I'm sure most readers are familiar with the concept of a vehicle emergency kit. It's not the same thing as a so-called 'bug-out bag', although the latter should incorporate most of the elements of the former as part of its broader utility. Basically, a vehicle emergency kit is intended to help you deal with what its name implies - emergencies. It should contain what you need to deal with the immediate consequences of an accident or roadside problem, and cater for your personal needs for at least 24 hours until you can get home, or someone can come to get you, or you can reach a place of safety. If you've never thought about such kits, the government provides basic advice (scroll down this page to see their 'Vehicle' recommendations), and an Internet search will reveal a huge number of resources. I don't propose to reinvent the wheel by duplicating them here, so I'll leave you to read them yourself. Instead, I want to address a few items not commonly included in such kits, or dealt with in only a passing fashion.
The first thing to remember is that vehicles are vulnerable to theft. The whole vehicle may be stolen, or it may be broken into and its contents stolen. For that reason, I don't suggest spending a huge amount on a kit that will remain in your vehicle at all times. You should expect to lose your investment in it at least once, perhaps more than once if you live in a high crime area. In such situations, it might be best to remove your emergency kit each evening and store it in your home, returning it to the vehicle when you depart. That's your call to make, depending on your own situation. However, don't buy very expensive or very high-quality items for your kit, due to the higher risk of losing them.
1. Emergency Communications.
You need a means of communication that will function in an emergency or disaster situation. A common theme mentioned by those who experienced 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc. is that cellphone communications were clogged solid. So many people were trying to make calls, or send text messages, that the system became completely overloaded and shut down. The same thing can happen on a stretch of highway where only one or two cellphone towers are within range of a large number of stalled vehicles. If all their occupants are trying to call out, there won't be enough local bandwidth to cope with the overload.
There are two alternatives worth considering. One is a Citizens Band radio, commonly known as a CB radio. Another is the low-power FRS or higher-power GMRS radio service. The latter, like the even more powerful 'ham' or amateur radio service, requires a license to operate, but it's easy to obtain. I personally recommend carrying both a portable Citizens Band radio and a GMRS transceiver, with equivalent units in your other vehicles and at your home. Both can be carried in a backpack or clipped to one's belt, so one isn't restricted to using them only when they're mounted in a vehicle (useful if the latter must be abandoned).
Make prior arrangements with your spouse or family as to when you'll call and on what channels in the event of an emergency (and write them down, storing a copy with each radio, to avoid future confusion). For example, you might arrange to call every hour during the first five minutes of the hour, on Channel 3 unless it's blocked by other callers, in which case you'll try first Channel 6, then Channel 12. That way, people know when to be listening for you, and which channels to scan. If you're too far from home to be able to reach them, get hold of a friendly trucker on your CB radio and ask him to call them on your behalf as soon as he can get a decent cellphone signal. He can relay your location and the circumstances of the delay, and if necessary ask for help to be sent to you. (If you and your family and friends are traveling together in multiple vehicles, such radios can also help you keep in touch with each other, notify each other of problems such as a flat tire, and arrange rest and refueling stops with ease.)
Such radios are available from many sources. I suggest comparison-shopping for them on Amazon.com (here are their listings for handheld CB radios and GMRS radios) and carefully checking user reviews. There are many models that have proven unsatisfactory in service, so look for those that attract mostly positive comments (ratings of 4 or 5), and buy from among them (not necessarily from Amazon - shop around for the best deal). I suggest battery-powered rather than rechargeable units, using easy-to-obtain cells such as AA or AAA. You can carry spare batteries and buy more when needed, but you may not have access to a plug for recharging.
It's not a bad idea to include a so-called 'weather radio' in your emergency kit, to receive weather alerts, listen to local broadcast stations, etc. Some models (such as this one, for example) also offer emergency lighting facilities and other tools, and can be hand-cranked to operate in the absence of batteries. Those are very useful options.
Two or three radios can represent an investment of $100 or more. I'd therefore suggest that you not leave them in your vehicle 24/7 with the rest of the emergency kit, but take them in and out of your home as necessary. If you're not planning to travel more than a few miles from home, they're probably not essential for everyday use - reserve them for longer trips.
2. Emergency food and water supplies.
I highly recommend emergency rations of the type approved for maritime use by the US Coast Guard. Again, Amazon has a wide selection of products. Go there to check user reviews of them, then buy from whichever vendor you please. Some emergency rations don't taste very good (I've eaten some that tasted like a cross between cardboard and sawdust), so check user ratings of their flavor in particular. Coast Guard-approved rations are light, compact, contain all the nutrition and energy you need for a day or two, and last a long time in an emergency kit. I recommend carrying enough in your vehicle to feed the number of people you normally carry for up to 24 hours (i.e. something like one of these packages per person, or a 10-pack case to feed up to ten people for one day, or more people for a shorter length of time.) Each pack contains a total of 3,600 calories, enough for a day of working hard, or up to two days if you're not exerting yourself much.
