Tool Kit for Your Trunk

The right tools for every road trip

Whatever the time of year, but especially during the cold winter and hot summer months, it's a good time to think about a road trip tool kit for the trunk of your car. Big weather events in the central and eastern parts of our continent certainly make you think. Folks have been stranded on major highways for what amounts to almost a full day. But the reality is, Mr. Murphy's Laws tend to strike when or where you least expect them, which even applies to folks who live in the balmy southern states. The truth is, it's better to be prepared than to be sorry.

So what do you really need to carry in the trunk of your car? While northerners might have a different set of requirements than their cousins down south, there are certain things we consider universal. These are items that ride around under the seat of our own pickup truck and can just as easily fit into a tool box in the trunk of your car. Check them out, and put your own kit together for safety's sake.

Quality Aluminum Flashlight

There are all sorts of flashlights available in today's marketplace, but it's tough to beat some of the machined aluminum jobs out there. Common brand names include Maglite and Surefire. Both companies offer conventional "D" cell flashlights with standard bulbs or LED models that incorporate more lithium batteries (for longer life). In either case, always be certain the batteries are fresh. We keep a spare bulb in place for our "D" cell flashlight. You never know when a bulb will expire.

Emergency Tool Kits

You can buy pre-packaged emergency tool kits. Or you can make your own. We prefer the latter, since it gives us the option of selecting the tools you think you might need. It also allows us to select quality tools we can rely upon if necessary. So what should be included in the mix? Essentially, you don't need to pack tools to overhaul the car on the side of the road. Instead, think about items like a pair of pliers, flat blade screwdrivers in two different sizes, a Phillips-blade screwdriver, a good quality adjustable wrench, a pair of vise-grips, a set of wire cutters (preferably with a wire stripping option), a pocketknife and perhaps a small ball peen hammer. Add a roll of mechanic's wire; a small roll of electrical wire, several spare fuses, a roll of electrical tape and you can fix a number of roadside maladies. Wrap everything in a small sports bag and you're done (and likely at a cost that's less than half of a commercial kit).

First-Aid Kit

A small first aid kit cannot only patch a cut digit; it can help save a life in an emergency. A small 8-10-person first-aid kit can cost less than $20 and will include the majority of what you'll need in an accident or in a medical emergency. In your search for a good first-aid kit, check out local sporting goods stores, particularly the ones that offer hiking and camping gear. They offer a wider range of neatly packed kits, many of which are perfect for the trunk of your car.

Jumper Cables

You can buy a fancy jump starter assembly or you can car a good-old-fashioned set of booster cables. After going through several sets of generic plastic-sheathed booster cables, we cried "enough" and made up a set with 10-12 foot lengths of commercial battery cable along with commercial cable clamps. A quality auto parts store can help you out with the parts necessary to make up your own jumper cables.

Tire Pressure Gauge + Tire Inflator

You don't need a fancy digital tire pressure gauge to check tire pressure. What you need is a reasonably accurate gauge that provides consistent readings. We have an old pencil gauge we've used for years. The readings compare favorably to a large dial gauge we also have (the dial gauge is too bulky and too fragile to carry in the trunk). Tire inflators that also have sealing qualities are a good idea too. "Fix-A-Flat" is one brand name. "Slime Quick Spare" (no kidding) is another. Both work on the same principle: Remove the valve cap on the flat tire. Insert the hose on the inflator. Press down on the button. The tire is inflated and the puncture is temporarily sealed.

Tow Strap

A long time ago, we gave up on carrying tow ropes and tow chains. Tow straps are more effective and when rolled up, they take up far less space. Today's tow straps are like giant seat belts. When you hook up to a stuck car (or truck), the strap actually stretches a bit. The stretching helps to physically dislodge an immobilized vehicle. It's that simple. Some even come with little carry bags or cases. Ours doesn't stray far from our truck.

Flares or Safety Triangles

You can package the old style of burning flares in the trunk of your car, but ask any old timer and they'll tell you that lighting flares is usually troublesome (in some cases, the sparks will quickly burn little holes in your clothing as the flare lights). A far better solution is a set of safety triangles. While they might not be quite as visible as burning safety flares, they're infinitely reusable, and present no hazard to you or the surroundings. Equally important, the safety triangles take up little or no space in the trunk of your car.

Fire Extinguisher

Forget those little 3/4-pound fire extinguishers you see advertised for automotive use. They will not put out a fire that is supported by even a small amount of gasoline. Get a good 2.5-pound fire extinguisher. While you're at it, get a high-quality quick-release mount for the extinguisher. The last thing you need is a loose 2.5-pound extinguisher bottle rattling around in the trunk of your car.

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