When you hop in your car, the last thing you expect is that you will find yourself in an emergency, but if you do find yourself in one, having a car emergency kit can make all the difference. By keeping an emergency kit in your car, you are empowering yourself to act during a crisis.
What do you need in a car emergency kit? A car emergency kit should include:
- Flat Tire System
- Jumper Cables
- Reflectors or Flares
- Duct Tape
- Phone and Charger
- First Aid Supplies
- Survival Gear
- Safety Tools
Whether you are swinging by the grocery store after work or planning a summer road trip, an emergency kit should always be in your vehicle. There is a good chance once your bag is packed, you will place it in the trunk, and it will sit there unneeded, but should something unexpected happen, that kit may save your life.
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Emergencies happen unexpectedly. When they occur, you can either fall victim to the situation or be prepared and take charge. What you pack in your emergency kit are tools to handle whatever arises.
An emergency can happen at once or can stem from a minor incident. The initial event in an emergency is usually manageable if you are prepared. If the event is not dealt with right away, it can escalate into a much more severe crisis. Below are common things that can lead to a car-related emergency:
- Flat Tire: It could be a slow hiss from a runover piece of glass or a big bang. When driving at high speeds, your car may suddenly jerk in one direction. The first step is to get to the side of the road safely. Once you are no longer at risk of crashing your vehicle, you can take on the next step, changing the tire.
- Stalled Engine: Several things can cause a stalled engine. When your engine does stall, you will lose power steering and the brake boost. You can still safely get out of traffic; your vehicle will just be harder to operate.
- Unforeseen Weather: High winds, whiteout conditions, and flash floods can happen without warning. The weather may force you to spend a night on the side of the road until conditions clear up.
- Unexpected Events: When you are driving along, and out of nowhere, a deer is staring you down, a texting driver swerves into your lane, or an 18-wheeler’s tire blows, your instant reaction will determine how things will play out.
Being prepared doesn’t prevent emergencies from happening but will allow you to keep it from getting worse.
Once you know what could go wrong, you can start building your car emergency kit. Your kit should be customized to the type of driving you do. If you limit your driving to short trips around town, getting groceries, driving the soccer carpool, or the daily commute to work, you can get by with the essentials.
Should an emergency happen, first responders can be there in a flash to help you out, so you don’t have to be prepared for the apocalypse. However, the following items are a few things worth keeping in your vehicle:
Flat Tire System
As inconvenient and potentially dangerous as getting a flat tire is, they do happen. Having the tools and knowledge to repair or replace a flat tire can save you a lot of time and money. Here is what you need to replace a flat tire:
- Spare Tire: Even if you think your car has a spare tire, take a second look. If you have a used car, got one from family, or even if it is brand new, there is a chance there isn’t one. According to Angie’s List, “to increase fuel efficiency, many manufacturers are eliminating the spare car tire.”
If you look and your brand-new sedan is missing its spare, don’t panic just yet. Some newer cars have special run-flat tires that enable you to drive for a certain distance after it is punctured. If you do have a spare stored away, be sure to check its pressure periodically. Information about spare tires can be found in the spare tire guide from Good Year.
- Lug Wrench: Also known as a wheel wrench, it is a type of socket wrench used on the lug nuts of a vehicle’s wheels.
- Car Jack: The jack is used to lift the car when changing the tire.
If you never changed a tire before or simply need a refresher, Popular Mechanics offers a detailed step-by-step guide on how to change one.
Besides getting a flat tire, a dead battery is a frequent event that can lead to an emergency. If you have jumper cables, all you need is another vehicle to give you a boost. You can use your cellphone to call a friend or flag down another car.
It is best if your cables are at least 10 feet long. This makes it easier for the wires to reach between the two vehicles.
Since jumpstarting a car requires you to get hands-on with a battery, be sure you do so safely. Car and Driver provides instructions to jumpstart a car.
Reflectors or Flares
Being stuck on the side of the road is a headache of its own but can instantly turn into a nightmare if your stopped car isn’t visible to other drivers. Even if it is a lovely sunny afternoon, having reflectors or flares signals to drivers to be more cautious when passing by. It can also signal a good Samaritan to stop and see if you need help.
