The best roadside emergency kit for your vehicle depends on your driving needs. In this post we list “must have” items for every vehicle, as well as other tools and supplies that are helpful for a variety of emergencies. Choose the items that make sense for your vehicle, and keep them organized in a backpack or tote.
Many of us drive somewhere nearly every day. Even if you haven't had a roadside emergency yourself, odds are you've seen or at least heard of an accident or disabled car. Driving long distance whether for work or on vacation adds to your risk. Having basic roadside emergency kit supplies in your vehicle is important for you and those you may end up helping. Think about what you might deal with, and if you have the training to handle a situation. Then stock your roadside kit and know you have what you need when you need it.
Roadside emergency kit supplies fall into eight basic categories:
- First Aid Kit
- Breakdown & Towing Equipmnet
- Hygiene & Comfort Items
- General Supplies
- Seasonal Items
- Shelf stable emergency food and water
- A Get Home Bag
Over the years we have increased the items we carry around in the trunk of our cars or back of the van. These are our top recommendations. Items with the “must have” red tag are suggested for all vehicles.
1. Roadside Emergency Kit Tools
- One or two good knives. We suggest a Rescue knife in drivers side door, glove compartment or any other location within reach of the driver. The buck rescue knife is crazy sharp and has a seat belt cutter and can break windows. TIP: The headrest can also come off and the metal “spikes” can break the glass of a window. If the Buck Rescue isn't what you want there are hundreds of good knives. We suggest Kershaw, Buck, Spyderco or Ontario. Here are some good alternatives: Kershaw Cryo, Buck 110FG, spyderco and Ontario RAT II. in the emergency kit in the trunk. Make sure you test whatever knife you choose. We used the buck rescue knife and spyderco before they became our go-to emergency car knives.
- Car Fire extinguisher
- Flashlights. We suggest three or more flashlights. This is due to experience. My husband August stopped in the dark to help clear and accident. The traffic going both directions didn't slow down, even with his flashers on. When he put the flashlight with the strobe light on, facing into traffic, cars slowed down and if he had a 2nd facing into tail traffic both of them would have felt safer. He needed the 3rd to see what he was doing in the dark. Consider any of these:
- Five pack of inexpensive 200 lumen LED AA battery flashlights. Remember to get extra batteries either the Panasonic Eneloop Pro or Tenergy AA batteries.
- The neutral white aTactical 18650 LED flashlight. These are VERY bright and we like the simplicity, brightness and quality. The aTactical flashlight requires 18650 batteries and you will need a charger also.
- The tiny Lumintop Worm AAA flashlight. Very small keychain type flashlight but as bright as the AA
- NiteCore TIP 360 Lumen LED flashlight is min a super bright key-chain sized flashlight and is rechargeable using mini USB.
- USB Charger. An extra Anker 24W Dual USB Car Charger and spare cables for each type of cellphone
- Tire pressure gauge You need to be able to check your tire pressure. We recommend a manual one, it doesn't require batteries.
- Paracord to make makeshift tent, tie a door closed or hood
- A Leatherman Wave multi-tool for quick repair
- Pepper spray for personal protection (grab this for you get home bag)
- Basic toolkit although most cars are complicated enough that we may not be able to fix them, we can use the toolkit to make very minor or temporary repairs. I have had my mirror torn off or damaged by deer or other animals or debris numerous times so far in my life, and duct tape and a tool kit let me repair it temporarily a few of those times.
2. Roadside Emergency First Aid Kit
You need to know how to perform basic first aid. You can get that training online or attend classes for $25 to $200. When you buy a first aid kit, learn how to use everything inside that kit. A vehicle first aid kit should have items to handle serious injures such as controlling serious bleeding, managing burns & head injuries and dealing with broken bones and of course handling minor emergencies. The kit should also help with managing shock and even dealing with cardiac arrest. You might want to have a tiny first aid kit in your get home bag and a larger kit in the car.Get a first aid kit to help you and others until help arrives. The Adventure Medical or Survival Solutions are good “small kits”. The 12 survivors roll is our favorite medium sized first aid kit, but it requires customization. For more information see the Best First Aid Kit and Build Your Own Custom First Aid Kit
Don't forget, personal prescriptions, medications and other items like inhalers or an EpiPen and/or feminine supplies as needed.
