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Preparing an Emergency Car Kit

You can pack your toolbox with the best tools that money can buy, but all those fancy gadgets and gizmos won't do you any good if they're in your garage at home when your car breaks down 30 miles from civilization. Don't tempt fate: Keep these tools and materials onboard at all times:

  • Rags: Rags should be clean and lint-free. Keep one in your glove compartment; you need it to wipe your oil or transmission dipstick.

  • Spare parts: If you replace your spark plugs and your points, save the old ones if they're not too worn. Carry them in your trunk compartment toolbox for quick replacements if something goes wrong with those in your engine. The same goes for old, not-too-cruddy air filters, rotors, and other minor gizmos. A couple of extra nuts, bolts, and screws also help, in case you lose the ones you have or strip them accidentally.

  • Spare tire: Check your spare tire often. If your spare is worn beyond belief, most garages will sell you a not-too-hideous secondhand tire at a low price.

  • Lug wrench: A lug wrench is sometimes provided, along with a jack, on new cars. You use it to remove the wheel or lug nuts when you change your tires. If you buy a lug wrench, get the cross-shaft kind, which gives you more leverage.

  • Jumper cables: Sometimes the success or failure of an attempt to jump a start depends on the quality of the jumper cables and their grips. Make sure you pay a little extra for a quality set of cables.

  • Snow and ice equipment: If you live in an area that's cold in winter, try to carry tire chains or a bag of sand in case you find yourself dealing with icy conditions. A small shovel may prove useful for digging your tires out, and a scraper can clear your windshield if you've been parked in the snow and it's iced over. A can of de-icing fluid is useful in icy weather.

  • Flashlights and reflectors: A flashlight is always a good addition to your glove compartment. It can enable you to see under the hood if your car breaks down and can serve as an emergency light for oncoming traffic if you have to stop on the road for repairs. A flashlight with a red blinker is safest for this purpose. Of course, you have to be sure to put in fresh batteries now and then or to carry a couple of extras.

    An inexpensive set of reflector triangles can save your life by making your stopped vehicle visible on the road. You can use flares, but they can be dangerous, and many states have rules regarding their use on highways.

  • First-aid kit: Keeping a first-aid kit in your vehicle is a good idea. Choose one that's equipped with a variety of bandages, tweezers, surgical tape, antibiotic ointment, something soothing for burns, and a good antiseptic. You can find one of these kits for very little money at a drugstore or an auto parts store.

  • Hand cleaner: Most hand cleaners are basically grease solvents. They range from heavy-duty stuff that removes the skin along with the grease, to soothing, good-smelling creams that leave your skin feeling reborn, to precleaners that you put on your hands before you start working so that the grease slides off easily afterward. Some of these cleaners can also be rubbed into work clothes to remove grease and oil stains before you launder them.

  • Gloves: Keep a pair of gloves in the car for emergencies. Thin, tough, and comfortable dishwashing gloves are available at any discount store or supermarket. They cost little and keep the grease from under your fingernails. One problem, however, is that gasoline or solvent may melt them. If you prefer, industrial rubber gloves, available at swimming pool supply stores, aren't affected by gasoline, solvent, or battery acid.

  • Spare tools: If you can't carry your toolbox in your car all the time, try to leave a couple of screwdrivers, some standard-size combination wrenches, an adjustable wrench, and a can of penetrating oil in your trunk compartment. Some very handy gizmos that combine a variety of basic tools into one all-purpose, weird-looking instrument are also available.

  • Hat: To keep the dust and grease out of your hair, and to prevent long hair from being caught in moving parts, wear a hat that you can afford to get dirty. A wooly watch cap or a baseball hat worn backwards works just fine.

  • Cellular phone: This device is useful when you're stuck on a road somewhere with a dead car or when you have an accident. You can call your loved ones or friends for help or call the auto club (some cell phones have an AAA or 911 call button) or the police.

  • Miscellaneous stuff: A roll of duct tape, a roll of electrician's tape, a sharp knife, and scissors also come in handy.

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