Build own car kit
List / 5 MINSOne common piece of fuel-economy advice you'll hear: Don’t carry a lot of stuff in your car. In fact, the EPA reports that every 100 pounds of cargo decreases your vehicle's fuel economy by one percent, so you shouldn't carry a lot of junk in your trunk.1
But when winter hits, the extras that are so bad for your fuel economy are good for your survival. The good news is, you don't need tons of gear to make an emergency kit for your car, and most of it is probably in your house already.
1. Winterized First Aid KitYou should have a first aid kit in your car year-round. In winter, you should add a few things to help if you become stranded for an extended period. If you have a child who isn't potty trained, add diapers and wipes. Consider other necessities like feminine hygiene products (which can also be used for first aid in a pinch), tissues, travel-sized toothpaste, a tooth brush, and contact lens solution.
Pro Tip: The hand sanitizer that may be in your regular first-aid kit has a second use in winter: You can use it to de-ice the locks on your car.
2. Lights, Flares, and Reflective TapeWhen roads are slick and visibility drops, one of the best things you can do if you're stopped by the side of the road is to make sure other drivers can see you. A high-visibility vest may not be something you already own, but you can find one for less than $5 at hardware stores. You can also make one out of old clothes and a roll of reflective tape. That same reflective tape can be used to make caution triangles to set out around your car, or to re-attach bumpers and mirrors so you can make it safely home. You'll also want some road flares that give off a distinctive and much brighter light that other drivers will be able to see from far away.Pro Tip: For additional visibility, you can also drape your car in battery-powered LED lights from your holiday decorations.
In addition to making sure other drivers can see you, always keep a flashlight in your car so you can see as well.
3. Clothes and BlanketsWhile you might have an extra hat or set of gloves in your car already, it's a good idea to think beyond the minor items. No one wants to sit in wet and cold clothes after trying to dig their car out of a snowbank. Plus, staying in wet clothing increases your risk of hypothermia.
A good place to find clothes for your winter car emergency kit for both you and anyone who frequently rides with you, is the box of clothes you were going to donate to charity. Consider keeping some of your older items in your car through the winter.
Carry woolen blankets rather than fleece since they'll keep you warm even if they get wet. Beyond basic blankets, consider carrying a space blanket or emergency blanket. Those are the reflective blankets that reflect the body's heat back onto the person using it. They're thin, light and do an excellent job keeping people warm. Since they're reflective, they can also help you stay visible as you flag down help. You can get packs of space blankets for under $10, so they're a small but worthwhile investment.
Pro Tip: As an added benefit, space blankets are also water repellent so you can use them as rain cover or even ground cover if you need to.
4. Hand and Foot WarmersIf you're stranded with your car for a long time, you should not run the heater nonstop. Doing so risks carbon monoxide poisoning, especially if it's snowing too hard to keep the exhaust system clear. Also, you'll eventually run out of fuel. Carry chemical hand and foot warmers as a backup to your cars heater.
You may already have some hand and foot warmers around your house from football games, skiing, or camping. If not, you can get a box of 40 disposable ones for about $20.
Pro Tip: You can use hand warmers to thaw ice or food, and they can even be used to melt ice in locks or other small areas. They do get hot, however, so be careful when putting them next to exposed skin, and always closely supervise young children who are using them.
5. WaterYou can get dehydrated in winter just like you can in summer, so keeping water in your car is a must. Single-serve packets of powdered sports drink are a good idea too. The trick is making sure that your bottled water doesn't just turn to ice.
To do this, keep water bottles in the passenger compartment of your car, rather than the trunk. This way the heater can keep them from freezing. It's also a good idea to keep your water in an insulated bag or cooler as the same properties that let those containers keep water cold in the summer will help keep it from freezing in winter. Finally, while it’s tempting to keep a giant jug of water in the car (because the larger container will take longer to freeze), keep in mind that it will also take longer to melt. Use water bottles that are around 16 ounces and are flexible enough so they won't crack or break if the water does happen to freeze.
If your water freezes and you're stranded and thirsty, tuck some of your hand warmers around the bottles or place them on the floorboards near the heating vents to thaw. Don't try to use your own body heat to thaw the water, which will only bring your body temperature down, increasing your risk of hypothermia.
6. FoodIf you wind up stuck in your car for a while, you're going to need some food. Choose food that's nonperishable, calorically dense, and not likely to freeze solid. Granola, nuts, and jerky are all good options. Fruit snacks, fruit leather, and dried fruit are also good for a quick energy hit. As with powdered sports drinks, you can also get single-serve packets of protein powder to mix with water as well.
Pro Tip: Many health and supplement stores will give you free protein powder samples, which you can tuck into your car's emergency kit.
If you want something more substantive, you can buy military grade MRE's for around $12 per meal. MREs are designed to last pretty much forever and endure extreme conditions. Some come with a chemical heating element, so you can have a hot meal even if you're stuck in the snow. However, if you go this route, heat up your MRE on a flat surface outside your car. The heating element can emit gasses, and since it's hot enough to heat food, it can also get too hot to handle.
7. Batteries and ChargersKeep a cell phone charger and a quick-charging USB battery pack in the car. Keep your phone well-charged as well, and if it has a replaceable battery, keep an extra (charged) one in the car too. Keep them in the glove box where they'll be less susceptible to extreme temperature swings, but remove them before summer when heat could damage them. Check the batteries and USB pack often to make sure they're ready to go.
Batteries can discharge quickly in cold weather, so if it's extremely cold where you live, consider buying a hand-turbine charger, which recharges the battery as you turn a crank. You can also buy crank-powered emergency radios and flashlights that have a connection to charge a cell phone.
Spare batteries for your flashlight, or a flashlight you can recharge by shaking or cranking, are also key winter essentials for your car.
8. A Shovel, Brush and ScraperIf it's snowy where you live, keep a shovel in your car. You can buy a collapsible snow shovel or just use a long-handled shovel or spade you already use in the garden. If the handle on yours is too long to fit easily, consider borrowing your child's toy version. When digging out, focus on keeping your car's tailpipe clear and removing the snow from around your car's wheels. The same brush and scraper you use to clear your windshield and windows will also come in handy if it's snowing while you're stranded.
Pro Tip: Keep a small sand bag and use under your wheels if you need to get traction. Many drivers use kitty litter, but it can become slick when wet and worsen the situation.