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Your vehicle is likely the most important piece of equipment in your life. You rely on it for going to work, grocery shopping, ferrying the kids around (if you have kids), and you might even depend on it one day to get you to safety in a disaster situation. If your car is in great shape, you probably don’t think about it very much. Sure, old “clunkers” are more prone to break down than new vehicles under warranty, but don’t take it for granted. Even new vehicles can malfunction, and any car or truck can fall victim to debris in the road, flat tires, electrical issues, and other hazards. All too often, when disaster strikes, it strikes when we are in a cellular “dead zone”, in the middle of the night, and in the rain. That’s just Murphy’s Law in action.
First and foremost: Stack the odds in your favor by performing regular maintenance on your vehicle. Keep the oil changed, the wipers new, and the tires inflated to the proper pressure. Inspect tires for cracks, bulges, or any signs of physical damage. Check your coolant level, belts, hoses, and battery cables for signs of damage. What about that spare tire? Everyone forgets about the spare until they get a flat and need it. By then, it could be too late. Check the basics, including the condition of the tires, on a weekly basis. Taking a few minutes out of your Saturday performing these checks will give you peace of mind and will help you catch problems before they arise. Now that your vehicle is in the best shape possible, it’s time to stock it with essential items you might need in case of emergency.
The Emergency Kit
Time to prepare for the unexpected. You can buy a ready-made emergency kit, but buyer beware! These kits will most likely not have some items you will want or need, and they may be filled with useless items or inferior quality items. For example, I purchased an emergency kit a couple years ago, specifically because it contained jumper cables. However, the included cables were not heavy-duty. When I needed them and attempted to use them, they became extremely hot due to the large current draw of my vehicle, and failed to pass enough current for the starter. A note on jumper cables: Shop by gauge! Lower is better (the lower the gauge, the thicker the cable). The 10 gauge cables are literally useless. 4 gauge will start anything out there. They make cables all the way down to 1-gauge, but you don’t need anything that big unless you’re jump-starting an 18-wheeler.
With that said, you CAN find good ready-made emergency kits for your vehicle, but I recommend putting your own together. This way, you can customize it to your heart’s content, use high-quality items, and ensure that it has everything for your unique situation or vehicle. Without further ado, here is a checklist:
1. First-aid Kit. Get a basic kit, but augment it with things you may personally want or need. Look at the contents of the kit before you throw it in your vehicle and add items as needed. Make sure it has things like triple-antibiotic ointment, bandages, wipes, and anything specific you or your family may need. And, most important of all, KNOW how to properly use each and every item in the kit. In the wrong hands some items do more harm than good and NEVER, EVER believe that movies or TV actually portrays the proper use of any medical equipment. Never.
2. Phone charger/backup battery. I’m going out on a limb and assuming you will have your phone with you, on your person. Therefore, be sure you have a spare phone charger and one or more (fully charged) backup battery packs.
3. Fire Extinguisher. It should be rated for Class B and Class C fires by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA (flammable/combustible liquids).
4. Three reflective warning triangles (or at least road flares). One reflective triangle is not enough to give proper warning to oncoming vehicles.
5. Tire gauge. Have a decent tire gauge, and make sure your tires are properly inflated. Under/overinflated tires greatly increase the risk of a flat, while simultaneously making your vehicle handle poorly.
6. Foam tire sealant (e.g.: Fix-A-Flat). A quick, inexpensive way to repair many flats without changing the tire. This can be handy if you find yourself in a situation where it’s too dangerous to change the tire. Just be aware that it is NOT a permanent solution; it’s just meant to get you to safety.
7. Jumper cables. Splurge on the good ones. Cheapo cables will just get hot and not transfer enough current to start the car. Consider a self-started kit that can hold a charge for three months and does not leave you to rely on the kindness of strangers, especially when none are in sight. Also note that if a 12 volt car battery dies it dies. A jump will start your vehicle but on newer vehicles the electrical systems do not recharge the battery. Drive straight to a shop that can replace the battery or to a store that sells them and have the tools in your kit to perform this operation. There were advantages to the clumsy points and distributor caps of old.
8. Flashlight and extra batteries. In fact, just get a pack of LED flashlights. The LED bulbs don’t break or burn out, and they consume less power.
9. Gloves. Any work/mechanic gloves will do.
10. Rags. Very handy to have! I’m talking about “clean” rags; don’t leave oil or gas-soaked rags in your vehicle! The fumes will get to you, and they are a big fire hazard.
11. Duct tape. Every kit should have a roll or two.
12. Tow strap or tow rope. Get one rated for 6,000 pounds.
13. Utility tool. Get something like a Leatherman or Gerber Multi-tool. Take care if buying a cheap one from the bargain bin; I’ve had more than one $5 multi-tool break upon first use.
14. Rain poncho. Again, very handy, and they don’t take up hardly any space. You’ll be thankful you have it the first time you have to change a flat in the rain, or lay on snow or ice to make a repair.
15. Drinking water. Keep a few bottles on hand, more if you have the room.
16. Nonperishable snacks. Granola bars, protein bars, stuff like that.
17. Blanket. Especially if you live in a colder climate. Mylar blankets take up almost no room, are inexpensive and save lives.
18. Shovel. If you live in an area where it snows, consider a snow shovel. Otherwise, a folding camping shovel.
19. Cat litter. Again, this is for traction in the snow or ice. It is also excellent to clean up oil or fuel spills.
20. Ice scraper. Yes, even in Arizona, in the summer. Because when you do venture into the mountains or encounter snow or ice, having it sitting there in the kit is far better than remembering it is still at home.
Your car should have a jack and spare tire, so I didn’t include it on the list. This is a basic kit; think of it as a starting point. Newer cars now come with “run-flat” tires as an option. The up side, no changing a tire. The down side, you suddenly have 50 miles before you start damaging the rim turning a $50 repair into a $300 repair in seconds. Even the current solid spare tires have a very limited range so know what you have and how far it will take you. Safe travels!
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