Everything You Need in a Vehicle Survival Kit

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A vehicle survival kit is not the same thing as a dedicated bug out bag, but there are similarities. A bug out bag is something usually kept at home should the unexpected need to quickly evacuate the premises arise. A bug out bag is usually designed to help you survive for up to 3 days as you theoretically move from point A to point B. A vehicle kit could contain some of the same gear as a BOB, but a vehicle survival kit should be kept in the vehicle at all times – and it contains equipment specific to the vehicle itself.

Some preppers could decide to merge a bug out bag and a vehicle kit into one. The logic for this might be something akin to “why make two kits when you can make one bag that covers everything?”

I would advise against pursuing that line of logic. If you try to make a bug out bag that doubles as a vehicle survival kit, you run the risk of ending up with a kit that is a bit of both but ends up being neither. I view my vehicle kits as something that I could use regardless of any large-scale crisis that warrants a bug out.

Why a Vehicle Survival Kit

The average American spends about 1 hour per day in a vehicle. That’s the median, so for some people it’s much more windshield time. In addition, consider that more than 38,000 people die every year on U.S. roadways and 4.4 million additional people are seriously injured enough to warrant medical attention (source). This statistic alone is a compelling reason to keep emergency supplies – and a medical kit you know how to use – in your vehicle.

A vehicle survival kit should stay in the vehicle at all times. A vehicle survival kit is a compilation of gear that can get you through the more likely situation of a roadside emergency. While a vehicle survival kit can be of benefit to you should an EMP suddenly strike while you are out running errands, its intent is more all-purpose.

A vehicle survival kit supplements a bug out bag, and vice-versa. You’re not going to carry jumper cables in a bug out bag, are you? I hope not! Likewise, you’re probably not going to carry a tent in a vehicle survival kit. Some might. I wouldn’t. If I need shelter during a vehicle emergency, I’ll use the vehicle itself if at all possible.

When would I use by BOB over a dedicated vehicle kit? A plan is to grab my bug out backpack and throw it into the truck or car when/if I need to bug out by vehicle. I don’t store that BOB in my truck or car. There are a few reasons for this. First, I access my bug out pack quite regularly because it contains a lot of the same gear I use for hiking and camping. Second, a full-size pack would take up too much space in my vehicle. I’m a prepper, but I also lead a normal day-to-day life. I need the space in the back seat of my truck or the trunk of my car for trips to the grocery store, kids’ hockey gear, etc.

Buying a Vehicle Survival Kit

The easiest way to check this preparedness box off is to buy an off-the-shelf car kit. Most of these catch-all kits will serve the purpose of covering vehicle basics, but they don’t move much beyond that. For example, a basic “Roadside Emergency Kit” will give you jumper cables, an adjustable wrench, gloves, tow strap, reflective road triangle, road flares, etc. in a convenient storage bag. These are usually sold at reasonable prices.

Sale

Always Prepared Premium 125 Piece Roadside Emergency Assistance Kit with Jumper Cables – All-in-One Auto, Visibility, Safety, and First Aid Essentials

  • ESSENTIAL ROAD SAFETY KIT – Always feel protected and secure while driving in your car with our 125-piece premium roadside assistance emergency kit that you can count on when you need immediate help on the road.
  • ALL-IN-ONE SOLUTION – Small, organized, and useful in a variety of road emergency situations, this exceptional car roadside assistance kit comes in a compact bag that can easily fit in your vehicle’s trunk, backseat, or spare tire compartment.
  • LIFE-SAVING BATTERY & CABLES – Made of 8-gauge copper wire, our emergency car kit includes handy jumper cables to help get your car working again in flash if you ever need a boost whether in the summer or winter.

However, I see a kit like this as only the beginning. In other words, they’re fairly priced for what they offer, but (in most cases) they don’t quote offer enough. They’re fine as a starting point, you will probably just want to add a few dedicated items to fit your specific situation.

You can also couple your accentuated store-bought kit with a more robust kit that goes beyond just vehicle products – yet has your vehicle in mind. For example, I have the Pathfinder Survival Kit from Decked, a company that specializing in automotive equipment. In this case, they partnered with Dave Canterbury’s Pathfinder School to help blend an automotive kit with a survivalist slant.

Pathfinder Decked vehicle survival kit
The Pathfinder vehicle survival kit from Decked.

The Pathfinder vehicle survival kit includes the following:

  • HD6 Ferro Rod with Striker
  • Mini Inferno Fire Disks
  • Pathfinder Reinforced Nylon Tarp (7’8″x7’8″)
  • Paracord 550 (100′)
  • 7″ Folding Saw
  • IFAK Emergency Kit
  • Mora Bushcraft Knife
  • 32oz Stainless Steel Water Bottle and Cup
  • Lockable Crossbox to carry the above items In
pathfinder kit contents
The kit includes Paracord, Mora bushcraft knife, folding saw, Ferro rod, and fire starter.
Pathfinder kit contents 2
The kit also includes a first aid kit, stainless steel water bottle, cup, and nylon tarp.

