When in doubt, I make lists. Historically, this has been a great plan: Entire religions have been founded based on the careful list-making of certain individuals. This towering list is comprised of items I carry in my car. If you like to be obsessively prepared for everything from disaster to the mundane, here are my notes so far:
USB cords: Under nearly all circumstances, calling for help on your cellphone makes the most sense. Make sure you have a means to charge it, even if your vehicle is otherwise disabled. If you have extra USB cords that might fit some other person’s phone, carry them.
Radio: I carry a Yaesu FTM-300DR in my Prius, and a portable Baofeng BF-F8HP with a spare battery. In most parts of the country, you’re in range of somebody with a 2M or 70cm radio. I highly recommend having a Amateur Radio license and familiarity with the national calling frequencies. On 2m, this is 144.200MHz and on 70cm it’s 446.000MHz. One radio is attached to my vehicle, and the other can be clipped to my belt.
If you’re in trouble, you can call SOS on either frequency, and you’re very likely to get a response. Otherwise, scan and find someone, and interrupt their boring conversation about antennas with your emergency. They won’t mind.
Food / Water
Propane stove and propane: A stove can be useful for melting snow, cooking food, or just general warmth and comfort. I carry a quart container of propane, which is enough to prepare a few meals of white rice assuming sufficient supplies of water.
Food: I carry a bag of raw almonds, which are very energy dense. I also carry pretzel crisps for the refined carbohydrates and salt. And I carry Uncle Ben’s instant white rice, which can be easily prepared with sufficient water. I also have salt and pepper for seasoning. This is plenty to keep me well-fed, if perpetually disappointed, for days.
Cooking pot: Don’t forget this! A pot is necessary for melting snow, and for preparing food or rice. It can also be used for transporting water or other items.
Sporks: Any sort of eating utensils will do, but I’m particularly fond of camping sporks. The sort that have a spoon on one end and a fork on the other are the easiest to use. If you buy the other sort with tines on the end of a spoon, you might as well just bring chopsticks.
Water: I carry approximately 4 gallons of water in my vehicle at all times. Plastic bottles will generally freeze and thaw in the winter time safely, but should be replaced over time. Store them out of the light so that they don’t degrade. It can be used for drinking and cooking, and the bottles are reusable for water transport.
Water filter: You always want the maximum number of available options when it comes to water. It’s the only thing you really can’t go without when stranded. I carry a LifeStraw, which allows you to take impromptu sips from just about any water source you might be passing by.
Multitool: I carry a Leatherman Wave+ on my belt, but also a second inexpensive multitool in my vehicle. As long as it has pliers, a screwdriver, bottle opener, knife, and file, I’m happy.
Paracord: It has too many uses to count. It’s probably the single most versatile tool you’ll carry. I have 100 feet of it in one section, and another 100 feet sectioned off into 20ft lines. This is a context where you’ll want both high visibility and low visibility paracord, because you’ll either want to be seen or not seen. You can do everything with paracord from hitch tarps, hoist antennas, hang bear bags, tie things on your roof, tie up loose heat shields or mufflers, or maybe even lasso wild goats. You never know!
Duct tape: Another highly versatile material which can be used for countless purposes, from impromptu automotive repairs to sealing leaks on back-country camping trips. You’ll be glad you have a roll!
Shovel: If you’re stuck in snow or mud, a shovel is convenient. It also doubles as a means of burying waste.
Socket wrench and sockets: I carry a full set of 1/2″-drive sockets and an extendable socket wrench, which is convenient inside and outside the vehicle. No matter what on the road repairs you do you’ll be glad you have it. I once had an alternator fail between two of my piano tuning appointments, and managed to swap out my alternator in a NAPA parking lot. And I replaced a brake pad at an auto parts store outside of Yellowstone. Plus, you might need it for some run-of-the-mill repair at a friend’s house. Everything on this list gives you options.
Saw: Things fall in the road. A saw provides you the means of removing them. It also provides you with the ability to produce firewood, depending on context.
Ax: When a saw fails, you’ve got an ax. You can also split wood with it. In the North-East, it’s also a handy sledgehammer for removing stuck tires.
Glass breaker / seat-belt cutter: Everybody seems to recommend these, usually when they’re describing some situation where your car is simultaneously sinking in a lake, on fire, and filled with snakes. My reason for carrying it is that it could have potential in a rescue situation.
Screwdriver: Self-explanatory. You’ll need one sooner or later. They’re useful for everything.
Headlamp: Headlamps and spare batteries go in every one of my toolboxes and hiking bags. We have several of them hanging by the front door. And we carry them in our vehicles. You might be stranded at night, or you might need to just read a map.
OBD2 / Laptop: You should have an OBDII scanner just in case you need to read an emergency code. In my Prius, I carry an old police laptop with Toyota TechStream installed on it and a cable to plug in. No matter what happens, including traction battery failure, this tool can let you know what’s wrong, and whether or not it’s safe to clear the code and drive home. If you have a less technical car than a Prius, any garden-variety OBDII scanner is fine.
Fix-a-flat: If you have a flat tire, this stuff is unbelievably convenient. With both sealant and pressurized air inside the container, you can just stick it to the valve on a flat tire, pull the trigger, empty the can, and drive away. It won’t work for every flat, but when it does it can render your flat tire absolutely trivial.
