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Auto Survival Kits - Emergency Kits for Cars: How to make a survival kit for your car

Updated on March 3, 2013

Survival Kit Introduction

Driving is an integral part of the American life. We Americans are on the road constantly. With all that driving comes a certain amount of risk. Things like getting stuck in a snowstorm or having a flat tire out in a scalding hot stretch of lonely road are not only possible, they happen to hundreds of drivers every year. And that’s not even the worst of it.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of drivers who have been stuck in their vehicles after a crash. Tragic anecdotes of people trapped in burning vehicles unable to escape because the door frame is bent and they can’t get out, or because the seatbelt is stuck and they can’t get it off. We imagine these events happening to us and we grimace, maybe whisper a silent prayer, and then quickly dismiss the thoughts from our head. Thinking about that sort of thing is unpleasant.

But ignoring safety doesn’t change anything, and frankly, there is still lingering trepidation in the back of our minds. The reason for that, that sense that we know we could be more responsible somehow, is entirely human. But there is something we can do to reduce the discomfort such thoughts imbue. BE PROACTIVE. Get a survival kit for your car.

Pre-Made Survival Kits

There are two main ways you can get a survival kit for your car: buying one or making one. Many stores and online retailers sell premade vehicle emergency kits that you can order and toss into the trunk or back of your car, truck or SUV. Many of these are inexpensive. While some lack a few things that I consider to be important, having some essential gear is better than having none.

These types of kits will give you the bare essentials for your survival kit, some basic first aid equipment, a flashlight, jumper cables, and even an instruction manual for some survival techniques that you might not know. If you get caught in a winter storm or a hot desert somewhere, knowing what to do can mean the difference between life and death.

Make Your Own Survival Kit - It will be much better!!!

If you really want to have the best car survival kit you can, I suggest you assemble one yourself. Get a milk crate or some other good size box or small trunk and fill it with the following items:

  • Flashlight and extra batteries (or better yet, a wind-up flashlite)
  • Blankets
  • Extra clothing
  • Heavy Duty garbage bags
  • Coffee can filled with some candles and matches (for melting water)
  • First Aid Kit
  • A sharp knife
  • A snowbrush - (ice scraper with brush end)
  • A small shovel
  • A whistle for attracting attention (screaming gets hard… did you see Titanic?)
  • Physical road maps (GPS and your phone may not work out)
  • Jumper cables
  • Tow rope or tow chain
  • Light rope or heavy twine
  • Fire extinguisher (the 5 pound A-B-C kind)
  • Road flares or LED reflector lights.
  • Bag of sand or cat litter (grit for getting unstuck)
  • Safety hammer (kept inside the car)

Now I realize this is a really long list, and there are few items that some might decide are too “over the top” for an automotive emergency kit. “I’m not going to pack all that around,” many will say. That’s fine. It’s up to each driver to determine their level of risk, but each item has a purpose that, if ever needed, will immediately recommend its value. I’ll briefly describe the purpose of each:

Flashlight and batteries (or wind-up flashlight)

This is pretty obvious. You may need to see to change a tire or, heaven forbid, to search for someone who has been ejected from the car in the dark. Have a flashlight that works (have two). There are wind-up flashlights that won’t let you down when the batteries go out. However, if you have a standard, battery flashlight in your survival kit, at least make sure to check the batteries from time to time, and keep some fresh spares in your automotive emergency kit as well.


This is another obvious choice, particularly if you get caught in the snow (though desert nights can get really cold as well, so if you are planning a trip into the desert, don’t write this item out of your survival kit). Regular blankets are perfectly fine, and if you are really motivated you can even put in sleeping bags. However, I realize space is an issue, and even a couple of medium thickness blankets take up a lot of space. That's where thermal blankets come in. Made of thin but heat-saving material, thermal blankets don't take up much space and will serve well if a need arises.

If you don’t want to get thermal blankets, regular blankets are fine, but you still want to, if possible, deal with the storage space issue.  Another strategy is to use vacuum storage bags.  You’ve seen the commercials on TV, you know the ones where the lady folds up her fluffy quilt stuffs it in the plastic bag, seals it up and uses her vacuum cleaner to flatten it down to almost nothing?  Well, that works well for making your automotive emergency kit too.   You can use regular blankets in your survival kit and store them flat with one of these vacuum storage bags.

