It's inevitable: Cars break down. In fact, the Automobile Association of America, the largest emergency roadside assistance organization in the country, handles between 29 and 30 million roadside calls for help each year from motorists stranded on America's highways and byways. While most mishaps can be handled with little trouble (AAA says that 3 out of 5 assistance calls it receives are fixed on location without the need for a tow), others are a little trickier because aid isn't nearby or is "closed for the evening." Waiting time for a helping hand to arrive in these situations varies greatly depending on where you are, as well as on road and weather conditions.
It's important to follow the Boy Scouts' motto while on the road: Be prepared! That means putting together an emergency road kit and carrying it around with you.
The Simple Solution
For those who want to take the thought process out of building a kit on your own, there are plenty of prepackaged auto safety kits on the market. The manufacturers have done all the thinking for you, but they are predominantly "get back on the road" type of kits, serving as a good foundation for you to personalize.
Do It Yourself
Creating your own kit is the best way to make sure you have everything you need if stranded. Picking a bag or container is the first step to making your own kit. Consider putting Velcro on the bottom of the bag or container to keep it from sliding around in the trunk. The best thing about the DIY kit is that you can tailor it to your specific needs, taking into account the number of people in your family, the climate where you live and your mechanical capabilities. It may make sense to put together a kit for the driver and a special, secondary package with key items for the rest of the family. The secondary kit can be packed with baggage when the family goes on an extended road trip.
Whether you are simply trying to get back on the road after a blowout or trying to survive a night in the elements because your transmission seized in the middle of nowhere, there are a few must-have items for every emergency kit that can make the experience of getting stranded palatable — or at least survivable.
The first two are easy: a collection of basic tools and an easy-to-follow automobile fix-it guide — that is, if you don't have grease in your veins and can't strip down an engine in your sleep. These items will probably keep a minor problem from stranding you on the side of the road for very long and will get you to a fully stocked repair shop or auto parts store for a more complete repair job.
Fresh fruit and deli meat are probably not ideal for long-term storage, but survival food bars can provide the caloric intake you need to keep your strength up and hunger pains from driving you nuts. Rated in the 200- to 400-calorie range, high-calorie fitness bars are a few steps below emergency food rations but provide ample long-term energy. The bottom line is that a box or two of your favorite granola bars will easily fill short-term needs. Remember, nonperishable items that are individually packaged will last longer.
Water is essential for survival. The choice here is how much to pack: a few one-liter bottles or a family-style 2.5-gallon water briefcase? Space is the limiting factor. Freshness is also a concern, so be prepared to swap out both water and food items. You can do it quarterly on the equinoxes and solstices, or semiannually on New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July.
Warm and waterproof are the key words here. Fleece garments are great for warmth, and a windbreaker of some sort will help retain heat and repel water if you are out in the elements. A shirt and a pair of sweatpants make sense as well. Survival ponchos are also good.
You can roll with a conventional battery-operated flashlight or go for a specialized emergency unit that requires no batteries. These use kinetic energy via a hand crank or shaking mechanism. Many of these products are multitaskers, featuring radios, flashing hazard lights, alert sirens, glass-breaking hammer tips and seatbelt cutters, as well as cell phone charging. If you go the conventional flashlight route, remember to swap in new batteries when you change out your food and water.
Dead batteries are one of the main reasons motorists find themselves on the sidelines. There are two distinct choices in revival equipment: jumper cables or a portable charging box. The jumper box deletes the need for another vehicle but it is both bigger and considerably heavier than traditional jumper cables. Jumper boxes are self-contained batteries that are recharged via household current and have jumper cables on the business end.
First Aid Kit
Some new vehicles come from the factory with a basic first aid kit already installed, but there are plenty of basic first aid solutions for older vehicles. Drivers need to consider what type of first aid supplies beyond adhesive bandages and aspirin are needed. Things such as sterile dressings, 4-by-4-inch nonadhesive bandages, gauze, anti-bacterial ointment, an irrigation syringe and a waterproof storage bag are a good starting point.
First and foremost, be sure your vehicle has a good spare tire, a proper jack and a lug wrench that fits. If you have wheel-lock lugs, make sure you have the key in the car at all times. A roll of duct tape is also a good idea. These items will beef up a basic tool kit — something that can fix a loose hose or reattach a thrown belt, etc. — but keep in mind we're not expecting to swap a tranny on the side of the road.
You can pack an extra wool or polyester blanket from the linen closet or go the survival route and get a heat reflective Mylar blanket that retains 80 to 90 percent of your radiant body heat.
Be ready to "Flick Your Bic" if necessary. Most of us do not have the skills of "Man vs. Wild"'s Bear Grylls or "Survivor Man"'s Les Stroud, so making fire by hand is probably not in your repertoire. Packing a simple butane lighter will help your odds if you find yourself out of the car and in the elements. Do not burn candles in your car; the fire danger and carbon monoxide poisoning potential is too great. Besides, if you have planned well you will not need a candle for warmth or light.
In a pinch, a tow rope can get you out of a jam before you have to cozy up in that snowdrift. It does require a willing partner (i.e., a vehicle capable of pulling you out), but the upside potential of dodging this bullet makes it worthy of inclusion in your emergency kit.