What to Pack in Your Car for a Disaster

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Usually when we think of preparing for a disaster, such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, or wildfire, the focus is largely what can be done to a home or business to safeguard it from the elements or at least minimize the damage it incurs. We think of things like storm shutters, backup generators, sandbags, roof straps and more — and while these products are all important for prepping for disaster, another thing that you must consider in your disaster plan is the supplies you're going to take with you as you leave a property and seek shelter. Too many times, people are ill prepared for disaster and don't have their vehicle equipped with the short-term emergency supplies they'll need in a such a situation. It shouldn't matter whether or not the disaster is forecasted or unexpected, you should always be prepared — and having the right items in your vehicle when you have to flee is crucial to any disaster situation.

Beyond a natural disaster, there are other disaster-like situations that you should also be preparing for. A blown tire, overheating engine or some other unforeseen mechanical issue can render your vehicle useless, and you and your passengers stranded. While it’s never fun to think about your car breaking down in the middle of nowhere or in a blizzard, it’s always better to be safe than sorry until help can arrive.

Here’s a closer look at how to prepare your car when any type of disaster strikes, from the importance of a car survival kit to any special considerations that you may have to make:

Car Survival Kits 101: What is it and Why do You Need One?

Car survival kits. Emergency preparedness kit. Emergency bags. Disaster supplies kit.

Whatever you want to call them, it’s never a bad idea to have one of them in your vehicle in the event of an emergency. Think of these emergency kits as the basics that you’ll need to survive until you can either be safely rescued or reach a safe spot. These kits should be packed with the essentials that you’ll need for at least two days. While you can purchase them pre-packaged at various stores, you can also create your own. So what are the ideal items that should be included in any car survival kit? Here’s a look:

Bottled water

While the average human can survive for up to a few days without water, it’s recommended that you consume at least 2 liters (or a half gallon) of water each day. On this note, make sure that the appropriate amount of water is stored somewhere in your vehicle. If there's no water bottles in the survival kit, make sure you tuck a few jugs of water underneath the seat.

Food

Humans can survive for up to 3 weeks without any food — much longer than the few days we’re able to survive without water — but it’s still suggested that you include non-perishable food in a survival kit. Try to select food that’s high in protein, such as trail mix, granola bars, jerky, protein bars and wheat grains. In a survival situation, you'll need foods that can supply you with the energy to keep going.

Cash

If there's no electricity where you're going, your credit cards and debit cards are going to be rendered useless. It's why it always makes sense to carry some cash in your car survival kit. In times of disaster, paper currency is likely to be the only type that will be accepted. And here you though everything was moving to digital!

First aid kit

If you’re in a hurry to flee a disaster-stricken home or office, there’s a greater chance that you or your passengers may have sustained injury. Even if there are no injuries, first aid supplies are a must for any car survival kit. Make sure it’s packed with the necessities to care for and treat basic wounds.

Flashlight

Don’t assume that power lines are functioning normally where you’re going. Make sure you take a battery-operated flashlight so you’ll be able to see when it gets dark. Not to mention, a flashlight or some lightsticks could be useful tools to signal for help. It’s also a good idea to take extra batteries in case the existing ones are on their last life.

Blankets

In some disaster situations, you may be fleeing to a designated shelter or safe area. And while they may have blankets, sleeping bags, and other supplies there, it’s always best to bring your own just for personal preference or in case the shelter runs out of them. In other emergency situations, you may become stranded in a blizzard or snow storm and a blanket may serve as a survival item. The warmest types of blankets are typically those made of wool.

Map or compass

Don't rely on your phone GPS in a survival situation, as the battery will only last so long and you may not be able to recharge it for further use. That's where an old-fashioned paper map and a compass come in handy, especially if you need to spend many hours or days in your vehicle navigating to safe grounds. Both can help you determine where you're going and keep you on the right track.

Whistle

This is ideal for helping rescuers (or even fellow family members) find you in the event you become stranded or separated on your way to a safe zone. The sound of a whistle can carry for a long way outdoors, alerting others to your whereabouts.

Clothes

To piggyback off of bringing a blanket, a spare change of warm clothes or a poncho is a good idea too. This is especially true if you're escaping floodwaters and may have gotten wet on your way out or if you become stranded and need extra warmth and layering to survive. On a similar note, an extra pair of warm, comfortable shoes can do wonders as well. In a survival situation, staying warm and dry is about as important as food and water, so make sure you have a change of clothes.

Basic tools

You don't need to pack away an entire wrench set inside your car survival kit, but we strongly suggest including a utility knife or a multipurpose tool. You never know when you'll have to cut something, and the other parts of the knife can come in handy too for basic tasks, like opening cans. A shovel and a spade an also come in handy if you need to dig your vehicle free.

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Radio

Radios are great for a few reasons. One, they're an ideal way to get information from reliable sources, especially when a television set may not be an option (as they often are not accessible in an emergency situation). And two, radios can get a signal without electricity, another big bonus in the event of a disaster that knocks the power out for an extended period of time.

Extra phone battery (or charger)

Assuming you're still able to get wireless service, it may be your only way of communicating with the outside world in the event of a disaster. That said, you should make sure you're doing what you can to facilitate this line of communication. Bring a spare battery in case your cell phone battery depletes and you don't have access to electricity to charge it. Also be sure to pack a cell phone charger in your car survival kit so you can keep your phone powered if and when the power comes back on after an outage.

Matches or a lighter

These should be a part of any survival kit, especially if you become stranded and need to make a fire for warmth, to cook food or to boil water.

Documents

Make copies of identifying documents and tuck them away in a place inside your car survival kit. Make a list of important phone numbers and keep a copy of it in your emergency bag as well. Also be sure to make copies of any medical cards so you can prove to emergency responders or rescue workers that you need certain products to survive. You'll obviously want to take any medicine with you (or stow away extra medical supplies in your survival kit), but in the event of an emergency, you also want to be sure any rescuers know any medication you need.

