Car Emergency Kit Guide: What to carry depends on where you drive

It’s time to make sure you’re equipped with what you need — and that you aren’t carrying what you don’t

Almost everyone’s parents remind them, and almost every related retailer has spent untold resources promoting their need: winter emergency kits for our vehicles. But do we really need all that extra gear in our rides every winter? And are there some downfalls in storing certain kit items on board? Before you start stuffing the trunk, there’s a little to consider.

Emergency kit basics

Where do you drive? If you’re in a larger urban centre and your commute doesn’t take you past city limits, you don’t need a full survival kit. You’re not likely to starve or dehydrate while waiting for alternate transportation when your vehicle is stranded in a snow-bank, so a good snow-brush, light snow-shovel, strong flashlight, and maybe a battery booster pack are really all of the equipment you should need. If we weren’t so willing to sacrifice comfort and health in the name of fashion, we wouldn’t have to include some winter wear in the list. If you leave the house on a -15° C day in clothing not designed to protect you from foul weather, make sure you’ve got boots, warm pants, hand-coverings, a warm hat that covers your ears, a warm sweater, and a proper winter jacket on board. You can avoid all this hassle and wasted space by simply wearing them, but then I’d sound like an old fogey reminding a teenager that those $200 track shoes won’t prevent frostbite.

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Don’t leave food

You do remember things freeze in Canadian winters, don’t you?

Don’t keep water bottles or sealed drinks in a vehicle unless you like spending money to have the interior shampooed and detailed when a pop can explodes from freezing. Dehydration is the least of your worries when you hit the winter roads, so leave the liquid supplies at home.

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About the only winter vehicle occupant that might need food before a road-side rescue arrives is a diabetic or someone with a medical condition that carries severe health risks when regular meal-times aren’t observed. For everyone else, leave the granola bars in the kitchen cupboard. They attract all manner of critters and pests and when they’re finished with their trail-mix snacks, they’ll turn to your expensive interior fabrics and wiring for dessert. If you do carry food for an emergency, make sure you don’t leave it in the vehicle when the trip is over.

Dangers of emergency gear

It’s great to have emergency gear, but do you know how to use it? In the automotive repair world, it’s not necessarily a little knowledge that’s a dangerous thing, but more often not enough knowledge combined with the right tools. A set of booster cables, for example, might be handy in the winter, but hook up a set wrong and you can quickly turn from Good Samaritan to a Burnt Wiring Baddy. Worse yes, you can cause an explosion when trying to boost a frozen battery or one emitting highly volatile gases. As for tow straps, I’ve lost count of the number of bumper covers and other body trim pieces I’ve seen ripped loose when these weren’t secured correctly.

Extra weight

Extra weight can be bad for your health.

No, we’re not talking about personal body weight, but carrying heavy objects in the rear of a vehicle for improved traction. I’ve seen all manner, from concrete paver stones to short lengths of railway rail. The problem is that there’s no easy way to secure this ballast to make it safe in the case of a collision. You might argue that normal luggage are dangers as well, but if I’m rear-ended or rolled down an embankment by a truck, I’d rather take my chances with a small light duffle bag to the back of the head than a potentially lethal 100-pound slab of concrete.

Battery booster pack

Battery booster pack
Battery booster packPhoto by Getty

No matter where you drive, a lightweight lithium battery booster pack is a great idea and much safer to use than booster cables. Most units come with protective features built in that won’t deliver power if the cables are hooked up in reverse, and they won’t cause a spark because you have to turn them on to boost after hooking up the cables.

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The biggest benefit is these units’ ability to recharge personal electronic devices. Most will run a year between recharges, and even the basest models can start up to 20 struggling vehicles on a single charge. They start around $150-$175. See our listed items above to assemble the bulk of an urban or rural driver kit.

Tow straps

Vehicle Recovery strap with clevises
Vehicle Recovery strap with clevisesPhoto by Getty

Tow straps are also very handy, but only if you know where to hook them up on your ride and your rescuer’s machine. If you can’t easily pick out the difference between a steering tie-rod and a suspension sub-frame, leave the straps on the retailer’s shelf and have a reliable towing service’s phone number on your phone. If you are using one, make sure everyone is clear when the tow vehicle starts moving. Nylon straps can still cause major injuries if they snap and catch someone in the cross-fire.


Candles don’t belong in a gasoline-powered vehicle — there’s just too much risk of setting something alight inside a vehicle. If you’ve wandered into a snow-filled ditch, there’s always the chance something under the vehicle might have been damaged, like a fuel line or tank.

A single candle won’t provide much heat. Save them for a romantic dinner after you’ve been towed out, and don your emergency winter wear instead.

Traction Mats

Recovery traction mats tire for sand, snow or mud
Recovery traction mats tire for sand, snow or mudPhoto by Getty

Traction mats’ abilities are limited. They’re handy, light-weight, cheap and take up little space in the trunk, but don’t expect them to get you up a hill covered with ice or packed snow. Still, if they ever save you from stressing the transmission and driveline while doing a rocking back and forth exercise, they’ll have paid for themselves in saving you major repair costs.

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