Roadside emergencies are never fun, but they can be less terrible if you’re prepared for them. To prepare you for vehicle breakdown success, we asked “Highwayman Walt” for 33 items that every emergency car kit should have. And he would know the answer as Walt Brinker has performed over 2,000 roadside assists for stranded drivers. You can learn more about emergency car kits and road survival in his book and on his blog. Take it away, Walt!
A Note From Walt
Some of these items may seem a bit too bulky for your vehicle’s storage capacity (perhaps the water jug, empty gas can, speed wrench). If so, work from the bottom of the prioritized list when deleting items. The more of these items you have when you break down, the better your chances of being able to bail yourself out. See the attached pictures of these items laid out and stowed in a car trunk.
1. A complete set of tire-changing tools designed for your vehicle. Tire-changing tools should already be in your vehicle, but you need to confirm this. A complete set of tire-changing tools includes: –lug wrench –jack (with all the components) –key to the locking lug nuts –key to gain access to the spare tire. Not a common item, but you need to check to be sure. Easy way to know? Try to remove spare without a key
2. Your Vehicle’s Operator Manual. It will provide step-by-step instructions on how to change a tire and cope with minor emergencies. Drivers should read this manual before getting behind the wheel.
3. Serviceable, properly inflated spare tire designed for your vehicle. This should already be in your vehicle, but you need to confirm it (and check the tire’s air pressure). Trust but verify.
4. Cell phone (including battery charger). You’ll use this to summon help if needed. (This item likely would not be kept in the vehicle, but carried by the driver.)
5. Magnetic key box (containing a car door key). This will help prevent you being locked out of your vehicle. It should be secured under the vehicle, not in an inside-the-vehicle storage place.
6. Road atlas. A road atlas will help you determine your location if you are far from home, be a good resource if your GPS is not working, and give you good support if you need to call for help. My atlas lists all Walmart stores, which are an excellent source for good deals on tires. This is essential if a motorist’s GPS does not work or is unable to locate other major tire dealers, such as Pep Boys (which typically stays open later than most: Monday thru Saturday until 9 PM; Sundays until 6 PM).
7. Old beach towel. You can use a towel to pad your knees while kneeling or to stay clean while lying on the ground to position a vehicle jack.
8. Cheap tarp. For use with, or in lieu of, beach towel when ground is wet.
9. Tire pressure gauge. It should be calibrated to at least 60 psi (pressure required for most donut spare tires to be useful and safe). Tires for some heavy pickups, vans, trailers and campers require even higher tire pressure, so the gauge would then need to register greater than 60 psi.
10. 12-volt air compressor. Use to inflate tires to operating pressures. Get 12-volt power from a car cigarette lighter or portable jumper battery.
11. Cheater bar. A 1” X 2′ long steel pipe that costs $8 at hardware stores. You’ll use this to slip over the handle of your vehicle lug wrench or breaker bar for extra leverage if lug nuts are on too tightly. This also can be used as a lever to lift a heavy spare tire the final ¼-inch, while mounting on the vehicle’s wheel, to facilitate lining up wheel lugs with holes in the rim.
12. 4-way lug wrench. Get a large one, at least 22” for good leverage and to quickly “spin off/on” lug nuts, especially if your vehicle has no lug wrench.
13. Pair of heavy leather work gloves. You can use this to protect your hands from exposed steel wires in blown out tires.
14. A set of 3 reflecting warning triangles. This will help alert other drivers to you and your vehicle on the roadside.
15. A Light-reflecting vest. It should be bright orange or yellow, with white reflecting strips.
16. Pliers (or vise-grips), used to gain sufficient leverage to loosen rusted wing nuts securing spare tires to vehicles (in car trunks and minivans).
17. A piece of treated plywood board. It should be 8” X 8” X ½” thick. When on soft/uneven ground or sand, you’ll place this under the vehicle jack to distribute the vehicle’s weight, to stabilize the jack, and prevent it from sinking or sliding.
18. Headlamp (fits on a strap around your head). A headlamp works much better than a flashlight) in case the breakdown occurs at night. Check its batteries.
19. Battery terminal brush. This includes both male and female components to clean both posts and clamps.
20. Jumper cables. An emergency roadside kit is incomplete without jumper cables. You’ll want thick, heavy duty (2- or 4-gauge), 20-feet long cables to permit jump starts and remote battery charges, without having to put vehicles front-to-front or even side-by-side for a boost.
21. A portable jumper battery with short cables can be used to jump start an engine with a weak battery and power a 12-volt air compressor, or cell phone. This battery often lacks sufficient power to jump start a large engine with a dead battery. In that case, use jumper cables. Typically, portable jumper batteries feature a lamp to illuminate nighttime tire changes and jumps. Portable jumper batteries require charging after each use as well as monthly charges. Total loss of charge kills these batteries.
22. Flat, thin “combination” wrench (“open” on one end and “box” on the other) or a ¼-inch drive socket wrench for battery clamps. The range of nut sizes on battery clamps is 8mm – 13 mm. Most common size is 10 mm. Note: Adjustable monkey wrenches do not work since their heads are too thick and bulky.
23. A 1-gallon gas can (empty) which can be used to bring fuel from a gas station.
24. A roll of duct tape or hose repair tape for temporary repairs to a vehicle hose leaking coolant. This can also be used to secure loose trim as a result of a minor accident.
25. Breaker bar. (18-24 inches long, ½-inch drive) for use with ½-inch drive extension bar and sockets to “break” (loosen) lug nuts when the gap around “aftermarket” wheels’ lug nut holes is too small for lug wrench fit. It’s good to have a ½-inch drive ratchet wrench, or old-fashioned “speed wrench” to expedite turning and removing the nuts once they are “broken” and to expedite replacing the nuts during mounting of the spare tire rim so that the nuts are snug. Breaker bar then is useful when tightening the lug nuts.
26. Socket (½-inch drive) for use with breaker bar, ratchet wrench, extension bar, and speed wrench to fit lug nuts. Deep socket adds flexibility when lugs protrude significantly beyond lug nuts (occurs often on heavy duty vans and pickups).
27. Extension bar (best length depends on your wheel configuration) for ½-inch drive with socket. Critical when must access nuts in a deep dish wheel. Extension bars can be joined end-to-end for increased standoff.
28. Set of two tough plastic wheel chocks to place under wheel diagonally opposite the one with flat tire to prevent the vehicle from rolling while being lifted and while jacked up.
29. Can of “PB Penetrating Catalyst” to spray on stubborn/rusted nuts to facilitate removal. This stuff works like magic.
30. Gallon of water in case the engine cooling system has run low, and for long trips – especially in hot weather or in mountains – if your vehicle’s engine has shown any inclination to overheat. Be extremely careful when adding fluid to a hot cooling system, to prevent being scalded. Use an old towel and heavy gloves while removing the cap to the cooling system (wait a while, say 20 minutes, for the heat to dissipate). Your water also can be used to refill cells of vehicle batteries, which need this fluid in order to acquire and retain a charge.
31. Extra quart of engine oil, in case the engine overheats and turns out to be low on oil.
32. Funnels to prevent waste and spills when pouring fuel, oil, water or coolant.
33. Speed wrench to facilitate quick unscrewing and removal of loosened lug nuts, and later, screwing on and replacing lug nuts until they are snug – – before tightening the nuts using a breaker bar.