If you’re new to car building, you’re probably going to convince yourself that anything can be repaired anywhere and load your trunk with all the tools you could ever need. You’re going to drive around like this for months, not caring how much extra gas you’re using lugging those tools around. Only to call the tow truck anyway if something goes wrong. I speak from foolhardy experience.
The curb or a dark parking lot is no place to make major repairs, and there’s no shame in using your roadside assistance membership. However, you should have a few tools stowed in the trunk to get you up and running again if transporting it home isn’t an option or a simple repair lends itself.
But what do you actually need? The drive A crack team from Roadside Warriors is on duty to help you determine what tools to keep in your car for emergencies, aside from the tire levers, spare tire and jack it came with. Keep in mind that the list below is intended as a general guide and you can tweak things as you see fit. For example, in my 1969 Dodge Charger project car, I carry a time light and dwell meter instead of an OBDII scanner. That said, if any of you reading along have any suggestions on what tools to take with you, leave them in the comments. We are all here to learn.
Again, this is an overview of tools intended for emergency repairs, not in a crisis situation. Think “Get off the curb,” not “Get out of this thing.” Let’s go after that.
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I am assuming your jack and tire levers have not been removed from your trunk, storage compartment or in the tailgate at the time of this writing. Also, your car is not equipped with run-flat tires from the factory, which is something you need to pay attention to. But if you’re going with what the manufacturer gave you, this scissor jack is a rickety thing that’s just about good enough to pass safety standards. I’ve seen them fail and the results can be ugly. Do yourself a favor and keep a jack in your trunk to make sure you don’t get crushed. Make it less likely that throwing at the spare will be awkward.
Screwdrivers are necessary to do a variety of jobs. But not every fastener requires the same size or type. Instead of cramming twenty screwdrivers in your tool bag, arm yourself with a bit screwdriver with different bits to work with. Get a good one though as there are many that will require you to look for loose parts in the engine compartment.
Small ratchet and socket wrench set
It’s wise to carry a multi-ratchet mechanic’s tool kit when heading out on a car trip, but that’s not necessary for the routine commute. With medium to small fasteners, you probably only need to deal with them in an emergency, if at all. And a small ratchet and socket set is all you need. I say get a 3/8″ drive set as it covers most common fastener sizes and you can always expand the set with adapters and extra sockets if needed.
Combination wrenches are great to have on hand if you have the space. However, careful selection of an effective ratchet and socket set will allow most fasteners to be handled. You never know when you’ll run into a pass-through fastener or other task that a single ratchet just can’t handle. Therefore, it pays to have an adjustable wrench on hand. I personally prefer something with a short handle as it’s easier to maneuver in tight spaces.
As long as your vehicle is giving out a code (the dreaded check engine light on your dash) you can plug it in and get a good idea of what’s going on for yourself. It can also help you decide whether you should even attempt to resolve the issue on the spot. You don’t have to buy a premium device to keep it in your trunk. You just have to make sure it works for your vehicle.
Your phone’s built-in flashlight is handy, but not ideal when you’re bent over like a pretzel trying to fix something deep in the car. Your phone will also likely be dead most of the time when you break down because that’s the way things work. So do yourself a favor and toss a good flashlight or headlamp in your bag, if not both.
A tire pressure gauge might get its money’s worth from modern TPMS interfaces, but it’s still worth keeping one in the glove box or tool kit of any vehicle. At the very least, it reminds you to keep an eye on tire pressure as the temperature fluctuates. It also allows you to work with outdated tire inflation stations that don’t have a built-in gauge. Heck, you should be comparing the readings to a consistent baseline anyway.
Cable ties are the perfect solution to so many problems. They’re a permanent fix…unless they are, but maybe you hit some road debris and pulled off part of your skid plate. Are you going to lug it all the way home because the clips are long gone? nope Just tie it back together and carry on. This is just one example of how these infinitely useful fellows are, and you absolutely must have a few in your car.
Everyone has a favorite tong flavor. I personally prefer to have needle nose pliers with me, but side cutters and linesman pliers are often found in my suitcase equipment. They’re not the kind of tool you absolutely need to get off the side of the road, but there are plenty of opportunities for them to make your life less miserable.
The one tool that will get you out of trouble more than anything else is a jump start. Dead batteries seem to surprise everyone, especially when temperatures drop. Being able to quickly hop on your car and make your way to a parts store or your home repair shop to handle the situation is invaluable. A portable jump starter might not fit in your toolbox or bag with everything else, but it’s still worth taking with you. Choosing a device with a built-in compressor, combined with a tire repair kit, can also save you some serious drama.
By mentioning test lights, I’m not suggesting that you should attempt any major roadside wiring jobs. However, if you’re more familiar with electrical systems than the average bear, this is a quick way to troubleshoot when a situation arises.
If you drive a project car on a daily basis, it might not be a bad idea to carry wire strippers, a crimping tool, and some butt connectors for minor repairs. Again, I don’t recommend doing wiring repairs in hazardous environments, but small wiring issues come with the territory.
A multimeter is another essential troubleshooting tool that can help you quickly pinpoint roadside problems. It goes further than a test lamp in that it doesn’t just tell you if there is current in a circuit and 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 lamp that also provides a voltage reading.
The above list is intended to serve as a general guide. As time goes by and you face different situations, you can add or even delete some things from the list. As it should be, your emergency tool kit should be individually tailored to your vehicle. To better illustrate how things can vary, the video below shows another person’s selection of tools they keep in their vehicle for emergencies.