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What should your car’s safety kit contain?

Red triangle, red emergency stop sign, red emergency symbol and black car stop and park on road. Photo by NOOM AO/

Modern cars are more reliable than ever. But during a recent five-year period, 45 percent of drivers experienced at least one breakdown, according to a 2018 study by Siegfried and Jensen, a law firm specializing in automotive-related accidents and injuries.

Breakdowns have many causes—among them a flat tire, an empty gas tank, a dead battery, or a crash—and they usually happen unexpectedly. Older cars are more prone to breakdowns, but you can take steps to make a breakdown less likely regardless of your car’s age: inspect your tires regularly and keep them properly inflated; when you have the car serviced, have the battery tested if it’s more than 3 years old; and check your oil and coolant levels periodically.

Of course, if a breakdown occurs, AAA members can always summon Roadside Assistance by calling (800) AAA-HELP (222-4357) or by using the Auto Club app. But if you’re at all handy, keeping certain items in an emergency kit could help you get back on the road quickly; others could keep you comfortable and safe until a AAA truck arrives.

Essential items will vary depending on where you drive and, sometimes, on the season. If you’re going on an extended road trip or driving in unfamiliar territory, you might want to pack certain additional items, described at the end of this article.

Glove compartment

Store items in your glove compartment that you use regularly and that can also be handy in an emergency.

  • Owner’s manual. This helpful (but generally ignored) book specifies the type of oil your car uses, the procedure for topping off the coolant tank, and how to jump-start your car’s battery without frying its electrical system, among other useful things.
  • Cell phone charging cable. The kind you plug into your car’s USB port (less than $10).
  • Tire gauge. A reliable one costs less than $20. Check your tires at least once a month (do it when they’re cold). The correct tire pressure is on the driver’s doorjamb, the glove box door, or in your owner’s manual.
  • Registration and insurance cards, family and emergency phone numbers. Besides storing them in your wallet or phone, it’s a good idea to keep copies where they’re easily accessible when you need them—say, inside the front cover of your owner’s manual.
  • pen and a small writing tablet to record essential information in an emergency.
  • window punch enables you to easily smash a side window to escape a burning or sinking car if the doors aren’t operable (less than $20). Many window punches have an integral seat belt cutter.

Trunk or cargo area

  • spare tire, jack, and lug wrench. Some cars have run-flat tires instead of a spare; others have an inflator kit with an air compressor and sealant. Find out which system your car has—and learn how to use it.

Check out the jack and lug wrench that came with your car. If they seem flimsy and unstable, consider buying a better-quality setup (less than $50). Be sure to keep your spare tire inflated and, if you have an inflator kit, be aware of the sealant’s expiration date.

Keep the following in a covered, heavy-duty plastic storage container or toolbox:

  • Three reflective triangles (less than $25) or flares (less than $10) to increase your car’s visibility to passing traffic; place them around the perimeter of the car.
  • Jumper cables (less than $30) or a lithium-ion battery-powered jump starter (about $100) to revive a dead battery. Jumper cables can be tricky to use. Be sure to read the instructions and your car’s owner’s manual so that you don’t damage your car’s battery or electrical system or (more importantly) injure yourself.
  • first-aid kit with (at least) bandages, gauze, and antiseptic towelettes in case you scrape a knuckle, say, while changing a tire. You can buy these preassembled or put one together yourself.
  • An LED flashlight (less than $20) in case your car breaks down at night. Pack some extra batteries, too.
  • Basic tools such as pliers, flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers, scissors, a folding knife, and an adjustable wrench. Duct tape can also be useful.
  • A gallon of antifreeze/coolant (less than $10) in case the cooling system springs a leak or overheats (more likely on an older car).
  • quart of oil (less than $7) in case you run low. Your car’s owner’s manual will indicate the proper viscosity. As with antifreeze, you’re more likely to need this with an older car.
  • Disposable gloves to protect your hands and premoistened wipes to clean them after, say, changing a tire or checking the oil level.
  • A couple of rags in case you spill antifreeze or need to remove a hot coolant-recovery tank cap.
  • blanket for warmth or to spread on the ground while changing a tire.
  • If your car catches fire, grab your cell phone, get out quickly, and call 911. But a dry-powder fire extinguisher (less than $20) for classes B (flammable liquids) or C (electrical) fires could keep a small fire from becoming unmanageable. Store it under the driver’s seat for quick access; be sure to keep it charged.

Consider these

If your drive takes you into the boonies or unfamiliar territory, or if you’re driving in inclement weather, consider packing the following:

  • foldable shovel (less than $20)an ice scraperwindshield-washer fluid, and a snow brush in case you encounter a snowstorm.
  • Extra drinking water and nonperishable food in case you get stranded overnight.
  • tarp, umbrella, or rain poncho to keep dry; a reflective vest in case you need to walk to get help; warm clothesextra jackets, gloves, and blankets as needed.
  • An empty gas canister (less than $20). It’s unsafe to travel with gasoline in the car, but if you run out, you might need to walk to a service station to get some.
  • Paper maps. GPS might not be available in remote areas; also, maps are often easier to use than navigation instructions on a tiny cell phone screen. AAA maps are free at any branch.
  • tow rope or strap (less than $20), in case you need to be extricated from mud, sand, or any other rough patch.

It’s easy to be prepared

All of these items are available in auto-parts stores or online. AAA-branded first-aid kits and preassembled roadside emergency kits containing some of these items are sold on Amazon. Check your kit every six months and replace items as needed.

Veteran automotive journalist Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades. Contributing editor John Lehrer is the author of the 2021 AAA Car Guide, available at branches or online at

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