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All sorts of unexpected things can occur while you're in your car.

If you have the appropriate items with you, they'll be of minimal impact.  If you don't, they could be extremely inconvenient.

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What to Include in a Car Emergency Kit

Part 1 :  How to Decide What to Include

Man in Snow

You don't need to be as potentially intrepid as this gentleman, but some measure of precautionary planning is called for every time you get in your car.

This is part one of a three part series on creating an in-car emergency kit.  Please also visit

1.  How to Decide What to Include in Your Emergency Kit
2.  Four Emergency Kit Checklists
3.  Your First Aid Kit and Other Considerations




We all know the Boy Scout motto (Be Prepared) and to a greater or lesser extent, we prepare for many things in our lives.

But sometimes the familiarity of common everyday activities conceals the potential problems waiting to leap out and surprise us.

Whether it is something due to our actions, our car's actions, another car's actions, or something else entirely, there are plenty of opportunities for problems to assail us in our cars.

Do you have an appropriate inventory of emergency items in your car to ensure any such problems are minor rather than major?

Please read through our three part series to get a better appreciation of what you should keep with you in your car.

What to Anticipate and Prepare For

Just about anything can happen while you're driving in your car, ranging from a bee flying in the window and stinging you, through to getting involved in a serious accident with multiple fatalities (excuse our graveyard humor if we point out that if you are one of these fatalities, you clearly don't need to worry about having an emergency kit with you).

In addition to things directly involving yourself, there are other external challenges that might come into play, ranging from traffic jams through weather and all the way to, well, to World War Three (again perhaps something you don't need to prepare for).

Your car might run out of gas or have a flat tire.  You might get lost and stranded at night in the bad part of an unfamiliar town.

As well as disasters, you may also experience inconveniences of varying degrees.  For example, the car might run out of windshield washer fluid - not too serious on a dry road in daylight, but on a snowy/slushy road at night, potentially a big problem.

So how well prepared should you be?  Where do you draw the line?

We have three suggestions to answer this key question, and also offer, below, a formula which attempts to provide a semi-scientific way of deciding what to include and exclude.

But first, some general considerations.

1.  Possibility/Probability of Problem

Make a list - take several days or even weeks to do this.  Write down every problem you've ever had, either with your cars in the past, or while you've been in a car.

Add to this other problems that you know other people have had as well.  Think of as many challenges as you can.  Ask your friends about problems and inconveniences they've experienced, too.

When you've stopped thinking up new things, have a look at your list, and work through it, identifying from each problem what you would need to have with you in the car as a solution to the problem.

2.  Convenience and Compromise

The solution to some problems might be 'carry a spare engine in the trunk, and an overhead hoist to be able to lift out the first engine and swap the second'.

While that would surely solve some engine problems, it scores ridiculously low in terms of convenience and practicality, doesn't it.

Other items may also not be convenient due to their size, shape or weight, or because using them requires special tools or skills that you don't have.

So you're going to have to compromise between problems that are conveniently solved and problems which do not allow for simple solutions.

3.  Affordability

There are two sides to the affordability coin.  The first side is 'Can you afford the cost of this emergency item?'.  If we are talking about a $10 tray of spare fuses, the answer is probably yes.  If we are talking about a $500 replacement engine computer, or a $1000 defibrillator, the answer starts to move towards the no side of the spectrum.

Now for the flip-side of the affordability coin.  Can you afford not to have this item?  If you have a rare car with an unreliable something, and you're about to travel across country for thousands of miles, with a measurable probability of the something failing and not being able to be replaced for a week or more while a spare is found and sent to you, perhaps you need to carry an extra one of these things with you.

The Formula For Deciding What to Include

In a perfect world, our cars would never 'fail to proceed' (the quaint term that Rolls Royce likes to use to describe the unexpected event when one of their cars breaks down).

More than that - in the same perfect world, we'd never get caught in traffic jams, roads would never be closed, and the weather would always be lovely.  And, most of all, we'd never find ourselves involved in a serious traffic accident.

Enough of the dreaming.  In the real world, a combination of things; some that are reasonably within our control (ie what happens to our car) and some which have nothing to do with us and are totally beyond our control, may all intrude on our otherwise ordinary lives and driving experiences.

So what is prudent to prepare for and to keep with us, and what are risks we should simply cross our fingers and hope never eventuate?  This is very much a personal decision, and one which most of us make 'by default' by not thinking about.