Extra Clothing: If you do get caught in the rain or snow, there’s an excellent chance you’ll end up wet for having tried to get un-stuck or to do whatever else may have been required in the early stages of your having gotten caught alongside the road. If you’re in for a long night, having fresh clothes will allow you be comfortable and to help ward off hypothermia.

Heavy Duty Garbage Bags: People have asked me, “Why garbage bags?” Well, the answer is that garbage bags are waterproof and pretty sturdy. You can wrap feet in them to walk in snow or to keep shoes dry. You can store waste in them (duh lol), which includes the kind of icky waste you might not want to think about right now but that can become an uncomfortable—and unhealthy—reality in the small space of car stuck under several feet of snow… with four or five people inside. I don’t think I need to paint the picture for you to see where I am going. Trust me, garbage bags are awesome in a pinch. You probably have some at your house already anyway, so toss them in your survival kit.

METAL Coffee Can with Candles and Matches: This is essentially your water-making kit if you get caught in the snow. You can gather snow in the metal can, light a candle and hold the can over the flame to melt the snow. Eating snow while it is still frozen requires heat energy from your body, and this is an inefficient use of valuable calories when you and your body are stuck out in a storm.

First Aid Kit

Get a good kit with lots of heavy bandages. A little, light duty kit is better than none, but think about what your automotive survival kit is for; it’s for when things have gone REALLY bad. If someone is hurt, a few two-inch bandages aren’t going to help much. Some heavy bandages, some chemical cold compresses, and even some pain killers (even Advil or aspirin are better than nothing).

A Sharp Knife:  A good knife is absolutely the barest, most essential tool of human kind.  I’m not talking about a little pocket knife either.  A good, solid, well built knife is important.  In my emergency kit, I keep a high quality Buck knife with a locking blade.  And I keep it razor sharp.

Ice Scraper with Brush (Snowbrush)

This is another one of those obvious ones. If you think you will be perfectly fine using your credit card in a cold, cold storm, you haven’t even been in a cold, cold storm. There are many nice ice brush and scraper tools available. I suggest you spend the money to get a good one that is long enough to reach across the window more than halfway, and one that is sturdy enough that it won’t snap if you press it hard (been there, done that). The brush part, if you are wondering (because you live someplace that has never seen snow), makes it nice for clearing away the loose ice (snow) , so you don’t have to use your hands and get your gloves all wet, which sucks.

Small Shovel - Camp Shovel

Useful for digging out of mud or snow or sand.  Also useful for making “outdoor potty holes” if you know what I mean, should that be an issue too.  You can find cool little shovels at army surplus stores, camping goods stores or from numerous online sources.  They’re actually pretty small and compact, and fit well into your vehicle’s survival kit.  I recommend you get a metal one and not a plastic one, but that's just me.


This is a handy thing to have if you really are lost. You have to figure that people are going to come look for you, but if you are in a white out, or a dense wood, it can be pretty easy for searchers to pass you by. Many might think, well, I can yell or whistle myself. And that’s true, you can… assuming you aren’t exhausted or half-conscious after several days of exposure and weak from hyperthermia. (Did you see that movie Titanic? Remember how the heroine could hardly move? That scene wasn’t just a piece of creative impulse on James Cameron’s part. A whistle is a very viable and very affordable piece of gear for your survival kit.)

Physical Road Maps: That’s right, good old fashioned paper maps. Your cell phone GPS and your onboard GPS are all fine and dandy until they don’t work. Then what? Believe it or not, they still sell those old fashioned maps like your grandpa used to use. Get some. They’re cheap and you will be glad you have them if you are ever lost without your phone.

