Building a car emergency kit – what you truly need on tight budget

When I started putting together an emergency kit for a car, I decided not to go with a pre-assembled kit. I, as probably you do too, already had many components on hand and did not want to buy an expensive kit with many items that I already had. Additionally, I was suspect of the quality and completeness of many (not all) of the kits being sold. For example, I was not exactly satisfied with the cheap plastic flashlights included and especially the supplied batteries (more important notes on batteries below). I also saw most of the kits missing an important piece – a warm blanket. Additionally, I wanted to have items that would be convenient to have during non-emergency situations as well.

I started with a container for the kit. My requirements were simple: I wanted a sturdy container, small enough not to take all of my trunk space and large enough to fit basic necessities described below. While I had a few old backpacks that I could use, I decided to go with a large (27-28lbs) plastic cat litter container. If you have a cat you probably have seen or bought those from WalMart, Costco, etc. They are made by ScoopAway, TidyCats, Fresh Step, etc. If you don’t have a cat, get this container from someone who does. It is very sturdy, light weight, water resistant, has a handle, and a tight lid (note on the lid – make sure you can open it easily. If it is too tight, either have one of the corners open or use a bag with a zipper so that you can access items quickly in an emergency). If you go with a backpack or a wooden box of some sort, I would advise to line it with a thick trash bag to make it water resistant and keep some of the moisture out.

I then proceeded to think about what items I need to put in the kit. I looked at the contents of commercial kits and kits assembled by laymen and used the information to come up with a list that provides me with a good compromise between available space, money I can spend, and emergency response adequacy. Your list is likely to be slightly or very different since we all live in different weather areas and drive different distances through differently populated areas. With that said, here are the items in my kit, where I bought them, and how much I paid for them.

Large thick blanket (80% wool, 20% synthetic fibers). $8 at Harbor Freight. It takes almost half of the available space in the bucket, but keeping warm, if stranded in the car during winter, is important for where I live.

6 ft thin synthetic rope. $1 at HarboFreight. It can be used as part of a splint, as a makeshift shoe lace, or just for tying loose items together. It takes very little space.

Duct tape. $2 at Harbor Freight. Uses for duct tape are numerous: from fixing ripped umbrellas, to keeping a loose tail light in place, to making a water bucket.

Work gloves. $1 on sale at Harbor Freight (under $2 in a local dollar store). You might need to handle sharp, heavy objects in an emergency or to change a tire. Work gloves are good for that. $1 gloves are not the most comfortable, but they are good enough to work in an emergency.

First Aid Kit – $13 at Harbor Freight. First Aid kit with bandages, gauze pads and rolls, splint set, ointments, pain relievers, and a basic first aid guide is one of the most important items in your emergency kit. You can get a very decent one for under $20 if you look around. Make sure that items in the First Aid kit are not expired and rotate those pieces they do have an expiration date (pills, ointments).

Paper pad, pencil, pen. I already had those in the house. Having something to write on and with can be very useful. Pen is convenient, but have a pencil as a backup. Unless you get a specialized pen, your 50 cent Bic might not perform well when its ink freezes in cold weather. Btw, you can also get a water resistant paper, if it is important for you. It is not prohibitevly expensive when purchased on internet. Look here for more information:

Ziplock bag to keep small pieces from getting lost in the bucket. Can also be used as a make shift water spray when filled with water and punctured. Already had one in the house.

3 garbage bags. Duct tape cousins, they can be used for a variety of duties – from making a quick rain poncho to storing dirty clothes. Already had those in the house.

2 bottles of water. It is very important to stay hydrated regardless if it is hot or cold outside. I already had bottled water in the house.

4 granola bars. I do not expect to be stranded for days where I live. However, I do not want to be hungry and lightheaded in an emergency either. 4 granola bars should provide enough nutrition for me for a short period of time. I already had those in the house. High calorie bars are a smart choice, but taste them first to make sure you like the taste. Also, ensure to rotate them on a regular basis.

Small pack of unsalted nuts. Same as granola bars.

