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56 Best Things To Keep in Your Car for Safety and Emergencies

In January of 2022, hundreds of motorists were stranded overnight in severe weather on Interstate 95 in Virginia. Suddenly, a routine trip became a struggle for survival.

A driving emergency can arise when you least expect it. Thousands of accidents and breakdowns occur every year, and some people get lost in an area with no mobile phone reception. Severe weather may disable your car or you may become ill. Even a baby in the backseat who has run out of diapers can feel very much like an emergency.

Here are 50 things to keep in your car to help you cope with emergencies. Driving from L.A. to San Diego? You may not need an ice scraper, so decide which items in our checklist may come in handy for the type of driving you plan on doing.

Basic Paperwork

There are some things you should always carry in your car. Hopefully, your safe driving skills will prevent an accident, but if you do find yourself in one or get pulled over by the police or your car breaks down, you will need some or all of the following paperwork:

  1. Vehicle registration. Make sure this is not only in your car, but that it's up to date and you know when it's due to expire.

  2. Insurance card. All but two states require vehicles that operate on public roads to have insurance. Even those that don't always mandate insurance require proof that you qualify for an exception. You will need to be able to produce an insurance card or substitute if you are pulled over or are involved in any sort of accident.

  3. Owner's manual. A car owner's manual can tell you what those dashboard warning lights mean, and often have trouble-shooting guides that can help you quickly diagnose a problem.

  4. Your driver's license. You should have this with you whenever you get behind the wheel, but it's better to keep it on your person rather than in the vehicle.

  5. Roadside assistance card. If you call for help, the first thing they'll want is your membership number.

General Safety and Survival

Now suppose your car breaks down or you run out of gas in a deserted area. Or perhaps you are too tired to continue driving or need to pull over to wait out severe weather. It may be hours before you get help or are in a position to resume your trip. In which case, the following may come in handy:

  1. Water. An insulated bottle that you refill regularly will help make sure you have potable water.

  2. Sealed, non-perishable food. Things like energy bars can help tide you over in an emergency.

  3. Blanket. Even warm weather states can get very cold at night. A blanket is a better alternative than keeping your engine idling for an extended period of time.

  4. Work gloves. These can do double duty - they can protect your hands if you need to work on your car or remove road obstacles, and they can help keep you warm if you're unexpectedly caught in cold weather.

  5. Bug spray. This may be a welcome precaution if you have to leave your car in an area where mosquitos, black flies or other pests swarm.

  6. Phone charger. Newer cars should have a USB port to run this from. Older cars may need a cigarette lighter adapter. A USB power pack may be a good option as well.

  7. Flashlight. Even a small flashlight can help, though a more heavy-duty one is likely to shed more light and have better staying power. Yes, your smartphone probably has one built in, but in an emergency you may not want to run down your phone's battery.

  8. Safety flares or reflectors. When you have to pull over on a dark road, these can warn approaching traffic that you're there.

  9. Lighter. As a source of light or even to start a fire if you have to camp by the roadside overnight, a disposable lighter can be a small but useful item.

A driving emergency can arise when you least expect it.

Basic Repairs

If your car breaks down or won't start, there are a few things you might attempt yourself before calling for help. The following might help get you out of trouble:

  1. Jumper cables. These can help you and allow you to come to the aid of others. They are easy to use, so take the time to learn how they work before you suddenly need them in an emergency.

  2. Spare tire. You may have bought a car without ever looking in the spare tire well (hint: it's probably in the trunk, under the flooring). Take the time now to make sure the spare is there and properly inflated.

  3. Tire jack. With your spare tire you should also find a tire jack. Make sure both the jack and the jack handle are there. Also, your owner's manual may include instructions on where to place the jack when changing a tire.

  4. Tire pressure gauge. Even if you don't have to change a tire, you may have to top off the pressure from time to time, especially in cold weather. Many gas stations have air machines but some of these do not have pressure readouts. A pressure gauge will tell you when your tire is properly inflated.

  5. Fix-a-flat. This is an aerosol product that will inflate your tire with compressed air while also injecting adhesive into it to seal leaks. This may be a viable emergency solution if you're stuck with a flat in the middle of nowhere, but it's only a temporary solution (the manufacturer says it lasts 100 miles) and some experts advise that the sealant can inhibit permanent repair of your tire and/or mess up the car's pressure sensor inside the tire.

