Your car can be a smooth little self-contained universe. But when something goes wrong, that world can collapse quickly.
If the car gets a flat tire or gets stuck in a snowdrift, for example, having the right tools and other conveniences at hand can make those situations bearable.
Whether you’ve been driving for decades or have a new teen driver in the house, store some of the following helpful items in your car so they are within reach when they are needed.
1. Tire pressure gauge
Many modern cars can read their own tire pressure and digitally report the results. But if that’s not your car, a simple tire pressure gauge is easy to use and small to store.
The purchase can pay for itself in gas savings over time, as we detail in “29 Purchases That Can Save You Money Every Day.”
Consumer Reports recommends checking your tire pressure at least once a month and before starting on a long trip.
2. Jumper cables
You have battery jumper cables, right? Even cars in great shape can end up with a dead battery. Or you may want to have a set of car jumper cables on hand to help someone who’s less prepared.
If you don’t already own one, you should be able to find a decent set of battery jumper cables for as little as $20, if not less.
3. Bug spray
Mosquitoes don’t announce their presence until it’s too late, and some can carry dangerous viruses. So be prepared before they land by applying mosquito repellant to exposed skin.
Just make sure that any spray you store in your car is not in an aerosol can. As we report in “9 Things You Should Never Leave in Your Car:”
“Aerosol cans, such as those containing spray paint, sunblock or deodorant, shouldn’t be kept in your car since they are sensitive to heat. Pressurized cans may expand, possibly causing them to explode.”
4. Wet wipes
Parents and messy eaters don’t need anyone to tell them this, but moist cleansing wipes can run rings around dry paper towels for quick cleaning jobs.
The Wet Ones brand offers wipes in single-use pocket sizes and 20-count travel-size pouches. But if you’re tossing them in your glove compartment or trunk anyway, you will save some money by buying a larger size.
You don’t have to be Nancy Drew searching for a clue to need a flashlight. Not only are they useful outdoors, but you might need one to peek into the crevices and corners of your car seats when a cellphone or parking ticket inevitably slips away.
If you prefer American-made products, consider Maglite flashlights. As we report in “13 Products That Are Still Made in the USA“:
“The company is proud of its American-made tradition. Its flashlight factory, office and distribution center are in Ontario, California.”
Whatever brand of flashlight you go with, make sure to keep fresh batteries in it. This is one time you don’t want to be de-lighted.
6. Pen and paper
It’s easy to fall back on our smartphones to record important info, but sometimes old-school is best. You don’t want to take time for a phone to boot up when you need to take down the description or license plate number of the car that just rear-ended you and took off.
Fortunately, this won’t cost you much: Notebooks are among the items we recommend that you always buy at a dollar store, and you can find writing implements there too.
7. Reusable bags
Many shoppers are used to bringing reusable bags to the grocery or drugstore these days as environmental concerns grow about single-use plastic bags — not to mention the financial benefit we cite in “12 Products That Can Save Money for as Long as You Own Them.”
But reusable bags also can come in handy for everything from hauling library books or Goodwill donations to collecting beach toys.
8. Escape tools
Once upon a time, I would’ve thought that carrying a seat belt-cutting and window-breaking tool in my car was excessive.
Then I moved to Seattle, where my job required me to cross a high bridge over deep water twice a day in earthquake country. Suddenly, it felt reassuring to stow such automotive escape tools in my glove box.
A handheld multitool can include such items as a can opener, small pair of scissors, screwdriver and more.
It fits neatly in a car’s glove compartment or center console and can come in handy for myriad reasons, from minor car repairs to sawing open that ever-tricky plastic packaging that protects your new electronics purchase.
10. Phone charger
Phone chargers that plug into the dashboard are right up there with sliced bread as brilliant inventions in my book. Your car may have a port all ready for your charger, or you may have to use your cigarette lighter … if your car has one. Those old-school ports are called “automobile auxiliary power outlets” these days.
If you want a charger that doesn’t draw on your car’s power, a portable power bank is a good option. Just remember to recharge it once you deplete it.