Whether it’s a stalled engine, flat tire, or something else that is causing you to stop, be sure to pull as far off the road as you can. Turn your car flashers on and then with caution, place your reflectors or flares on the street to direct traffic away from your car. Three reflector triangles or flares should be placed:
- 10 feet behind your car on the side closest to the road
- 100 feet behind your car lined up with the middle of your vehicle
- 300 feet behind your car on the side farthest from the road
Depending on your level of know-how, you might want a more extensive set of tools available. If you don’t consider yourself the handiest person, then getting a multitool, such as the Gerber Suspension Multitool, is a good option. If you would rather assemble your own tool kit, be sure to include:
- A Variety of Wrenches
- Flathead Screwdriver
- Phillips Screwdriver
- Screw Holder
Having some form of tool kit in your car will let you fix minor car problems and often comes in useful for other things as well. Regardless of the size of your tool kit, be sure to keep it out of sight in your car. Visible tools can often lead to car break-ins.
Duct tape is a miracle worker. There seems to be an endless number of uses for it. If your fender or mirror decides to fall off, you can use duct tape to keep your car in one piece as you travel to the closet autobody shop.
Duct tape comes in fun colors and patterns, so you can certainly make a statement if you choose. However, it is recommended that you don’t go too overboard to avoid distracting fellow drivers from the road.
Flashlight and Batteries
A flashlight or headlamp and a set of extra batteries are essential to have. If you get stranded at night, you can use it to signal to other drivers. In bad weather, it will help make you more visible. It also makes tinkering under the hood easier.
First Aid Kit
First aid supplies can be daunting if you don’t know how to use them. American Red Cross offers courses for first aid, CPR, and more. Once you know how to help yourself or someone else, then it is crucial to keep a first aid kit in your car.
As you become more comfortable with providing first aid care, you can make your kit more comprehensive. Some basic first aid supplies to start your kit with are:
- Variety of Bandages
- Antibiotic Ointment
- Hydrocortisone Cream
- Instant Cold Compress
- Nitrile Gloves (latex-free)
- Pain Reliever
- Emergency/Space Blanket
With proper training and a good first aid kit, you can save the day by removing splinters, bandaging scraped knees, or even saving a life.
Even if you only go for short trips around town, keeping emergency food in your car is essential. If your blood sugar drops too low, your thinking may become unclear, or you risk having your head bitten off by a grumpy passenger.
The amount of food you keep in store depends on the driving you do. A granola bar or two is perfect for everyday ventures, but if you plan on traveling into a remote location or for a long trip, you will want to have more food with you.
Calorie dense foods are ideal for emergency kits. It lets you pack the most food in the smallest space. Perfect emergency foods are:
- Meal Bars
- Peanut Butter Crackers
- Unsalted Nuts
- Dried Fruit
Water is vital for survival. The amount of water you store depends on where you live. If you are in the dry southwest, consider keeping several bottles or a gallon of water in your car, away from direct sunlight or heat. Conversely, if you are in the drizzly pacific northwest, you might not want to keep as much on hand.
If you don’t want to deal with bottles of water rolling around your car, you can purchase water in a carton. A 24-pack of Boxed Water is Better will store easily in your vehicle and is better for the planet than plastic bottles.
It is understandable if you don’t want to keep a second closet in your car, but having a few items can be worth it. Some essential items include:
- Raincoat or Poncho: During the summer or if you live in a dry climate, you probably don’t carry a raincoat with you every day. If your car breaks down or you run out of gas and the sky opens above you, having one in your emergency kit or your trunk will help keep you dry and that much happier.
- Hat: An old baseball hat or wool hat is excellent for keeping your head warm, dry, or out of the blazing sun.
- Gloves: A pair of work gloves will keep you warm but also make changing a tire less painful for your hands.
