Necessities for a car
April 1, 2005 6:57 AM   Subscribe

What are the necessities for a person to have in their car?

I am thinking about things like a car first aid kit, emergency alert kit, ice scraper, Thomas Guide for the local area, etc. This is the first time I've owned a car, so answer as though you were talking to a totally naive person.

Those with good memories may realize that this is a follow-up to this question. I bought the used car and will get the car of my dreams after I've had some time to practice.
posted by matildaben to Travel & Transportation (46 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: - tire pressure gauge
- Gazeteeer for Washington state maybe
- spare water, oil, fluids [I keep mine in a milk crate in the trunk just in case]
- blanket if you go to the ski areas
- insurance card and proof of registration
- hidden $20 bill [to have if you're really low on gas and also have no money] and spare change for meters
- jumper cables
- spare fuses
- winshield washer fluid
- working flashlight
- kleenex
- manual, if your car has one [you can get these cheap on ebay and they're good to have, esp for first time car owners]
- AAA card

I also keep a small toolkit in mine with wrenches, screwdrivers, etc. I wouldn't call this necessary but I've used mine a few times doing minor maintenance things.
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 AM on April 1, 2005

If you live in an area that gets cold in the winter it's always a good idea to keep a warm wool blanket in the trunk and a hat and gloves somewhere. If your car ever dies and you have to wait for a tow truck you will be glad you have these things.

Jumper cables are nice to have both for when you need them and for when you can be a good Samaritan to help someone else out. When you first get them, take a sharpie and on each connector write where that connector goes ("+ on good car", "engine block of dead car", etc) you don't want to have to deal with that when your car is dead and you won't need it so often that you'll memorize it.

Know how to fix a flat quickly. Never jack up the car until you've loosened the lug nuts. You'll be able to apply more torque without knocking the car off those chincy jacks most cars come with.

Unless your car is brand new, get AAA. The first time you use them it will pay for itself both in money and convenience.

A small package of babywipes is good to have for the time when you have to change a flat on the way to an interview or a date.

Extra washer fluid. You'll always run out when your windshield is at its dirtiest.

As tempting as it is, resist giving people the finger. Always remember you're driving a big huge weapon and the right of way is not worth dying over.

Oh yeah, and a pine tree air freshener. You find them in every car, you'll see.
posted by bondcliff at 7:10 AM on April 1, 2005

Wow, jessamyn, you are prepared. A scraper, a few spare coins and bills and a cellphone are all I have, and perhaps a map here or there.
posted by caddis at 7:10 AM on April 1, 2005

Best answer: Depends heavily on where you live and what time of year it is, but I'd say (wintery things marked with *):

Car emergency kit, digital or dial air pressure gauge, collision response kit from your insurer (or notepad and pen, at least), blanket*, candles*, collapsible shovel*, snow brush with ice scraper*, work gloves, washer fluid, flashlight, fuses, jumper cables, clay kitty litter*, fully inflated spare tire, lug wrench, a jack you've already tried out and learned how to use, wet wipes, bungee cords that will keep the trunk closed when you have something big to cart home, cellphone headset.

There's a mix of emergency and convenience in there, really.

A big emergency kit contains a bunch of the things I listed separately. I just have a tiny little emergency kit.

The work gloves (and the blanket, but you've got that for warmth too) mean you can fix a flat and show up at work clean. The first time I flatted in my car, I was pleased to find that Saab had thoughtfully included a pair on top of the spare.

I also keep an old down parka in the back of the car during the time of year where it's not so cold that I would wear a parka, but getting stranded roadside would make me wish I had one.

Movers accidentally left me a moving blanket once, and it's stayed in the car since, mostly useful for keeping things I'm sliding into the trunk off of the bumper, kneeling on while fixing a flat, and laying on when I need to get under the bumper to replace a light.
posted by mendel at 7:12 AM on April 1, 2005

For everyday in-town driving, I don't have much--pressure gauge, wet-wipes, small flashlight, pen, post-its. Bungee cords in the back to secure whatever. I do little day-to-day driving, fwiw.

For road trips, extra coolant and oil (my car seems to have an enormous reservoir of wiper fluid).

