Build me an emergency car-kit
May 28, 2010 8:19 PM   Subscribe

What item or knowledge has saved you in a car-related bind?

I am the proud new owner of a used car, and while I have a few 'emergency' items like jumper cables, a scissor jack, and flashlight, I'd like to have a better idea of what I might need in case of various situations that might crop up.

In addition to tangible items, what should I learn to do before I need to do it? I'm arranging to learn how to do an oil change, and I'm going to brush up on tire-changing.
posted by rachaelfaith to Travel & Transportation (45 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My list:
Jumper Cables
Quart of Oil
Jug of Anti-freeze or water
Can of Fix-A-Flat
One screwdriver a piece of phillips and flathead
Pliers/Vise-Grips/Channel Locks
Old worn out coat (it could be cold or rainy)
Old socks (wiping stuff off)
posted by deezil at 8:29 PM on May 28, 2010

Best answer: Although they're written more for a mechanic's needs, buying a Chilton's for the specific model of vehicle you're driving can give you a lot more information on higher-end maintenance of your vehicle, like changing your own brakepads and sparkplugs, etc, than the car's owner manual does. Plus, if there's something acting wonky in your car, a Chilton's sometimes has a 'problem flowchart' to help identify the source.

Also: tire tester, plastic funnel, small bottle of brake fluid, small bottle of power steering fluid, and a quart of oil are all excellent things to have in your vehicle. On preview: seconding crescent wrench; add both philips and flat-head screwdrivers.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:30 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

A little air compressor to fill tires that plugs into your lighter jack is very useful, as is a tire pressure gauge to go with it.

A couple pairs of disposable gloves (nitrile or latex) are quite useful if you want to avoid getting your hands very dirty dealing with car troubles.
posted by ssg at 8:32 PM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

It wouldn't hurt to get winter stuff ready this fall. You definitely need a scraper and a snowbrush, and it's also a good idea to carry a blanket or two. Something I found useful once when I got stuck in my driveway and had to push my car out was ice cleats.

A jump kit/battery pack saved my bacon a few times. What's nice about that vs. jumper cables is if you get stranded, you don't need another car to help.
posted by MegoSteve at 8:33 PM on May 28, 2010

wet naps, kleenex, and napkins
posted by brainmouse at 8:41 PM on May 28, 2010

I always carry a good length of strong climbing rope in the trunk of my car. This came in very handy a few years ago when I went off the road into a muddy a ditch. Someone drove by in a 4-wheel drive vehicle and was able to pull me out using the rope. Easy as pie, and saved me a bunch of time and money calling a tow truck.
posted by alms at 8:51 PM on May 28, 2010

Is your car a stick shift? It's really useful to know how to push start a car with a dead battery.

A squeegee is my number-one most useful car implement, as I live someplace where it rarely, if ever, snows. Trying to wipe condensation off the windows with a rag or paper towel just makes things worse; it's worth the five bucks to have functional windows and mirrors. When I had to deal with snow/ice on the car, I was grateful for a long-handled ice scraper.

It's also useful to be able to recognize when you are in over your head in terms of minor emergencies--get a AAA membership so that you don't end up having to change a tire on the side of a busy freeway at night.
posted by corey flood at 8:55 PM on May 28, 2010

Response by poster: Forgot to mention that I do have AAA. I also already have a lot of the stuff mentioned, which is nice because I'm a fairly broke student.

Car is not a stick shift. I love the idea of the Chilton's manual- I am a habitual reader of manuals of all kinds. I love knowing the ins and outs of anything I own, be it a cell phone, camera, air conditioner or car.

Thanks for the ideas so far.
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:17 PM on May 28, 2010

1. A Leatherman. For regular use I get the real thing, but for an emergency kit I suppose you could go with a cheap knockoff for $5-$10.