3. Roadside Emergency Kit – Breakdowns and Towing Equipment
- Jumper cables Heavy gauge means less resistance so more amperage for the jump
- One or preferably two pair of work gloves (make sure you pick your correct sizes)
- Tire Iron and a heavy duty scissor car jack Note: some cars come with a single arm tire iron.
- Heavy Tow Strap if you have ever towed someone, a strap is a LOT safer than just rope or chain.
- Fuse kit various types
- Sheet of heavy cardboard or large kneeling pad (to work under the vehicle if required)
- Quick flat recovery Fix a Flat (or similar)
- Road Flares or Road Flags Electronic Road Flares these avoid the risk of fire but require 6 AAA batteries (Lithium or Rechargeable) and you might also want Road warning flags because they don't have batteries.
- Get a REAL spare tire if possible and make sure it has correct pressure
- Make a paper phone and contact cheat sheet in case your cellphone dies or is damaged
4. Roadside Emergency Kit Personal Hygiene & Comfort Items
- Toilet Paper. The #1 thing you need in the car kit are a few rolls of toilet paper (just in case). You can use individually wrapped singles or just buy a bulk pack and put a couple rolls in ziplock bags. A family friend was in World War II and he said “the 1st time we went in, we carried all the ammo we could. The 2nd time we went in, we carried all the toilet paper we could.” Take his advice. An alternates are camping toilet wipes or compressed rolls (but the compressed ones need a bit of water to expand).
- Wool Blanket wool will stay warm even when somewhat wet, and even if you have a sleeping bag – it makes a good ground liner if you aren't in your vehicle.
- Small Pillow in case you have to sleep in the car or want to just take a quick nap.
- Small water resistant sleeping bag. We live in Wisconsin, so winter is cold and even summer nights can be also. A sleeping bag is in all winter and during long trips in the summer. You may also want a roll-up sleeping bag pad
- Bright colored safety vest or poncho to make yourself more visible if you end up working near traffic, or walking along a road especially in low visibility.
- Lip balm
- Keep an extra pair of prescription glasses, sunglasses and/or contacts in your car. Remember, the sunglasses are as important in the winter snow as in the summer glare.
- Kleenex and some wipes
- Toothbrush, floss and toothpaste
- Feminine hygiene items as needed
5. Roadside Emergency Kit General Supplies
- Regional paper maps (track down your state), in case your cellphone dies or GPS doesn’t work for some reason. Rand McNally still makes state maps but they are getting harder to find.
- A good backpack such as the:
- $40 Outdoor 3 Day Tactical Backpack which is 14.5″ x 21″ x 8″; holds about 2470 cubic inches and weighs 3.6 lbs
- $80 Condor 3 Day Pack which is 22″ x 17″ x 11″; holds about 3038 cubic inches and weighs
- If at all possible try wearing the backpack before you purchase it.
- Duct Tape Duct Tape has an insane number of uses. It is like the force, it has a light side and dark side and binds the universe together. Have at least two rolls. It can seal a crack in a window, hold on a broken mirror, tape a trunk shut or in first aid situations: immobilize a limb, create temporary splints and even bandages. We keep a couple of rolls and have been happy to have them in the car and van many times.
- A couple of Sharpie pens. They can be used to write on pretty much anything, which is useful in an emergency.
- Small Journal or simply a pen or pencil and spiral note pad.
- Waterproof tablecloth or other clean surface to eat on or use as a safe clean work surface, or even a tarp.
- Cash hidden in vehicle somewhere
- Extra AA and AAA batteries.
- We recommend getting Panasonic eneloop pro aaa or Tenergy rechargeable batteries as they both have very low self discharge, meaning they can last a long time in storage. AmazonBasics is another option. (TIP: Recharge them each spring and fall) If you choose rechargeable batteries you will want a AA and AAA battery charger such as the Lacrosse BC 1000
- If you don't want to deal with rechargeable batteries consider the Energizer Ultimate Lithium which may last up to 15 years in storage.