Rainstorms can be sudden and hit without warning, so a small umbrella that can slide into your glove box or the pocket of your car door will ensure you’re not left all wet.
Depending on your climate, you might want to go for something extra-sturdy.Or check out the many inexpensive options that would work in a pinch.
12. Ice scraper
Sure, a driver’s license or credit card will work in a pinch to scrape the winter off your windshield. But you’re going to end up with ice and snow all over yourself in the process, and it will take a lot longer.
So, if you live where winter offers these challenges, invest in a serious ice-scraping tool. You can find plenty of options for pretty cheap.
13. Windshield wiper fluid
Windshield wiper fluid seems like a no-brainer, but it can also be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind item that you might not think to carry.
Especially in the wintertime, you can run out of fluid quickly when other cars keep splashing melty slush in your field of vision, so keep a jug in your trunk.
Should you ever find yourself stranded in your car in below-freezing temperatures, gloves can also help ward off frostbite.
In this world of map apps and GPS devices built into cars, paper maps get a bad rap. But electronic devices can’t always be counted on.
Plus, in special circumstances, such as when planning a road trip, being able to see an entire state’s highway system at once can be useful.
A bottle or two of water in the trunk can come in handy not just for drinking, but for everything from cleaning a small cut to rinsing off a pair of hiking shoes that are too muddy to put back in your car.
17. AAA or towing service info
If your car breaks down, who’re you gonna call? Sorry, the Ghostbusters won’t help. But if you join a group like AAA or have towing and repair services through your car warranty, keep that info handy.
It’s smart to have it saved in your cellphone, but an old-fashioned paper version in the glove box is a good backup.
Not every car has seat heaters, so a small blanket can fill the bill when there’s a chill, even for a short ride to school on a snowy day. Blankets also have many emergency uses, such as keeping travelers warm in a broken-down car as they wait for roadside assistance.
19. Jacket or sweater
Once the sun goes down, it can get surprisingly chilly in most places, and you never know when you might have an unexpected stop in a cold climate.
Don’t want to pack a blanket? A jacket, sweater or sweatshirt can double as a blanket, especially to sling over kids’ cold legs. Or cover all your bases and carry both a blanket and a jacket.
Whether you prefer energy bars, granola bars, trail mix, nuts or dried fruit, a healthful snack can be useful in both emergency and nonemergency situations.
Such food is nice to have after a strenuous hike or when you realize that all the restaurants on your route hung up the “CLOSED” sign hours ago.
21. Kitty litter or cardboard
Many of us know all too well the sound of tires spinning and getting no traction, whether on snow, mud or ice. Tucking a piece of cardboard or a carpet remnant under your tires can help you get out of a slippery situation.
But if you’ve got a large enough trunk, stowing a container of kitty litter there will also help. Sprinkling it below the stuck tire can give you just enough oomph to move forward. I am not kitten you.
22. Paper towels
I never leave the house without a roll of paper towels tucked somewhere in my trunk or back seat.
I’ve used them for snack spills, in cases of sudden carsickness and to deftly remove a spider from the dashboard. A small roll can play a big role.
23. Matches or a lighter
You may need to strike a flame for something fun, like lighting your daughter’s birthday cake at the trampoline place or getting the campfire started for s’mores. Or it could be for something more serious, such as if you’re ever stranded in a blizzard.
On that note, carry some long-burning candles, too, especially if you frequently drive into snowy rural areas.
24. Backup shoes
You never know when you’ll step on muddy or otherwise messy ground. And children never remember to tell you about the big hole in their rain boots until right after they’ve jumped full force into a puddle.
So stow away a spare pair of footwear just in case.
25. Insurance info and registration
You may carry your auto insurance card in your wallet. But make sure there’s a copy in the car as well, especially if other people drive your vehicle.
Keeping the card next to your registration in the glove box can make both handy if a law enforcement officer asks to see them.
26. Car owner’s manual
What does it mean when the “CHECK ENGINE A1” light comes on? Is it just time for an oil change, or is it something bigger? The owner’s manual can shed light on the subject.
Your manual includes information about maintenance, security systems and understanding the dashboard display gauges and other components.