Best emergency kits for cars in 2021
If you think the mobile telephone has taken the drama out of road trip snafus, think again. If you’re counting exclusively on your phone to get you through the next roadside emergency, you could be setting yourself up for trouble. Even over a relatively short road trip, from say St. Louis to Chicago, there are stretches where the cellular signal gets dicey. Never mind the vast expanses of the American West. And your phone isn’t going to do much good if you slide into a ditch during a blizzard, unless you’re prepared to wait, uncomfortably and indefinitely. That’s when a roadside emergency kit for your car, truck or SUV gets really, really appealing.
A roadside emergency kit comes prepacked with tools and other things — from jumper cables to traction strips to a first-aid kit to emergency blankets — that will help you deal with all sorts of roadside problems. These kits range from $25 or $30 to upward of $150, and all have strengths and weaknesses for their respective prices. Yes, you might get the absolute best car emergency kit if you built your own, with an eye on the specifics of when and where you travel, and we’ll get back to that later. Yet building your own takes time, effort and possibly more cash. None of the prepackaged roadside emergency kits have everything you could possibly need, but all should have the most important, useful things. The best will get you 90-95 percent of the way there, right now. You can even mix and match less expensive kits to get something like the perfect one for you. Prepackaged roadside emergency kits mean convenience. In tough times, you’re buying peace of mind.
To choose the best roadside emergency kits, we evaluated reports from testing labs and scanned user ratings at popular shopping sites. We also interviewed experts and applied personal experience. Before you click Confirm Order, look through our entire list of the best kits and think a bit about the kind of vehicle you drive and where you intend to drive it. Then read on for valuable tips on what makes a good road survival kit, how to minimize the chances of a roadside emergency situation in advance, and what you need if you decide to assemble your own emergency road kit.
The American Automobile Association, better known as AAA, rescues about 30 million stranded motorists a year. It knows something about roadside emergencies, and that makes this broad-coverage roadside car kit a fantastic place to start. It includes a good first-aid kit with a guide, good quality 8-gauge jumper cables, an aluminum LED flashlight (with batteries), cutting blades, bungee cords, zip ties, a roll of duct tape and a basic tool kit, a flare-replacing reflective triangle, work gloves and rain poncho. Yet one of the things that separates this auto emergency kit from most others is its compact, 12-volt-powered air compressor, which allows you to refill tires wherever you find yourself. There’s even a fleece scarf, gloves and a winter hat to help keep you warm if you’re waiting.
Given its generally broad coverage, two things stand out among those the Lifeline AAA Excursion car kit lacks. One is any sort of tire sealant or puncture repair, so you’d better have a spare tire that holds air, or add a bottle of tire sealant. The second is a Mylar emergency blanket. Sometimes called space blankets, these thin, foldable sheets measure 84 by 52 inches. They’re windproof, waterproof and capable of reflecting 90 percent of your body heat. They can also be fashioned into emergency shelter. See them here.
Finally, if the thought of fixing flats and emergency shelter leaves you feeling a little unsettled, the AAA Excursion roadside emergency car kit offers one more valuable item: an Auto Club membership brochure with discount, so rescue will never be too far away.
We like this roadside kit because it packs a lot in a compact soft case at a more modest price. The Lianxin Roadside Assistance Emergency Kit has all the essentials: 8-foot jumper cables, a tow strap with hooks, an emergency blanket, reflective wear, gloves, tape, a seatbelt cutter/window smashing safety hammer, a (very basic) first-aid kit with adhesive bandages and a flashlight — in this case hand-cranked, so you don’t have to worry about batteries. The tool kit has a metal hammer and solid snipping pliers, and there are a bunch of atypical extras here. Those include a range of 12-volt fuses, a plastic sweep/snow shovel and even a compass if your phone dies.
On the downside, the Lianxin emergency car kit lacks two hugely valuable items: an air compressor and tire-repairing potential. Yet for this price, you could buy a small 12-volt tire inflator and a bottle of Slime and still beat the cost of some more expensive car emergency kits.
