Upgrade Your Vehicle's Emergency Kit
Stock these items to stay safe while on the road
Whether you’re embarking on an epic road trip or leaving your pandemic lockdown bunker for the first time in weeks, having a well stocked emergency kit is essential. You could be stranded far from home and family, face mechanical or medical problems, or have to deal with extreme weather events.
This is the emergency kit I keep on hand at all times. You can easily expand it for specific activities like four-wheeling.
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- A warm blanket: Double fleece blanket kit which cheaply makes an excellent blanket (and Fabric Scissors if you don’t have them)
- Emergency poncho(s)
- Heavy duty ratchet tie-down straps
- 12 Volt tire inflator
- Tow / winch strap
- ODB2 Scanner
- Car fuse pack
- Your wheel nut socket (if you have keyed lug nuts)
- Air pressure gauge and tire deflator
- Car jump starter and USB Battery (and a power port USB adapter)
- A flashlight (your cell phone light is not enough)
- Pencil and paper
- Travel toilet paper
- USB C and/or Micro USB charging cables for your devices
- A tool roll (plus zip ties)
- Jumper cables and tote
- A collapsible tire iron and a small bottle jack if your car doesn’t have one
- Emergency Warning Triangles
- First aid kit (including at least two tourniquets if you’re trained)
Ok, now in a little more detail:
Photo by author
“A towel, [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.” - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
A warm, washable blanket - I’m going to suggest a blanket instead of a towel. In a worst case scenario, where you’re stranded overnight, temperatures can drop suddenly in many areas. You could get soaked in a rainshower or have spent too much time in the snow. Since it’s washable, you can use it on the ground for a picnic blanket, keep it to stay warm if you get stuck in the cold, or even bring it inside wherever you’re staying if you need an extra blanket. There are many emergencies that can be survived by keeping warm, and many situations that are made comfortable by having a blanket on hand. An emergency poncho is never a bad idea either.
This one is a double-fleece blanket “no sew kit” that my spouse made. It comes as two sizable fleece blankets. The kit will explain, but you join the two blankets together by cutting “fringe” into each edge and trying it together. Fabric scissors are a must for this project, but truly no sewing is required. When finished, it is a very durable, very warm blanket that’s still cozy and compact.
Photo by author
There are any number of ways your vehicle can get stuck. I keep several compact items on hand to get me out of most of these situations.
You don’t have to have a truck bed to make use of these. Many cars have roof racks, these can be used to bind boxes together, or can even be used in place of rope in many situations. I’ve even seen these used as an emergency winch or used to hold a bumper to the car after an accident (caution: just like rope, straps can snap violently if they break).
Maybe you didn’t check the air pressure on your spare tire like you’re supposed to, or maybe you develop a slow leak in a tire on the road. Maybe you’re driving on graded roads, dirt, or deep snow and want to reduce your tire pressure, and then repressurize for driving on asphalt roads. As a bonus, get a 120V to 12V converter and you can use this from a wall plug at home as well. This unit does a good job of airing up from your car’s 12V power source / cigarette lighter.
If you do get stuck, sometimes you can get another vehicle to pull you out or two a safe location. Don’t rely on that good samaritan having a tow strap, though. Have your own available. Having one of these on hand may be the difference between waiting two hours for a tow truck and having a friend pull you back onto the road out of a small snow drift in five minutes.
4. ODB2 Scanner
Oh no! Your check engine light is on! Is it something dire or are you out of washer fluid? Many auto shops will read your codes for free, but you may not be near an auto shop, may only find ones that want to charge you for the service, or may not feel safe driving a vehicle with a check engine light on to an auto shop. This scanner pairs with a free app on your phone and lets you read the code and even reset your check engine light.
Double check that your fuse panels use the bladed fuse types (most cars do), and then get an assortment of fuses. Keep a couple of the kinds your car uses on hand for emergencies. I was in a heavy storm one time where the rain kept shorting out my headlights. I was in the middle of the desert and didn’t have a way to fix the actual problem, but had a couple fuses on hand, which let me drive to safety with my headlights on.