I should--but do not--have a small fire extinguisher. In the unlikely event that one's car catches fire, it's the difference between keeping the car and losing it. I know one person who got, uh, burned by the lack of one, and saw it happen to another.
posted by adamrice at 7:41 AM on April 1, 2005

You might consider keeping a copy of the shop manual for your car in the trunk, as much for random mechanics you may deal with as for your own use.

A spare fan belt and a socket-wrench set can save you an expensive tow - it's an easy ten-minute fix.

A can of Fix-a-Flat.

Flares, in case you have to fix a flat on the shoulder in the dark.

Work gloves, or at least rubber kitchen gloves - you will evenutally have to fix something while wearing nice clothes.
posted by nicwolff at 7:57 AM on April 1, 2005

I carried a spare battery. It's much easier to change out a dead one than to find a jump at 3 am on a rainy Thursday morning.
posted by mischief at 7:58 AM on April 1, 2005

Extra glasses, contact lenses, sunglasses, if applicable. A hat or ponytail holder if you're a longhair and like to drive with the windows down.
posted by scratch at 7:59 AM on April 1, 2005

Few bottles of water, for drinking and miscellaneous other uses.
posted by fire&wings at 8:05 AM on April 1, 2005

When you first get them, take a sharpie and on each connector write where that connector goes ("+ on good car", "engine block of dead car", etc) you don't want to have to deal with that when your car is dead and you won't need it so often that you'll memorize it.

I am incapable of keeping this straight so I bought cables that came with the "instructions" on the storage bag. You can also by self-righting jumper cables which can reverse current in case they are connected incorrectly.
posted by LunaticFringe at 8:06 AM on April 1, 2005

Honestly, I am totally unprepared for any threatening situation. However, I do carry a corkscrew, cheese board and a cheese knife.

This has two purposes: helpful during sudden bouts of wine and cheese and very helpful should a horde of Frenchmen attack.
posted by Kafkaesque at 8:10 AM on April 1, 2005

What others have said, plus I keep a roll of quarters for parking meters, tolls, etc... in the ash tray, and I also keep a magazine in the utility box so that if I'm stuck waiting for a towtruck I have something to do. I also keep a rag and an empty fuel canister.
posted by furtive at 8:10 AM on April 1, 2005

Best answer: Seconding the fire extinguisher suggestion.

And get a centerpunch for the console/glovebox. I used one to get out of a burning vehicle. It may have saved my life. They're cheap, couple of bucks.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:13 AM on April 1, 2005

If you drink in the car (coffee or soda, not alcohol, sillies), keep some napkins in the glove compartment - those drops of liquid will dry into sticky goop. If you don't notice it until you have sticky goop, I also have one of those plastic canisters of cloths with windex-type cleaner on it. I think it's called "Clean Green" but I believe Armorall makes an all purpose cleaner like this too.

Oh, and this goes ON your car (the windows), not IN your car, but Rain-X is your friend. I love that stuff. Try to keep your eyes on the road though, instead of watching the amazing beading action of the raindrops.

If you drink bottled water, go to your local Costco or Sam's Club and keep a case or two in the trunk (if you have room of course). If it's cold out, it's like a fridge, and the work out to be about 25 cents apice. I've saved a lot of money by doing this instead of stopping to buy water on my way to work.

I can't think of anything more right this moment, but I'm sure I will in a bit. Congrats on your first car!
posted by AlisonM at 8:14 AM on April 1, 2005

I've always found it handy to have a disposable camera in the car. You can take pictures of accidents for evidence. In this day and age, a tiny digital camera might be even better. The sub-2Mp section of eBay has some good-enough very small cameras for very few dollars.
posted by Plutor at 8:17 AM on April 1, 2005

because we have occasional sudden rain torrents, we keep an old umbrella and a couple of those "poncho in a pouch" thingies in the trunk. and because there is a constant barrage of various pollens, we keep a box of tissues, too.

glove box: dental floss and altoids gum, both of which are useful after a meal.

A laminated map of the city ("fast maps" available at gas stations) and a dry-erase marker, in case I need to go to an unfamiliar part of the city.
posted by whatnot at 8:23 AM on April 1, 2005

Besides all the stuff mentioned above, I've got a couple random cellphone chargers (I'm a nice guy like that), WD40, matches and lighter, napkins and paper towels, some replacement light bulbs (for the car, silly), a few garbage bags and a compass. Besides the magazine, I've also got travel chess, travel scrabble and a frisbee.