2. A disposable camera. Well, that used to be in my glovebox. Nowadays everyone's got a camera in their cell phone. This is critical for documenting an accident, especially if it's in the middle of traffic and you need to move out of the way (as sometimes dictated by state law).
posted by intermod at 9:18 PM on May 28, 2010

I have a little Sears tool kit. It came with a 3/8" drive socket and every socket metric/SAE from way tiny up to about 3/4". Also a 3/8 to 1/4 driver adapter, and a screwdriver that takes about 30 different heads, from phillps, to flathead, to torx, that also fit on the 1/4 drive socket. And a lot of other things. I can't remember what I added, or what was there, so I'll list them all.

Besides the above: a needle nose pliers, an 8" ratchet extension, a wire strippers, a Gerber multi-tool, a roll of electric tape, hose clamps (1/4 to 3" for radiator hoses), security torx heads and zip ties. These all fit into a little zip up case I got from Sears, about the size of a large hardback book.

I also have jumper cables, a set of SAE/Metric allen wrenches and a 24" 3/8" breaker bar that can work as a tire changing tool, but doubles as an "equalizer" in a tight spot.

I got rid of my jalopy recently, when I actually needed these things too often. I have an '09 Subaru now, but I still carry them, because I'm one of those guys that stops to help other people when they're broken down.
posted by sanka at 9:28 PM on May 28, 2010

Your car won't start. You pop the hood and look at the battery. You see the cables encrusted with blue/white corrosion. What to do?

Open a can of Coke and pour it straight on the battery terminals. It'll straight up dissolve the corrosion. For real.

Tighten the cables against the terminals and start your car.

thanks uncle Mike, that was a way cool lesson
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:32 PM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

A good strong flashlight. An old pair of sneakers. A few bottles of water and some snack bars.
My husband made up an emergency backpack for me in case of earthquakes.
He wants me to be able to walk a few miles home.
But we live in California. YMMV.

Oh, keep a few flares in the trunk, too, and a can of Fix-A-Flat.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:32 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

A small fire extinguisher. For serious. A quick-thinking passerby with one saved my car once. I've had my own ever since.

I talked a while back to a friend on the local fire dept. who said basically, medical calls were the bulk of what they did these days, but number 2 was car fires. House fires was way down the frequency scale, compared to car fires. I keep mine strapped to the post between the front & rear doors, on the driver's side. It takes a couple screw holes, but I think that's better than watching your car being engulfed by flames.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:38 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Man, I've driven so many beaters. I've replaced several engines, including one in the middle of the Utah desert when I was stranded and lucked out enough to find an old VW on someone's back 40 which the owner was willing to sell me for $300 in 1994. I agree with many of the things above. I'd add a box of fuses, specific to your car, bottle of water, an ice scraper.

But far and away, the thing I use the most, the thing I *miss* the most when I don't have it: a pad of paper and a pen.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:48 PM on May 28, 2010

Best answer: An extra copy of your car key that you keep in your wallet. It's saved me from having to call AAA so many times!
posted by exceptinsects at 10:09 PM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

An extra copy of your car key that you keep in your wallet.

Seconding this! It has saved my son a couple of times when he's locked his keys in his car miles away from home.
posted by amyms at 10:13 PM on May 28, 2010

Best answer: Your question reminded me of this old thread: "What are the necessities for a person to have in their car?" It's still relevant and has a fairly broad spectrum of more good suggestions.

These are mentioned in that thread, but just to nth them here as well:

