A few years back I wrote a post here about preparing your car kit for winter. As National Preparedness Month is in full swing, I find myself looking back at what I wrote and recognizing the need for an update. As one of my good friends in Indiana brought up, not everyone is preparing for winter driving through snowy mountains into spotty-reception areas, and my original kit might be a little overkill when that’s the case. I assured her that it is beneficial for everyone to have at least a small emergency car kit, and that is the inspiration for this new post where I’ll provide suggested items for your kit – both “full throttle” and “light” versions.
So here you go, first up, your full throttle car emergency kit for those who frequently drive in remote places, inclement weather, and through spotty cell reception.
The Full Throttle Car Emergency Kit - What to pack:
1. 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.
2. Lights – Headlamp, Flashlight + Lantern
Most references tell you a flashlight - I may go a little overkill, but I have three lights – each of which is rechargeable through my car’s USB port. A headlamp in case I need to be hands-free for looking under the hood or under the car. An INOVA T8R handheld light which has an SOS mode with 782 Lumens behind it, and lastly a rechargeable lantern which conveniently clips under the hood of my car.
3. 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.
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 that can be life-savers in a pinch. I also keep this eton weather radio which is solar powered (and has a hand crank option) and from which you can also charge your phone and your flashlights.
5. 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.
6. Blankets or Bivvies
Wool blankets are a classic staple for a reason: they are really warm. I keep a heavy wool blankets in my car – it’s never been used in an emergency but has 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, hand warmers, and extra socks in my kit - even in the summer months here in Colorado it can drop below freezing up high 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.
7. 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 the 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 something similar because many parts of your car (and your kit) are flammable.
8. 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 – and be sure to customize it further if you or any of your family members have special medications or needs. 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 it.
For drinking, for wound cleaning, for staying alive - I keep a gallon of human-water in an unopened jug. If you have a dog who’s usually your copilot, be sure to keep an extra jug for them too. I keep a RadDog Bowl clipped to my kit which is great pop-up bowl for the pup.
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, energy bars, and dried fruit, 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.
11. Car Essentials
Jumper cables, Fix-A-Flat, ice scraper, a siphon (hopefully you’ll find a friendly motorist who doesn’t mind sharing fuel), flares and/or glowsticks, 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.
12. A Knife and Cash
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. Cash, well cash is just handy depending on the type of emergency too, whether you need to pay for gas or a hotel room.
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, 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. Know the risks in your area, if you live near frozen lakes, keeping a window breaker easily reachable in your console is advisable.
Alright, so if that seems overkill for your lifestyle, here is my recommendation for a condensed version:
The “Light” Car Emergency Kit - What to pack:
- A backup phone battery or solar-powered charger
- A blanket or bivvy
- A small survival kit like this one
- A headlamp or flashlight
- Small first aid kit
- Duct tape, Gear Ties, and Bungees
- A Multitool/Knife
- Jumper cables
Other helpful resources:
American Red Cross, What do You Need In a Survival Kit?
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. Let me know the most useful items you’ve found for you kit in the comments section below.