Be road-trip prepared: Assemble a Car Kit

I got to thinking the other day that I needed to update our ‘car kit’. I started making a list of all the things I would need if stranded in/near my car with my family (in any season). After pondering the list I quickly realized I should consult Olivia.

As I read her list I had to laugh.

Why? Because being that I’ve spent a lot of time in the backcountry and on the road with Olivia I’ve personally seen nearly every one of these items in use. I can also recall several personal experiences where I wish I had this stuff (see stuck on beach photo below).

It may seem like a lot, but Olivia assures me she has all her emergency stuff shoved into one box that always rides in the back of her car.  In the winter she also tosses in the duffle bag full of extra clothes and warmish things (her duffle bag, by the way, has a shoulder strap, so if she had to walk , she could use it to carry stuff).

It’s all great info, so I thought I’d share the list with other travelers.


  • Hand warmers Cheaper than cheap (sold at most sporting goods stores), but can make a huge difference if you’re stuck and getting cold.  Put them in your pockets, boots, or gloves. Makes a world of difference.
  • Emergency blankets One for each member of your family, plus an extra (sold at most sporting goods stores).
  • Warm Clothing: If you don’t have extras go to your local retail store and buy cheap stretchy gloves, a beanie and thick socks for everyone in your family.  These should be in the car at all times. Also, in a gym bag throw in one or more of the following for winter.
  1. An old summer sleeping bag (if you don’t have an extra, check thrift stores).
  2. Full length down jackets also work well (but don’t forget you can’t get down wet!).
  3. Cheapo fleece blankets aren’t the warmest, but can still insulate when they’re wet.

Usually my ‘real gloves’, my poofy warm jacket, and my hat are on my body, or on the front seat as well. Also, I always throw in my big boots in the winter–if I’m not wearing them, they get tossed in the back every time I leave the house for more than an around-town drive.


  • Sterno cans A simple way to make heat in order to melt water or heat a little food, sterno cans are relatively inexpensive, and small.
  • A metal camp cup or bowl or two for melting snow, heating water or cooking (my set came from an Army Surplus store).
  • And of course you’ll need some matches or a lighter (I’d recommend both) to get the sterno going.


  • You can afford to make it bigger than the one you take backpacking, but the items in it will be about the same. The one I keep in my car is pretty pretty big, just incase.


  • LED lights are best because they last much much longer than traditional flashlights, but if you go the ‘old fashioned’ route, make sure to put in extra batteries too!
  • A flare or two in case rescuers need help finding you, or you’re worried about being swiped by a passing car.
  • A flashing emergency beacon is another good option for alerting rescuers of your whereabouts.


  • Winter doesn’t always mean there will be snow around, and if you live out west there is usually never water around.  Little plastic bottles are best in winter, because they thaw faster in the event that it gets cold and they’ve turned to ice. In the summer we travel with 5 gallons in addition to the 2 gallons that always stay in the van.


  • The sort that doesn’t require much attention and stays good for a long time.  MREs are good if you want to throw some food in and forget about it.  Granola bars, dried fruit and nuts, energy bars, and jerky are also good–high energy in a small meal and can be eaten somewhat stale. Just try to remember to rotate those at least every year. Lollipops and hard candy can pass the time and provide a little pick-me-up too.  Also throw in a couple of hot chocolate packs, just to keep things interesting.


Note: Most of this stuff is shoved in nooks and crannies all around the car (shovel in the back corner where nothing else fits, cables under the seat, carpet strips lining the back floor, etc).

  • Shovel:  Nothing major, just a little one like this.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been glad I had a little shovel in my car.
  • Tire Chains Great in snow. Cost under $40 at the local auto parts store and can make a huge difference.
  • Strips of carpet and/or cardboard can be wedged under tires to provide some traction if the tires are slipping (I’ve also used floor mats, branches, and shrubbery to achieve the same goal with success).  If you’ve got the room, a bag of kitty litter can also help your tires gain traction.
  • Tow strap or chain so that when a good-but-unprepared-samaritan happens by, he or she can get you out!
  • Cables, so that your car can be charged.  These should be in your car all the time anyway.
  • Optional: A tire inflator seems pricey, but often when you slide sideways into a ditch, the seal on your tires is momentary breached and your tires deflate… they’re still perfectly fine, but now devoid of air.  You can buy an inflator for as little as $40 and it can make a world of difference if you’re ever caught in such a situation.

