Your checklist of everything you might need to keep in your car

What to store in your car for 7 different driving scenarios

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

Ross h…

Storing items in your car is a delicate balance: you probably don’t want to keep absolutely everything possible in there and take up all the cargo space (or legroom or passenger seats…), but you also don’t want to be SOL in the event of an emergency. So what actually is important to keep in your car?

We’ve put together a few lists for whatever scenario you might find yourself in, from emergencies to road trips to safeguarding your new teen driver, we’ve got you covered.

What you need for:

1. Safety and Survival

Our list for what to keep in your car for safety and survival purposes is the longest because it’s obviously the most important. It’s probably not super realistic for the majority of drivers to fear getting stranded in some remote area or to have to deal with a broken-down car by yourself, but these scenarios do happen. No matter how carefully you drive, each year we all have a one-in-three chance of experiencing a roadside issue like a flat tire or a dead car battery. And if you’re the type of driver who wants to make sure you’re as prepared as you can be for any situation, we’ve got you covered. Consider packing the following emergency essentials:

  • Cell phone and charger
  • Jumper cables
  • Flares or reflective triangles
  • Warm blanket
  • Drinking water
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Tool kit (with a wrench, hammer, and pliers at least)
  • Utility knife
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Safety hammer with a seatbelt cutter
  • Duct tape and electrical tape (so you can temporarily fix small leaks)
  • Small bottles of engine oil, washer fluid, and antifreeze
  • Battery-powered radio (or a wind-up)
  • Rope or chain for towing
  • Tire repair kit
  • Non-perishable food: energy bars are a good choice
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Paper maps

It’s easy to consider many of the above items alarmist, or unnecessary most of the time, but when you really need a fire extinguisher or a seat belt cutter, nothing else will do.

2. Road Trips

Music often tops the road trip list “must-haves,” but for rides where the journey is half the fun, other essential items can really make or break the experience:

  • Load up your phone with some seriously fun activities (that passengers – not the driver! – can operate). We particularly love: MadLibs and MSQRD Live Filters and Face Swap for Video Selfies
  • Snacks (editorial favorite: sour gummy worms, pretzel rods, and trail mix IF there’s chocolate involved)
  • Drinks (in a cooler with longtail chilling capabilities like Yeti or an insulated bag)
  • Trash bags (grocery bags suffice for small amounts – you can even put them in plastic cereal containers for easy bins)
  • Pillows and blankets for comfort or naps! (or sleeping bags for a more dirt-resistant material)

We’ve got more advice for planning the perfect road trip here.

3. Traveling with Kids

Some kids get car sick every time they travel, and others ask, “Are we there yet?” 500 times per trip. Some tricks that can help frazzled parents and caregivers, no matter how long the drive:

  • Cleaning supplies: paper towels, wipes, cleaning spray, and trash bags
  • Age-specific necessities (bottles, diapers, etc.)
  • Toys, books, and other activities (putting toys into small bags or boxes can make even familiar toys seem like a present)
  • Portable, easy-to-eat snacks and water or juice
  • Music just for the kids
  • Games that involve looking out the window and counting or waiting to see something (the rarer the object, like a blue billboard vs. just a billboard, the more quiet you might have… if that’s what you’re going for)


 road trip checklist for kids

4. New Teen Drivers

Teenage drivers are unique (and, unfortunately, uniquely expensive to insure). You might want to consider items from the Safety and Survival list, but here are a few additional things that might help your teen as they take to the streets:

  • Cell phone dock
  • GPS (for cars without one built-in)
  • Devices that can make older cars smart, like Hum by Verizon for connected car tech and optional wifi hotspot technology
  • Portable jump-starters (no additional vehicle required)
  • Window tint (to cut down on glare)

5. All Types of Weather Events

If you live in a place prone to ice and snow (as 70% of people in the U.S. do), you’ll need to keep certain items in your car during the winter months because, as we all know, weather is nothing if unpredictable:

  • Ice scraper
  • Snowbrush
  • Traction aid (like road salt or even kitty litter)
  • Warm clothes and blankets
  • A shovel
  • Boots
  • Extra windshield washer fluid
  • Mylar blanket

And for general seasonal considerations:

  • Tire pressure gauge (hot weather causes tires to break down faster)
  • Umbrella

Even if you’ve lived in a particular climate for most of your life, it’s always a good idea to reacquaint yourself with weather emergencies you might encounter.

6. Personal Hygiene

Sometimes you just don’t have time to stop at home between work and an evening out, or between a baseball game and dinner at your family’s place. Keeping a reasonable trove of personal care items stashed in your car can come in handy – especially in the event of a potential social emergency (ever spilled coffee on yourself right before a big meeting or interview?). We suggest (in travel-size if you’re low on space):

  • Baby wipes (even if you’re baby-free they’re the simplest most portable way to clean up minor messes)
  • Deodorant
  • Portable detergent sticks like Tide-to-Go
  • Portable toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Change of clothes
  • Hairbrush or comb
  • Tissues
  • Dryer sheet (can be used to collect lint, diffuse static in your clothes or hair, or even wipe down a dusty dashboard if you have a less-than-sparkling car and are driving someone else around)
  • Blotting papers to reduce shine

7. For the Minimalist

Absolutely hate car clutter? We don’t blame you. Still, here’s a shortlist of a few items you can secretly stow in the console or glove compartment to deal with

  • Sunglasses
  • Kleenex – not just for your nose, tissues can serve as quick-grab clean-up supplies
  • Phone charger (and smartphone) – as long as you have the ability to call for help, locate a map, or find a safe place to get shelter, you should be okay for most on-the-road scenarios
  • Water bottle and granola bar
  • $20 to buy gas or supplies in a pinch

Many of the above items can be purchased in ready-made kits, or you can find them at dollar stores for low prices.

Plus: What to Check for in the Vehicle When You Buy a New Car

Whether the car you’re purchasing is new or just new to you, there are a few things you’ll want to make sure it has:

  • Spare tire (full-size tires are best)
  • Carjack and lug wrench
  • Floor mats
  • Wheel chocks (wedges to stop the car from rolling while you’re changing a tire)

It can be easy to overlook the above in the often complicated car-buying process.