What 40 things should you keep in your car at all times?

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There is a lot that can happen when you’re behind the wheel, from big things such as multi-car accidents to the smaller mishaps that mark everyday life — like having your toddler spill his milk all over the back seat. The more you are prepared, by carrying items such as flashlights and a roll of paper towels, the easier it will be to handle these challenges, both large and small. Here are some suggestions for what to keep in your car to keep journeys simple and easy.

1. Documentation to keep in your car

Any car essentials list should start with documentation that is, in some cases, required by law. Although laws differ from state to state, for example, you are generally required to carry some sort of verification of your insurance policy with you when you’re driving.

Most documentation can be kept in your glove compartment. Consider investing in a small, sturdy binder or box that will keep all paperwork in one place and easily accessible. Check the binder annually to be sure you are up-to-date on all required documents. Here is what the binder should contain:

  • Insurance card
  • Vehicle registration
  • Driver’s license (may be better kept in your wallet so it’s available when you need ID)
  • Owner’s manual
  • Blank notebook and pen

2. Emergency kit must-haves

You can easily buy an emergency kit that’s been pre-filled with supplies, or you can custom-build one that meets your own needs. Start with a sturdy cloth bag or plastic container, and fill it with any medications or other specific medical needs you and your family have (don’t forget the pets). Here are a few other things to keep in the car:

  • Bandages (from bandaids to fabric bandages)
  • Anti-bacterial spray or ointment, cleaning wipes and gauze
  • A pair of scissors, disposable gloves and tweezers
  • Masks and hand sanitizer
  • OTC medicines like aspirin or ibuprofen, anti-itch cream, eye wash, allergy medicine, stomach soother, insect repellent and sunscreen
  • Zip lock bags which are good for storing a cold compress, holding used tissues til you get to the rest stop and, in a pinch, they can be used by the kid who gets carsick

3. What to keep in case of a breakdown

There are few things more dispiriting than being broken down at the side of the road. Many insurers now offer roadside coverage so that you can call and get help for minor issues such as a flat tire or dead battery. Probably the most important of your car necessities is a charged cell phone, so that you can make that call.

If you don’t have roadside coverage, however, you may want to gather some items and keep them in a bucket or container in the back of your car, so that you can tackle any issue if you have a breakdown. Here are a few ideas of what to keep in the car:

  • Jumper cables
  • Flares and matches or a couple of reflective emergency triangles
  • Spare tire (consider replacing your donut tire with a full-sized spare)
  • Flashlight (check and replace the batteries regularly)
  • Tool kit (with a tire gauge, wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers and a spare can of oil)
  • Waterproof tarp
  • Escape tool (one that will cut through seat belts and break windows)

4. What to carry on road trips

You’ve packed your bags and are ready to hit the road. Are you missing anything essential? Consider this list of what to keep in your car — it may help you when you’re on a long trip and want to be ready for any eventuality.

  • Cell phone accessories, including a charger you can use in the car and a wireless headset
  • An engaging audiobook
  • Food and drinks: pack a cooler with drinks and snacks before hitting the road
  • Maps, in case the GPS on your phone goes silent
  • Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, tissues and a roll of paper towels
  • Appropriate clothing
  • Extra cash, including change for the parking meter

5. What to keep if you have kids

Traveling with kids can be a challenge, but being prepared can turn the trip into a pleasantly uneventful journey. What to bring will largely depend on the ages of your children, but here are some general ideas for things to keep in your car:

  • Coloring books and pencils, word game books or books geared for their reading level
  • Videos (if you have a player in the car) or gaming console
  • Extra snacks, juice boxes and fruit or vegetables
  • Change of clothing for each child
  • For babies: formula, baby food, diapers and changing supplies
  • Clorox wipes or disinfectant spray

6. Seasonal additions

Depending on where you live, you may be dealing with anything from snowstorms to tornadoes. Consider the weather in the region you’re driving in (or to) and plan accordingly.

For summer:

  • Insect repellant
  • Sunblock and a sun hat
  • Umbrella or raincoat
  • Visor shade

For winter:

  • Ice scraper and snow brush
  • Extra gloves and hat
  • Collapsible snow shovel
  • Sand or kitty litter
  • A spare coat or blanket

What should I check for when I buy a new car?

When you purchase a new car, you’re probably eager to get the keys in your hands and take off on your first exhilarating drive. But take a moment while you’re in the dealership to check that the car is running properly, all lights are working and there are no warning lights on the dash. Ask yourself, what should I keep in my car? The following items should usually be included by the dealer:

  • Owner’s manual
  • Spare tire
  • Floor mats
  • Spare key and/or fob
  • Copy of the warranty
  • Receipt for any payments you made
  • Paperwork for financing

Frequently asked questions

Do I need to carry tools if my insurance has roadside assistance?

If you have roadside assistance, you can count on help if you need a tire changed or quick battery jump, unless you’re in a very remote area. But having a few tools never hurts. A screwdriver, for example, may help you dig out that lip gloss that fell between the front seats.

What if I don’t have an owner’s manual?

Although it’s nice to have a paper copy of your owner’s manual in the car, you can also find information online through auto websites. If you bought your car from a dealer, they can order a manual for you if they don’t have one on hand.

Do I need to keep my insurance policy documents in my car?

No, only your insurance card or other identifying document that includes your name and policy information. Your actual declaration page and other policy documents should be kept in a safe, fireproof location at your home. You may also be able to access them online.

What should I keep in my glove compartment?

Your documents should fit easily in your glove compartment. We would also suggest keeping your escape tool there, so you could reach it quickly if needed, and your flashlight, for the same reason.

Written by
Mary Van Keuren
Insurance Contributor
Mary Van Keuren has written for insurance domains such as Bankrate.com, Coverage.com and Thesimpledollar.com for the past five years, specializing in home and auto insurance. She has also written extensively for consumer websites including reviews.com and myslumberyard.com. Prior to that, she worked as a writer in academia for several decades.
Edited by
Insurance Editor