I remember my dad having the shop "pack the bearings" on the family car. Is this something I need to have done?
That is a great question. In the past all wheel bearings were routinely serviceable. This old style of wheel bearing requires periodic service of cleaning, reapplying grease, resealing and adjusting tension. Modern vehicles come with "maintenance free" wheel bearings. The benefit of these bearings is that there is no routine maintenance required during the useful bearing life. When the bearing wears out it must be replaced as an assembly. This improved technology is costly and bearing replacement is more expensive with a sealed bearing than it was previously with serviceable bearings.
But what is the bearing for? The wheel bearings in your vehicle make sure your wheels rotate smoothly. This friction and constant rotation generates a lot of heat. The wheel bearing is packed in grease for lubrication. The term "packing the bearings" refers to putting fresh grease around the bearings.
So unless you are driving an older vehicle or a trailer you very likely have sealed wheel bearings and no need to have them serviced until they are worn out. This wear will present itself as a noise while driving or excessive wheel movement identified by your service technician.
Wheel bearings on trailers are almost always serviceable. This means anything from a monster sized fifth-wheel camper to a little utility trailer. Boat trailers are especially susceptible because the hot wheel bearings are plunged into cold water when launching a boat into the lake. This temperature difference can draw water into the bearings. Have the bearings repacked at the end of the season to prevent corrosion.
It is a good practice for trailer owners to have maintenance service on their trailer wheels annually. On trailers that are used in frequently we recommend servicing the bearings every two years.