- Umbrella
- Raincoat and/or warm jacket, maybe in a bright or light color for visibility reasons
- Spare clothes
- Hat (for sunny or cold weather, or just keep a couple)
- Sunscreen
- Roll of quarters
- A couple of empty bags (canvas, plastic bags and/or paper grocery bags)
- Maps for the counties/cities where you drive. AAA and Better World Club (an AAA alternative for roadside assistance -- there are a few threads about BWC on AskMe) provide paper maps -- domestic only, maybe? -- for free to their members. (On preview, I see you're an AAA member, so definitely take advantage of their free maps!)
- Pens and Post-its (Adding on to what Slarty Bartfast said -- ideally there should be at least one pen that won't dry out when left uncapped.)
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 10:14 PM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Regarding flat tires, I'll try to quickly tell a story of my recent flat. I discovered it while my car was in my driveway. I was pleased with myself for knowing how to find my jack and use it. Then I started trying to remove the nuts. Tough. Tough. Tough. Got one. Hands were raw. I had already burned 20 minutes that I didn't want to, so I called AAA. Why not? I was safe at home. The AAA guy came, used a floor jack, and recommended I throw away my GM brand jack in favor of a more powerful one. It was not clear if he meant I should keep it in my trunk. He proceeded to use a drill to rip off those nuts in a fraction of the time it would've taken me. He put my spare on & drove away. Then I found out that my spare was flat. I drove on it to the local gas station to fill IT up. Lessons learned: OEM jacks aren't meant to do a good job, AAA guys save you a lot of aggravation, and make sure the AAA guy checks your spare for air before he takes off.

Stash a few maps of places (city and state level) that you drive frequently. Or just get a big ol' road atlas, which is fun reading for bored nerdy passengers. Also, keep a towel in your trunk, which can be handy if you're kneeling to change that tire. Other helpful things I have been known to keep in my car: bathing suit, a couple plastic shopping bags (good if a passenger might get sick) sunscreen, peanuts, bug spray, funnel for emergency gas fillings, gas can, jacket/sweatshirt, party supplies, a Sharpie, duct tape. You'd do well to keep a Swiss army knife as well, particularly if it has a corkscrew & bottle opener & a few screwdrivers. That should cover many situations.

Also, you should have a first aid kit with band-aids of various sorts, tweezers, some neosporin/similar in single-use packets, a few OTC meds (painkillers, antihistamine), and probably a couple other things.
posted by knile at 10:16 PM on May 28, 2010

Jumper. cables. Because when you need them, no one around will have them.

As another practical matter of accidents and breakdowns, in many parts of Europe you're required to have a reflective safety triangle and vest in the car.
posted by whatzit at 10:32 PM on May 28, 2010

Something to kneel on while you change a flat. You will get a flat when you're wearing your nicest clothes. Something waterproof would be best, since you may have to kneel mud at some point.

A flashlight so you can change a flat in the dark.

Something to wipe your hands on after you change that flat. I keep a package of baby wipes in the car under the passenger seat. I can't tell you how many times they have come in handy. Seriously, get some baby wipes.

I've driven all sorts of POS cars, and the things I've needed to do most often are changing a flat tire and getting a jump start. Make sure you check your oil often (my dad always told me to check it every time I got gas, but that seemed like overkill to me.) but let Jiffy Lube or some other place change your oil. It only costs $40 (cheaper if you have a coupon) and it is such a huge pain in the rear. It's totally worth it to let somebody else do the dirty work.

One more thing, if you have your tires changed at a garage make sure you ask them to hand tighten the lug nuts. I am weak and if they use the power tool to put the lug nuts on I can't get them off. I learned this the hard way on the side of a Phoenix freeway in 110 degree heat. Learn from my mistake.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:03 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, keep a few flares in the trunk, too, and a can of Fix-A-Flat.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:32 AM on May 29 [+] [!]

being as the can of fix a flat says not to keep it in the car (too hot), you should get the kind with the white top that screws directly onto the valve stem, not the fancy kind with the silicone tubing. from hard personal experience I can tell you that if you take a car-stored can of FAF out of the trunk and attach the little black plastic fitting to the valve stem, the black plastic fitting will blow right out of the silicone tubing and the pressurized contents (stank, foamy, pressurized contents) will blow all over your face.

also, whenever you get tires put on or brakes done, remember to ask the guys to hand-tighten the lugs or you will never, ever get them off with your own human power, not even with a 5-foot breaker bar. no, you will need an impact wrench and compressor, and carrying one of those around is just hell on your fuel economy.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:04 PM on May 28, 2010

Best answer: 1) If your car starts overheating (temp gauge redlining), open all your windows and turn your heater on full blast. If possible, keep your speed up to increase airflow through the engine. You'll still need to go to the shop (probably have it towed) but it may buy you enough time to get to a safe place to stop.

