Recently, a friend of mine nearly lost his leg, a result of a texting while driving moron who drove her car directly into him, pinning his leg between her car and a tow truck. The tow truck was recovering his vehicle on a residential street and was ablaze with flashing warning lights, the speed limit was 35. Yet the driver of the car had her eyes buried in her phone and not on the road.  She almost cost him his life, and most terrible in timing, is that he had gotten engaged only a few hours prior to being partially crushed; nearly to death. Luck just happened to be on his side as another friend was on the scene, who used his belt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Thus, buying enough time for the ambulance to arrive and to save his life.

My confidence in providing this list, and in relevance to SOFREP comes from my many adventures abroad in recent years. I’m also drawing upon eleven years of active duty and in the company of my fellow Sappers where we operated abroad in our modern warfare role as counter-improvised-explosive-device mitigators, or IED hunters. We cleared the way and in that capacity, while driving, many of our vehicles were of destroyed or disabled which often left us at our own wits to recover our vehicles. Beyond that, as I, unfortunately, can no longer simply use C4 to shape a bumper for improvised towing in this world, yet I have encountered more than my fair share of roadside incidents. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on many roads around the world, and once drove a Chevrolet Silverado from Bavarian Germany to Bucharest, Romania and back. Another time I successfully drove a BMW 5 series through a flood which was seeping into the car while in northern Croatia. Along with many other odd rides, including my recent solo trip along the full expanse of the U.S. – Mexican border.

These adventures and my friend’s incident, along with the fact that I’m essentially piecemealing a used car together, as are a lot of folks these days – new cars are a luxury many of us can only dream to afford. Albeit, in an effort to provide not only a cautionary tale but some very helpful, realistic, and detailed information far beyond the many lame internet lists; my objective is to provide you with a reliable list of, in vehicle materials, along with the safest and easiest way to use them to avoid trouble. That is, beyond the need for these items, but the actual use for when your vehicle is disabled on the side of the road from an accident, flat tire, inclement weather, mechanical issues, or even the occasional roadside bomb detonation.

I put this list together with relevance, real need, and sound explanation. Even so, some of these things at first glance you may know and use, while others are often ignored or unknown. I also ask that you please excuse the fact that I’m not taking photos of my car, which is in the midst of total brake line replacement.

1. On the road, safety is first

The first thing you want to do if disabled for any reason on the road is to get your vehicle out of the flow of traffic while turning on your hazard lights. Once you’ve cleared traffic, then safely exit your vehicle. Whenever possible exit your vehicle through the door that is facing away from traffic and get behind the guardrail, barrier, or if need be, away from your vehicle a bit. This is a preventative measure against other drivers. The reasoning behind this is that people, for some reason are drawn towards disabled vehicles like months to a flame. These people are primarily nosy rubberneckers who have zero intent to help you, but will in their dangerous ways either swipe or directly strike your vehicle. I encourage you to ask an emergency services first-responder or vehicle maintenance employee and they will always have at least one story of a vehicle leaving traffic and striking the responding vehicle which is lit up like a Christmas tree or in the worse case, the responder. A summary internet search will also provide multiple cases of these instances.



Albeit, and if safety permits, you should have the following items in your vehicle to alert other drivers of your presence on the road. Keeping your hazard lights on, put on a reflective, high-visibility vest and deploy warning triangles and/or road flares depending on the time of day and weather.

While wearing your vest, you’ll commonly place the first of three warning triangles/flares ten feet, center behind your vehicle. Then get off the pavement, and behind the barrier and walk two hundred feet to place the second triangle/flare, and repeat for the third triangle/flare. These warnings should hopefully forewarn other drivers to avoid you and your vehicle but don’t over-invest any hope in humanity. For other examples of placement, see the chart below.


Via U.S. DOT

2. Calling for help

There are a lot of roadside service clubs out there, and at face value, they will promise you the moon and the stars. Nevertheless, most people are not enrolled in the level of membership protection that they believe they are. In fact, most people simply accept that they have coverage through a dealer or insurance provided plan. I would encourage you to check your coverage and call a representative to determine what you’re actually covered for, and ask some worse case scenario questions to determine if the club you’re in is even worth your membership fees. I have AAA Premier, and it is a steal – also, you can use the many services provided from a free yearly battery, 300 miles of towing for others . . . Or pay for your membership by charging your friends $50 a tow, and $100 a battery, but that’s hypothetical economics.

You could also phone a friend, and only if they have a tow truck. Otherwise, you are wasting their time and yours, as well as putting both of your lives in danger. The side of the road is not where you want to wait for someone to show up and agree that your car needs to be repaired.