Flashlight. $5 from eBay This is an important item. Choose with care. I recommend one that: has a single LED (those tend to be of a higher quality than multiple LED lights), has a sturdy aluminum body, uses 2 or 3 AA batteries, and is water resistant i.e. can be used in a rain. 2 AA LED Maglite is a good (albeit overpriced) example of what I am describing. You can find many similar lights on Ebay from sellers based in Asia. It takes a long time for the flashlight to get here (3 – 6 weeks is a norm), but you will pay 3rd or less of what you would have paid for a maglite. I like maglites, but if you are on a budget, there are better values. There is a lot that can be said about flashlights. Visit to learn more. Lights with sturdy plastic bodies are fine, as long as they are water resistant (Inova lights come to mind). Get one that has a clip or a non round part of a body, so that it does not roll under the car if you temporarily need to to lay it on a flat surface. IMPORTANT: get lithium batteries for your flashlight. Unlike alkaline or rechargeable batteries they will work in very hot and cold weather (you are more likely to have an emergency during cold winter storm, then a nice spring day). They have a shelf life of 10+ years, i.e you do not have to rotate them frequently or worry about leakage. Lithium batteries are somewhat expensive and are only available from Energizer when buying in the USA. From what I understand Energizer currently holds patent in the US for them and so it rips the benefits to the fullest. They are still very worth it (look on eBay to save money, but make sure to check expiration date). Crank based rechargeable flashlight might be fine, depending on what rechargeable batteries are used internally. Here are a couple of interesting reads : and I already had an old AA Inova flashlight (it became a part of my kit) and a few cheap crank flashlights. I decided not to rely on rechargeable flashlights that I had. I had 3 of them for about 4 years and one no longer holds charge, even though I haven’t used it at all! This might be because they require “maintenance”, but there is no place for those in my emergency bag – I prefer “set it and forget it” items whenever possible.

Rain poncho. $5 from ebay. Get one that is at least medium duty and can be reused. Disposable ponchos available at Target for a little over a dollar can work too, but something more sturdy is likely to work better and not rip as easily.

Multi-tool with pliers, knife, screwdrivers. You might need to cut rope, shear clothing to get to a wound, use screwdriver to tighten a screw, etc. Multi-tool is a duct tape’s brother. If you can afford a brand name such as Leatherman or Gerber get them. If not, buy a cheap generic stainless steel tool. Just make sure it is made well, i.e. knife blade is straight and sharp (be careful when checking), pliers are aligned (I saw one where they were not), etc. I have 2 leatherman multi-tools for daily use, but got a generic one for $8 off ebay for the car kit. It will be enough for the scenarios I am likely to encounter. Put a light coat of high quality machine oil on blades, handles, etc. to prevent rust.

Battery operated phone charger for your phone. I got one off ebay for $3 from a seller based in Asia. Shipping time is long, but price can’t be beat. It is a 1AA based charger with many adapters for various phones. Use lithium battery! Re-read section on flashlights for more information. Do not rely on your car battery to work and charge your phone with a car charger. After all, you might be stranded on an empty parking lot during a snow storm with a dead battery and no means of calling a friend or AAA. Remember to test this device with a fully discharged phone before making it a part of your kit.

Reflective vest. $5 off ebay. It is a smart idea to wear high visibility clothing when changing a tire or trying to put something under tires stuck in snow on a side of a busy highway.

A couple of old small (10×10 inches) cotton towels that I had in the house. They are useful to wipe hands, clean side windows of dirt, etc.

Cash. There are numerous cases where cash is still the king. Some places do not accept credit cards and if I urgently need to buy something small I will be out of luck. One of the emergencies might be lost or stolen wallet and no money to pay for highway tolls or get gas. $50 covers that.

I taped a list of contents on the bucket lid, so that I can quickly figure out what I have there when under stress or when a passenger in my car needs to access it.

I the trunk I also have:
Inexpensive, but reliable electrical tire inflation pump
Inexpensive (but not cheap) jumper cables
Old floor mats to gain tire traction, when stuck in snow or shallow mud (you can utilize your existing mats, but I rather use something I don’t mind ripping or getting covered in mud). I used those with success in the past.

Important notes:
– It is essential to test your equipment prior to putting it in the kit, especially if it uses electrical power. You do not want to find out that your tire inflation pump does not work, when you are inflating your spare (spare tires can and do loose air over the years of being in the trunk).
– I did not yet get, but would recommend emergency road flares (often used by police to warn drivers of a disabled car) or a reflective emergency triangle.
– I did not care to get a radio. I can listen to one in my car. If my battery is dead, I can get by without a radio. Where I live it makes a little difference to me to know that more snow will fall on my car if stuck on a side of a road. If you need a radio to make you feel connected to the society and keep you from panicking or if you need to know that a hurricane is coming to your area, do get one by all means. If radio is very important to you, then get one that can use AA lithium batteries (see above for my reasoning). If a radio is not critical to you, but you still want one, a crank radio with less reliable rechargeable batteries inside might be OK if it offers a better value.


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