Anyone who drives should have a vehicle survival kit for emergencies. Just ask Capt. Rick Roberts of the Alaska State Troopers. During his 22-year career, he’s patrolled in weather as cold as minus 52 degrees Fahrenheit.
One night he responded to a call from a man who’d hit a moose at minus 30 degrees. Most of the vehicle windows shattered in the accident.
“He was in his snow pants, parka and gloves, waiting for me,” Roberts said. “He was safe because he had the right kind of equipment.”
Most people don’t drive in conditions that severe. But everyone needs to be prepared to get out of trouble or to survive until help arrives. Roberts tells us everything you need to have in your car survival kit to keep yourself out of trouble and safe.
Warm clothing & gear
Roberts has seen accidents where drivers suffered frostbite while waiting for the ambulance. Even if your region isn’t that cold, hypothermia (a potentially fatal drop in core body temperature) is a possibility. And if someone is injured, you need to keep them warm to help prevent shock.
In extreme weather conditions, it's also important to protect your home from the cold. Here's how.
A survival kit should hold warm clothing that can be layered: sweaters, fleece pullovers, sweatshirts, wool socks, long underwear or fleece pants. It should also include a warm hat and gloves for everyone in the vehicle.
Commercial survival kits often have “space blankets,” plastic sheets sprayed with a thin layer of aluminum. But a real blanket – or better yet, a sleeping bag – provides optimum results. (Pro tip: Look for a microfiber blanket that can be rolled up and tied tightly. It will take up less room in the trunk.)
A small, good-quality flashlight is essential. Roberts prefers a headlamp, which keeps your hands free. Headlamps are available at outdoors shops, in the hunting and camping section of discount stores or at retailers like Costco.
If it’s a nighttime emergency, illuminate the site to warn oncoming motorists. Your car survival kit can include a light-reflecting warning triangles — some models include flashing LED lights.
It’s also possible to buy LED road safety flares, which last longer than the kind that burn. They’re also safer, according to Roberts: “Almost all of my duty boots have burns on them, from material coming off the flare.”
Store a basic first-aid kit for minor injuries after an accident (or those that occur while you try to get yourself out of a ditch). Keeping it in the glove compartment will free up a little room in the trunk.
A jug of windshield washer fluid in the trunk will improve your visibility on the road. Since headlights can get smeared with slush, pack a rag or paper towels to clean them.
Keep booster cables in the trunk year-round. Have a pair of work gloves in there, too, because things can get messy under the hood.
Knowing how to change a tire gets you back on the road quicker. Roadside assistance or a tow truck could take a long time when the weather is bad. (Don’t forget to keep a spare on you!)
If you don’t keep an extra phone charging cable in your car, now’s the time to get one. This will ensure you can call for help (assuming there’s a signal).
A paperback or a deck of cards won’t take up much room in the survival kit, but could be very useful during long waits for help.
Be ready to dig
Live in a snowy place? Always keep a shovel in the trunk, in case you get stuck or go off the road. Smaller shovels are available if space is limited, including ones that fold up.
A little bag of sand, which can be sprinkled under the wheels, could provide the traction you need to get back on the road. “Safety absorbent,” which is used to soak up oil and grease in garages, works as well as sand and can be easier to obtain, according to The Family Handyman.
Avoid going hungry
Being stranded somewhere is bad enough. Being stranded while hungry is much worse, especially if you have a kid in the car.
Roberts suggests keeping food in the survival kit. While it’s not likely you’ll be stranded for very long, it could happen. Protein bars, beef jerky, nuts, dried fruit, peanut-butter crackers or chocolate will help maintain blood sugar levels. Be sure to also pack something to drink.
Calling for help
When trouble strikes, the first thing to do is call 911 or any roadside assistance you have. But you also need to be prepared to manage on your own if:
You’re in a no-service area.
Your phone battery is low or dead (This is why it’s important to have a charger.)
In these cases, you’ll need to start walking to the nearest home or business to get help, or wait and hope someone will come along. A well-stocked survival kit will help in either case.
Write the roadside assistance number in the vehicle owner’s manual. If you can’t turn on your phone (or even find it), you’ll have the number to call from wherever you end up.
Ready-made or DIY kits
You might not need to buy everything on the list, especially if you’re an outdoorsy type who already owns camping gear or a lot of warm clothing. Those who don’t want to put together their own supplies can buy a “commercial” car survival kit in stores or online.
According to Consumer Reports, it may be more cost-effective to buy a ready-made survival kit. Depending on where you live, and how many people are in your household, you can add enough warm clothing and sleeping bags or blankets for everyone in the car.
The bottom line
The thought of a stranding, accident or breakdown is scary. Having the right gear makes all the difference. Purchase or put together a car survival kit and increase the odds in your favor.
A big part of staying safe while on the road is getting the right car insurance. Learn more about it here.
Image: Roy James Shakespeare
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