When you live and drive primarily in a metropolitan area, you likely don’t give much thought to emergencies involving your car. You’ve got your cell phone; there’s usually a service station or a friend nearby, and roadside service is a call away. Sometimes though, that unexpected situation occurs. That’s when being prepared can mean the difference between life and death.

It might just be a flat tire on a road you don’t know. Or you run out of gas late at night and your cell phone battery is dead. Perhaps the weather has changed quickly – not likely to be a major emergency in San Diego –  but think about what you’d do if you’re on a family vacation in Yellowstone and an early snow hits while you are miles from the hotel.

Before that happens, prepare your car emergency kit. Build your own with what you have on hand and a few extra purchases or buy a ready-made kit online or from any of a wide range of retailers.

Start with a large backpack or a box – plastic ones are good so you can see what’s in them. Organize it well so you know where everything is. Consider the basics: Food, water, shelter and, of course, what you need to make minor car repairs. And include such items as a fire extinguisher, flares and reflectors, and perhaps even a reflective vest.

You may already have what need to fix your car in the car or in the garage. Think jumper cables or even a portable battery with cables that can do double duty on your cell phone. One of those solar chargers with an emergency radio that can charge your phone would work too.

It’s always a good idea to keep a spare gallon of oil and coolant and a can of tire inflator if you’re on a longer drive or have an older car. Keep screwdrivers, pliers and a pocket knife like a Leatherman or Swiss Army knife in your bag. An ice scraper and chains are essential if you’re heading to a cold-weather area even if you don’t think you’ll need them. A shovel might also come in handy in snow or if you find yourself off road somewhere.

One tool that many don’t think about in case of a car crash is a seat belt cutter that has an attachment for breaking or cutting a window. They are very inexpensive, but are useful and potentially life-saving if your seat belt or window is jammed and you need to get out in a hurry.

Now it’s time to plan for you and not your car. You may – and should – already have a first aid kit in your car. Add a wool blanket or space blanket. Include a poncho or tarp that can protect you from the elements or from the ground if you have to kneel in mud or snow. A pair of work gloves is also a good idea. Taking the possibility of being stranded somewhere for hours into consideration, you probably want to have toilet paper, baby wipes and plastic bags in case nature calls.

How will you stay hydrated? Those in the know recommend water pouches or boxes with shelf lives of up to five years. And if you’re going to a more remote area, empty water bottles and water purification tablets may save the day if the only source of water is a nearby stream of unknown origin.

For food, make a trip to an outdoors or camping store for high-calorie (2000-plus) energy bars. For the “yuk” factor, but one that Popular Mechanics magazine says might come in handy for survival, try this: “Canadian Arctic rescue teams suggest drivers carry a can of dog food in their cars … The dog food is less palatable and so stranded motorists will wait until they really need it.”

A couple of things to note as you’re preparing your emergency kit:

Create one that you can adapt to where you’re traveling and who you’re traveling with. (Kids and adults, too, will want distractions so playing cards, coloring books or a game may come in quite hand.) Keep your emergency kit in your car. It won’t do you any good if it’s in the garage.

Unfortunately, you can’t foresee car problems – and even the ultimate car emergency kit may be lacking a key item. But with some careful planning, you’ll have a well-equipped kit which could be of crucial help during an emergency.

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