This is not your typical roadside car emergency kit. It’s intended for the very specific purpose of fixing a punctured tire or a flat spare tire and getting you headed toward civilization in short order. Slime says it will get you back on the road in 11 minutes or less. The sealant is safe for all tires, rims and pressure monitor systems, and there’s enough for large truck tires. It’s good for 125 miles of travel. The air compressor includes a 12-volt male lighter-socket plug and alligator clips for direct battery connection and it has a useful LED floodlight that casts a broad swath. The kit includes spare valve caps and cores and adapters for beach balls and other inflatables.
We restate: This auto emergency kit has a very specific job. For full coverage, it can be paired with another roadside emergency kit, such as our best for the money Lianxin Roadside Assistance Emergency Kit above.
The Haiphaik Emergency Roadside Toolkit is a perennial top seller on Amazon, and it isn’t difficult to see why. It has all the essentials, in decent quality, including 12-foot jumper cables and a 10,000-pound tow rope. The tool kit is above-grade, with a fully adjustable wrench, Allen wrenches and a tape measure. There are even a couple anti-COVID face masks. Yet what sets this emergency car kit apart is the under-tire traction strips and a real, compact, military-style spade shovel with saw-blade edge.
Oddly, for a winter kit, the Haiphaik Emergency Roadside Toolkit lacks something important: that emergency Mylar blanket. That can be handy if you’re stuck on the South Dakota prairie in a driving snowstorm. You can add four of those here for about 15 bucks.
We could also call this the best emergency roadside kit for vintage British sports cars.
It starts with the essentials: jumper cables, tow-strap, basic first-aid kit, reflective necessities, a safety hammer, an emergency blanket, a multitool with blades and a flashlight. Then it adds something you don’t see in many kits. That would be an electrical tester.
Given that the single biggest source of roadside emergencies is an electrical problem — either a dead battery or an oft-related short — the electrical tester could prove vital. This car emergency kit also includes a range of fuses and electrical connectors, with wire-stripping, needle-nose pliers. With a bit of knowledge and its electrical tester, this roadside kit could be the difference between waiting for hours somewhere west of Laramie and getting rolling again before the sun sets.
This car emergency kit includes none of the things that might get you going again during a roadside emergency — no jumper cables or flat tire repair, no tow rope, no utility tools, traction aids or flashlight. But in the worst case none of those tools will get you going anyway, and what actually is in the Ready America Emergency Kit could mean the difference between successfully waiting things out or… well, you get it.
Its contents? A decent first-aid kit, two emergency Mylar blankets, face masks and latex gloves, a loud whistle and two 12-hour glow sticks. Then there’s enough food and water to sustain two hungry people for three days. The food is 4,800 calories of cholesterol-free nutrition bars. The water is packaged in multiple 125-milliliter pouches that fit nicely in the small, backpack-style carrying case. Both the food and water in this survival kit are packed in temperature-resistant plastic foil with a five-year shelf life.
As we said: The Ready America Emergency Kit is the best roadside emergency kit if you’re stranded, and the perfect place to start if you plan to build your own roadside emergency kit. The typical car enthusiast likely has spare tools, jumper cables and even a tire inflator lying around the garage. The emergency blankets, first-aid kit and three days of nutrition with a long shelf life — not so likely.
This auto emergency kit has the essentials — first aid, decent jumper cables, reflective vest and triangle, a hand-cranked flashlight, Mylar blanket — at a good price. It has some extras, too, including zip ties, a bungee cord, glow sticks and a whistle. There’s no tow strap, nor tire repairing potential, but you can’t go wrong with that Top Gear-branded carrying bag. Cosmic inspiration from Jeremy Clarkson and the Stig could have you going again in no time at all.
The Swiss Safe 2-in-1 Emergency Roadside Car Assistance kit is about average when it comes to the broader range of potential roadside emergencies. It has essentials like jumper cables, some tools, a reflective vest, a rain poncho, a bungee, wool gloves and an emergency blanket. It offers no tire repair options or tow rope, and while it comes with glow sticks, it has no flashlight (though a lot us will have one in the glovebox anyway).
This car emergency package balances mediocre roadside-emergency mitigation features with a first-aid kit suited for an emergency room physician, packed in a self-contained hard case. The first aid package includes trauma sheers, tweezers, an instant ice pack, a vast array in size and types of bandages, gauze pads, medical tape, finger splints, a sling, tongue depressors, antiseptic cleaning pads and ointments, wound adhesive and a full first-aid guide. There’s also a smaller, pull-out first aid pack you can bring on the trail to the scenic overlook.