A blanket might seem like a bit much to keep in your emergency kit, but they come in handy frequently. It will be your best friend if you find yourself stuck in a snowy mountain pass or need to lay on the ground to fix your car. They also are fantastic for when you decide on an impromptu picnic.
Pencil and Paper
A pencil and paper are good to keep in your glove box or center console. You can use them if you get into an accident and need to record insurance information. If someone has injuries, you can keep track of information to share with paramedics. You can jot down a shopping list, transcribe driving directions, the list of uses is infinite.
While any writing implement can work, a pencil is best because you don’t have to worry about it running out of ink. When your pencil gets dull, you can simply sharpen it with the knife on your multitool, or purchase a small pencil sharpener. You can also keep a mechanical pencil with extra lead on hand.
If you don’t like to be separated from your phone, it can be devastating when it runs out of battery. Always keep yourself connected by carrying a phone charger. If your car doesn’t have a USB port, then purchase a charger that can fit in an auxiliary power outlet, also known as the cigarette lighter socket.
For those trips that go beyond cell service or will take first responders longer to get to you, your emergency kit will need to include more than the everyday essentials.* If you are heading into the mountains, off to the coast, or just want to escape civilization, these additional items can keep you safe and having fun.
*Note: Remember to increase the amount of emergency food and water you have with these types of kits.
If you take a wrong turn on a forest road and find that you no longer have cell service, a hand-held GPS can help you find your way home. Be sure to bring spare batteries too.
Car Battery Charger
For those mornings when you wake to find your battery dead from leaving the lights on all night, a battery jump starter will be your savior. One such as the TOPVISION 2200A Peak Power Pack can jumpstart a 12V vehicle like magic.
Emergency Window Breaker/Seatbelt Cutter
If you ever find yourself unfortunate to be trapped in your vehicle, an escape device such as Lifehammer can be used to cut your seatbelt and break a window. Having your escape device neatly tucked away in the trunk with your emergency kit won’t be of much use when you need it, however. This is a tool that should be kept in the driver-side door, center console, or at furthest away, the glove box.
If you are someone that doesn’t want to risk it, then you can bulk out your car emergency kit with even more goodies. These are tools that you hopefully won’t need to use, but when the situation arises, you will thank yourself for having them.
Even though you are prepared with your spare tire, lug wrench, and jack, having a can of tire inflator/sealer is sometimes the preferred solution. All you have to do is attach the container to the tire valve stem and let it go to work. This is a very temporary fix, however, so finding a replacement is a top priority.
Depending on where you live, winter gear may be frequently used. If you don’t often think about snow and ice though, you will be relieved for having the following with you when a blizzard breaks out:
- Ice Scraper and Deicer: Being able to see out of your windshield can prevent an emergency from happening.
- Folding Shovel: If your car gets snowed in, a shovel will help get you back on the road.
- Snow Chains: In some areas, snow chains may be required to continue, such as through a mountain pass.
- Cat Litter: A little kitty litter on the ground can actually give your tires the traction they need on slippery or loose sand/gravel areas.
If the sun is something you aren’t used to seeing where you live, then keeping some summer gear accessible is a good idea. Sunny days usually make for ideal driving conditions but if you suddenly find that you are squinting your eyes or on the roadside without shade the following are useful:
- Aloe Vera
Hand Crank Radio
If a natural disaster or other major emergency occurs, it will be imperative to know what is going on. A hand crank or solar radio will keep you in the loop. The Compass Culture Brand radio has a built-in flashlight and SOS signal for extra peace of mind.
If a fire starts, putting it out quickly will keep an emergency from escalating. You can purchase a fire extinguisher specifically for vehicles. They are more compact but still pack a punch.
Different types of fire common with vehicles include:
- Solid Materials – wood, paper, or fabric
- Flammable Liquids – gas, diesel, or oil
- Flammable Gases – acetylene, propane, methane
Not all fire extinguishers work on all types of fire. Be sure to read the label to know what kind of fire it will put out.
Safewise’s article Be Prepared: How to Properly Use a Fire Extinguisher can help you deal with a fire calmly and with confidence.
