In a perfect world, breakdown essentials would be neatly packed in your trunk and ready to go in the event of some unexpected automotive emergency out on the road. In reality, there’s only so much space that you can devote to carrying extra gear, fluids and supplies, which means you’ve got to pare it down to the items you’ll most likely need should a breakdown occur.
Here’s a handy checklist to get you started on expecting the best, but preparing for the worst.
Coolant and Oil
Fluids are the lifeblood of your engine’s health and as a result should form the core of your breakdown essentials kit. The most common fluid-related issue you’ll encounter out on the road is overheating, which can have many causes but is most often related to a lack of coolant circulating through your vehicle’s radiator. Having a gallon of coolant (also known as antifreeze) in your trunk to add to your car’s overflow reservoir, should the temperature needle spike, can sometimes be the difference between getting home and getting towed.
Oil is another important fluid, although a low oil condition is harder to spot. You should check your engine oil while getting gas at least once every two weeks, and if the dipstick shows low, then having some in the trunk to add to the crankcase is very convenient. Of course, most modern cars will automatically monitor oil pressure and level and warn you should either drop too low. If this happens while you’re driving, pull over to the shoulder, assess the situation and add oil as needed from your box of breakdown essentials.
A Basic Tool Kit
No one expects you to perform serious mechanical work on the side of the road, but having a basic tool kit in the trunk can keep minor issues from becoming major problems. A small screwdriver (with interchangeable slotted, Philips and torx heads), a ratchet set and pliers will go a long way toward tightening loose headlights, tail lights, engine covers and a range of interior panels that might work their way loose and make it difficult to keep driving. A tire pressure gauge that fits inside your tool kit alongside a can of fix-a-flat is also a major boon when stuck in an emergency.
If your battery’s dead, there’s nothing better to have in your breakdown essentials kit than a set of jumper cables — unless it’s a portable battery pack that lets you jump your own car back to life. The battery pack is more convenient, while the cables take up less space.
Cut yourself while working on the car? Feeling sick on a road trip? A simple first aid kit with bandages, pain relievers, tweezers and gauze should be considered vital when assembling your breakdown essentials. Make sure to include a small flashlight, too, so you’re not applying bandages in the dark.
Although you don’t want to put your whole garage in your trunk, stocking it with these essentials should be just what you need to get you out of a jam.
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.