Jumper Cables

This one is pretty obvious I know, but if you can’t start your car, you ain’t going anywhere.  Cold has a tendency to drain batteries, not because cold is hard on them as many people believe, but because a cold engine is an engine with oil inside of it that has gotten very thick.  Think of the difference between cold maple syrup or molasses versus warm syrup?  Cold syrup hardly runs at all, warm syrup pours easily.  Well, when your engine is cold and you try to start it, it has to shove a bunch of thick, goopy oil around, and that takes a lot more energy than moving warm liquid oil.  Guess where the extra energy has to come from?  That’s right, the battery.  Cold weather often means that a weak battery doesn’t have what it takes to start the car.  Jumper cables are a must.

Tow Rope or Tow Chain

If you are stuck somewhere, and you manage to survive the hours or days it takes for someone to find you, how are you going to feel if you can’t get out anyway? Same goes for if you come across someone else in need. If you keep a tow rope or tow chain in your car emergency kit, you will have what they might not, the means to actually pull your (or their) vehicle out of the snowbank, ditch or mud.

Light Rope: Light rope, or even very heavy twine are a good idea to have for a number of reasons. It can be used to tie up the garbage bags listed above on your feet, and it can be used to bind yourself to the car should you have to venture out a ways into the blizzard to use the chilly outdoor bathroom facilities behind a tree. No sense getting lost in the whiteout. You may think you wouldn’t if you were only going that far, but you can easily get lost that quickly. A stretch of rope is a simple way to prevent unnecessary tragedy.

Fire Extinguisher

This hardly needs explanation, but I will add that, like batteries, it is important to keep an eye on these as they too expire.  Most of the small extinguishers can’t be refilled (I recommend a 5 pound A-B-C type extinguisher), so check yours periodically and if it has passed beyond its useful life expectancy, buy a new one.  Fire is too dangerous and painful to mess with, and I don’t need to tell you horrors stories to get you to take this item seriously.

Road Flares or Reflectors

We were stuck in a snow bank once and didn’t have anything to put out up the road approaching the turn where we’d gone off. We’d gone off on the same turn another car had already gone off, they too not having had any flares or reflectors to warn us. Fortunately, we didn’t hit them. Unfortunately, the small car behind us didn’t have as much luck and they hit my truck. My truck decimated their little car. They didn’t have any reflectors either. So I ended up walking up the road trying to wave people down and caution them to slow down since the turn was iced up and the snowfall was too thick to make seeing the pile of cars building there before it was too late. I was in danger of being struck myself. A little series of reflectors or LED lights would have been very nice. Now I know better. So do you.

Bag of Sand or Cat Litter (grit for getting unstuck): This is a cumbersome item and I know why most people don’t put it in their cars. I’ll be honest, I don’t have this in my truck either. I usually figure I can dig up some dry dirt with my shovel (on this survival kit list above), or break branches and sticks to stuff under a stuck and spinning tire. But this item is on a few safety website lists (including one from the Canadians who are pretty familiar with snow, so, that matters), so I am including it on mine out of respect for the experience of others. Hopefully I won’t ever find myself wishing I’d put the bag inside.

Survival Handbook - Survival Guide

This one gets smirks from people I talk to. So, before I explain it, let me ask you something: Imagine you are stuck in a snow storm; would you have thought about clearing out the snow behind your tailpipe if you get stuck in a blizzard? Think about it, you’re caught in the storm, and the snow is piling up around your car. Let’s assume you have an emergency survival kit, so you have blankets and all that, but it’s getting really cold and you want to start your car for a time to get the heat going and warm things up a bit. A perfectly reasonable and solid idea. Except for the part where, if you DON’T clear out the snow around your tailpipe, your vehicle will fill up with deadly carbon monoxide gas and when the rescue workers find you, you will be dead from asphyxiation.

See, that’s the cool sort of thing you learn in a good handbook. Here’s a bonus feature: Would you have thought while digging out the snow from behind your tailpipe to be especially careful to conserve energy? That’s right, it’s important to remember that in the very cold situation you are in, AND because you are in a heightened or agitated emotional state, your energy will burn more quickly, and if you go out and work too quickly (especially if you are not used to a lot of physical exertion) you can exhaust yourself, and even make yourself more subject to hyperthermia. This sort of thing is well documented, and a good safety guide will cover it. (I have a guide for my survival kit that I got from an army surplus, the pages are laminated so they won’t be ruined, and it has lots of cool tips from fire starting to direction finding and food/water conservation etc.)

