When I was in college, I had to spend the night in my car. In the mountains. In the snow. I even got to play host.
A couple of us had gone into the mountains for the day, intending it to be a day trip. Except I pulled just a little too far off the road, and we got stuck.
If you got stranded where you are now (if you’re at home, think of the last place you were out running errands), could you survive the night?
Not every scenario is going to be life-or-death. The equipment you have in your car can make the difference between a minor inconvience, a major nuisance, or taking the unexpected completely in stride. It’s the third level of your everyday carry.
What should you keep in your car?
- Registration and Proof of Insurance. This is a legal requirement in most states. Get a car document organizer to keep it from getting crumpled or pushed out the back of the glove box.
- Charging cable and power adapter for your phone. Be able to charge your phone in the car. Keep at least a USB charger and the appropriate cable on hand, especially if you rely on your phone for directions.
- Tear-off notepad. You never know when you’ll need to leave a note for someone.
- Heavy-duty work gloves. Your knuckles will thank you.
- Emergency blanket. If you have room for a nice, warm, fuzzy blanket, great. If not, mylar emergency blankets are inexpensive and store well.
- First-aid kit. Small kids need band-aids for every little bump and scrape. Nitrile gloves and a resuscitation mask will help prevent the spread of diseases if you stop to help someone with serious injuries.
- Jumper cables. Sooner or later, your battery is going to die. Or you’ll come across someone else with a dead battery. Keep a set of jumper cables and know how to use them.
- A rope or tow strap. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get unstuck.
- A flashlight. Save your phone’s battery for making calls. Set a reminder to check the batteries.
- A LifeHammer. If you ever need to shatter a car window, you’ll need something to shatter it with.
- Water and snacks. Keep a couple bottles of water and a box of granola bars or MREs in the trunk. Remember that it gets warm in the car during the summer, so choose durable items. Set a reminder to rotate out your snacks every couple of months. Keep them fresh!
- Jack and tire wrench. If your car has a spare tire, have the tools to change it. You’ll also want an extra rag to help clean your hands afterwards (with one of the bottles of water). If you have the room, carry chock blocks.
- Half a tank of gas. Always fill up the tank when you get halfway through it. When the unexpected happens—whether misfortune or opportunity—you don’t want to be running on fumes.
- Something fun. Toss in a small, durable game that will help you pass the time.
If you live in an area that gets cold weather, there are a few more things you’ll want to pack:
- Chains. Having a set of chains on hand can mean the difference between getting home and an unplanned hotel stay.
- Folding shovel. I’ve had to dig myself out of a snow bank. Not fun. Save your hands.
- Hand warmers. They’re small and useful to keep a couple on hand.
- Ice scraper. Ice scrapers are more effective than a credit card, and your hands will stay warmer.
If you can get into your trunk from the cabin, know how to do it. You could save yourself a cold, snowy trip.
What shouldn’t you keep in your car?
Driving gloves. I tried this once. It’s called a glove box, right? Well, when your car has been sitting out in sub-zero weather all day, guess how warm your gloves are. Your hands are even colder with the gloves on. If it’s that cold, just carry gloves inside with you.
Now if you want to keep a pair in the car for style or better grip, that’s another story.
Spare set of house keys. If someone steals your car, your day is already bad enough.
Owner’s manual. It’s wasted space in the glove box. You can find a PDF copy of most owner’s manuals online; download a copy to Evernote. When you need to refer to it (for example, to check the recommended tire pressure), consider writing that information on an index card and sticking that in the document holder in the glove box; it takes up less space and will be easier to find the next time.
Candles. No open flames if you’re trying to keep warm—you’ll quickly remove the oxygen from the car.
We survived the night, even if it wasn’t comfortable. Shortly before dawn, some snowmobilers were able to pull us onto dry ground using their pickup truck and my tow strap. We got home tired, cold, and hungry, but we got home.
No matter what else you have in your trunk, get a trunk organizer. It keeps everything from becoming a mess as it slides around, so you can still use your trunk for day-to-day life. The most useful equipment won’t help you if you can’t find it.