  6. Windshield wiper fluid. This is something you don't want to run out of if you're going to be driving in dry, dusty conditions or on salt-covered winter roads.

  7. Tool kit. This is very much a question of whether you feel comfortable attempting some elementary repairs. At the very least, a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench can have many uses.

First Aid

Many cars come with their own first aid kits. There are also ready-made first aid kits widely available for sale, or you could put together your own. Here are a few things to have handy for the aches and pains that can come up during the course of traveling in a car:

  1. Bandaids. It helps to pack a variety of shapes and sizes.

  2. Antibiotic spray/ointment. A little disinfectant applied right away can prevent a routine cut or scrape from becoming an infected problem.

  3. EpiPen. If you or someone you're traveling with is prone to severe allergic reactions, having an EpiPen in your emergency kit could be a life-saver. The only catch when it comes to keeping one in your car is that they should be stored out of direct sunlight and not exposed to extreme heat. If your car is going to be parked outside for a while on a hot day, you may want to put the EpiPen in a cooler. Make sure to wrap it in a towel or other insulation rather than exposed directly to ice.

  4. Medical insurance card. If you have health insurance, never go anywhere without your subscriber ID.

  5. Pain relief medication. A simple headache can make driving an ordeal or even dangerous. Keep a small bottle of your favorite pain reliever in the glove compartment.

  6. Sunscreen. If you unexpectedly find you're going to be outside in the blazing sun, having a little sunscreen on hand might be very welcome.

  7. Caffeine pills. This is not something you should get in the habit of relying on, but if you find you're drowsy and with no choice but to keep driving, a little lift from a caffeine pill might see you through. Obviously, this is not a good idea for people who may be overly sensitive to caffeine.

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Road Trips

A road trip can take you into unfamiliar territory and make you reliant on the availability of hotels and other services. Before you set out, make sure you have the following to help things go smoothly:

  1. An itinerary. Before you head out, put together an itinerary that lists where you're going and how long it will take to get there. Especially if you'll be traveling in isolated areas, it helps to look up where gas stations and rest stops are along the way so you don't get caught short. There are a variety of online tools that can help with this.

  2. Reservation confirmation numbers. These days, you'll usually get a text or e-mail as confirmation when you make a reservation at a hotel or restaurant. Don't delete these messages! Make sure you know where you can find them on your phone or print them out, because having the confirmation can make all the difference if there is a dispute about your reservation.

  3. Hotel phone numbers. Make sure you know how to contact the places you're planning on staying. If you're running late, letting a hotel know you're still coming can make sure they hold your reservation.

  4. Paper maps. Younger people smirk when they see their older relatives fumbling with a paper map, and yes, GPS is usually a more convenient choice. However, if you find yourself lost somewhere without internet reception a paper map can be the best solution.

  5. Cash. Having a modest amount of cash - including some change for older-style vending machines - can save you if there are problems with your credit or debit card.

  6. Reusable grocery bags. With more and more stores doing away with free paper or plastic bags, traveling with one or two reusable bags can be useful if you need to stop and pick up a few things.

  7. Paper and pencil. Yes, even in the 21st century, there are times when paper and pencil come in handy - say for jotting down directions quickly or leaving a note if you have to leave your car to look for help in an emergency. Pack a pencil rather than a pen, because pens tend to dry up before long when left in a car.

Traveling With Kids

Especially with very young children, you may be glad you didn't leave home without the following:

  1. Extra diapers. It's amazing how quickly a little one can go through diapers.

  2. Baby wipes. These have a variety of clean-up uses beyond diaper changes.

  3. Clean bottle/sippy cup. Inevitably, a kid's drinking vessel will get tossed out of a stroller and lost or simply dropped on a dirty floor. Always have a back-up.

  4. Small blanket. In cold weather, this can be preferable to simply bundling the kid up in heavy clothes. A blanket is more easily removed as the car heats up, and some experts advise a blanket placed over car seat restraints is more secure than having thick layers of clothing underneath them.

New Drivers: Prepare for Emergencies!