And, just to be clear, my spare fluids set includes:
windshield-washer fluid
transmission fluid (for cars with automatic transmissions)
power-steering fluid (for cars with power steering)
brake fluid
water (mix with coolant, use as a warm-weather substitute for washer fluid, or, in dire emergencies, drink it)

Admittedly, that's a lot of fluids, but I've had a lot of things go wrong with cars.
posted by box at 8:36 AM on April 1, 2005

Keep the AAA card in your wallet, rather than the car, because it also covers you as a passenger in another vehicle. I have called AAA many times in the past, but oddly enough, never about my own car.

I always keep my cellphone charger in my car. In many cases, a phone in itself will be your emergency kit.

And for random shopping needs: a tarp, a cooler, and a small milkcrate.

Also, as a FYI - if any of your car kit stuff (like a jack) is already bolted/secured to the car, do a trial run and make sure you can unload/reload everything. When my car got its first flat, I was unable to fix it myself because the jack was secured too tightly to the interior.
posted by Sangre Azul at 8:50 AM on April 1, 2005

For me -

First aid kit, fire extinguisher, washer fluid/oil, gallon of water (in case car overheats), jumper cables, self-jumping thing, atlas, insurance, flashlight, blanket, scraper/gloves, emergency change, three cans of spaghetti-os.
posted by Hot Like Your 12V Wire at 8:54 AM on April 1, 2005

The only thing I think to add to the above is a roll of paper towel. It comes in handy in all sorts of situations.
posted by deborah at 8:55 AM on April 1, 2005

Random odd thing that I accidentally had in my car and used, so now I keep it in there: a spare t-shirt. First used when I got completely soaked one summer day, and then was freezing when it got dark. Was very glad I had a t-shirt in the bag for Goodwill in the trunk. Since then has been used in a case of catastrophic coffee spill.
posted by smackfu at 9:03 AM on April 1, 2005

I have lots of the above great listed stuff, plus: old mapquest printouts, EZpass (tolls in NY and MA), cassette-deck adaptor for iPods and CD players, box of saltine crackers, a pillow (good for a sore back while driving or for car naps). And in the summer I keep a beach umbrella and a cooler along.
posted by xo at 9:15 AM on April 1, 2005

Now you need a truck.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:31 AM on April 1, 2005

cig lighter to AC socket converter
wireless sniffer (keyring style)
list of illegal things to do online
posted by damehex at 9:43 AM on April 1, 2005

I carry:
Fire extinguisher
Tow ropes
Two(!) jacks
Hat and gloves
Sleeping Bag
Spare leash and dog supplies
Reading Material
Spare Shure SM57 Microphone
Travel Chess
Reading Materials
First Aid Kit
Basic tool box
Phone Book
Maps of about five different states
Random automotive parts and fluids, some for my truck, some for others.
Dog food.
Spare Glasses and contacts
Lots and lots of earplugs
Durable People food.
At least two different ice scrapers
Extension cord for the block heater
Toilet paper
Spare shopping bags
And a bunch more crap.
posted by stet at 9:45 AM on April 1, 2005

Response by poster: Heh. Now I get to decide if I am going to be one of those people whose car is just an extension of my apartment, or keep it lean and mean. I'm leaning towards the latter, because i'll just be using it for in-town driving and commuting.

Hot Like Your 12V Wire, you have canned spaghetti but no can opener?
posted by matildaben at 10:26 AM on April 1, 2005

Cig. lighter combination floodlight, spotlight and tire pump.

Instead of jumper cables, a battery-powered starting module ($35 or so at Sears -- you can start yourself).

Metal grating strips to put under tires to get out of snow or mud.

AAA is essential. In addition to other benefits, the card has a bail bond pledge on it. If you get a speeding ticket, some states require a bond and will hold you in jail until you post one. My AAA card has saved me on this.

A handful of the blue towels the better gas stations have, for wiping off mud on the outside and condensation on the inside. They're lint-free and more durable than a roll of paper towels.