- 2 or 3 large 3mil garbage bags
- 1 or 2 quarts of motor oil
- Container of radiator fluid
- Spray bottle with bug windshield washer fluid or deicer washer fluid depending on the time season and location (the windshield washer fluid can probably be found cheaper locally)
- One extra set of wiper blades specific to your vehicle
- Emergency crank radio this one can also charge a USB device
- Compass has a whistle, tiny magnifying glass, compass and thermostat – the whistle is the key to get attention if your vehicle leaves the road.
- BIC Lighters or waterproof matches or even flint & steel to start a fire. You can pack an old toilet paper cardboard roll with an old crayon in it surrounded by dryer lint. This roll will start a fire pretty much guaranteed and is tiny. The crayon burns like a fast candle (be careful).
- A towel wrapped around a few cloth diapers, wash cloth or wash cloths is a great add on. You can use the wipes to clean up and towel to dry off.
- Moist wipes are a good option also, a small package can help clean up a mess.
6. Roadside Emergency Kit Seasonal Items
For Winter see the Winter Car Kit Post
For high temperatures and plenty of sun, include:
- Sun hat, light colored clothes, walking shoes, Rain poncho
- Extra water
- Sunscreen lotion, bug spray
- Use a tarp, emergency blanket or shades to reduce the temperature in a vehicle or to create shade with rope and duct tape outside or near a vehicle.
Include a full change of clothes. Make sure you pack comfortable winter or summer clothes including socks and underwear. You need this in case you must walk home and aren't wearing the right clothes. Store the clothes in a plastic bag. Pack layers for variable weather. It should include walking shoes (or winter/summer walking boots) underwear, pants, socks, shirt and hat appropriate to the season.
7. Roadside Kit Emergency Food & Water
- Consider a Life Straw if you are likely to be far from help. Consider a gallon of drinking water per person. If you are in an area were freezing is likely, leave about 15% to 25% of the water out of the water bottle so it doesn't burst, and place inside ziplock bags in your kit, just in case. If you don't want to deal with bottles you can use use flexible water pouches
- A few 1/4 to 1/3 full water bottle – 2 per person minimum
- Candle in a metal container with waterproof matches and/ or Sterno – You can use this for heat or melting snow for water, or just keeping you from freezing.
- Metal cup – for melting snow or scooping water to filter with your lifestraw
- Snacks – (durable ones) such as granola bars, jerky or dried fruit. You might also want more long term items such as the SOS Food Bar or ER Food Bar (remember to avoid allergies and try some of the emergency food BEFORE an emergency)
8. Get Home Bag
You should also have a “Get Home Bag” in your car. It could be as simple as repacking the backpack you already have in your trunk with items to get you home. Or it could be a purpose assembled seasonal bag exclusively designed to get you home over long distance. In most cases you will want to “steal” items from your car kit to supplement or “finalize” your get home bag. If you have the space, funds and time, it is best the get home bag is a custom kit you can grab and go. The Get Home Bag is similar to a Bug Out Bag.
Keeping Your Roadside Emergency Kit Organized
Key tips to help keep your roadside emergency kit organized:
- Review the lists and select those items that make the most sense for your needs.
- Group like items together.
- Pack groups of items inside freezer zip lock bags. The empty bags can be used for other items and garbage. They can also be a safe spot to put your cellphone or other small items in a rainstorm or snowstorm.
- Label everything.
- Pack these small kits into backpack or tote to keep things organized and not use up your whole trunk.
It's been a motto of mine for many years to “hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. Hopefully you won’t ever have a major roadside emergency, but if you do run into trouble, you'll be glad you were prepared.
Leave a comment and let us know if we missed any “must have” items you like to keep on hand while traveling or commuting.
Other Common Sense Preparedness posts you may find useful:
- Car Won’t Start in the Cold? Check Out these Troubleshooting Tips
- 4 Layers of Cold Weather Clothing Everyone Should Know
- Storage and Shelf Life of Over the Counter Medication
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