2) If you hear squeaking under your hood, especially if it's rhythmic and goes away when the car has been running for a little while, get your belts checked. The timing belt went on my friend's car and took the water pump out with it; I managed to get mine fixed before it busted. It's like the mechanical (and financial!) equivalent of getting your appendix out in time or having it burst during surgery.

3) Find a trusted mechanic. Develop a working relationship with him or her. When they tell you something needs repairing, get it repaired. The best mechanics will volunteer information -- "you really need to get x fixed now or it's not safe to drive; y will probably need replacement in the next 1000 miles, but you can put off z until later."

4) My mother beat it into my head to always have a pair of closed-toed shoes in the car (and we don't live in earthquake country). If it's flooding out, if you're wearing adorable stilettos and you've got to wrestle your spare tire, if you're stranded and need to walk for help -- a good pair of sneakers will be your friend. I usually just keep my oldest pair in the trunk or under a seat.

5) Know how all the arcane controls on your car work. Pop the hood? The lever's right there, but practice actually opening it up so you know you can find the safety latch when the time comes. Can you find your hazard lights? Use the shift-lock override to change gears if your car won't start?
posted by katemonster at 11:32 PM on May 28, 2010

Response by poster: This is great stuff. I'm going to have a difficult time marking best answers.

Looks like baby wipes, clothes/blankets, car key copy in wallet, food/water, Fix-A-Flat, needle-nose pliers, tire gauge, various liquids (brake fluid, antifreeze, oil), maps, and possibly a small fire extinguisher are going to be the items I'll have on hand to start with.

Regarding first-aid supplies: I am a klutz, and I have band-aids, Neosporin, eyedrops, tweezers, Benadryl and Advil on me at all times.

Hooray for preparing my first car for driving-awesomeness!
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:33 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

There have been a lot of answers here mentioning flat tires, and I just wanted to pop back in to tell you that your own safety always comes first when faced with a flat. If you're ever out in the boonies (or any other place where you feel unsafe) when you get a flat tire, you can safely drive on a flat, at low speed, until you get to someplace safer (and hopefully you'll be on the cell phone with someone, telling them where you are).
posted by amyms at 11:41 PM on May 28, 2010

a roll of duct tape. In a pinch it will secure a hanging muffler, side view mirror, cover a broken window in the rain or hold down a trunk after being rear ended.
posted by any major dude at 11:42 PM on May 28, 2010

I was scrolling down, surprised to not see anyone mention duct tape... and there it was, right at the end. It's also handy for temporarily fixing radiator hoses. If there's a silver lining to a radiator hose splitting, cracking, leaking substantially, it's that you'll know all about it--because there will be steam coming out from under your hood (the water or coolant becoming steam as it hits the engine).
posted by ambient2 at 11:53 PM on May 28, 2010

Back in the days before cell phones I was photographing a brand new Saab out in the middle of nowhere when a gust of wind caught the open driver's side door and sprung it well past the point where it was supposed to be.

After trying to pull it back past the stops into place for about 20 minutes, I used the screwdriver blade of my Swiss Army Knife to pop it free and close it. Disaster averted.

Also, when my son had the tailpipe drop off of our old minivan, he called me and I told him to look around in the back for one of the wire coat hangers my wife usually had lying on the floor. He was able to use the hanger to temporarily affix it back into place and continue onto the Sting concert.

I am a big fan of keeping one of the cheap knockoff Leatherman-style multitools everywhere they can be of potential use. There's one in the storage compartment of all of our current vehicles, one in the kitchen sliverware drawer, and one in every camera and lighting case I own.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:54 AM on May 29, 2010

A small piece of wood to put on soft ground to allow you to jack up your car to change said tyre.