If you know your way around a car, then toting a few extra parts can be worth it. When your headlight goes out, or you are low on antifreeze, you can get the job done yourself. Consider adding the following to your emergency car kit:
- Extra Radiator Cap
- Light Bulbs
- Motor Oil
- Replacement Fuses
- Spark Plugs
- Tire Pressure Gauge
- Windshield Wiper Blades
If you find yourself in a ditch or stuck in the snow, you may not need to call a tow truck if you are prepared with tow straps. If you are lucky enough to have another vehicle around together, you can get yourself free.
Recovery tow straps are made from nylon and come in different lengths and widths. If you drive a small or medium-size car 2” x 16” is probably good enough. If you have a bigger vehicle, opt for larger straps.
For information on how to pull a car using straps, check out the post on USCC.
Needing to go to the bathroom, but being stuck in your car is miserable. If you think this is a situation you could ever find yourself in or if you need to make an unanticipated pit stop, then keeping emergency sanitation equipment in the car is a good idea. A few things to make a potentially messy situation a bit better are:
- Toilet Paper
- Unscented Baby Wipes
- Ziploc Bags
- Garbage Bag
- Hand Sanitizer
If you travel with children, having these supplies on hand is generally a good idea anyway.
An emergency is stressful for everyone. If you are stranded on the roadside or are waiting for help to arrive, having a comfort item can help lift your spirits. Think about including one or more of the following:
- Family Photo
- Small Stuffed Animal
- Deck of Cards
- Favorite Candy Bar
Even if you don’t feel a comfort item would be beneficial to you, it might be for your passengers.
Some of the items in your emergency kit need to be kept close to the driver, such as a window breaker/seatbelt cutter. Others, such as your spare tire, might have built-in storage space within your vehicle. To prevent the rest of your emergency kit items from scattering all over your car, however, consider buying a storage bag or organizer.
If an emergency does occur, you don’t want to waste precious time looking under seats for an escaped roll of duct tape. By keeping everything together and organized, you will be ready to go.
Having a car emergency kit and knowing how to use everything in it is terrific, but your preparedness doesn’t have to stop there. By exploring available resources, you can discover something that may reduce travel anxiety, reassure you of your skills, or make the open road even more inviting.
If you don’t trust your ability to change a tire or deal with running out of gas on your own, then consider joining a roadside assistance program. Several popular programs include:
- AAA: Members receive roadside assistance, discounts, and travel packages.
- Better World Club: An eco-friendly auto club that provides roadside assistance for “green” cars and bicycles.
- National General Motor Club: Members receive roadside assistance and discounts on dining, shopping, and entertainment.
- Good Sam: Membership covers your whole family (dependent children under 25) and provides roadside assistance and discounts.
If you are hesitant to join an assistance program, try checking with your phone company. AT&T and Verizon offer some roadside assistance. Most insurance companies and many credit card companies provide help as well.
New drivers typically go through a driver’s education course before getting their license, but that might not cover more than the basics of safe driving. If you are a more well-seasoned driver, you can still benefit from educational resources. Knowing how to drive safely is important, but knowing what to do when something goes wrong is vital.
Think about what you already know and then do a little research to fill in any gaps. Knowing how to prevent an emergency and how to handle an emergency could be the difference between life and death for you, a stranger, or a loved one. Below are some resources to boost your knowledge:
- ready.gov – car safety tips
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – road safety information
- AAA Exchange – driving advice
- I Drive Safely – driving in bad weather
- Family Handyman – emergency guide
So, you’ve packed your car emergency kit up and stowed it away under a seat or in the trunk. It will hopefully stay there indefinitely, except for once a year, when you take it out and look through it. Replace any expired food or medical supplies. Looking at what you have might inspire you to add a new gadget to your kit.
With your emergency kit up to date, you are ready to head out on your next road trip. With all your gear and know-how, you can plan for the best but are prepared for the worst. Since not everyone will be as prepared as you, though, consider being that good Samaritan for someone else who, in the pouring rain, is standing on the side of the road with smoke billowing out from their car hood.