3. If you’re not in a club or out of range, you’ll need a plan, in your glove box

Your glove box is a time capsule for vehicle and what if knowledge, inside you should stock the basics such as pens, pencils, and paper – always leave a note. Your vehicles’ manual, maintenance logs, proof of insurance copies should also be contained within your glove box. Another good mindset to have is to not rely on your phone because you may be out of your coverage area or you’re out of power. Have your emergency contacts, and the number for emergency services written down if you need to wander off to search for help and happen across a phone. Also written down in case you are unconscious or otherwise incapacitated should be a small list of medical information, such as your primary physician’s contract information, medical insurance number, any known allergies, and medications.

Bring an atlas, the printed version, even if you have a GPS and a phone. Coverage and power are not constants, but paper, for the most part, is. For your phone, a charged spare or external battery can be packed, but again not relied on as a charger in a dead or dying car with no coverage is then, only useless junk.

Survival kit for your car: With winter upon us, it’s time to evaluate what we have in our vehicles

Read Next: Survival kit for your car: With winter upon us, it’s time to evaluate what we have in our vehicles

4. In the event of emergency, first, save yourself

Just like the flight attended reminds you on every flight, “Secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” That is because you’re not much use if you’re incapacitated or dead, and similar to an aircraft flight, you’re going to need to be able to take care of yourself to take care of others. To do so I recommend a good seatbelt cutter and glass shattering combination tool. I typically carry a Response Knife, and this is for that rare but very possible chance that your vehicle has flipped or become pinned. A Response Knife for vehicular purposes should have a built-in external, safety slit to cut without opening the blade, to free yourself and from a seatbelt. The Rescue knife should also have a heavy point on the end, which is purpose designed for use as a glass shattering tool in the event that the vehicle doors are crushed, or other quick exit means. Finally the blade, in this capacity, can be used to deflate reluctant airbags. Also, having a knife on hand always has a million and one uses.

In the front of the vehicle and within reasonable arms reach should be a vehicle designed, certified, five-pound, fire extinguisher that is mounted. In the event of a fire, you won’t be able to call time-out and rummage through your trunk. Fire moves swiftly and deadly, you will need to be faster than the fire. The fire extinguisher will need to be mounted, and many off-the-shelf vehicle fire extinguishers come with a mount. Don’t discard the mount, as it is essential. A fire extinguisher that is rolling around in your car can be damaged, will be generally useless and out of reach in the event of a fire. Ff your vehicle is involved in any kind of high-speed impact, your fire extinguisher will become a projectile that can harm or kill you or others in the car. That is also why you shouldn’t keep a bunch of unsecured junk in your car. Mount your fire extinguisher out of direct sunlight and regularly check that it has kept its charge, around every 90 days will typically suffice in non-extreme environments. Ensure that you purchase a fire extinguisher that meets the climate in which you live.

5. First Aid, and know what you’re doing

After you’re free and the fire is out, it is likely that you will have to conduct first aid until the paramedics arrive. Within your car, as in nearly everyplace else, you should have a first aid kit. You should know how to use everything in your first aid kit, and regularly replace anything in the first kit that is expired. First aid classes are typically available, and depending on your area, at the Red Cross, local fire department, or a host of other non-profit agencies. You should not need to pay some poser hand-over-fist to learn ‘advanced’ first aid. Most people only need to learn three basic principles.

  • First, ensure the victim is breathing and if not perform CPR if applicable,  you may also need to use a nasopharyngeal airway, or other airway freeing method – only do and use what you know, don’t guess unless there’s no other choice.
  • Next check for bleeding and attempt to stop the bleeding with a bandage, elevation, direct pressure, or tourniquet – all depending on where and how the victim is bleeding.
  • If applicable and identified, treat the victim to prevent shock. If shock is onset, place the victim on their back, unless the victim has an abdominal wound or head injury. Next, elevate their legs, loosen any binding clothing, acclimatize the victim (too cold, too hot), and continue to reassure the victim until first responders arrive – try to be funny, it helps.

6. There is always room for one more

Before I go into what else to pack, let me explain how I make this stuff as well as much more fit in the trunk, and still have more than enough room to go on a monthly grocery shopping trip. It’s all about spatial orientation with a few egg/milk crates and some bungee cords to start with. In the trunk or back of the vehicle, I’ll lay out the crates in the best pattern for that vehicle and then run across of bungee cord over the bottom of the crate to stop them from sliding around while in transit. As for the kits, like-items are broken down into groups and placed in one of these crates with an item I recognize near the visual top of the crate. Within each of these crates, small items are in small containers and reused cardboard boxes. There is nothing fancy about it. For the irregular items, I will place them along the edges of the truck or rear of the vehicle and affix them with a holding strap.