As for fluids, water is great, but I also suggest carrying some sachets of Gatorade powder (something like this) or a similar product to flavor your water and add essential minerals and electrolytes. If you have to abandon your vehicle and move on foot, your body will thank you. I suggest storing a minimum of half a gallon of water per person per day in your vehicle. I prefer 500ml. or 16oz. bottles, for portability and ease of use - the 8oz. bottles are a bit too small, in my experience. Store four to six per person in your vehicle, and replace them with fresh bottles every three months. Don't buy bottles that are too light and flimsy to be bounced around in a backpack for a few miles of walking. (You'll find that out the hard way!)
3. Road/Emergency flares.
Emergency flares or fusees are useful for signalling a breakdown or other emergency at night. They're also a great way to start a fire, even if the fuel is soaked by heavy rain and won't light under normal circumstances. Make a heap of some small twigs and branches, add a few heavier branches on top, light a road flare, and stick it in the middle of the heap. That stuff will ignite, no matter how wet! That's saved my butt on several cold, rainy, stormy nights. (Hint - carry a box of matches, too. They can light fires on their own in dry conditions, or light a road flare if its built-in igniter should malfunction.) I'd suggest carrying at least five or six flares, more if you're likely to be a long way from home.
It's amazing how few people carry a knife these days. It's one of the most useful and versatile instruments you can imagine. You definitely need one in your vehicle emergency kit.
In terms of value for money, I don't think anything on the market can beat a Mora knife. They've never ceased to astonish me with their sharpness (the best I've ever seen on a mass-produced factory knife out of the box, bar none). They last well under hard use, but they're cheap enough to discard without concern if one breaks, or if it's stolen from your vehicle. I particularly like this model, available from Amazon or elsewhere, for these reasons:
- Its handle is plastic rather than the traditional wood, making it more durable.
- Unlike many Mora knives, this model provides a finger guard between the hilt and the blade - and with a knife so sharp, I want that protection!
- It comes with a serviceable plastic sheath. This can be worn on a regular belt, or cord can be attached to it and it can be worn around the neck (the knife is light enough to make this easy).
- At only 10 bucks for so useful and serviceable a knife, what's not to like?
As a bonus, the manufacturer's Web site offers a useful tutorial on how to keep your knife clean and sharp.
If you prefer a folding knife, look for toughness and utility rather than fancy features. I don't suggest a cheaply made folder, because it's all too likely to break while in use (at least, that's been my experience, particularly under stress). I recommend the Cold Steel line of folding knives (and their other products as well) for sheer toughness and durability. They're not bad value for money, either, although they're more expensive than the Mora knife mentioned above. There are many alternatives - try an Internet search to find out more.
I seldom, if ever, see these mentioned as a valuable component of a vehicle emergency kit. They're not often needed, but they're so useful when you do need them that I include them as an essential. Consider:
- You're stuck at the top of a hill in a long, long line of stalled traffic. You can get out and use the binoculars to look far ahead, trying to find out what's going on. That crowd of people around a vehicle a mile ahead - are they onlookers trying to help, or a mob looting their way up the line of cars? If it's the latter, plan to be long gone by the time they reach your vehicle!
- You're driving along an unfamiliar road, and you're lost. Your map doesn't show much in the way of identifiable features, but you can see a water-tower in the distance. Is that the name of a town painted on the side? With binoculars, you can find out - and that will tell you where you are.
- You've pulled over on the side of the road to change drivers, or drink some water, or whatever. One of the kids has wandered away while your attention was distracted. Binoculars can be very handy when searching for them amongst underbrush or on the side of a hill.
- You're in a stalled line of traffic, and the kids are driving you nuts. Handing them a pair of binoculars and telling them to look for birds or animals, or identify trees, or see who can spot vehicle registration plates from the most states, keeps them interested and out of your hair while you figure out what to do next.
You don't have to spend a fortune on them, either. I use Tasco 8x21 binoculars, which cost me less than $10 at Amazon (they're a little more now, but not much). They're very small and light, come with a neck lanyard and belt pouch, and can be adjusted to accommodate differences in vision. There are 10x25 and 12x25 versions available too, but I find the extra magnification unnecessary and often counter-productive in smaller, lower-quality optical instruments. I'll buy something with better glass if I want higher magnification - and with a wider field of vision, too. All the three models I mentioned are cheap enough that if I break one, or lose it, or it's stolen out of my vehicle, I won't cry too hard. In fact, if you carry your kids in the car often, issue a pair to each of them to keep them occupied!
