A recent mechanical problem had me stranded beside the road for several hours and made me think about possible bad scenarios and what I would want to have in my car in order to survive these situations. My vehicle was stranded on the off-ramp of a major interstate, but the remoteness became apparent when I realized I only saw four cars get on or off this exit in three hours. One of those cars was a sheriff and he didn’t stop to see if I needed help. I was able to use my cell phone, but in many places, especially in the western US, cell phone coverage is spotty or non-existent. The world that we live in has created in us the mindset that everything we want is always available on demand. As we have seen during the recent pandemic, that is not always true. During my vehicle breakdown, I was only 20 miles from a medium-sized town with decent services, but at 7 p.m. on a weeknight, I was not able to get a tow truck to tow me the 80 miles to my house. We must be prepared for all of these scenarios. In this case, I needed to be prepared to spend the night in your vehicle. Could you safely do that?
I hope this article will help you think through what you want to keep in your vehicle for emergency situations. It’s important to keep in mind that everyone has different situations and what works for one will not necessarily work for others.
Keep track of landmarks – Exits, towns, mile markers, etc. This information is required to get help in a timely manner. We should always be practice keeping aware of our surroundings.
Keep an eye on your gas gauge – It can be hours between gas stations in some regions of the country. Recent gas shortages also show us it is possible for the gas stations to be shut down for days at a time. Don’t let your tank get below half-full.
Carry cash – If a computer issue has a gas station’s computer system down you may still be able to get gas if you have cash. You may also be able to get someone to tow you or offer other assistance if you can provide cash. Not all people are generous and helpful. While some people are happy to help, others who have the skills to help you may be willing only if properly compensated. Asking “Do you take American Express or Venmo?” will just make them continue their way. Carry at least $250, in a mix of $20s, $10s, $5s, and a few one-Dollar bills.
Use hazard lights (A.K.A. four-way flashers, emergency flashers) – Many drivers are simply inattentive or distracted and we see the results on the news every day. If you must pull over on the side of the road, put on your hazard lights. On most modern cars and pickups it is the big button with red triangles, usually located in a conspicuous location. Give yourself every advantage you can. Know how to use your hazard lights, find the button now before you need it. We will discuss other signaling options below.
Must Haves. (Adjust quantities for the number of passengers):
- Water – Carry a couple bottles of water. I also carry a water bottle that has a purifying straw in it. In a prolonged emergency you can get water out of a nearby stream or lake. If you are in a dry region, carry more. For freezing temperatures, I have found that keeping the plastic container ¾ full, prevents rupture.
- Food – Most likely you will not be stranded long enough that not having food will put you in danger, but having it will make the ordeal a little more tolerable. Keep some non-perishable food that is not affected by freezing temperatures (cans can rupture). Carry some candy in case you or someone you run into has a low blood sugar episode.
- Bathroom supplies- Carry toilet paper, bucket/bottle. These simple items can make life a little more comfortable in these situations.
- Knife/multi-tool – I know for many this is a no-brainer, because we never leave home without one. In addition to the knife I carry on me, I also carry one in my car’s center console. My EDC knife has a seat belt cutter and glass breaker, so I have redundancy.
- Glass breaker/seat belt cutter – It may me necessary to cut yourself out of your seat belt after an accident or break the glass to exit the vehicle. You may also need it to get someone out of a burning vehicle in the event you are the first responder on an accident scene. There are many commercial options available.
- Flashlight with spare batteries- You never know when you are going to need a flashlight. Always carry a good quality light with spare batteries or a way to charge it.
- Basic first aid kit – There are many commercial options available or you can assemble your own. Your choices will be based on your skill and comfort level in dealing with medical emergencies. At an absolute minimum, carry some Band-Aids and antibiotic ointment.
- Gloves – Keep a pair of good work gloves easily accessible in your car. In colder climates, you may want an additional pair of warm gloves or mittens.
- Hat – Keep a baseball cap handy for keeping the sun and rain off. A winter hat can be a lifesaver in colder climates or in warmer climates if you are forced to spend the night in your non-operating vehicle.
- Blanket or sleeping bag- Even in warmer environments, it can cool off drastically at night. I would say it is a minimum requirement to be prepared to spend the night in your vehicle.
- Fire starter – Matches or lighters have multiple uses. If you do need to light a fire, you can usually find enough paper (giveaway drive-through fast-food napkins) in your car and enough burnable materials in the surrounding area.
- Spare tire, jack, lug wrench and know how to use them. Carry a board to put under the jack for softer ground. If your vehicle has a mechanism that suspends the tire under the vehicle, you should regularly exercise and lubricate it. You don’t want to find out that it’s seized up on the side of the road.
- Reflective vest and Signal flag or device – There are lots of options available on signal devices and reflective vests. They range from a simple handkerchief tied onto the antenna or mirror, to reflective triangles, battery-powered strobes or signal flares. One of these items could save your life if you are stranded beside a busy highway.
- Basic tools and supplies – Today’s cars are too complex for most people to work on, and even people that have the knowledge probably won’t have the parts available. However, some repairs can be performed by people without advanced mechanical skills. For instance, maybe the hanger bracket on your exhaust pipe breaks and is dragging. If you carry some pliers and some steel wire, you could tie it up and drive to the repair station.
- Tools: Pliers, screwdrivers (flat and Phillips, the combination screwdrivers are a good option with up to 12 different bits), adjustable wrench, adjustable pliers (Channellock’s). A multi-tool is a good option that doesn’t take up much space.