It’s the full-service first-aid kit that separates this roadside emergency kit from the pack. And there’s enough room in the soft tool carrying case to throw in some extras, such as fuses, hose clamps and a bottle of Slime.
Comparison of the best roadside car emergency kits in 2021
|Best roadside car emergency kit overall||Lifeline||AAA Excursion Road Kit 4388AA||$74|
|Best roadside car emergency kit for the money||Lianxin||Roadside Assistance Emergency Kit||$43|
|Best roadside car emergency kit for a flat tire||Slime||Spair Flat Tire Repair Kit||$60|
|Best roadside car emergency kit for winter||HAIPHAIK||Emergency Roadside Kit||$45|
|Best roadside car emergency kit for electrical trouble||Secureguard||SGAMEK-001||$60|
|Best roadside car emergency kit if you’re stranded or if you plan to build your own||Ready America||Emergency Kit 70280||$40|
|Best roadside car emergency kit from a TV car show||Top Gear||Premium Roadside Assistance Kit 1006||$37|
|Best roadside car emergency kit with a top-tier first-aid kit in a hard case||Swiss Safe||2-in-1 Emergency Roadside Car Assistance SFAK-Road1||$50|
Pro Tips/Roadside Emergencies 101
The American Automobile Association knows a thing or two about roadside emergencies and how to address them. Last year, AAA rescued 33 million stranded motorists. Over the last 15 years, as cars have become generally more reliable and mobile phones have been almost universally adapted, the number of stranded motorists has declined slightly on a per-capita basis. That means there are fewer roadside emergencies per 100,000 miles traveled, according to Cliff Ruud, managing director of automotive at AAA. Yet the overall volume of roadside rescues has continued to increase steadily. Roads across America are more heavily traveled each year.
Your phone alone will not save you. Mobile phones are as valuable as any tool in dealing with a roadside emergency, but they shouldn’t be the only one. Aside from technical issues like signal strength and availability, phones can’t jump start your car or fix a tire. They can’t beam down trained help in minutes, and they can’t keep you safe and comfortable if help is hours away. Mobile phones can create roadside emergencies as effectively as they can resolve them.
“Obviously cell phones and their apps are wonderful things,” observes AAA’s Ruud. “But from our viewpoint the downside is distracted driving. Some people have a hard time leaving their phone alone, and there are consequences. Always have your phone with you on the road, but use it properly. It’s probably not a great idea to rely on it exclusively for your safety.”
AAA keeps data on the nature of its rescue calls, and that data provides a blueprint for what you need in your roadside emergency kit. Ruud says that the single largest source of rescue calls, by a long shot, is a dead battery. He notes that, while automotive batteries are generally stronger than ever before, and cars are equipped with more failsafe features to keep drivers from inadvertently draining them, the share of dead-battery rescues has actually increased over the last decade or so.
That might be because people need time to learn how the new-fangled, electrically powered systems on their cars work. Regardless, it definitely means that the first thing you want in your roadside emergency supply kit is a set of jumper cables, and virtually every general purpose kit has them.
Or maybe you want a compact portable jump-start battery. The two options — conventional jumper cables, portable jump-start batteries — have advantages and disadvantages, and if you’re building your own roadside emergency kit or augmenting a prepackaged kit, you might want to consider a portable battery.
High-grade jumper cables are less expensive than a portable battery. They’re always ready, and they should supply an endless stream of battery-to-battery jump starts. Yet the single, encompassing disadvantage of conventional jumper cables is that you always need a second functioning vehicle — or at least a charged 12-volt battery — to jump start your own car.
A decent compact, lithium jump starter is about the size of a paperback book. It weighs a couple of pounds, so it will easily fit in the same space as wound-up jumper cables like a spare tire compartment — even with the battery clamps that come with virtually every portable jump starter. The typical portable is good for at least two or three jumps when it’s fully charged, unless it’s really, really cold. It just has to be fully charged. Most come with a 12-volt adapter for lighter sockets so they can charge as you’re underway. And if it isn’t obvious, the advantage over jumper cables is huge. You can jump start your car without a second vehicle or anyone else’s help, wherever you find yourself at whatever time.