You need at least one, preferably two, emergency sources of light. Modern LED flashlights are powerful and reliable, and don't cost an arm and a leg. Pick one with both good light output and good battery life, and make sure it uses AA or AAA batteries - not some fancy lithium-ion or other cells that a country store might not have in stock. Remember, this is for emergency use. Don't get fancy! (As always, check user reviews of the products you're considering before making your selection.)
I highly recommend carrying a headlamp as well as a flashlight. They're invaluable if you need to walk for some distance at night, as the light will follow your eyes and your head, and wearing it on your forehead frees your hands to use a walking- or hiking stick, move branches or other obstacles out of the way, carry something, or hold the hand of a child. I particularly like the products of LED Lenser, also available at Amazon. They're not cheap, but they're high-quality. (Hint - go for battery-powered rather than rechargeable units. You might not have access to a power plug to recharge them in an emergency. Also, carry at least one spare set of batteries for all your flashlights and headlamps. It helps if your radio[s] use the same size battery.)
I'd also recommend carrying several light sticks. They can provide 'night light' in a parked car, or be tied to trees or bushes to signal your whereabouts. If you're walking with others at night, you can each fasten one to your back (or backpack) to help keep track of one another. They can even keep your kids entertained, if worst comes to worst. They're too useful not to include in your kit.
Again, this is very seldom mentioned as part of an emergency kit, but I think it's indispensable. The water-tower we mentioned in point 5 above - what direction is it from you? That will help determine your location on a map. Are you trying to get back home on unfamiliar side roads after the main highway became blocked? It helps if you know which direction home is in, and which direction the road you're currently using is taking you. If the two are roughly the same, all well and good. If they're not . . . find another road! There are many models available at very reasonable prices. Buy a unit of decent quality (check the user reviews). The cheap Christmas-cracker variety just won't cut it, I'm afraid! (If you've never learned to navigate using a compass, there are several good online information resources, including a video tutorial.) Maps - even a road atlas, although it's better to have a more detailed map if possible - are also very useful.
You may have to abandon your vehicle and walk to safety, or leave it at a service station and find your way to a hotel. You need something to carry your emergency supplies and/or any valuables kept in your vehicle. A simple, cheap backpack can be kept in your emergency kit for such a purpose (you can even store your emergency kit inside it, if you wish). Backpacks can be had for under $10 at many supermarkets and retailers. I did a search for what's available on Amazon for under $10, and was surprised to see how large some of the packs on offer were. As always, check user reviews before making your selection, then shop for it wherever you please.
EDITED TO ADD: Reader Peter B. makes the excellent suggestion in Comments, for those with back problems, of using a lumbar pack rather than a backpack. That's a great idea, and one I'm going to adopt myself. Unfortunately there don't seem to be many lumbar packs out there that are simultaneously spacious, high-quality and low-price! However, in this case, given my fused lower spine and nerve damage in my left leg, I've got no objection to spending money on one.
Finally, carry clothing and protective gear suitable for the season and location. If it's winter in blizzard country, you'll need an entirely different set of gear than you would for the desert in high summer! Use common sense to make your selection. I recommend having a blanket or sleeping-bag, plus an emergency or 'space' blanket, in case you have to overnight in your car. Remember, this is an emergency kit - you're not packing for a week's vacation! Pack essentials, not half your wardrobe!
Note, too, that I haven't mentioned weapons. I don't recommend leaving a firearm unattended in your car - the risk of its being stolen is too great, and I don't want it on my conscience that my weapon was used by the thief to attack, and possibly injure or kill, another innocent person. However, you've already got two items that can be used as improvised weapons - a knife, and a road flare. (Light a road flare if trouble looms, and shove the burning end hard into the eyes, face or groin of an attacker. Believe me, that will put him off his stride!) You can add a lightweight folding shovel (sharpening the point and edges makes it a very dangerous tool), or a walking stick (I like the Cold Steel products) or hiking staff (some of which are very similar in size and heft to, and potentially as dangerous as, the famous quarterstaff), or whatever else takes your fancy. Make sure to train and practice with whatever weapons you select. Personally, I'll also be carrying a handgun, but you'll have to make that call for yourself.
Those are my ideas for your vehicle emergency kit, over and above those recommended by the authorities and other sources. If you'd like to suggest additional items, please do so in Comments.
(Oh - in case anyone's wondering, no, I'm not getting paid to recommend Amazon as a vendor, or any of the products I've recommended. I simply like and use all of them. I'll never recommend any product or vendor that I haven't used myself, and found satisfactory.)