In the wise words of Game of Thrones - winter is coming. As I look out at a bluebird-Boulder day from my office, I know it's only a matter of time before our first big snowstorm hits. Which reminds me, I still need to clean the gutters, replace my balding tires, and blow out the sprinkler system. Oh, and update my car emergency kit which somehow always falls to the bottom of my list, even though I know it could be the most important item on there. I have no excuse for not having an up-to-date, comprehensive emergency kit in my car. I worked in the survival industry for five years and now at Nite Ize where I have access to myriad products which are specifically designed to perform in a pinch. On top of that, I have a dad who always gives us "kids" Christmas presents like two-way crank radios and avian flu emergency kits (everyone's dream gift - thanks, Dad!). So, as I am preparing for my annual kit update, I'd like to share some preferred kit items and other great resources to check out. I hope this will help you to build or update your own car emergency kit.
What to get:
- A sturdy container
Once you have all your items, you’ll have a better idea of what size this should be, but make sure it’s something you can close like a rubber bin or sturdy nylon bag that zips shut. You can also use a good backpack in case you need to carry it, however it’s important to note that if you are stranded on the side of the road, it is NOT recommended that you leave your car. Your car is the best protection from the elements and where rescuers are most likely to find you - so, hunker down for the long haul. If you are in an accident on an icy road, you also should NOT leave your car, if an icy patch made your car spin out, it’s very likely that other cars will do the same, if possible move your car out of that trajectory.
Most references tell you a flashlight - I may go a little overkill, but I have three flashlights. For my primary light I use the INOVA X3R LED Rechargeable Flashlight which I can recharge through my car’s USB port. I also keep an INOVA STS Headlamp in my bag in case I need to be hands-free for looking under the hood or under the car. Lastly, I have the Nite Ize 3-in-1 FlashStick, which can be used as a flashlight or lantern, but most importantly in an emergency it has a glowstick on one end which can be set to SOS mode to signal for help. In addition, I stock extra batteries for the two non-rechargeables.
- High-visibility Vest - In the case that I do need to get out of my car on a roadway, you better believe other motorists are going to see me. I keep a Nite Ize LED Run Vest in my bag which is neon yellow, has two bright red LEDs that glow and flash, and reflective accents. Paired with my 3-in-1 Flashstick, I feel confident that I will be seen and therefore safer on the side of the road.
- Chargers - If you have cell reception, your phone will be your lifeline, but it won’t do you any good if it has a dead battery. There are classic chargers to plug into your car or innovative external batteries and battery-integrated phone cases like the LifeProof FRĒ Power that can be life-savers in a pinch.
- Shovel and/or Kitty Litter - If you are stuck somewhere safely away from traffic, a shovel to dig yourself out and kitty litter or sand for traction can help you get moving again. If you don’t have either of these things, you can try wedging your floor mats under your tires to help them gain traction.
- Blankets or Bivvies - Wool blankets are a classic staple for a reason - they are really warm. I keep two heavy wool blankets in my car - they’ve never been used in an emergency, but have come in handy for many a road-trip naps and as extra layers on camping trips. The one downfall of wool, is that if it gets wet, it’s miserable. That’s why I also keep two Escape emergency bivvies in my kit as well (so my husband and I don’t have to have that awkward conversation about who gets the bivvy to survive the night). These bivvies reflect 75% of body heat back to you, but are also breathable so you don’t get sweaty which is a pitfall of traditional mylar. In general I recommend staying away from mylar blankets and bivvies as they shred very easily and are flammable - it’s worth spending a couple bucks more to get a durable upgrade. Along the lines of warmth, I always make sure that I have a hat, gloves, and extra socks in my kit - even in the summer months here in Colorado it can drop below freezing at night, these don’t take up much space and are probably at the top of the list for most used items in my kit.
- Other Warming Items - I keep fire starting supplies in my kit (fire cubes and a sparker in case I need to start a fire outside my vehicle), one family in Nevada survived two days in sub-zero temperatures, building a fire inside their spare tire to help keep warm. Some people suggest using emergency candles as well for warmth and light inside the vehicle, though I’m noticing them mentioned less and less on recommended lists, probably due to safety concerns. If using one, you should crack your window to avoid possible asphyxiation, and ideally burn the candle inside a coffee can or tin because many parts of your car (and your kit) are flammable.
- First Aid Kit - This is essential, don’t bother with kits that are just chock-full of Band Aids, take your time researching kits and find one that meets your needs. If you have kids, there are family-focused ones that have kids’ dosages of meds and more often-needed items for them. As someone who does a lot of camping and fishing in the backwoods, I carry an Adventure Medical Kits Sportsman Kit which has comprehensive medical supplies in case of an emergency including QuikClot, and most importantly, the kit includes a book on how to use all the supplies in there in case I am far from medical care.
- Water - For drinking, for wound cleaning, for staying alive - I keep a gallon of human-water in an unopened jug, and then I also have a liter of water in a separate Olly Dog container/bowl combo for my pup since most often she is along for the ride too.
- Food - Food isn’t essential for short term survival (you can theoretically go for three weeks without it), however, eating does allow your body to produce more heat, and it can make a huge difference in your mood and attitude which will often determine how well you handle an emergency situation. I go for the classics like jerky and energy bars (peanut butter is a popular choice too), and then swap them out annually (or if you just plain get hungry and eat them then replace as needed). A good rule of thumb is to go for items with a long shelf-life that are high in protein, and that you actually like. If you have an ever-hungry dog like mine, make sure your food bag is securely enclosed in your kit, or they might just rip open your kit and gleefully eat all your jerky when you’re not looking.
- Car Essentials - Jumper cables, Fix-A-Flat, ice scraper, a siphon (hopefully you’ll find a friendly motorist who doesn’t mind sharing fuel), a tire iron, and jack are some basics that I keep because honestly, those are probably the only tools I would know how to use in a break-down situation. For those of you who are more handy with cars, the DMV has a helpful list that includes more suggested car repair items: http://www.dmv.org/how-to-guides/emergency-kit.php
- A Knife - You won’t find this on most lists, but my grandfather taught me that the most useful item you can have on you at any time is a knife, and throughout the years it’s a piece of advice that has served me well. And so, I am passing it on to you. One small one in your pocket or purse, and a utility one in your car kit - just trust me on this one, they come in handy!
- The add-ons - A few other items have accumulated in my kit over the years: Duct Tape (need I say more?), a hatchet which most often doubles as a hammer (this particular Gerber hatchet also has an integrated handsaw that slides out of the handle which is a nice bonus), a poncho, CamJam Tie Down Straps and Bungees, Gear Ties because they are just too useful not to have a handful, and lastly, a quality whistle for signaling in an emergency.
Pre-made kits and other helpful tips for safety on the roads:
There are pre-made kit options on the market as well, some are decent some are very cheap and not worth the money. Do your homework, and if you do go with a pre-made kit, remember that you will still need to personalize it to you - if you are frequently on the road with your spouse, kids, and a dog, you need to remember to add supplies for them. If anyone in your family has a serious medical issue always pack extra medication and supplies - you never know when a quick trip can turn into an overnight on the side of the road.
Other helpful resources:
American Red Cross, Red Cross Recommends Preparing Your Vehicles for Winter:
The CDC, Be Prepared to Stay Safe and Healthy in Winter:
Chicago Tribune, Tips to Keep You Going When Your Car Stops:
That’s all I’ve got - I hope you found this useful, I hope you won’t need it, but I know you will be glad to have it if you do!