and body side molding; if not from your kids, then their friends! Door dings are unsightly, expensive to repair, and easily avoidable with protective moldings and trim. Plus, these products, like EGR Body Side Molding and ICI Stainless Steel Rocker Panels provide any truck with sleek, stylish aesthetics!

Window Safety Film

As stated previously, accidents happen. And when they do, you’ll want your child to be as protected as possible. For this reason, we recommend applying a high-quality security film to windows, preventing cuts and injuries from loose glass in an accident. Like window tint, safety film covers a truck’s windows in a thin, highly transparent layer. If a window shatters during an accident, the safety film holds the glass together, preventing minor cuts, abrasions, and other injuries.

Store Emergency Supplies

Packing for an emergency when your new driver hits the road is vital. Though we’ve performed several maintenance inspections and bolstered protection, preparing for the worst is always recommended. To do so, we recommend stocking several emergency supplies in a well-organized manner, including: 

All items should be easily accessible and organized. Products like the Husky Liners GearBox Storage Boxes and Covercraft Carhartt Seatback Organizer offer several cubbies and storage compartments to arrange emergency supplies. Check out our related resources on RealSource, including: 

Consider Where and How Much Your New Driver Will Drive

What’s your new driver’s schedule? When preparing a pickup for a new driver, consider how often they'll drive, how far they'll drive, and how tough of terrain the truck will traverse, as these factors may determine subsequent modifications. 

If frequently driving long distances, consider installing performance upgrades to improve fuel economy, like air intakes, exhaust systems, and programmers. However, if frequently driving over challenging terrain, consider upgrading the pickup’s suspension and tires

Check out our suspension, tires, and performance upgrade resources on RealSource, including:

Review the Pros and Cons of Different Trucks

Last on the list is a pickup overview, considering the characteristics, pros, and cons of different pickup truck makes and models. Now, this factor won’t apply to hand-me-down trucks. However, consider these factors if you’re in the market for a new/used pickup for your new driver.


First, consider your budget when shopping for a new/used truck. Most pickups hold their resale value, so you’ll likely spend more on a used pickup than a used car or SUV of the same age or miles. Whichever route you choose, we recommend striking a balance between condition, age, and price. Most new drivers acquire a fair share of dings, scratches, and fender benders on their first vehicle, so consider an older, affordable option with a solid service history.


Next, consider a vehicle’s reliability and cost of maintenance. When shopping for a new driver’s first pickup, consider options with good reliability track records, low maintenance costs, and easily attainable replacement/repair parts, like a GMT-800 Chevy Silverado or 10th-gen Ford F-150.

Fuel Efficiency

Though not as essential as price and reliability, fuel efficiency is another factor to consider, especially with high-school and college-aged young adults. When money’s tight, weekly fill-ups in a gas-guzzling full-size pickup can take a toll on already sparse bank accounts. Consider steering your new driver toward a more efficient, mid-size option like a Toyota Tacoma.

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