Feature Story

HOW TO: BUILD AN AUTO EMERGENCY BAG

by Bob Hagin

January 23, 1999

My mother used to say that the best way to avoid a problem was to be prepared. Keeping this in mind, I've always kept all kinds of items in the vehicle I drive - just in case. Tools, more than one spare tire, cans of oil and even a can of gasoline (I was foolish back the) - I've carried them all. But those were my salad days when I drove some less-than-choice vehicles.

Old habits are hard to shake and ever since my wife Carole has had a vehicle of her own, I've made sure that there was an "emergency kit" on board in the event of a problem. Her current mount, a mini-van, carries an updated kit honed by years of experience. These are the components of Carole's Kit:

BAG - Carole calls it "The Ugly Blue Bag in the Back of the Van" and that pretty well describes it. It's a well-used and very basic zippered canvas athletic bag that we bought for a dollar at a garage sale. Its sole purpose is to keep all the van's emergency gear together, rather than rolling around under the seats. You can buy ready-made plastic emergency kits that have compartments, but a bag is handier because you can stuff it away in a corner, something you can't do with a rigid box.

JUMPER CABLES - The biggest item in Carole's bag is a pair of high- quality jumper cables. We bought them new for the purpose and they were the most expensive set on the shelf. The heavy copper wires are black (the negative side) and yellow (the positive "hot" side) and terminate in color-coded clamps. This may seem simplistic, but lots of money is spent every year on rewiring and repairing vehicles that have been damaged by jumper cables that have been hooked up backwards.

FLARES - Emergency flares aren't dangerous but they look like they are. We keep three of them in the van's emergency bag and fortunately we haven't had to use them. If you're going to carry flares, buy a half dozen of them and practice lighting a couple before an emergency happens. It's tough trying to read the instructions that are printed on the side if there really is an emergency and you want to warn oncoming traffic. Some experts like foot-tall reflective triangles that are set up down the road from the site of the problem, but nothing attracts the attention of oncoming traffic like a flare.

SHOP RAGS - We keep a couple of genuine shop towels in the bag and while old wash cloths and other rags will do, shop towels seem better suited to the job. We bought a bag of 25 of them at our local discount warehouse and the rest are doing duty in our home repair shop. When they get really greasy, we recycle them, since that kind of dirt is almost impossible to remove and it makes a mess of the washing machine. Ours are red so we can attach one to the occasional long item that we bring home from the hardware store.

ICE SCRAPER - Although we live in California, we sometimes get cold (to us), frosty evenings that coat the windshield and turn to ice the next morning. The ice scraper we bought is electrically heated and plugs into the cigarette lighter. We bought it in the gadget section of a national "outdoors" store before it went upscale with clothes.

TIRE INFLATOR - Just in case Carole gets a slow leak in a tire that runs low at an inopportune time (like when it's raining and the auto club tow truck is tied up), we put a can of pressurized flat tire sealer in the bag. I'm not totally in favor of the stuff because it tends to put the tire out of balance. Read the instructions carefully before you buy it and remember that it's recommended that you pull out the nail or what ever before you install the stuff.

TOOL KIT - That last suggestion means that you'll have to include a pair of pliers in the bag to do the pulling with. The pliers are part of Carole's tool kit, albeit a very rudimentary one. It contains the pliers, two screw drivers (large and small bladed and capable of being converted into Phillips drive) and a tire pressure gauge. She considered and rejected a hammer (too big and of dubious use), a couple of adjustable wrenches (no need for roadside overhauls) and a foot- operated tire pump (couldn't repair a hole in the tire anyway).

BUNGEE CORDS - These aren't the kind of bungee cords that you use to thrill-jump off bridges. Same principle but much smaller and shorter with metal hooks on each end. Some of the things that we carry home in the cargo area are often so big or so long that we can't close the back door. We can't just let the thing flop in the fully open position so we use the bungee cords to pull it as far down as possible. We keep a couple of them because one isn't usually strong enough to hold it tight. The alternative is to buy a pickup,

FIRST AID KIT - Don't bother with one of those ready-made first-aide kits that are made to be kept in the car. You'll wind up with more stuff than you'll ever need and when you open it up, all the useless items fall out. Carole's an R.N. and she only keeps a half-dozen adhesive bandages of various sizes, some first-aide cream for minor burns and cuts and some Q-tips in a small zipper case. She doesn't carry sutures and says that if anything has to be sewn back together, it will have to wait until we get home.

WORK GLOVES - We keep a pair of leather-faced cloth work gloves in Carole's emergency bag just in case we have to do something that's really grimy, like changing a tire or dragging something grungy off the roadway. They also come in handy once a year when I have to coax a Christmas tree into our van.

"Be Prepared" is the Boy Scout motto. Modern motorists would do well to adopt it as too.

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