Safety Hammer

I’m including this one because, frankly, the orange hammer is just totally cool (I wrote a whole article on these if you want to check it out). I like cool tools and weapons and that sort of thing, and this is just one useful thing to put in your car’s emergency kit. It’s good for breaking out windows if you get stuck inside a car that the door won’t open on, and it’s good for cutting off stuck seatbelts among other things. Plus, it’s really, really fun to mess with. This thing makes a great gift for anyone just on the principle of coolness. Lol. BUT, if you do get one of these, make sure you keep it near you, in the console or in the door storage or someplace handy. It won’t do you any good to have the tool you need to break the window out of your burning car in the trunk where you can’t get it.

Anyway, this is my list of what I think makes for an excellent vehicle survival kit. I think you should keep all of these, or as many as you can possibly make yourself pack into a box in your vehicle at all times. I would also add MAKE SURE BEFORE YOU GO ANYWHERE THAT YOU BRING ENOUGH WATER AND DRY FOOD SUPPLIES (like granola bars and trail mix) THAT YOU CAN GET THROUGH SEVERAL DAYS IF YOU GET STUCK.

That said, an emergency kit in your car is one of those things that you will see year after year and think, you know, it’s costing me gas and grocery space to haul all this crap around. You will probably think that. And you will probably be right. Until the day you need it. If any of it saves your life or even the life of someone else, you’ll be glad you carted that survival kit around. Get one for yourself, and get them as gifts for the birthdays, graduations and holidays. They make excellent gifts and they really show you care.

Three Videos: Pretty Detailed, Very Cool.


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    • profile image

      Alex StJohn 

      6 years ago

      Excellent detailed post on emergency kits for the car.This preparation can mean everything in a life and death situation.

    • Smart Reviews profile imageAUTHOR

      Smart Reviews 

      7 years ago

      Thanks, Alternative Prime. I tried to be pretty thorough on this, your comments are appreciated.

    • Alternative Prime profile image

      Alternative Prime 

      7 years ago from > California

      Great Hub & Congrats on the Nomination.

      I really can't think of any thing else you could possibly need to create an "Emergency Kit". Very extensive and informative list of essentials that everyone could benefit from and put to good use.

      Thanks for Writing & Publishing.

    • Smart Reviews profile imageAUTHOR

      Smart Reviews 

      7 years ago

      Thanks Megmccoromic and Rosie2010.

    • Rosie2010 profile image

      Rosie Rose 

      7 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Hiya Smart Reviews, congratulations in having this hub a HubNugget Nominee. A well-deserved nomination.. it certainly covered everything we need in case of emergency. Best of luck to you!

      Happy Holidays,


    • megmccormick profile image


      7 years ago from Utah

      Really comprehensive Hub and list. I'm bookmarking this one and adding to my car survival kit. Congrats on your Hubnugget Nomination

    • Smart Reviews profile imageAUTHOR

      Smart Reviews 

      7 years ago

      Thanks Teddletonmr; I hope no one ever needs this stuff, but if they did and it helped, that would be awesome.

      Pamela: I appreciate the rated up, thank you.

      Travel_man; I had no idea about that HubNugged nomination, so thanks for the heads up, and for stopping by.

      Elayne: Thank you.

    • elayne001 profile image


      7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Very useful info. Thanks for sharing this. Congrats on your nomination.

    • travel_man1971 profile image

      Ireno Alcala 

      7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      A complete hub of information on car survival. Congratulations on your HubNugget nomination!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Excellent list of important items for all types of emergencies. Rated up.

    • Teddletonmr profile image

      Mike Teddleton 

      7 years ago from Midwest USA

      Outstanding hub full of great information that could save a life.

    • Smart Reviews profile imageAUTHOR

      Smart Reviews 

      7 years ago

      Thanks, KoffeeKlatch Gals. That's very cool.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Wow, terrific hub. Great tips and wonderful list. Voted up and useful.


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