You can see how the Pathfinder vehicle kit is more of what I would call a “complete” kit. A vehicle survival kit must include more than just what you would expect in a generic roadside kit. Flares and jumper cables aren’t going to close open wounds. A tow chain won’t purify water. You need to merge two different types of kits to get a complete vehicle survival kit.

Building Your Own Vehicle Survival Kit

Just as I can’t give you a list of everything that should go in your bug out backpack, I can’t give you a list of everything that should go into your vehicle kit. I don’t know your situation, only you do.

Build the kit to your situation.

I can’t do the work for you, but I can give you categories of gear and plenty of suggestions under each category for you to consider. While your vehicle kit should be limited to vehicle-type emergencies, everyone’s situation is different. You have to build a bug out bag that fits your situation; you need to plan and build a vehicle kit with the same mindset.

Soccer mom or mountain man: both need a vehicle survival kit, but those kits will look quite different.

There will be obvious similarities to any vehicle kit. A vehicle is, after all, a vehicle. Jumper cables are universal, road flares, etc. However, the person using a 4WD truck to access their off-grid home in the mountains of Vermont will be building a very different vehicle kit than the person living in Florida who uses a minivan to transport kids back and forth to school and sports every day.

The most obvious category begins with…

Vehicle and Roadside Equipment

Car Charger for Cellphone – Everyone is likely to already have one of these in their car, and while you might not think of it as survival equipment, it is. The cellphone is by far the most widely used communication device. More than that, it allows you to access online information, maps, your contacts list, etc. It’s a critical piece of gear. I keep a USB charger with various adapters in my truck. Just know that while cellphones are powerful, they are also fragile. They can break or lose their connection in a disaster. Have backup plans. Also consider a charged power bank with cords in case your kid left a dome light on in your truck when you left for a four-day backpacking trip and your cell run out of juice.

Cash – Cash is still king. You might have an Apple wallet on your phone and credit cards galore, but short of complete and total TEOWAWKI, cash will always work as a medium of exchange.

Compressor – A small compressor that plugs into your DC 12V charging port can help top off a slack tire, fill a tire up that was just repaired, or even inflate beach toys. If you do find yourself inflating a tire with one, make sure to use your car jack to lift the pressure off the tire. It will inflate more easily that way. Many companies now make all-in-one battery packs that can be used to jump start a dead battery but also have on-board compressors to air up tires and USB ports to charge devices. These are handy rigs to have; just be sure to monitor the battery status every couple months – especially if it’s been cold out.

Flares and Signaling Devices – These are not items I carry in my vehicle, though many people do. I’ve seen them in use by truckers who have pulled their big rigs off the side of the road, never with passenger cars. Still, some people might deem them worthy of inclusion, and if nothing else, they can be used as a fire starter.

Jumper Cables – Every vehicle should have these. I’ve used mine countless times, often coming to the aid of a stranger or coworker who not only doesn’t have a set to jump their car’s battery, but also has no clue how to use them!

Spare Tire, Iron, and Jack – These (usually) come with every vehicle by default. The important thing is knowing how to use them. Also, inspect these items from time to time, particularly if your spare is located under your truck, where mine is. Things get rusty down there faster than you realize; be sure to lubricate and rustproof the mechanisms yearly. Also, ensure you how NOW to access your spare: many of the rank-and-file couldn’t access their spare tire and install it if their life depended on it. Don’t be that guy.

Many modern cars no longer come with even a space-saver spare tire in the interests of saving truck space and weight – usually automobile companies offer a tire repair kit or a can of fix-a-flat if this is the case. If you are in this category, be sure to head to the junkyard or local pick-a-part to get at least a donut space-saver spare tire; they are inexpensive and can literally save your life. The biggest can of fix-a-flat in the world won’t repair a shredded tire sidewall.

Tire Plug Kit – I mentioned these kits in my article on the Abandoned Ghost Trains of Maine. Those trains are deep in the north woods of Maine and require traveling on miles and miles of dirt roads where shale is known to slash even the strongest tires. The ability to plug a hole is just as important as carrying a spare. In fact, you can think of these kits as a backup to the spare tire.

Vehicle Manual – Every car comes with one. Make sure it’s in your glove box.

Medical Supplies

We keep a small over-the-counter medical kit in each vehicle. It’s nothing too fancy, but it will take care of most unexpected medical issues we’re likely to encounter. Much like a vehicle survival kit, you may decide to buy one or make one, but the important thing is having one. Only keep what you know how to use; conversely, if you have medical gear in your kit, take the time to learn how to use it. A few bucks and a half day taking a first aid course that covers tourniquet use and other trauma care is about the best money you could ever spend.