A fresh cardboard-box camera with flash. Instantly after any accident, jump out and take photographs from every possible angle, of your car, the scene and the other car and driver. The first thing you learn after an accident is that every other driver will lie, lie, lie.

If you're slightly paranoid, a hammer, to break a window to get out. There's no need to get the highly advertised ones. On the other hand, a straight-claw model gives a better angle.

If your tire changing equipment has only a short-handled wrench, a piece of pipe to fit over the end and extend it gives you more leverage.
posted by KRS at 10:58 AM on April 1, 2005

I am also completely unprepared for an emergency, but I am ready to picnic at the drop of a hat. I keep a folding camp chair, a picnic blanket, bug repellent, and sunscreen in my car -the bottle opener is on my keychain. I also keep quarters for parking meters, maps, a flannel shirt and a roll of paper towels. And I second or third the recommendation for AAA. The single most useful car accessory I have ever had is a bungee web - like a big spiderweb made of bungee cords, and I use it to tie things to the roof. Really incredibly handy!
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:58 AM on April 1, 2005

... really? There are people who have trouble remembering what goes where on jumper cables? There are only three things you need to know:

1) Black = negative, red = positive. Everybody knows this, right?

2) Modern cars are negative ground. That is, there's no wire that goes from any individual electrically-powered bit back to the battery; the metal parts of the car are used for this. You can tell because your battery has an insulated cap on the + terminal. This is to keep it from shorting out if it were to bounce around and contact the hood of your car. The - terminal doesn't have an insulated cap because it doesn't matter if it contacts the body of the car, since it's already connected to the body of the car.

3) Batteries emit small amounts of a flammable gas, hydrogen -- same stuff that was in the Hindenburg.

From that you can derive the best way to hook up the cables:

1) Hook up red to the other car's battery + terminal and black to the other car's battery - terminal. I suggest hooking directly up to the battery terminals of the other car because that way it doesn't matter if the other car is positive ground (this is almost never the case but you never know, you may have to get a jump from, or more likely give a jump to, some ancient Jaguar or something, and this way you don't have to think about it).

2) Hook up red to your car's battery + terminal and, last of all, connect black to your car's engine block or frame as far away from the battery as possible. This is because you know your car is negative ground (thus hooking up to the frame or engine is electrically the same as hooking up to the - terminal of the battery) and because the last connection may make a spark and you want that as far from the battery as possible. In practice, hydrogen is very light, and rises, and I have never heard of anyone actually having a battery explode, but those things are filled with sulfuric acid and you're RIGHT THERE, so don't take the chance. This is also the first wire you want to disconnect after the jump, for the same reason, although this is even less of a risk of explosion now because your car's fan is probably running at this point.

If you have to memorize something, just remember that the black wire that goes to YOUR car should be the last thing connected and the first thing disconnected, and that it shouldn't be hooked directly to the battery. The rest can be hooked directly to the batteries and the order really doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter whether you are jumping another car or having your car jumped.
posted by kindall at 11:04 AM on April 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

Hot Like Your 12V Wire, you have canned spaghetti but no can opener?

Well, they have the fun pop top things similar to Campbell's soup now, so that's what's in there.
posted by Hot Like Your 12V Wire at 11:10 AM on April 1, 2005

Not only is a t-shirt good, as smackfu mentions, but actually a change of clothes. I've been caught in downpours year-round, so now I keep a t-shirt, a flannel shirt, a nasty old pair of jeans and old socks in my trunk. Oh, and a towel. (For all the reasons named in HHGTTG, yes, but also with the toweling-off-when-wet.)
posted by waldo at 11:35 AM on April 1, 2005

I second Plutor's disposable camera. I have one in my car. It can be good for impromptu pictures of friends and loved ones, as well as whatever scenes of beauty or horror you come across.
posted by fleacircus at 11:55 AM on April 1, 2005

There are people who have trouble remembering what goes where on jumper cables? There are only three things you need to know.... [450 word explanation follows]

It's a left/right thing for me. East/West. Red/Black. Spring Ahead/Jump Back. I can't keep any of them straight.

matildaben: do not forget a package of mints or some gum, everyone has one of those jammed in their car someplace, just begging to slip under the seat and get covered in scunge. For my grandma, it was lemon drops, I have Trident, Greg prefers Altoids.
posted by jessamyn at 12:13 PM on April 1, 2005

I don't keep anything with my address or any other identifying information in my car, i.e. my proof of insurance or registration. I keep that with me, along with my AAA card.

