12 Things to Keep in Your Car for Emergencies This Winter
A wintertime car accident or breakdown can mean anything from a chilly walk to a service station to hypothermia. "People can die in cold-weather car emergencies. In fact, it happens every year," says Lauren Fix of the Car Care Council, an industry consortium that promotes automobile maintenance. Throwing a few things into the glove box or trunk now can keep you from shivering in an unheated vehicle if something bad happens later.
Fix, a race-car driver and certified auto technician from snowy Buffalo, N.Y., says drivers can outfit their vehicles with plenty of winter emergency gear for less than $100. Read on for a rundown of cold-weather emergency items recommended for every vehicle. Estimated costs reflect price ranges advertised online by Amazon, AutoZone, Home Depot, and Walmart in October.
That stylish jacket you wore to work today won't help much if you have to push the car out of a snowbank or walk in subzero temperatures to get help. Keep extra winter garb in the vehicle for passengers as well as yourself. "Grab a hat, socks, an old winter coat, a pair of gloves, and some snow boots and just leave them in the car all winter," Fix says.
These little disposable packets use a chemical reaction to produce heat temporarily. Carry at least two sets for each person who travels regularly in your vehicle -- one for hands, one for feet (specialized foot-warmer packets cost more). "I know people who were stuck in cars for 24 hours and the hand warmers saved them," Fix says.
Many cars now come with built-in USB ports that can charge a phone via the vehicle's electrical system. For those that don't, cheap adapters are available for the 12-volt output (that socket that used to hold a cigarette lighter). Even better, consider a backup charger/battery pack that will keep a phone running even if the car is dead. Depending on size, charger/battery packs hold enough juice to fully recharge a phone one or more times. Survivalist types can even buy solar-powered versions.
You might not know how to jump-start a battery or deal with a fuel-line freeze-up, but Fix recommends carrying zip ties and duct tape to help with other quick repairs. "I always say that if you can't fix it, you can always 'duck it' or 'zip it,'" she says.
A flashlight with functioning batteries will help with quick repairs or allow a safe walk for help if a car breaks down. Many modern flashlights come with powerful LED light bulbs that virtually never burn out and don't use much battery power. Plenty also come with rechargeable batteries.
A first-aid kit could spell the difference between life and death in a winter car accident in the middle of nowhere. A good kit has bandages, disinfectant, and a booklet showing how to stop bleeding or apply other first aid. Buy a few small kits in soft pouches that can be tossed in a duffel bag and left in the trunk.
Road flares will keep another vehicle from plowing into a car broken down on a dark wintry night, but Fix says old-fashioned road flares have plenty of drawbacks. "I don't like striking flares because they can cause fires, or else they might not stay lit," she says. The expert recommends flares with light-emitting diodes, which are typically sold in packs of three or six. LED road flares often come with built-in magnets -- they can stick right on the car.
Blankets can save the lives of people stuck in an unheated, broken-down car, or simply help save clothes from getting messy while you fix a flat tire on a wintry road. "It's always good to have some blankets in a car no matter what time of year," says Fix, who recommends carrying one blanket for every person who regularly rides in the vehicle.
Good luck getting frozen lug nuts off a flat tire in the middle of the winter. It's better to use an emergency tire-repair kit with a built-in electric air pump. Plug one these devices into the car's 12-volt outlet and the kit will pump up a flat tire automatically, filling it with enough sealant to patch up a flat for a few hundred miles. "You might know how to change a flat tire, but if you're not strong or if you have back problems, a tire-inflation product is great," Fix says.
AAA and other auto clubs and roadside assistance plans can really be lifesavers if a car breaks down in the winter. Most will jump-start a car battery, provide emergency gasoline, tow a vehicle to a garage, or provide other emergency services. New cars typically come with two to five years of free roadside service these days. Otherwise, while AAA is by far America's largest auto club, AARP, auto-insurance companies, car manufacturers, and others provide rival roadside plans with a range of prices and benefits, so be sure to comparison shop.
Food and water can keep you alive if you break down in the middle of nowhere, so Fix recommends keeping some in the glove box. Nonperishable products such as beef jerky are recommended, but steer clear of things with peanuts; lots of people (potentially including some passengers) have nut allergies. "Also, make sure you bring things that you can open," Fix says. "A can of tuna won't do you much good if you don't have a can opener."
Many drivers know how to use jumper cables to start a dead battery, but those work only if there's another vehicle around to give a jump. You're out of luck if you're on some back road, and Fix says it's "a bad invitation to ask a stranger for help with a jump-start." Portable jump-start kits combine jumper cables with a built-in emergency battery. "You simply connect the jump starter's positive terminal to your car battery's positive terminal and the negative to the negative, and you're on your way," Fix says. "It's a great solution to get you back on the road."