Personal hygiene products should be considered as part of this category. Hand sanitizer, simple bar soap, and alcohol pads; and for the ladies, feminine hygiene products.

Communications Gear

Your cellphone is going to be your primary communication device. What you need to consider is backup or supplemental devices.

You don’t need a tricked out overlanding communications system to fill the need to stay in touch during a vehicular-based emergency. For most people, communications is easily filled with the very cellphone they carry with them everywhere all the time anyway. More hardcore preppers could consider a few other additions to the ubiquitous cellphone.

Midland USA offers some great communications product suitable for mobility.

Handheld Ham Radio – Ham radio comes with a learning curve (and a license requirement to transmit), but you can learn how to use a Baofeng UV-5R radio relatively easily, and best of all – they’re cheap!

CB Radio – I get criticized for suggesting preppers consider buying a decent CB radio. People say they’re not in use anymore. It’s true that their heyday has gone by, but rest assured, they’re still in use. And, if you’re on a long road trip, they can be quite helpful when you turn to Channel 19 and listen to truckers talk about road conditions.

You need to know how to get from point A to point B. Again, most people use their cellphone for this. Just look at an Uber driver. The cellphone is mounted to the dash displaying exactly which turns to take when. The same with communications, you’re looking for backups to the cellphone.

Handheld GPS – Maybe your vehicle comes with a built-in GPS. That’s great if it does, but I’ll always prefer a handheld. If you need to get out and move in unfamiliar territory, you can’t take your car GPS with you. I don’t store mine in my vehicle, but it is in my bug out bag. They’re expensive, but if you have a non-emergency use for them you can justify the cost. I use mine when hunting monster bucks.

Paper Roadmaps – My go-to paper map is the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer. It’s the mothership of roadmaps as it covers all roads in detail, includes points of interest, trails, etc. – and it’s topographical!

Personal Survival Equipment

off road vehicle in winter
The vehicle survival kit built for this off road vehicle will be very different from one built for city driving.

Blanket – We keep a blanket in the back of our van. Justifying it in limited space is easy because my wife uses it on cold days when we’re outside watching a kid’s sports game, we lay it on the sand at the beach in the summer, and if we need some type of cushion wrap (carrying glass, for example), it’s available for that as well. Bonus that it can be used in a survival situation to help keep us warm. Consider a military wool blanket, which will keep you warm even when wet; and a simple reflective emergency blanket, which can also be used for signaling aircraft.

Fire-Making Materials – I don’t think a vehicle survival kit requires the full breadth of fire starters you’d find in a bug out bag.

Food – You are going to want survival food with a long shelf-life, because odds are you’re going to forget it’s even there unless you really need it. You also need food that will be resistant to temperature changes and less-than-ideal storage conditions. MREs are a perfect choice for this type of situation. Built for soldiers, they have the added benefit of not requiring a stove to prepare (everything is in the pack). There are other options, like many freeze-dried foods, but MREs will suit most people well for this type of situation. In winter, you can keep them in a cooler to help insulate them from freezing – or bring them inside.

Shelter – I said earlier that if I needed a shelter in a vehicular crisis, I’d use the vehicle itself. Whenever possible, you should too. I’ve read numerous stories over the years of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, drives into the mountains during a snowstorm, gets stuck, and leaves the vehicle to go find help. Often the man will head off while his wife or kids stay in the car. Guess who is most likely to survive?

Rescue searchers will almost always find you faster if you stay put. This is wilderness survival advice 101 – if you are lost – stay put. Rescue teams use a grid pattern to find missing people. I know, I’ve been on these searches before. If you are wandering through the woods, you may very well wander into an area that has already been searched and away from the very place the rescue team is heading. The one exception to this is if no one knows you left, where you went, or when you’ll get back. Again, that’s 101 stuff.

The same is true of a car lost or stuck in a remote area. After that winter storm ends, plow trucks come. Helicopters go overhead. What do you think is easier to spot, a stuck vehicle or a single person wandering down a hillside in the trees?

While I would always consider staying in a vehicle first and foremost, there might be a situation where you feel an additional layer of shelter is needed.

My first choice of shelter in a vehicle kit would be a tarp. Why? the sheer versatility and its ability to be folded to take up minimal space.

Water – We all know the importance of water to our personal survival. Having water is survival rule numero uno. Storing some in your vehicle survival kit makes sense for reasons we already know. The question comes down to how: What’s the best way to store water in your car?

The extremes in temperature inside a car complicates matters, but you don’t have to overthink it. Use stainless steel bottles whenever possible as plastic, particularly cheap plastic bottles, will degrade in the heat or split in the cold as water freezes and expands. If you want a more serious quantity than stainless steel bottles can provide, get larger plastic water storage containers designed for the task.