I agree that many of the things above are important, but with the price of gas these days, do you really want to add all that extra weight to the car?

For instance, I always keep a backpack packed with dog gear, but I only carry it when the dog is actually in the car. Likewise with food, water; I only carry extra when I'm on a road trip. I live in the city, I'm likely never more than a block away from a McDonald's or a Starbucks, so if my car breaks down I doubt I'll starve.

I do keep jumper cables, a blanket, and a collapsible milk crate (handy for carrying groceries) in the trunk, though. And parking meter money in the ashtray.
posted by vignettist at 1:12 PM on April 1, 2005

I've skimmed the responses so far but didn't see anyone mention a pre-paid phone card.
posted by kimota at 1:18 PM on April 1, 2005

When I was driving a car in the U.S. there was not a year in which my AAA membership did not pay for itself in terms of roadside assistance. Get that first. They'll come jump your car for you if you haven't managed to get jumper cables by that point.

I think some people are going overboard in their recommendations.
posted by grouse at 1:32 PM on April 1, 2005

If you have jumper cables in your car, you will become the guy at the office/party/parking lot asked to jump someone else's car. Do it, but insist that the person you're helping buy some jumper cables while they're at the store getting a new battery. They've just realized how useful they are, and that's the time to buy them.

I carry extra dog leashes in my car in case I have the dogs with me on a short trip but forgot to bring their usual leashes along for the ride.
posted by jmcmurry at 1:56 PM on April 1, 2005

After a 2002 Harper's article on how AAA paves the road to hell I'd like to state for the record that AAA is evil, lobbying for more pavement, lower gas mileage, lower emissions standards, less public transportation -- basically promoting the worst-case scenario of car culture, and claiming that they're doing it all at the request of their eleventy million members.

In 1990, AAA even fought the strengthening of the Clean Air Act - a measure supported by three fourths of Americans - on the grounds that it would limit the "personal mobility" of motorists.

For all AAA's bluster about safety, Clarence Ditlow, the head of D.C.'s Center for Auto Safety, says he "can't think of a single case" in which the club joined a fight for auto-safety legislation - including the decade-long push for mandatory air bags, which at one point the club actively opposed.
Please read the article, and consider joining something like the "EEE" Better World Club which offers basically the same services as AAA, and also bicycle roadside assistance, and doesn't lobby against the environment. They offer all the benefits mentioned in this thread so far.
posted by xueexueg at 2:20 PM on April 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

I would add a Shears. Can cut a seat belt easily and the large loops make them easy to use. If you see yourself stopping at a car accident scene to help (or if you are on the scene before police/fire/ems) good idea to have some thin rubber gloves to put on before you try to assist. You could also get Kevlar-lined gloves (protection from cuts) and put the rubber gloves over them. The thing to do is keep them somewhere where you can get to them right away if you have to stop.
posted by mlis at 2:54 PM on April 1, 2005

Best answer: Boy do you people carry a lot of stuff around. The question was about necessities. If your car is reliable and well-maintained, you need the following in it: Gas. Maps. If you need, as in have to have, jumper cables, spare transmission fluid, etc. your car is not reliable.

I used to carry all the things listed above, at one time or another. Then I got to where I could drive new cars instead of the "classics" I used to get stuck with. After a couple of years of continued preparedness, I realized I never used any of that junk, and took it all out of the car.

All those extra fluids are costing you money every time you speed up. A gallon of water weighs roughly eight and a third pounds. Oil is slightly lighter, but not so much that it makes sense to drag a bunch of it around with you.