- Supplies: Duct tape, steel wire, cable ties, can of fix-a-flat, ratchet straps, a spare quart of oil, rags/paper towels, waterless hand cleaner/baby-wipes, spare windshield washer fluid
- Functional clothing and footwear You may be traveling for work or to an event when a breakdown or emergency happens. In those cases you may be dressed in formal or business clothing that is not very well suited to work in, or warm for that matter if you are forced to wait in colder temperatures. Having a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt and some work boots could make your life much more comfortable.
- Paper road map – I carry a recent (within a couple years old) 50 state road atlas in my vehicle. In the event my phone isn’t working or a system-wide event happens with the cell system or GPS system, you can find out how to get home with a good old-fashioned map.
More advanced items that I recommend if you have the room and the skills to use them:
- Axe – Axes are an invaluable tool and have unlimited uses. In one vehicle I carry a full-size metal steel-handled Estwing axe and in my other vehicle I carry a hatchet with a composite handle that holds a small saw. Some uses that I can think of for an axe are: clearing trees that came down across the road, chopping a tree to use as a pry bar, chopping a tree to use as a makeshift vehicle component, breaking off a damaged piece of sheet metal or bending it away so it doesn’t interfere with other mechanical components. This list could go on forever!
- Saw – Much like the axe, too many uses to list. But if I could only choose one, then I would pick an axe. There are some good fold up saws that work very well, like the one I mentioned above.
Tow strap – I like to carry a good heavy-duty tow strap. If you just slide into a ditch or get stuck in the mud, sometimes a fellow motorist will give you a quick tow and you won’t have to call a tow truck. You can also be a good Samaritan to other motorists.
- Mess kit – I like to carry a small camping mess kit along with some food (MREs, canned goods- remove during winter). If I get stranded overnight, this will make the ordeal much more pleasant.
Shove l- Small fold-up shovels work quite well. Shovels are like axes and have unlimited uses. The main reason that I carry one is to get un-stuck from snow or mud.
- Chains and/or traction devices – The choices here mostly depend on where you live. Choices include: chains, bags of sand or kitty litter, or the traction boards that you see on serious off road vehicles.
- Rain coat – More than likely when you get stranded, the weather will be nasty. I like to carry a rain coat in the car in case I have to change a flat tire. Staying dry will make life much more pleasant if you have to wait in cold weather and are not able to keep the car running.
- Handwarmers – I like to carry some of the little hand warmer packets that you use to keep your hands warm while skiing or doing other outdoor activities.
Spare gas – Depending on your location and vehicle type. I would only carry it if I had a way to secure to the outside of the vehicle.
- Jumper cables – I always have a good quality pair of jumper cables in my vehicle. They can get you (or another stranded motorist,) up and running without having to wait for a tow truck.
- Firearm – This is a very personal choice depending on your skill level and location. If you travel outside of your home area, you need to know the laws in that jurisdiction. You also have to weigh the risk of having it stolen if your car is broken into. Also consider non-lethal options.
- Ham radio or CB – In areas with poor cell phone coverage, these options may be necessary. Be sure to research the licensing requirements and know how to use them before you need to use in an emergency.
What about rental cars?
Many people are like me and travel for work. Most of the time, this involves flying to a location and getting a rental car. We obviously can’t be as prepared as we can in our own vehicle, but we should be prepared for minor emergencies. Rental car preparedness overlaps with general preparedness when traveling. When I travel for work, I carry a backpack, a full-size suitcase, and a toolbox. The suitcase and toolbox each have wheels making it possible to travel on foot if necessary.
In my backpack, I carry: a metal water bottle (metal can be used to heat water if needed), some food (granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, etc), tea bags, a lighter, flashlights (2), compass (key ring type), basic medical supplies (band aids, butterfly bandages, etc.), a pair of winter gloves, spare socks, underwear and a shirt, a winter hat, and a battery pack for charging phones.
In my suitcase, I carry: a road atlas, knife (with glass breaker and seat belt cutter), multi-tool, plastic ware and paper bowls, spare shoelaces, lighter. Carrying a knife will require that you check your luggage, but I just can’t fathom not having a knife on me. Most of the business travelers that I encounter carry-on all their luggage, so you know they don’t have a knife and they don’t have practical clothing and footwear. In addition, most only rely on credit and debit cards. They will be in tough shape when the SHTF.
In addition to the basic mechanical and electrical hand tools that I carry for work in my toolbox, some of the supplies can be useful in an emergency situation. Some of these include: electrical tape, zip ties, wire, lighter, an emergency tourniquet, and flashlight.
It’s just as important to always be on the lookout for items in our surroundings that we can use as the items we purposely carry with us. As I was waiting for the tow truck, I walked around the parking area looking at the “trash”. Some of the useful items that I found among the junk were: milk jugs, water bottles, chunks of wood.
In my case, I was able to get off the interstate on a seldom-used exit ramp. Although this was the safer option, it may have delayed response. If I was on the interstate, maybe a police patrol car or another motorist would have come along and been able to get me assistance sooner. If you are stranded on the side of a road, especially the interstate, I would recommend not waiting in the car. Go up on the bank and wait for help, unless the weather conditions or locations make this the less safe option. I have heard of too many cars parked on the side of the road, being plowed into by careless drivers.
I have been stuck on the side of the road several times over the years and this article is the culmination of what I have learned. I hope you can use my experiences to make your unfortunate events a little easier. It goes without says, but the most important step in preparing for vehicle emergencies is to prevent them by properly maintaining your vehicle.