A good start.


I advise against all the prefab, off the shelf stuff. Use the heavy-duty crates to set it and forget it.

7. Your vehicle will get thirsty

I don’t typically drive around with 5 gallons of gas in the trunk, but I do keep a can in the event that I need to walk forward and get fuel at the expense of bad planning or uncommon circumstance. It is also useful to have that can ready and in the car to top off when you know that you’re going into unfamiliar terrain. In an awkward situation, it is an excellent idea to have a siphon pump on hand to remove fuel from one vehicle and into your own, or your can. Don’t try that crap in the movies where they magically blow in a hose for gas, unless you want to get sick.  Similarly, a few gallon jugs or a single five-gallon jug of water under similar principles. You will want to keep your water cans in a state of pristine cleanliness, and empty as to grow bacteria in your water – water can and will go bad. Fill up your water containers prior to heading out and empty them as soon as you get home.

Within the realm of water, comes automotive fluids, and water is also one of those fluids. Keeping a bottle of the fluids unique to you vehicle in your trunk may be the difference between you driving to the gas station or rest stop at the next exit. On the other hand, you could be marooned on a dark and lonesome highway hoping some drunk on their phone with their lights off doesn’t come barreling over the hill with the Dukes of Hazard theme song on full blast – screaming “Yeehaw!” before both of your cars ignite in a fireball.

8. Flat tires happen, and at the worse times

I recently acquired a flat tire, along the Mexican border fence, a few miles outside of Nogales, Arizona and it was a slow crawl back civilization. I had already used the spare tire a few days prior, where I was far from home, and in a rental vehicle of the least expensive company. I really wished that I had not sold my BMW to go to Ukraine at that point. Yet, there I was with a slow limp, with a ‘used to be’ vehicle kit long gone, on a fire/patrol road to get to the last paved road a few miles back to meet the tow truck. It is always when you’re unprepared, that the situation becomes awful.

Even so, on my own cars, I will purchase a fifth tire and replace the manufacturer spare tire with a real tire, on the rim and keep that in the location of the spare. After all, a spare is only a spare with varying and often limited restrictions. For the tire changing process, a good pair of leather work gloves to not injure your self or make a mess of things, work well in this situation. I will also use my own jack and tire iron. I don’t know if you have ever replaced a tire with those hell-forged pitiful excuses of a jack and tire iron found in any vehicle with the spare, but these default tools offer dreadful and time-consuming process. Just put your own jack and tire iron in with your fifth tire and save yourself time and pain when you’re changing a tire An event, in my experience that will always happen someplace bad with no street lights and strange noises coming from the treeline that can’t be the rain.

Spare tire or not, and like the above-mentioned story, sometimes you’ll get two flats. A go-to kit for on-the-go repairs should be pieced together in this unlikely, but unfortunate occurrence. For the simple need to fix and go, a can of fix a flat will take you miles. For the rest and on hand for use at your own skill level.

  • Tire plug/puncture sealant and hole repair kit.
  • A reliable, portable, air compressor. 
  • A simple tire pressure gauge – fill to the air pressure PSI labeled on the tires, they may not be the tires in the manual.

9. You don’t have super powers, bring light

Keep two types of flashlights with spare batteries in your vehicle at all times. The first should be an adaptable magnetic flashlight to attach to the vehicle while you are working or diagnosing a problem. The second flashlight is less utilitarian and more purpose driven, a heavy-duty Maglite is a force of disabling brightness and brute strength. I opt for the four D-Cell sized model, heavy-duty metal, and never plastic. If you need to see and what you see is bad, a swift strike from a Maglite will turn the situation in your favor.

10. The right tools, for the right job

There is nothing worse than seeing a useless tool kit in the back of someones’ car, especially when you need it. Build your own toolkit that is specific to your vehicle via the manual in your vehicle, mechanic’s recommendation, and what you know about your vehicle to create a meaningful and useful  set of tools which are specific to your vehicle. When you are compiling this toolkit, don’t limit it to your capabilities as help may be with you or nearby and the one tool you saw listed but were unsure of will be the tool they need to get you rolling. Additionally, every vehicle toolkit, in extension to the kit I’ve just listed, should also include.