Portable jump-start batteries offer further advantages. Nearly all have a built-in light. Many somewhat larger ones have built-in tire inflators with a tire pressure gauge, and they’re still compact enough to easily carry in a vehicle. They also provide a small, dense container of electrical energy to charge mobile phones and other electronic devices if you’re stranded with a dead engine.
However you choose to protect yourself, a bad or drained battery is the most likely cause of roadside trouble. The second most likely cause, again by a considerable margin over number three, according to AAA data, is tire trouble. It’s often a repairable thread puncture, and sometimes a completely shredded tire, with possible damage to the rim. The first line of defense if you want to get going again, of course, is a functional spare, jack and lug wrench. Lug nuts installed with an air wrench can be difficult to remove manually, so it’s never a bad idea to include some sort of breaker bar or mechanical leveraging device in your roadside emergency kit. After that, if you forgot to check the spare, or if you’ve installed it and want backup, the options get trickier.
Many roadside emergency kits come with a tire-thread puncture repair kit or sometimes a bottle of tire sealant like Slime, which either pours or blows into the tire through the air valve. Both can work for emergency repairs, but you’ll be left with another problem. You have to reinflate the tire. A relative few kits include a portable, 12-volt powered tire inflator, but if they do they cost substantially more. Sometimes the price increase matches or exceeds the cost of separate portable tire inflator.
If you think a separate tire inflator is the better choice, check our best list here. Again, we note: many portable jump start batteries have built in inflators, without filling inordinately more space, and with those you can fill two jobs with one device.
The third most common source of calls for roadside assistance is a catch-all category that might be labeled “needed a tow.” It includes things like accidents, damage to parked vehicles, cars sliding off the road into ditches, engine problems, even lost keys or lockouts. Many of these towed vehicles were actually still drivable, and this category highlights the value of some of the other items found in the typical roadside emergency kit.
The tow strap, typically rated at 10,000 pounds, might easily get you out of snow-filled culvert or a stretch of mud, should a good Samaritan happen by. It might also get you off the right-of-way to a safe place if something in the drive system fails. Traction strips or ropes and a shovel might find you enough momentum to roll out of the deep snow. The cutting blades and duct tape can temporarily repair a coolant hose. The bungees and zip ties might secure a bent hood or a door that won’t latch, and the whistle allows you to attract attention if for any reason you’re obscured from view of the roadway. The safety hammer included in many kits can cut jammed seatbelts, and it makes it much easier to shatter automotive safely glass. Yet it has no value if the driver or a passenger can’t reach it from his or her seat. If you plan to keep your emergency road kit in the trunk, pull the safety hammer and put it in the console or glove box.
The value of other items is probably obvious, but just in case, the headlamps or flashlights will be a blessing when you’re under the hood in the dark. Many kits now come with small, hand-operated lights that generate their own electricity. That means you never have to worry about dead batteries, though the hand-cranked lights tend to generate less actual light than a conventional, battery-fed flashlight.
The reflective safety vest, light sticks and road flare substitutes help keep you and your disabled vehicle visible to passing motorists. The emergency blankets could be just what you need if your wait turns into hours, and the work gloves… well, you get it.
Don’t underestimate the value of a first-aid kit. If you slice a finger removing the tire jack, it’s preferable not to bleed all over everything. Many of those packaged in roadside emergency kits are as basic as they get — a handful of Band-Aids and a couple of antiseptic wipes. Many add antiseptic ointment and adhesive tape. If you prefer a more elaborate first-aid kit, select your roadside emergency kit carefully. Or buy a more elaborate first-aid kit or build your own.
There are plenty of useful items that appear hit or miss in the typical car emergency kit — it might have some, not others — and many of them can easily fit it the bag the typical kit comes in. We’re thinking fuses appropriate to your vehicle, wire nuts, electrical tape and electrical tabs, a couple of hose clamps, a can/bottle opener and a compass for those worst-case scenarios. A small fire extinguisher is a fine idea somewhere in your vehicle. Out-of-gas calls account for just four percent of AAA’s rescue runs, and gas cans can be a bit bulky, but it never hurts to carry one — even if it serves to port cooling water in an car emergency. The same applies to a portable syphon hose and pump.