Rubber plugs: It’s usually easier to just put on a spare tire. But in the event you’re unable to for any reason, or that you have multiple tires go flat at the same time, rubber plugs allow you to repair the tire yourself on the fly.
12v air pump: Whether your tire is low, you need to fill a tire you just repaired, or you just periodically want to check your tire pressure, an air pump that’s powered by your car can be a tremendously useful thing to have. And you’ll look really cool when you can pump up the odd bike tire or basketball. (At least we can imagine you will.)
Knife: A good, fixed-blade knife, in addition to your multitool, is a very helpful thing to have.
Jumper cables: If your battery or someone else’s dies, you’ll have jumper cables. Know how to use them, and opt for good quality jumper cables. You don’t really want to see what happens when they short.
Pistol & Ammo: I don’t necessarily know what situation I’m going to find myself stranded in. I carry a Ruger EC9 with 50 extra cartridges of 9mm. This is a concealed carry except when I’m working, when it lives in my car. The primary effect this has on my life is that I can’t park my car in post office parking lots.
Shelter / Comfort
Blankets: These provide warmth and comfort if stranded in winter conditions. I have four in my car. Fleece blankets are cheap, and it’s worth having more than you think you’ll need.
Space blankets: These can also provide emergency warmth, or they can be erected as a shield against sunlight in hot conditions. They’re multipurpose, and can make half-decent tarps if needed.
Road flares: LED road flares can dramatically lessen the probability of you getting hit by traffic when at the side of the road. I carry a set of three road flares.
Safety vest: If you have to walk down the side of the interstate, this is a useful garment to have.
Trauma medical kit: I carry a full trauma medical kit. When you live the dangerous, death-defying life of a musical instrument repair technician, you should have one nearby at all times. I bought this Everlit Emergency Trauma bag just to carry in my car.
Trash bags: These are useful for all sorts of things, from protecting you and your things from water to, well, throwing stuff away in them.
Compass: It’s a good thing to have in your car in case you ever lose all digital services, or if you need to head out on foot.
Map: Most of us rely on digital navigation, either in the form of cellular-based location services or conventional GPS services. If for any reason those aren’t available, it’s good to have an old-fashioned country-wide Atlas.
Matches & lighter: I have at least two ways to start a fire at all times. I actually carry a butane torch and fuel in my car, in addition to a conventional lighter and a box of matches. In your car, you have space, after all! And I’m really not great at starting fires.
Large plastic bin: Nearly all the items in this enormous list are stored in one clear plastic bin in the rear of my car. This keeps them all neat and organized, and the bin could conceivably be used for something as well. Like storing large quantities of water in a make-shift rain storage container. Or imprisoning squirrels. I don’t know what I’m going to need to do.
Money: I carry an extra $20 inside my vehicle. It’s actually more than that, but if I say that publicly on this blog somebody’s going to find me and tear the door off my car, so for sake of argument it’s $20. This money mainly insures that I’m never unable to purchase gas or some other necessity, even if I’m separated from my wallet.
Toilet paper: Also self-explanatory. When you need it you’ll be glad you have it.
Solar panel: I carry a 25-watt solar panel and solar regulator. Generally this is used to charge the 12v battery my Yaesu runs off, but it could be used to provide power if I were stranded for an extended period of time.
Inverter: Sometimes it’s useful to be able to run household appliances in your car. I carry a DC-to-AC inverter which I can use to charge items I don’t have a DC plug for, or to run low-power household items like lights or even heating blankets.
Extension cords: As someone who works a trade, you can’t have enough extension cords. These can also be used with an inverter if needed or during a power outage.
Spare 12v battery: It probably doesn’t get more obsessive than this, but I carry a spare 12v car battery, and it’s what my Yaesu radio runs off of. Hypothetically, I can jump my own car battery with it.
AAA membership: I call them at least once a year. With our plus membership, we can get 100 mile tows without paying any extra, and since I make a habit of driving old cars and repairing them myself, this is a worthwhile investment.
Cameras: My car is equipped with front- and rear-facing dash cameras. These are incredibly useful in the event of an accident and the ensuing disputes.
Lint roller: For neat clothes. And also for imprisoning ticks.
Skills / Habits
Leave it locked: Especially if you’re carrying all this expensive and/or dangerous stuff, you need to leave your car locked. Yes, hypothetically thieves will break a window if they really want something, but in general stealing is done opportunistically and a locked door and armed alarm make you less appealing than your neighbor. Unless they read on a blog that you have $20 in there.
Practice jacking your car up: You should know how to jack up a car and replace a tire before you have to. It’s not particularly difficult, but especially in the North-East it seldom goes as smoothly as it ought to, so some practice helps.
Full tank of gas: I don’t always have time to stop at gas stations, so I stop and fill up whenever I do. Additionally, the car gas tank can make an excellent source of emergency generator fuel. I mentally add that to my available gasoline reserves in the event of a power outage.
This is just a short list of the things that I carry. I’ll keep it up to date, and I certainly will accept recommendations. I hope this helps some neurotic person like me somewhere!