  • A heavy ball pein hammer
  • At leat one heavy-duty crescent wrench
  • Heavy duty, wide to narrow, adjustable, gripping pliars
  • WD-40
  • Loctite
  • Funnel
  • Multitool
  • Duct Tape
  • Electrical Tape
  • Spare fuse kit with tester
  • Hose clamps of varying sizes
  • Spare bulbs kit – brake,  directional indicator, head, license plate, and reverse lights

11. Power on

Most simply, a good set of jumper cables, at least 12-feet in length. A portable battery jump pack should be charged and on-hand if you’re headed off the beaten path, but for the most part, cables will suffice.

12.) You’re going to get stuck, and it may not be up to you

Sometimes nature will just flip you off, and you’re in the mud and crud with nowhere to go but further down no matter how many times you rock back and forth. The old wives tale about using carpet remnants or your floor mats will leave you destined for a muddy demise as they sink downward into the mud. Sticks and rocks are also hearsay if you’re truly stuck. If you’re clever, and nearby trees, rocks or other heavy, yet manipulatable objects, you might find your way out through the use of leverage. Albeit, you’re most likely going to need the help of a larger vehicle. In either case, know where the tow points and winching are on your vehicle and prepare to get muddy – spare clothes are on you but bring these items.

  • Shovel
  • Hatchet
  • Rope, 15 to 30 feet
  • Vehicle specific, tow-point eyelets
  • Real, heavy-duty, over your vehicle weight-class, tow rope/chain


Stuck alone in the Transylvanian mountains of Romania last year, on a different trip than the above mentioned - Buck Clay
Stuck alone in the Transylvanian mountains of Romania last year, on a different trip than the above mentioned – Buck Clay

13.) What would you do for a cookie now that you’re hungry?

Keeping some food in the car is a challenge. Candy and power bars melt, and healthy stuff rots. Get a few non-perishable food items, with distant expiration dates. Off the shelf items, such as dry cereals or MRE’s to have stocked in your vehicle for emergency situations only.  For food or other supplies, keep a little money hidden away in a set-it-and-forget-it location for a food/supplies situation. I mean beyond your spare change, roll up a few twenties and put them inside a food container that would only look appetizing in the event of an emergency.

14.) Food brings the ITIS

When the ITIS sets in, you’re going to be tired, and if you’re there long enough to eat, you’ll be there long enough to sleep. If it is summer or winter, keep some warm blankets in the vehicle along with warm gloves, hat, and a jacket. A set of wet weather gear or a poncho would not hurt to keep on hand in the event of a downpour.

15.) Winter is coming

Purchasing for the winter while in the summer is the best financial move you can make while preparing to be frozen over. On hand in your vehicle, I’d suggest going beyond that cheap little scraper with your bank’s contact information on it. Pick up a three-foot ice scraper and brush combination to get the snow completely off your car – don’t be the moron driving down the highway with snow flying off your vehicle. Those people should be charged with felonies. Anyhow, the long reach will make clearing your windows free from ice and your vehicle free from snow, an easy chore.

When you are entrapped by careless snowplow operators or the city runs out of salt before the season is over, again -you’ll need maneuverability plans. Bring out the shovel, or kitty litter, which is magic in the snow, that is until you hit the ice. Still, I keep a bag in the car as well as a few 80-pound bags of salt. The weight can make or break you on slippery patches of black ice, and if you’re marooned on the ice, putting some of that salt on the pavement will get you moving once again. Although if you live in or near the mountains, or the Great Lakes, snow chains that fit your tires will become a winter necessity.


16.) Packing heat or a hatchet

In some states you can open carry a firearm, others are concealed carry permit only, and some are neither. If you’re traveling abroad, and with the exception that you’re on some kind of official business, forget about it. Don’t rely on your gun, unless you’re not going too far, or take the chance and get locked up – Ignorance of the law is not a defense. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to go unarmed. You just need to get creative. In most places either bear mace or a flare gun are acceptable and legal items, but for those exceptions, you can bring the right tool. In Europe and at most highway rest stops, you’ll find a section of tools for vehicles and in the semi/tractor-trailer aisle are some of the most gnarly tire hammers I’ve ever seen. A few handheld tools or even road flares can act as your legal, but worse case scenario weapon.


As for my friend who was injured at the beginning of this story – He has since recovered and is quite well, with a lot of shark skin grated onto his mostly metal interior leg.  He recently walked/hobbled down the aisle with his wife and has gotten back to work, because he literally has five kids to feed. A solid man.


Featured Image – Things don’t always go according to plan – Buck Clay