If the question was, "What are useful things to carry in a car?" then many of the things you folks have listed would answer. That was not, however, the question.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:58 PM on April 1, 2005

I like to carry a towel (I pick them up at yard sales for a quarter or so and I don't have), nice if you get caught in the rain, a very absorbent grease rag and it can soak up a full spilled drink. I also like to have a piece of cardboard (flattened box). If you have to change a tire, you don't have to kneel in the mud and you can lay on it under the car (to wire up a muffler). I like to keep old parts from a tune up (distributor cap, hoses, belts, spark plug wires) as spares. I've been able to stuff them under the hood in some vehicles. Once, in the middle of nowhere on a snowy national forest road, I hit a particularly large (and hidden) bump, the body flexed so much that the fan nicked the radiator hose. I was very glad to have a gallon of antifreeze and the old radiator hose I had replaced the previous year.
posted by 445supermag at 8:54 PM on April 1, 2005

Kirth Gerson you've never ever left your lights on and killed your battery? How about the cute blond who parks beside you everyday?

If you're slightly paranoid, a hammer, to break a window to get out.
A spring loaded centre punch is cheaper, smaller and easier to use with your off hand.

My list is huge because I don't bother taking my off road gear out of my Power Wagon.

Essential for everyone:
Jumper cables; washer fluid; good spare and jack; at least one spare fuse of every size your car takes; a tire pressure gauge so you can be ensure consistency; city and provincial map; paper coveralls; blanket; tarp; roll of duct tape. Also a few garbage bags for yourself and to pick up after others. A spare headlight bulb. A piece of rope. Basic first aid kit. Some kind of work gloves. Windshield sun shield. A couple rags. warning triangles. Flashlight.

Enough quarters in rolls to pay for a full tank of gas

My winter highway gear adds: a wool blanket for each passenger. A avalanche shovel. Tire chains. Tow strap. A few of those family size chocolate bars. Basic tool kit. Snow brush. Ice scraper.

My offroad kit adds:
2 u-joints. 1 30' GR70 transport chain with latching chain hooks. 2 6' GR70 transport chain with latching hooks. 1 25' tow chain. Tree strap. 4 4" shackles. 4ton come-a-long. 8 ton snatch block. Second jack (Jack-all style). 1lb roll of stainless welding wire. 6 3K rachet strap. Basic electrical supplies. Ballast resistor. Fan/PS belts. Antifreeze. Tire plug kit. More tools. Second set of tire chains for front axle. Compass. More maps. Entrenching tool. Bow saw. Better first aid kit. Couple hundred feet of rope. Hatchet. Spare bulbs. 3 days water. More garbage bags. Spare socks.
posted by Mitheral at 11:40 PM on April 1, 2005 [2 favorites]

Necessities in the woods are different than necessities in the suburbs.

I'll third (or fourth) the plastic maps. You can use it for a placemat and wipe it off, or swat large insects that wander in. Best features: durable and easy to fold one handed.

Better than paper towels is a product they sell at pet stores for picking up dog waste. Very heavy paper with a web of fibers through it, and plastic on the back. Useful for wiping mud off headlights and windshields, and the plastic keeps the mud off your hands. If you need moisture, add a drop of windshield washer fluid.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 8:17 AM on April 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Mitheral wrote: you've never ever left your lights on and killed your battery?
Not since I started driving Subarus. Their headlights go off with the ignition.

How about the cute blond who parks beside you everyday?
My wife is not blond. Nor would I like her to be. If she had a dead battery, I'd go into the basement, where I keep my jumper cables.

I do carry some of the lighter items people have listed, but most of the items above are readily purchased at need. I won't be driving around with 8.3 pounds of washer fluid when I can get it at any grocery or convenience store, or use tap water in a pinch. And I won't carry a spare car battery, for God's sake. That's foolish; if the car's charging system is that unreliable, it should be repaired or recycled.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:15 PM on April 3, 2005

Response by poster: Since the car is 1998 and has low mileage, and I only drive it to commute in the city, I don't really need all of the fixit stuff that people recommended. I bought a 45-piece car emergency kit at REI (which contains this stuff), a tire pressure gauge, a box of bandaids with sushi printed on them and some kleenex with Lisa Simpson printed on them, a tub of citrus cleaning wipes, and one bottle of motor oil. I'll probably throw a ratty sweater and an old blanket in the trunk and run by Value Village for some towels. And I'll try to see where I can buy a car charger for my cell phone.
posted by matildaben at 6:28 PM on April 3, 2005

Don't forget a radar detector - saved my lisence over and over!
posted by dmt at 8:49 AM on April 18, 2005

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