A car emergency kit is one of those things that you don’t think much about until it’s too late. Then you’ll wish you didn’t leave home without one.
Having a membership to an auto club or driving a later model vehicle under warranty — complete with free roadside assistance — often lulls us into a false sense of security about our prospects regarding a roadside breakdown.
The ugly truth is that vehicle breakdowns do happen and they don’t always strike in a busy, well-lighted, cloudless, warm spot with flawless cell phone reception and a tow truck close at hand. A roadside emergency kit can ease the pain and reduce the hassle of such breakdowns.
Speaking for AAA of the Carolinas, Tom Crosby says each year, one in three motorists encounters a roadside breakdown or some other incident that prevents normal vehicle operation, such as a dead battery, mechanical problems or a flat tire.
Just because your car appears in good shape, there’s no guarantee problems won’t arise. “You never know when something’s going to happen to your car,” Crosby says, “no matter how well you maintain it.”
Although some of these incidents occur in people’s driveways, many take place away from home. The more remote the area and the more inclement the weather, the more likely the contents of a car emergency kit will come in handy — even if you have a roadside assistance plan and can contact help. “A car emergency kit is designed to help you survive until help arrives,” Crosby says.
There are a number of prepackaged car emergency kits on the market ranging in price from $18 to $70. Typing “roadside emergency kit” into a search engine will reveal a wide array of retail kits.
The most comprehensive prepackaged car emergency kit we found is the All-In-One Emergency Car Kit marketed by Survival-supply.com for $69.95.
You can save some money by assembling your own car emergency kit. Even if you purchase a prepackaged kit, you will probably want to beef it up with some additional items.
Here are the must-have items Crosby says should be part of every car emergency kit:
1. Charged cell phone. Although this item will probably be on your person, it may make the difference between getting help fast and maybe not getting help at all. “Make sure it is properly charged every time you get into your car,” Crosby says.
2. First-aid kit. As well as an assortment of Band-Aids, it should include adhesive tape, gauze pads, aspirin, antiseptic wipes, antiseptic cream or ointment, and anything particular to you or your family.
3. Fire Extinguisher. It should be rated for Class B and Class C fires by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA. The NFPA says Class B fires are those that involve flammable or combustible liquids, such as gasoline, diesel fuel and kerosene. Class C fires involve energized electrical equipment such as switches, panel boxes and batteries.
4. Three reflective warning triangles. While many prepackaged emergency kits contain one warning triangle, Crosby suggests you have three that are placed 50 feet apart to warn oncoming traffic.
5. Tire gauge. Crosby says motorists should use the tire gauge in their car emergency kit to periodically check the air pressure in their spare tire. “Make sure your spare tire is properly inflated,” he says. “A lot of the time people ignore it until they have a flat, and then discover the spare is flat, too.”
6. Foam tire sealant. A quick, inexpensive way to repair many flats without changing the tire.
7. Jumper cables. They should be at least 10 feet in length and coated with at least 8-gauge rubber.
8. Flashlight and extra batteries. The flashlight should be waterproof.
11. Duct tape. It is the universal fix-it solution. Carry at least 10 feet of it.
12. Tow strap or tow rope. It should be strong enough to tow 6,000 pounds.
13. Multipurpose utility tool. This can be something like a Leatherman Tool or a Swiss Army Knife.
14. Rain poncho. Even an inexpensive plastic poncho is better than nothing when changing a tire in the pouring rain.
15. Drinking water.
16. Nonperishable snacks. Protein bars are a good choice.
According to Crosby, during the winter you should add a few other items if you might encounter snow and ice:
17. Warm blanket.
18. Snow shovel.
19. Cat litter. It works as well as sand beneath the tires for traction and weighs less.
20. Windshield ice scraper.
Although many prepackaged car emergency kits contain a few tools like pliers and a screwdriver, Crosby advises that these aren’t must-have items. “In the old days,” he says, “you could do some roadside repairs yourself, but today’s cars are too complicated for that. The tools you do need to be concerned about are those that came with the car, along with the jack, to change a tire. Make sure those tools are there.”