However, you're reading this article now, so you are thinking about it.  We have a moderately comprehensive check-list of things, most of which are reasonable items to consider keeping with you.

But where do you draw the line?  How extensive a first aid kit should you stock?  Should you spend $1000 on a defibrillator, for example, or limit your kit to just a packet of bandaid dressings?

Should you make like some RV owners and tow an emergency second car behind your main car, and fill it with all sorts of items, based on increasingly unlikely 'just in case' concerns?

Here's a suggested formula to help you set priorities on what you do and don't include.

You should consider four variables that apply to each situation and product you might consider adding to your emergency kit.  Rate each one on a scale of 1 - 10.

These variables are :

  • Likelihood of problem occurring/needing the item

  • Severity of problem and implications if solution not available

  • Size/weight/inconvenience of keeping the solution

  • Cost of acquiring/maintaining the solution

Now multiply the first two ratings, then divide them by the second two ratings :

(Likelihood) x (Severity)
(Size) x (Cost)

The result will be a number somewhere between 1/100th and 100.  The bigger the number, the higher priority you should place on adding the item to your kit.

Three Scenarios to Consider

You may have noticed, while assessing the values for Likelihood and Severity, that these can vary widely depending on the time of year, and the type of driving you're doing.

For example, the severity of a puncture in summer while driving around your neighborhood is much lower than the severity of the same event when on a remote country road in a blizzard in mid-winter and with no other vehicles passing by and no cell-phone coverage.

Talking about weather, you probably don't need a warm coat, gloves, scarf and hat to be kept in your car while driving through Arizona in the summer.  But in the mid-west in mid-winter - go ahead and load up with all the cold weather gear you can fit in.

So we suggest you end up with possibly three different lists of items to keep in your car - a summer list, a winter list, and a 'special' list for when you're driving somewhere unusual and different from normal.

Weight/Space Implications

It goes without saying that the more emergency gear you cram into your car, the less space you have for regular things too.  This imposes some obvious constraints on how much emergency gear you can take with you.

There is another less obvious issue as well.  The greater the weight of gear you travel with you, the more the impact will be on your vehicle's fuel economy.

Happily, extra weight doesn't impose too severe a fuel consumption penalty on you.  Exact numbers are hard to give in general terms for all vehicles and all driving scenarios, but as a rule of thumb, the EPA says that 100lbs of weight added or subtracted from a car will change its fuel economy (down or up) by between 1% - 2%.

If you have a hybrid with regenerative breaking, the extra fuel cost will be lower.

If you'd like to know more, here's a website that offers a fairly encyclopedic discussion of weight/fuel economy considerations.

Simply keeping your tires well inflated and your air filter clean will more than compensate for any fuel economy drop as a result of 100lbs of emergency gear - and most of us are unlikely to have more than perhaps 10lbs or 20lbs of gear, let alone 100lbs.

For most of us, the issue will be more related to space than weight, and indeed, for most of us, neither space nor weight issues should be a constraint or an excuse not to carry a comprehensive emergency kit with us.

Staying in the Car or Not?

If/when your car is disabled, should you stay in the car or not?

Generally it is best to stay inside your car.  This will keep you reasonably protected from any weather outside, and from other external problems such as animals, insects, etc.

But there may be occasions when this is not prudent.  If you've been in an accident, and there is leaking gas, clearly you need to evacuate the car.  If it has run down a bank and into a stream, again you probably should leave the car.

If it is dangerously close to the main stream of traffic on the road, perhaps again you should consider moving away from the car to a safer place just in case an inattentive driver wanders too far to the side of the road and collides with your car.  (In such a case it is best to be behind your car rather than in front of it.)

If you must leave your car, generally it is best to stay close to the car because it will be easier for people/rescuers to find your car than to find you, and it may encourage Good Samaritans to come to your aid.

People next to a car with the hood raised are more obviously 'ordinary/good people needing help' whereas people walking along the road by themselves don't have such an immediately positive aura to them.

The Checklists Themselves

So, with all this in mind (and other issues that are discussed in part three of the series) what should you actually have in your emergency kit?

We're glad you asked that question.  Please now click on to part two of the series for the in-car emergency checklists, provided in not just one but four different tables.

Part of a three-part series

This is part one of a three part series on creating an in-car emergency kit.  Please also visit

1.  How to Decide What to Include in Your Emergency Kit
2.  Four Emergency Kit Checklists
3.  Your First Aid Kit and Other Considerations

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Originally published 27 April 2012, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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