6. Keyed lug socket
I always replace the lug nuts on my wheels with keyed versions so it’s a little harder for someone to steal my wheels and tires. I’ll admit it’s slightly questionable to keep the key for the nuts in your car (at least it requires the thief to take more time), but I certainly don’t want to need to change a tire and not have the key.
Sold here as a kit. It’s always good to have a tire pressure gauge on hand. You may not need the deflators, but I really like them. You can set them to specific tire pressures (via trial and error) so you can quickly deflate all your tires at the same time if you want to reduce tire pressure for better traction in snow, mud, or ice. There’s no worry of over-deflating if you’ve also got your 12 volt tire inflator on hand.
I was a doubter, but now I’m a believer. The battery pack in my picture is an older model with lower amperage than this one, but even so, I have managed to jump start three cars with it in the past two years! You can charge it via USB (including charging it from your running vehicle or a power port USB adapter) and leave it in the car for a year at a time, I’ve found. It won’t start a car with a really dead batter, but in most cases, it’s worked. It can also be used as an emergency battery to power cell phones or other electronic devices and recharged when convenient.
A dedicated flashlight - You can use your cell phone’s light in most cases, but if it’s wet or dirty or your cell phone is dead, you might want or need a real flashlight. I keep this one in the car and it’s held its charge for up to a year at a time. It’s very bright, and can be charged via USB.
Pencil and paper are important to have. Take down insurance information, directions, notes on what you need to buy at the next gas station, anything. You can’t always rely on your cell phone in an emergency.
Travel toilet paper - If you’re absolutely stuck, nothing is worse than not having toilet paper. You can dig a cat hole on the side of the road or in the woods if necessary, or just have it on hand for when the vacation cabin in the middle of nowhere isn’t stocked. Biodegradable TP is safe for most septic systems, and vastly preferred if you have an emergency or hiking-related “movement” to take care of.
USB cables for your car and devices - Make sure you have a good quality cable or two for each kind of device you need to power. Many phones and tablets are now USB C, but most other devices still use Micro USB. Make sure to have them on hand to charge your devices!
USB power in your car - If you don’t have USB power in your car already, convert a power jack with this device. Similarly, it’s good to keep a 120V USB power converter around so you can charge while at a gas station or restaurant in an emergency.
Tools and Jumper Cables
Tools - Even if you’re not the mechanical type, someone else might be. You can fix small things or make small repairs on the road that would otherwise cause trouble or strand you. I had plenty of spare tools, so I bought this tool roll to include everything. If you don’t already have a bunch of tools, I’d look at a prebuilt roll like this one. Either way, most kits don’t include the incredibly useful zip tie and you should get some.
Jumper cables and tote - Keep your USB jump start battery for bigger emergencies. If possible, I use my jumper cables. I like to get the twenty foot cables because you usually can park the cars in front and behind each other instead of parking nose to nose, which makes many situations far safer. The tote is just nice to keep the long cables organized.
Car jack and Tire iron - These likely came with your car and are already stowed, but if not, make sure you have them on hand. A collapsible tire iron will fit in your tool roll, and a small bottle jack doesn’t take up much space.
Emergency Warning Triangles - They fold up to these small boxes here, but are 16.5 inches per side and a must-have for keeping cars away from you and your vehicle when stopped on the side of the road.
First aid kit - This is the one I use, and for the price, it’s hard to beat. I also recommend taking a “Stop the Bleed” class and then keeping some tourniquets on hand as well. They’re small and could save a life!. If you would rather make your own kit, see our article on that subject here.
Bonus Kit 1 - Kid kit
No extra purchase necessary. I use an old wipe bin and stuff a spare change of clothes, a baby cloth, and wipes in it. Close it up and you’re ready for a variety of messy child emergencies.
Bonus Kit 2 - Winter kit
Wrap it up
I had this old velcro bag laying around, but you want any durable bag (canvas, for example) to stow everything above in an organized way. You can move the bag between cars if you’re traveling with friends who don’t keep a kit on hand. Hopefully you will just forget about it until the day comes when you need it!
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