Some of what you want in your car emergency kit depends on what you’re driving, and where your route will take you. The space in an SUV or pickup bed allows you to be more lavish. The value of a shovel knows no season, but if it’s winter in the north some sort of traction aid gets more critical. Emergency Mylar blankets reflect heat in both directions, meaning they can be as useful for staying cool as for staying warm. It also matters whether you’re crossing town or crossing the country. Emergency rations have saved more than a handful of stranded motorists. Basic nutrition kits like our best if you’re stranded are relatively inexpensive and compact, with a long, stable shelf life. AAA’s Ruud notes that he probably wouldn’t drive anywhere in Arizona in the summer — commuting or cross state — without a minimum of potable water aboard.
Don’t forget about the case, whether you’re buying or building your own roadside emergency kit. Small matters more if you’re driving a VW GTI full of luggage. Soft is better than hard, because soft allows tighter packing when it comes to both the bag’s contents and its location in your vehicle, but soft can be a bigger challenge organizing efficiently. If something is crush-sensitive, account for it. And don’t forget to keep the safety hammer within reach of the front seats, wherever you stash the case.
Finally, don’t be taken by the kit supplier’s boast — 114! 196! 326! — about the number of pieces in its kit. Almost universally, these piece counts include every zip tie and every swab, bandage and safety pin in the first-aid kit, so a good first-aid kit will multiply the pieces in the roadside emergency kit, whether a first-aid kit is your most important priority or not. There’s no substitute for sorting through the contents to see what you’re actually getting.
Let’s face it. Some of us will be enthused by the idea of buying or building an excellent roadside emergency kit — and the rugged self-reliance associated with it. Others prefer not to be forced into playing MacGyver or feel comfortable with a mobile phone as the first line of defense. Whichever you are, a roadside assistance service like AAA is never a bad idea, assuming you can afford it.
Know your roadside assistance options. Most bought-new cars come with roadside assistance for at least a portion of the warranty period, even without a telematics service such as OnStar. Some third-party companies, like credit card or cellular service providers, offer variations of roadside assistance, and many auto insurance policies include it. If your policy doesn’t have it, you can probably add roadside assistance. Always read the fine print and know that with some of these services you pay up front and get reimbursed later. The easiest path might be a traditional roadside rescue plan from AAA or the Good Sam Club, and it usually doesn’t matter who actually insures your car. Annual plans can start at around $100. One undervalued component of a roadside assistance plan is that it can help get you to the front of the line. It’s probably easier reaching out to AAA than it is locating and then connecting with a towing shop that might be 50 or more miles away.
All of our best roadside emergency kits do at least one job very well, and most cover many potentialities. Yet every road trip should start by giving your machine a simple once-over. AAA’s Ruud calls it “making a safe BET.”
BET stands for battery, engine and tires, or the things you want to check before you roll. Modern auto batteries tend to fail more abruptly than they did 10 or 20 years ago, or at least with less warning. If yours is more than a couple years old, or if you have any doubts, get it tested. Clean any corrosion from the battery posts and make sure the connectors are snug.
Check your oil, coolant and other engine fluid levels. Look for obvious drips underneath the car or under the hood. Air filters can be a source of all sorts of check-engine warnings, so look at your air filter and replace it as necessary. If there’s a check-engine light in the dash, find out what it’s telling you. Many auto parts chains will do it free, or you can use one of our best OBD2 scanners. It never hurts to have that OBD2 scanner along when you’re on the road.
Visually inspect your tires for bulges, cracks or divots on the sidewalls and tread. Look for small dents around the edge of the rims. Check tread depth with a gauge or a penny. If you can see all of Lincoln’s head when you insert the penny head first in a tread channel, you’re probably asking for trouble on the road. Make sure you have a jack, lug wrench and spare, and make sure all five tires are properly inflated.
For added measure, clean your windows, top up your washer fluid and check your wiper blades (or just replace them if it’s been more than a year). Just a little bit of preparation substantially increases the odds that you’ll never pull the roadside emergency kit from the trunk.
Finally, and most importantly, there’s one more thing to bring when you hit the road. Patience.
“Patience might be the most valuable tool of all,” says AAA’s Ruud. “There’s a lot of people on the road, and you don’t want impatience or distraction or a bit of road rage to be the reason you have a roadside emergency to begin with.”
Written by J.P. Vettraino for Roadshow.