Broken down but not out: What to pack in a car emergency kit

car emergency kit list header
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Driving is one of those daily activities that we typically take for granted, thanks in part to how reliable cars have gotten over time. That said, while “breakdowns” might be far less common than they used to be, things still happen and it’s important to always be prepared in an emergency when on the road. That’s why it’s crucial to keep a car emergency kit in your car at all times.

As anyone who has ever broken down on the interstate (or even worse, on a rural backroad) knows, there are few situations remotely as helpless and frustrating. Today, most if not all vehicles come with a basic car jack and spare tire, an emergency tire patch and inflator kit to deal with the most common type of “breakdown,” a flat tire. But there are countless situations where these necessities are exceedingly useless, and you’ll need more than the ability to just fix a flat.

There are plenty of tried-and-true tools to have at your disposal when you breakdown, and even a few lesser-known gadgets and tricks. With these helpful utilities, you’ll be able to stay cool under pressure, even if you are a little overheated under the hood.

Here are 14 essentials to pack in your car emergency kit.

Primary emergency kit items

Flashlight (with extra batteries)

123RF/mytroSukharevskyy

A flashlight is one of the most important items in any emergency kit. Whether you’re changing a tire roadside or simply trying to flag down help, a little light can go a long way in an emergency. Pack extra batteries, though, just in case the ones inside of your flashlight have been drained.

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Reflectors

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One of the most dangerous aspects of being stuck on the side of the highway is the risk of collision with passing vehicles. Placing reflectors at successive distances behind your vehicle will help warn other drivers and create a buffer between your vehicle and oncoming traffic.

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First aid kit

123RF/Zerbor

If you’re involved in a minor collision, having a first aid kit at your disposal is crucial. Be it a car accident or a misstep on the trailhead, gauze, bandages, antiseptics, and pain relievers are all handy items to have around during an accident.

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Fire extinguisher

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When dealing with combustibles such as gasoline, it’s probably a good idea to have a fire extinguisher handy. After a car crash, a small fire can escalate into a much bigger problem in no time.

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Jumper cables

how to jump a car jumper cables
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Out of all the items you can pack in an emergency kit, jumper cables and a flashlight will probably be the tools you use most often. After all, we humans can be scatterbrained at times, and we will inevitably leave a dome light on or park our car with the door ajar at some point in time. A dead battery is less of a headache with a pair of jumper cables in the trunk.

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Ponchos

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Breaking down is bad enough, but having to change a tire roadside in the rain is even more frustrating. While a basic poncho probably won’t save your life during an emergency, it will certainly make your life easier if you need to walk a small stretch in the rain to find help.

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Tow straps

car emergency kit

Another roadside emergency that occurs but isn’t exactly a breakdown is getting stuck in the heavy inclement of weather — such as snowy or icy conditions. When driving through wintry conditions, it’s important to carry a tow strap or two in the event that a fellow motorist drives by and offers assistance.

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Essential car emergency gadgets

Stinger USB Emergency Tool

Ztylus

The Stinger USB Emergency Tool is certainly 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 the dashboard or nearest window allowing you to quickly exit the vehicle. The backside of the device incorporates a blade to cut through a malfunctioning seat belt as well.

Amazon

A car jump-starter

Jumper cables are great if there are other cars nearby to give you a friendly jolt, but if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, jumper cables alone are useless. A self-powered jumper cable kit is ideal for this scenario. The Bestek Car Jump Starter is one of the most reliable options on the market.

With improvements with battery technology and electronics, there are also many options for jump starters that have the ability to charge cell phones through USB or standard electrical outlet ports. The TACKLIFE Car Jump Starter is one of many jump starts that not only functions as a battery booster, but comes equipped with a built-in power bank phone charger and even a neat LED light.

Amazon

A GPS unit

In areas with poor cellular reception, the GPS on your phone can be rendered useless. In these situations it’s helpful to have a secondary GPS to help you navigate or pinpoint your location. You can check out our favorite GPS units here.

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goTenna

The goTenna is helpful in areas with poor cellular reception. Simply pair the device with your smartphone via Bluetooth and you’re back in business. You have the option to send private messages to others in your group or simply broadcast an emergency message to other goTennas nearby.

goTenna Amazon

Emergency radio

If you’re stranded roadside, it is often best to preserve your car battery. An emergency weather radio is a great way to stay in the loop on weather updates while you wait out the storm or a pending emergency. The ER310 E+READY Emergency Crank Weather Radio is a solid option; this particular radio doubles as a flashlight and also allows you to recharge your USB compatible devices.

Amazon Midland

Emergency Beacons

While reflectors can help warn passing vehicles, inclement weather can greatly reduce visibility. Emergency lights should be used alongside reflectors to better ensure your safety. The Wagan EL2639-3 FRED Flashing Roadside Emergency Discs are a great, durable option to have stowed just in case.

Amazon Sears Target

Other items to consider

Backup fluids — namely oil and coolant — can also be helpful in a pinch. However, there are also a few items you might consider as part of your seasonal emergency kit. With the onset of winter comes a slew of potential breakdown scenarios. If a sudden snow storm hits and leaves you stranded, it might be worth your while to have a day’s supply of bottled water and non-perishables stowed. Similarly, blankets should also be incorporated into your emergency kit, just in case you’re stuck roadside during a cold front.

Cat litter is another convenient, albeit lesser-known, emergency kit staple. Cat litter is naturally absorbent. If your car becomes stuck in ice, snow, or mud, apply a liberal amount of litter in front of and behind the wheels to not only absorb excess moisture but to also create optimal traction.

There are all-in-one options as well!

Should these all seem like too much work for you, no problem! There are all-in-one emergency roadside kits that feature most if not all of the items mentioned here in this list. Ranging from less than $20 to as much as $75, most of these kits come with a first aid box, jumper cables, a heavy duty tow rope or strap, a reflective safety triangle, a battery-powered flashlight, and other nicks and knacks that you probably didn’t think you’d ever need, but would absolutely find useful that one time you might need them.

Update: Added tow straps and emergency blanket, and updated links.

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