Store the water in your trunk or wherever out of the sun is. Cycle it every 6 months just to be sure. In the winter, leaving your water in the main part of the vehicle will help reduce odds of it freezing.

In addition to water itself, look for a secondary means to filter and/or purify your water. The fastest, easiest, cheapest method will be water purification tablets. A few Lifestraws will also go a long way. Advanced preppers equipping a bug out vehicle might look to portable water filters.

Basic Toolbox – This should include at a minimum: adjustable wrenches (2 minimum), needle nose pliers, various screwdrivers, and a small hacksaw able to cut metal. You might also consider a bolt cutter if you are equipping a bug out vehicle. Locking pliers (vice grips) are a godsend when you get stuck fasteners.

Crowbar – The weight and size of a crowbar might not warrant everyday inclusion in a vehicle, but it could be an asset if you’re bugging out. It could help you access areas that a bolt cutter might not. Bonus – it’s a great weapon to use against zombies!

Cutting Devices – This category should include, at a minimum, a quality fixed blade knife. A utility knife with extra blades is a cheap, useful addition to any vehicle survival kit. You can move up from there to include a folding saw (like the Pathfinder saw or Silky saw), a hatchet, and bolt cutters.

Duct Tape – What can’t you do with a roll of duct tape? Know how I mentioned a tire repair kit? On one north woods trip with friends, there were multiple tires punctured across a few vehicles. My tire plug kit ran out of plugs. What’d we do with the next hole in a tire? We took the glue from the repair kit, mixed it with duct tape, and jammed in it the hole. Guess what – it worked!

Oh, and in a pinch, remember that duct tape can be used to control unruly passengers!

Light – Flashlights. We’ve reviewed a lot of Olight flashlights on this site, and they could serve you well in a vehicle kit because they’re not only powerful but they can be charged via any USB port you’d also use to charge your cellphone. Redundancy here is particularly important. Adding a few glowsticks to your kit can’t hurt.

Shovel – A shovel is probably unnecessary in many areas (urban areas that do not have winter weather), but if you have winter weather or a mud season, a shovel could be a worthwhile addition to your vehicle survival kit. Smaller vehicles might consider the tri-fold shovel found in Army Navy surplus stores. I prefer the bi-fold shovel of the same type, but sometimes space is limited. Advanced preppers instead might consider adding a tactical shovel as these serve the purpose of a shovel, but also incorporate other survival attributes. If you’re driving around in winter, traction aids such as bags/buckets of sand can help get you out of predicaments.

Advanced Items

Clothing – In the winter, I keep a winter hat in every vehicle. I only use insulated work gloves as those have more padding, but they also work well because they’re all-season gloves. Additional clothing you might consider include winter boots (where appropriate), fleece vest, rain poncho (can double as a tarp), etc.

Extensive First Aid Kit – Expanding on a basic first aid kit is a logical step in creating a more advanced vehicle survival kit. Take your standard first aid kit and add an IFAK or similar style medical bag. As with any piece of equipment, having it is one thing, knowing how to use it is another. You don’t need to be an EMT, but you should know the basics of what the equipment you have is for and how to use it. I would also consider including a paperback copy of Where There is No Doctor in an advanced first aid kit. Just be sure to read it ahead of time so you’re not trying to learn how to control bleeding when your femur is sticking out of the side of your leg.

Fire Extinguisher – You don’t have to drive a Formula 1 race car to have a fire extinguisher in your car. That said, I don’t carry one. It’s the space factor for me. It might make sense in your situation, however. Some companies make small fire suppression cans that are about the size of aerosol spray-paint cans. Just be sure you know what you need: car fires are usually electrical or caused by burning fluids such as gasoline or ATF. Make sure you get an extinguisher that is appropriate for the fire cause.

Fishing Gear – You don’t need to tow a bass fishing boat behind you, or fill your trunk with fishing poles, but if you spend a lot of time in the backcountry, adding a small, simple survival fishing kit isn’t a terrible idea. The line can be used for more than just fishing.

Seatbelt Cutter This little device is great because it’s small and it can attach directly to your keychain. It’s actually a 2-in-1 tool. One part will cut your seatbelt should you need to escape your vehicle quickly and can’t detach the belt. The other can be used to break the windshield.

seatbelt cutter device on keychain
This simple tool is small enough to fit on a keychain. It will both cut a seatbelt and crack a windshield.

Summarized

Your vehicle survival kit is an extension of your perceived needs in times of trouble. Chances are you won’t need a BOB; but chances are you WILL need some part of your vehicle survival kit at some point. The gear listed in this article is a great start, but be sure to really sit down and list scenarios you think are likely to be encountered for your you and your vehicle – then plan your gear list and vehicle survival kit accordingly.

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