Note the Photo: Us stuck on a beach in Baja. Luckily a beach in Baja is not a bad place to be stuck for a few days. Also note that frisbees are not the best option for digging out a car but should still always be in a car in my opinion…


  • Multi-purpose tool for cutting cheese, tightening hose clamps, and filing your nails should always be in your car, along with these other odds and ends:
  • Whistle
  • Colored duct tape (that contrasts with the car–but isn’t white, so that when you put a giant X on the top of your car, rescuers will see it),
  • Car charger for your telephone
  • Compass
  • Window Scraper
  • A few bandanas (brightly colored)
  • Little notebook and pen
  • Paper towels and/or wet wipes
  • Maps (of the areas your going, or areas you frequent)
  • AC/DC inverter (optional) to plug in other items.  This may or may not come in handy in an emergency, but I like to keep my options open.

Also, don’t forget your fluids (antifreeze, oil, transmission, brake, power steering). Put them in a separate box or space together in the back of the car so if they leak you don’t end up with granola bars tasting like antifreeze.

Of course this is just a basic list. Do you have a babe with you?  Don’t forget extra items specific to the littlest one, in case you’re stuck for a bit.

Anything else?

9 Comments so far

Comments Feed
  1. Great list, perfect for Alaska!

  2. Bonnie

    Here’s one for you…Take a round tin (like the kind fruit cake comes in); take strips of corrugated cardboard as wide as the tin is tall. Coil the strips into the tin until it is full. Put a coil of cotton string in the bottom with a wick coming up the center. Pour melted parafin into the tin up to just below the rim. Put the lid on and duct tape it all around the seal (to keep the wax fro leaking if your car gets hot). Keep this in your car in the winter. If you are stranded, light it and it will keep the car warm enough for you to survive–Remember to crack a window, though, so the flame doesn’t use up all your oxygen.

    • Bonnie – Thanks! Nice do-it-yourself warming method. I like it, that might be a good craft project for me an Ari…

  3. Every winter I say I am going to have an emergency kit in the truck, and every winter I don’t do it. We have jumper cables, shovel, bags of sand etc. but none of the food or clothing stuff. Fortunately, we always have down jackets/boots/hats/gloves with us, but it might be time to get this together.

    • Mel – My problem is that while I DO have this assembled, it’s usually the first thing to get unloaded into the garage with we’re short on space… Stupid I know. I’m going to stop doing that this year.

  4. Amber

    Boogie boards work for getting un-stuck from Baja sand as well. Thanks for the post, I need to update mine (and put it in my car again)

    • Amber – And our second mistake was to not bring boogie boards… I know, wrong on so many levels. I hear ya about needing to put it back in the car. Ours always seems to end up on the floor of the garage, where it promptly gets swallowed up.

  5. David

    Hello Lindsey, I just came across your site today after a twitter post from Chaco’s. I love all this great ideas you have! As an Eagle Scout and camping for about 20 years now and recent Recreation Management Grad from Springfield College I like to think I know a lot. However, I have never seen the hammock in the minivan before how cool is that! I hope and thinkthat I am very far away from a Minivan but that is so cool! Moving on, living in upstate NY and going to college in Massachusetts I have many of these items in my car and some of them year round! I would like to comment on the shovel, I have the same little foldable one but I also have a 42” square shovel as well. If I get my car stuck it is going to take forever to use the little foldable one! So this is what I have a square point shovel… . It fits great right behind the seats in the truck of the car! Great for when you get the car stuck and great for college campuses that just push the snow right behind your car.
    Great ideas!

    • David – First: I’m a Rec Management grad myself, must be why we’re both so smart. ;) Second: Minivans are the best, well aside from the whole clearance/4WD issue. Still, I’d highly recommend one even if you have no kids, it would just need a lot of cool stickers. Finally: Great suggestion with the shovel. Your right, that could get you out of a jam much faster!

      Thanks for the comment!


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

    I don't blog alone! Meet outsidemom contributer Olivia