If you’re new to auto DIY, you’ll probably convince yourself that anything can be fixed anywhere, and load your trunk with all the tools you might need. You’ll be riding like this for months, not worrying about how much extra gas you’ll burn to haul those tools. So only to call the tow truck when things go wrong. I speak from reckless experience.
The side of the road or a dark parking lot is no place to make major repairs, and there’s no shame in putting your roadside assistance membership to work. However, you should have a few tools tucked away in the trunk to get you going again in case bringing it home isn’t an option or a simple repair presents itself.
But what do you really need? The reader A crack team of roadside warriors are on the job to help you figure out what tools you need to carry in your car in an emergency, along with the included tire lever, spare tire and jack. Keep in mind that the list below serves as a general guideline and you can tweak things as you see fit. For example, I carry a timing light and timer instead of an OBDII scanner in my 1969 Dodge Charger project car. That said, if any of you pros reading have any suggestions on takeaway tools, drop them in the comments section. We are all here to learn.
Again, this is an overview of tools intended for emergency repairs, not crisis situations. Think “get off the side of the road” not “get out of this thing”. Let’s go after that.
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I assume your jack and tire lever have not been removed from your trunk, storage area or inside the tailgate as of this writing. Also, your car doesn’t come with run-flat tires from the factory, which you’ll need to make sure of. But if you’re working with what the manufacturer gave you, that scissor jack is a rickety thing barely good enough to meet safety standards. I’ve seen them fail, and the results can be ugly. Do yourself a favor and keep a candle in your trunk to make sure you don’t get run over. Make throwing at the spare less likely to become nasty.
Screwdrivers are needed to do a variety of jobs. But not all fasteners require the same size or type. Instead of packing twenty cramped screwdrivers in your tool bag, settle down with one screwdriver with different bits to work with. Get a good one, though, because there are plenty that will leave you looking for loose bits in the engine bay.
Small ratchet and socket set
It’s wise to carry a mechanic’s tool set with several ratchets whenever you go on a trip, but it’s not necessary for the daily commute. You will probably only need to deal with small or medium fasteners, if at all, in an emergency. And a small set of ratchets and sockets is all you’ll need for this. I say go with a 3/8 inch drive set because it covers the most common fastener sizes, and you can always add extra adapters and sockets to the set if needed.
Combination wrenches are great to keep on hand if you have room for them. However, careful selection of an effective ratchet and socket set allows it to handle the majority of fasteners. You never know if you’ll run into a pass binding or other tasks that a single ratchet just can’t handle. Therefore, it is worth keeping an adjustable wrench handy. Personally, I prefer something with a short handle because it’s easier to use in tight spaces.
OBD II scanner
As long as your vehicle is giving off a code (the dreaded check engine light on your dash), you can tune in and give yourself a good idea of what’s going on. It can also help you decide whether or not you should attempt to fix the problem where you are. You don’t need to buy a premium unit to keep in your vault. You just need to make sure it will work for your vehicle.
Your phone’s built-in flashlight is handy, but it’s not ideal when you’re bent over like a pretzel trying to fix something deep in the innards of the car. Your phone will also likely be dead when you crash, because that’s how things work. So do yourself a favor and throw a good flashlight or headlamp in your bag, if not both.
Tire pressure gauge
A tire pressure gauge can be put to good use by modern TPMS interfaces, but it’s always worth keeping one in every vehicle’s glove box or tool bag. At the very least, it will remind you to check tire pressure when temperatures fluctuate. It also lets you work with dated tire filling stations that don’t have a built-in gauge. Heck, you should check the readings against a consistent baseline anyway.
Zip ties are the perfect solution for so many problems. They are a permanent fix…unless they are, but maybe you hit some road debris and it ripped off part of your skid plate. Are you going to drag it home because the clips are long gone? No. Just reattach it and continue. This is just one example of how endlessly useful these buggers are, and you definitely need to keep some in your car.
Everyone has a favorite claw flavor. Personally, I prefer to keep a set of needle nose pliers with me, but diagonal cutters and linesman pliers often end up in my chest kit. It’s not the kind of tool you absolutely need to get out of the way, but plenty of opportunities to make your life less miserable will present themselves.
The one tool that will get you out of trouble more than anything else is a jump starter. Dead batteries seem to take everyone by surprise, especially as temperatures drop. Being able to quickly jump your car and drive to a parts store or home store to handle the situation is invaluable. A portable starter might not fit in your toolbox or bag with everything else, but it’s still worth packing. Using a device with a built-in compressor can also save you some serious drama when paired with a tire repair kit.
By mentioning test lights, I’m not suggesting that you should attempt major roadside wiring jobs. However, if you are more familiar with electrical systems than the average bear, this is a quick way to troubleshoot when a situation arises.
It might not be a bad idea to carry wire strippers, a crimping tool and butt connectors for minor repairs if you drive a project car daily. Again, I don’t encourage performing wiring repairs in hazardous environments, but small wiring problems come with the territory.
A multimeter is another essential troubleshooting tool that can help you quickly identify problems on the side of the road. It goes further than a test light by telling you not only if power is present in a circuit, but also how much. This data can be extremely useful when trying to find a problem. If you need to save space, you can purchase a test light that also provides a voltage reading.
The above list is intended to serve as a general guideline. As time passes and you face different situations, you can add to the list or even eliminate certain things. As it should be, your emergency tool kit should be customized to match your vehicle. To better illustrate how things can vary, the video below features another person’s selection of tools that they keep in their vehicle in case of an emergency.
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