If you're a new driver, keep in mind that the nature of emergencies is they are unexpected. Nobody thinks the worst will happen to them - but an accident or breakdown on the road happens to most drivers at some point.

If you find yourself in an accident or get pulled over by the police or your car breaks down, you will need some paperwork handy.

Here are common emergencies that most drivers will experience in their lifetime:

  1. Accidents
  2. Breakdowns
  3. Severe weather
  4. Police stops
  5. Fatigue or illness
  6. Getting lost

Severe Weather

Getting caught in bad weather isn't fun, but here are a few items for your emergency kit that can make it more manageable:

  1. Rain poncho. If you have to leave your car in the pouring rain, having a poncho with you can save you from hours of having to drive in wet clothes afterward.

  2. Umbrella. A small, compact umbrella can easily fit in your glove box or under your seat.

  3. Ice scraper/snow brush. Don't rely on your wipers to clear snow and ice from your windshield. They only cover a limited area. Also, caked-on ice can damage your wiper blades, while trying to force the wipers through too much snow or ice could cause their electrical fuse to blow.

  4. Snow shovel. If you're traveling in snowy areas, keeping one of these in your trunk can allow you to dig your way out of a jam. This often proves necessary when a snow plow buries your car while you're parked on the roadside.

  5. Ice melt or kitty litter. If you can't get traction on an icy surface, something to melt the ice and/or give your tires some grit to catch hold of can get you going again.

  6. Sunglasses. Snow and rain may be obvious hazards, but long drives in the bright sun can cause fatigue and headaches that are dangerous as well.

Hygiene

Just a few basics in your emergency kit can protect you and your family and stop your car from looking like a dumpster:

  1. Tissues. From wiping noses to cleaning eyeglasses, these have a variety of uses.

  2. Paper towels. Especially on longer trips or when traveling with kids, having some paper towels can help with larger clean-ups.

  3. Hand sanitizer. Aside from preventing COVID, hand sanitizer comes in handy after using a gas station restroom.

  4. Trash bags. Ever clean out a car after a long road trip? It's much easier to bag things as you go.

  5. Face mask. As long as COVID keeps raging, you may need one to protect yourself and others, or simply to enter a building with a mask requirement. Always keep spares in your car in case you find yourself having to make an unexpected stop.

The Minimalist's Top 10 List

Let's say you like to travel light. Or perhaps you don't drive in bad weather or isolated places. Here's a pared-down list chosen from the preceding 50 items:

  1. Legal paperwork (registration, license, insurance card)

  2. Owner's manual

  3. Water

  4. Spare tire and jack

  5. Phone charger

  6. Bandaids

  7. Medical insurance card

  8. Pain reliever

  9. Hand sanitizer

  10. Tissues

Nobody thinks the worst will happen to them - but an accident or breakdown on the road happens to most drivers at some point.

Best Things To Keep in Your Car FAQs

I bought a used car that didn't come with an owner's manual. What should I do?

You might find one online, or by contacting the manufacturer. If you find one online, consider printing out some of the more crucial portions in case you need it in some place where you can't get internet access.

How can I be prepared for emergencies without keeping too much clutter in my car?

Keep separate grab-bags handy – perhaps reusable shopping bags or small totes – with supplies for different types of driving situations. You can label them as "summer," "winter," or "baby" so you can quickly grab the right bag for the situation.

If I have car insurance, do I need to keep proof of insurance in my car?

Yes, it's a legal requirement to have proof of insurance in your vehicle. Plus, you may need to contact your insurance company from the scene of an accident so keeping your insurance card at home doesn't do you much good.

Is Your Car Insurance as Emergency-Ready as Your Car?

If you feel safer once you've put together an emergency kit for your car, ask yourself if your car insurance policy is equally ready for trouble.

People get in the habit of automatically renewing their policies without thinking through what they actually cover. Meanwhile, your circumstances may have changed, or you may qualify for new discounts like those for safe drivers.

Take a fresh look at your car insurance policy's coverage type, limits and deductibles to make sure it gives you as much protection as you want. While you're at it, compare quotes from different providers to see if you can get a better deal. For free, real-time quotes, enter your zip code below and answer a few questions.

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