Cleveland to Seattle: Part 1 - The Preparation

It's been a few years since we moved to Seattle (or more precisely, the Pacific Northwest, or something, since we aren't technically in a Seattle zipcode) but since someone finally expressed interest in our epic, uh, adventure, I need to write this up. Plus I found exactly zero information on this when I was searching before, so...

Here's how I solved the problem of moving two people and one dog and two cars and a bunch of assorted belongings from Cleveland, Ohio, to Seattle, Washington.

Primary objectives were minimal cost. Actually, now that I think about it, that was really the only fixed objective. Why would I want to spend more money than I had to? Besides, it was kind of fun to see how little we could do it with.

First things first: we had to get rid of things we couldn't afford to bring. For me, that meant my 1985 VW Cabriolet and my 1993 BMW 318i. Oh well. Shipping cars from the rust belt to the west coast is costly and stupid, and my dog can't drive. So they had to go. This was actually the hardest part of the preparation. You may not have this problem - you may hate your cars, in which case this should be much easier.

Next decision: truck or trailer? Unless you are traveling very light indeed (in which case, you don't really have any preparation or logistics to worry about, do you?) you'll probably have a bunch of stuff you'll want to bring with you. In our case it was things as diverse as a queen size bed (worthless when used, not cheap to replace) and a chest freezer (likewise). Bulky. Annoying. Necessary.

If you have a tow vehicle, a trailer is definitely the cheap way to go. Uhaul will charge you $600 even to rent their largest trailer, a 6 x 12, one way from Cleveland to Seattle. There are no mileage penalties - how could there be? Your tow vehicle is probably something that you're going to be wanting to move anyway. It'll take a pretty serious mileage penalty for the trip, but a box truck is going to be even more thirsty.

If you don't have a tow vehicle, a truck is the only way to go. Uhaul wants $1400 for a 14 foot truck from Cleveland to Seattle. I haven't done this, so I can't comment on mileage, but their quoted figure of 10 miles per gallon is probably fairly optimistic. Expect quite a bit less when you're towing a car.

In my case, I happened to have a tow vehicle. I had bought a 2006 Grand Caravan as a windsurfing, camping, snowboarding, practical kind of vehicle, and while I hadn't intended to two anything with it when I bought it, it was heavy, had fantastic brakes, and plenty of torque. My only concern was that it lacked a proper transmission cooler. There's an optional tow package for the vehicle that includes an uprated transmission cooler, but I bought my van used and it didn't have that. Darn. I was just going to have to keep a very close eye on the transmission. More on that later.

Of course, my van didn't come with a hitch. The tow package doesn't even include a hitch, that's an optional feature. I've always liked Hidden Hitch's products, and I spent about $170 on a Class II hitch from them, with a 1 1/4 inch receiver.

It bolted right up. Well, no, that's not true, the first one I got was damaged in shipping and the mounting plate was bent. But that was the vendor's fault. You might want to go with a step up from the lowest price vendor you can find on Google...

Ok, the second one bolted right up. I did have to get a torque wrench to install it correctly, but I needed one anyway. However, that's an additional cost to consider if you're not getting it professionally installed.

Those mounting bolts take a huge amount of torque, but the hitch is a Class II and rated to 3500 pounds and a 350 pound tongue weight. Astute observers may notice that the base Grand Caravan is only rated to tow 1800 pounds. So why didn't I go with a Class I hitch? Because the van is heavy enough, and powerful enough, and has enough brakes to pull more. It's tow rating changes to 3800 pounds with the optional tow package, which includes... a transmission cooler. That's it, for my model year, as far as I can tell. I couldn't discover any other item that it would have added to my van. So yeah, given the choices, I opted for the bigger, stronger hitch. Overcapacity doesn't hurt. My van has beefy four wheel discs and a load leveling suspension. So the only risk I ran exceeding the manufacturers tow rating is overheating my transmission. Well, this is a pretty serious risk, so I strapped a temperature sensor to my (stock) transmission cooler feed line so I could monitor the transmission temperature while driving. This proved to be very, very useful.

Yes, that's correct, I zip-tied a high-temperature thermistor to the feed line. Hey, it was surprisingly accurate.

That completed the prep work for my tow vehicle. I ordered a 4 pole trailer harness along with my hitch, and installed it behind the jack access hatch inside the rear of the minivan. It just runs out underneath the lift-gate when it's in use. Not very exciting, but necessary.

Oh, wait: that didn't exactly complete the prep work for my tow vehicle. I put a fresh batch of Amsoil 0w-20 (the 3.3 liter V6 in the Caravan loves it, I switched it to synthetic on buying the van) in the engine, with a Bosch oil filter. I wanted to swap the transmission fluid to something synthetic with more protection, but the factory warranty was in effect, and I decided it was better to potentially discover a weak transmission without breaking the seal on the transmission pan. A high quality synthetic ATF will keep doing it's job at much higher temperatures than the stuff in most factory transmissions. For the record, no issues 25k miles later, although I did not overheat the transmission substantially at any point. I could easily have had I wished to or not had any idea of how hot the transmission was getting.

Getting a tow package installed at the dealer might be a wise investment if you have the money. The transmission cooler would be well worth it, and it will improve the resale value of the vehicle, if you get it done at the dealer. Keep records.

The other vehicle didn't really need any prep work. This was a Saab 9-3, a modern car that had proven to be very reliable runner, and had less than 70k miles. It got a fresh batch of Castrol 10w-40 and a Bosch filter. Maybe I'm weird because I won't put less than a Bosch filter on my cars, but I have this bizarre notion that they care about the quality perception of their brand, spend a little more on their filters, and the chance of one of them rupturing or going into bypass mode early is lower than other (cheap) brands. If you DIY your own oil changes, you know this already. If not, get a trusted mechanic to go over your vehicles before the trip.

So both vehicles got fresh oil. Neither needed nor received fresh coolant, although I always carry a gallon of pre-mixed coolant and at least that much distilled water on long trips where a vehicle overheating is a possibility. You will be crossing mountains on this trip, although not deserts, and with a heavily loaded vehicle, if something goes wrong with your cooling, you could lose a lot of coolant quickly. Or, even, if you're not paying attention. Watch those gauges. Seriously.

I inflated the donut spare in the Saab. Never been used, and completely flat. So, essentially, dead weight. I'd check both your spares. And your jacks.

Also, I have an 'emergency shit' bag for trips like this. It contains, in order of importance:
  • Jumper cables
  • Flashlight (Glowsticks are acceptable substitute)
  • Duct tape
  • Flares
  • Adjustable wrench (12" min, bigger if you have it)
  • Lug nut Star wrench (try to find a small one)
  • Inverter (150w minimum)
  • Extension cord
It's a big duffel bag. I love it like a close friend. Therefore it goes in whichever vehicle I am driving.

Next: Logistics.