Spare bulb for your headlights.

Any attachment specific to your wheel nuts that comes with your appeas some people store these in their houses and not car and they are no good in your kitchen drawer.


If you live somewhere where it gets cold in the winter the cheapest chapstick you can find - use to cover the rubber door seals and thus stop them from sticking to the doors when frost bites - they can be torn off when you eventually manage to pull the door open.

If you live somewhere cold also keep a lighter on your person - you can defrost a car lock by warming your carkey with the lighter and then putting it in the lock - may need to repeat a few times but it works.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:12 AM on May 29, 2010

A spoon.

You never know when an emergency situation is going to call for sudden consumption of a tub of ice cream.
posted by flabdablet at 4:07 AM on May 29, 2010

Above, plus: a length of rope, deck of cards, tiny sewing kit, one of those little Tide-to-Go pens. Beef jerky. Also nice is one of those weather radios that can be crank-powered and will charge a cell phone, and has a flashlight.

As a purse user, sometimes it's happened that come Monday, I've forgotten to move my wallet etc. back to my weekday-backpack. I did that once and barely coasted on fumes into a filling station. Thank goodness some places still take checks! Now I keep a $10 stashed. And lipstick.
posted by mimi at 4:19 AM on May 29, 2010

All good advice. Two of the three cars I've ever owned were bought used and were driven until they just couldn't be fixed anymore.

My auto insurance covers towing for a far, far lower premium than AAA (though I used to have that)--something like a few dollars every six months. No central number to call for a tow, though, so I always keep last year's phone book with me.

Each used car will have its own particular quirks. Because there were cooling issues with a VW Vanagon I owned, I always had antifreeze (coolant) with me. Your car will teach you its own quirks soon enough, but for faster learning, I recommend listening to Car Talk on NPR.

Your car owner's manual can be helpful also, as are online forums for your particular make and model.

(I plan to update what I carry in my own car based on this entire thread.)
posted by apartment dweller at 4:27 AM on May 29, 2010

I'm an incurable neatnik, but I definitely find it invaluable to keep a package of plastic bags for collecting and disposing of the trash that is inevitably strewn about the car.

A can cozy is always handy.

Oh, and we also won't go anywhere without a bottle opener (and often a corkscrew) in the glove box. Before a member of the joy police weighs in with "don't drink and drive", I will hasten to add that we use these in hotel rooms when we're on road trips. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.
posted by DrGail at 4:54 AM on May 29, 2010

Nthing AAA, even though you already have it-- never give it up.

One time I had to call AAA to un-freeze my frozen locks. My car was in an outside parking lot at the airport in Providence, RI, it was 10 or 11 pm, and just cold as balls. If I'd had a lock de-icer, I wouldn't have had to stand outside slowly turning to ice for the 30 minutes or so it took AAA to get there. Of course, this shouldn't go inside the car, because how would you get it when you needed it?
posted by oinopaponton at 4:57 AM on May 29, 2010

Local phone book for sure. Your old cell phone and charger - even if it's not on a plan, you can always use it to dial 911.

Lot of good suggestions here, I'm going to start a list for myself.
posted by lemniskate at 6:37 AM on May 29, 2010

I once tied the undercarriage shield of my car back into place with an extra-long shoestring from my ice skates after its front bolts gave way. So I vote twine, to go along with that duct tape! During those delightful winter months in Chicago, I have a sturdy (not folding!) snow shovel. It makes parking, or leaving, possible. I keep a roll of trash bags, a Swiss Army knife, RainX, and a US Atlas on hand, and about half a dozen tire gauges because the damn things always hear me coming and hide, snickering. At home I have a Haynes manual to consult.

