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What to pack in a car emergency kit

Although new and late-model cars are generally reliable, there’s no guarantee that they won’t break down at the worst possible time. And, sometimes it’s not a mechanical issue that stops your trip; it’s an accident, a flat tire, or the weather. That’s why keeping an emergency kit in your trunk is crucial, especially if you’re taking a long drive.

Here are some of the items we’d pack before trekking across the country.

Further reading

Primary emergency kit items

Flashlight (with extra batteries)

123RF/mytroSukharevskyy

One of the most important items to pack in an emergency kit is a flashlight. Whether you’re changing a tire on the side of the road or simply trying to flag down help, a little bit of light can go a long way. Pack extra batteries, too, in case the ones in your flashlight have been drained. And, keep it close, like in the glovebox, rather than in the trunk.

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Reflectors

123RF/VladyslavStarozhylov

One of the most dangerous aspects of being stuck on the side of a highway is the risk of a collision with a passing vehicle. Placing at least one reflector several yards behind your vehicle will warn other drivers and create a buffer between you and oncoming traffic. Reflects are often triangle-shaped, like the one shown above.

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First-aid kit

123RF/Zerbor

Having a first-aid kit at your disposal is crucial if you’re involved in a minor accident. Whether it’s a fender-bender with another car or a misstep while hiking, it’s wise to carry bandages, antiseptics, and pain relievers.

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Fire extinguisher

123RF/OlegDudko

It’s a good idea to have a fire extinguisher within reach when you’re dealing with combustibles, like gasoline. After a car crash, a small fire (which isn’t unheard of) can escalate into a much bigger problem in a matter of minutes.

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Jumper cables

123RF/AudriusMerfeldas

Out of all the items you can pack in an emergency kit, jumper cables and a flashlight will be the tools you use most often. After all, humans can be scatterbrained at times, and we will inevitably leave a dome light on or forget to turn off the parking lights. Dealing with a dead battery is less of a headache when you’ve got jumper cables in the trunk.

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Ponchos

123RF/PeterTitmuss

Breaking down is bad enough, but having to change a tire on the side of the road in the middle of a rain storm is even more frustrating. While a basic poncho won’t save your life during an emergency, it will make your life a lot easier if you need to walk in the pouring rain to find help, or if you need to spend 10 minutes with your head under the hood.

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Tow straps

car emergency kit

Getting stuck isn’t the same thing as breaking down, but the end result is the same: you’re no longer moving. When driving through wintry conditions, it’s important to carry a tow strap or two in case you get stuck. It will make pulling you out of a rut, or off of a snow bank, a lot easier for the charitable soul that stops and help you.

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Essential car emergency gadgets

Stinger USB Emergency Tool

Ztylus

The Stinger Emergency Tool is something to have at your disposal when things go awry. After a major accident, car doors and seat belts may be jammed. The Stinger packs a powerful punch to shatter windows, allowing you to get out, and its backside incorporates a blade to cut through a malfunctioning seatbelt. It doubles as a USB charger.

Portable jump-starter

DBPower 800A

Jumper cables are great if there are other cars nearby to give you a friendly jolt, but they’re useless if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. This is when a self-powered jumper cable kit is priceless. The better models on the market (like DBPower’s jump-starter) can also charge devices like laptops and phones.

Emergency Beacons

Marcala Beacon

Reflectors tell oncoming vehicles that your car is broken down on the side of the road, but inclement weather greatly reduces visibility. We suggest using emergency beacons in these circumstances to ensure you’re seen.

All-in-one options

Lifeline AAA kit

Several companies offer all-in-one roadside emergency kits that feature most — and, sometimes, all — of the items listed above. Pricing ranges from $20 for a basic kit to over $100 for something more advanced. AAA sells a $25 kit that includes a flashlight with batteries, jumper cables, duct tape, a screwdriver with two tips, and a poncho, among other items, plus a handy bag to stuff it all in so these items don’t roll around in your trunk.

Other items to consider

Even though a good emergency kit will cover the basics for you, it’s not a bad idea to supplement with other useful items such as oil, coolant, and windshield wiper fluid. The first two items are especially vital if you drive an older vehicle. Extra rags are great to have on hand too. These staples could be enough to get home or get you to the nearest garage if you need a repair.

Make sure to review and update your kit seasonally. Snowstorms can happen without much warning, so carry bottled water and non-perishable food during winter. Blankets and hand warmers are also essential safety items, especially with snow in the forecast or driving through rural areas. If you become stranded or your engine cuts out, you’ll lose your heater, so you want to be prepared. Also, if you’re mechanically inclined, bring a set of tools.

A lesser-known emergency item to have on hand is cat litter, a must-have winter staple because of its absorbent properties. If you lose traction on ice or snow, distribute the litter in front of and behind your wheels. Doing so may help free your car should it become stuck. You could alternatively use salt or sand, but do not use antifreeze.

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