I also belong to Better World Club, which is an environmentally-focused auto club. They saved my bacon last year when I lost a coil pack in the middle of nowhere. Hooray for tow coverage!
posted by sldownard at 6:38 AM on May 29, 2010

Your lug wrench will be inadequately short and will not provide enough leverage to break the lugnuts loose. A piece of pipe will provide that extra leverage and save you from struggling and sweating while changing a tire.
Also, a common mistake I see people make when changing a tire is that they jack the car up before they wrench on the lugs and fight the spinning wheel the whole time. Break the lugs free before you jack the car up and make your life easier.

A two or three pound hammer should go in your trunk. That hammer and the piece of pipe can help you shock a bad starter back into working. When you hear a single CLACK when you turn the key and a jump start doesn't change that, the starter is likely binding and striking it with a hammer (or with the pipe and hammer, if access is tight) will often free it up and get the car started.

That hammer will also come in handy if the wheel has built up some corrosion between the wheel and the hub and it becomes difficult to remove the wheel when changing a flat.

Extra fuses and extra bulbs are handy, too.
posted by Jon-o at 6:46 AM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have one of those "life hammers." I'm hoping never to need it, but better safe than sorry!
posted by radioamy at 8:11 AM on May 29, 2010

Oh! And a pair of wool socks and some old boots is a good thing to have in the trunk. Especially if you normally wear less-than-sensible shoes.
posted by mimi at 9:12 AM on May 29, 2010

I carry an axe and a shovel, but that's just me...

Flashlights are good, but what you really need is a headlamp, such as those made by Petzl.

You'll need two: one for the car, and one for everywhere else. They're so useful, you'll keep taking the one from the car, if you only have one.
posted by klanawa at 10:55 AM on May 29, 2010

My cheesy little cigarette lighter jack-powered air compressor has come in handy a couple of times. Also, in addition to the money already suggested (I keep $100 in my manual booklet, but in a city where break-ins are common, that might be a bad idea) keep a roll of quarters. (tolls, car washes, gas station air compressors, emergency cups of coffee at 5am)
posted by ctmf at 1:02 PM on May 29, 2010

Water and a quart of oil. If the worst happens (radiator gets a leak, car loses a lot of oil), your car can't go far without either.
posted by dbmcd at 5:00 PM on May 29, 2010

Response by poster: Sigh. Damn car has an antitheft device attached to the audio system- after I got a jump start the other day, it enacted a freeze on all audio. I didn't know this, and started punching in random buttons, and borked the whole thing.

Long story short, I learned 1. the car's antitheft code 2. how to disconnect the car's battery via a side bolt and 3. to search the manual for codes that come up on the audio display before you start punching in numbers in an attempt to make it work.
posted by rachaelfaith at 5:24 PM on May 29, 2010

I don't know where you live but having a gallon of water in the car, for yourself or the car always seems like a good idea. sleeping bag or blankets as mentioned is good too.

If you live somewhere that it snows or travel over passes or anywhere that it snows -- kitty litter or sand can be very helpful. And chains. The knowledge of how to get yourself out of being stuck in the snow is good, too.
posted by fieldtrip at 9:11 PM on May 29, 2010

One thing you may want to do is Google and find a forum for your car. For instance, even before buying my Hyundai Elantra, I Google "Hyundai Elantra Forum" and found a couple of good message boards for owners of Elantras. They have proven to be a great source of knowledge. When you ask a mechanic why your interior lights don't work after putting a new radio in, a mechanic will nail you for a bunch of diagnostic time to figure out the problem. When you ask someone at ElantraClub, they'll tell you to check Fuse 25 first, and the vast majority of the time, that will fix the problem. This kind of tribal car knowledge is very helpful, and even light reading and occasional posting on such a forum will give you a great resource of knowledge when your car eventually has a problem. A lot of the time the problem is easily fixed without taking it to mechanic if you know the right things. A forum can help you learn those things.
posted by Doohickie at 11:11 PM on May 29, 2010

I keep a little bit of change in case I find myself on the toll road (because it's lighter than carrying it in my purse) and also a universal car charger in my glove box. The charger has multiple tips and can charge pretty much any cell phone and even an iPod.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:50 AM on May 30, 2010

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