Self-defense tools

In times of a disaster, looting becomes a real threat. Others trying to survive may not be as well prepared and want what you have. In some instances, they may use force to attempt to take it from you. That's where a knife, baton, pepper spray, and even a firearm (providing you own it legally and have the proper permits to carry it) can prove beneficial. You can use other objects in your car survival kit as weapons (i.e., the utility knife), but it always comes in handy to have something specifically for defense purposes that can be accessed quickly so you can protect what you have. While it's always natural to want to help others in a disaster situation, there are plenty of people that will want to take advantage of you out there.

Personal products

While sanitation and personal hygiene products aren't necessary to survive, if you have extra room in your car survival kit, they're great things to add to make life away from home a little bit more comfortable. Throw in some deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a shaving razor, breath mints, a washcloth and soap. Feeling clean can help boost morale and your overall attitude in a disaster situation.

One of the nice things about car survival kits is that they can pack a lot of items without taking up a ton of space in the vehicle. They're also typically waterproof, ensuring your items are safeguarded from rain and flood waters. Usually, it’s only necessary to designate a small area of the vehicle’s trunk space for it. In some vehicles, the emergency supply kit can be tucked underneath the seat or fit into a storage compartment. Regardless of where you store it, make sure you have one handy today — you never know when you might need it.

Prepping Your Car for a Disaster

A car survival kit is one thing, but there are also steps that you must take to prep your vehicle as well. Think of it this way: In an emergency situation, your car is likely going to be that source of transportation to take you away from danger and to safety. In some cases, you may even have to use your vehicle as shelter. That said, it makes sense to equip it with not just the necessities you need to survive short-term, but with other products and parts to facilitate the safest transportation means possible.

Here's a look at some basic maintenance you should be performing on your vehicle regardless of a looming disaster (but surely performing in the days leading up to a forecasted disaster) to ensure you're able to safely and effectively flee the scene:

Tire pressure

Fluctuations in temperature and changes in driving conditions can cause tire pressure to either climb or drop. It's why it's recommended that all drivers check their tire pressure at least once a month — once a week in times of extreme cold or heat — and take the steps to keep tire pressure at the vehicle manufacturer's recommended psi.

Oil changes

Oil changes should be performed every 3 months or 3,000 miles. On top of this, it's a good idea to get into the habit of checking oil levels at least once a month to ensure they're adequate.

Fuel

In the days leading up to a forecasted disaster, make sure your vehicle has a full tank of gas. Gasoline will become a precious resource in the hours leading up to disaster, as lots of people will be fleeing the area, potentially leading to gas shortages.

Check the battery

Extreme temperatures can also have a direct effect on a car's battery, and seeing as how the condition of the battery is directly related to starting a vehicle, you always want to ensure this is in good health. If you just take your vehicle to your local automotive supply store, they'll check the condition of your battery free of charge. You can also request for it to be assessed if you take your vehicle in for oil changes. Again, usually this service is performed complimentary, so you have nothing to lose by doing it.

Other maintenance

Aside from the aforementioned, we'd also suggest checking the transmission fluid, antifreeze and wiper fluid levels on a monthly basis. When you take your vehicle in for oil changes or manufacturer-recommended maintenance, see if you can have the mechanic give it a multi-point checkup to ensure its components are working properly and in good condition. Preventative maintenance can come in very handy.

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Emergency Road Kit

Making sure you vehicle is in good health is one thing, but having the proper car tools and supplies on hand in an emergency is also beneficial. Here's a look at some of the emergency equipment you'll want to have on hand in your vehicle in a survival situation. We suggest preparing an emergency road kit that you can keep tucked away in your vehicle in case of an emergency.

  • Aside from stocking up on tools to ensure your survival, prep your car for disaster by keeping an emergency road kit in your vehicle.Emergency flares
  • Roadside flashers
  • A jack
  • Tie cables
  • Jumper cables
  • Tow-ropes.
  • An air pump to inflate tires.

In the instance of heavy snow, traction devices, such as sand or even chains to put around tires, can help with mobility. Also check to make sure your spare tire is in good condition and inflated properly in case you were to rely on it.

Considering the Elderly

Elderly people can be more of a challenge to evacuate in emergency situations. Largely, this is all because they tend to be less physically mobile than younger individuals. Because it can be a challenge for them to get in and out of vehicles, and because they may move at a slower pace, many elderly people are more apt to ignore issued warnings and instead try to wait out natural disasters in their homes, hoping for the best and thinking they'll stay safe this way. This can be very dangerous, which is why your emergency plan should include properly educating elderly people on the dangers of doing this and motivating them to seek shelter in an emergency situation. When an elderly person is safely in the process of evacuating to a safe place, there are many more things that you must keep in mind when dealing with them. Here's a look at some of them:

  • Do they drive? It's common for elderly people to stop driving or drive only limited distances and in certain conditions when they reach a certain age. Noting this, you may have to ensure that they're driven to a safe area if they're not comfortable doing it themselves.
  • Mobility issues: Does the elderly person require a cane, walker, wheelchair, oxygen or some other sort of stabilizing or survival device? If so, it might not be a bad idea to purchase an extra one of these and store it in the individual's car in the event of an emergency. Also, make sure that you make any special accommodations in case the individual needs handicap-accessible transportation and can't flee to safety in just any car or truck.
  • Medical conditions: Elderly people are more likely to be managing health conditions, which may require medication. Because of this, you'll want to be sure that any elderly individual that's fleeing their home to a safe zone has the medication that they'll need for a period of time. In some cases, failure to take a prescribed medication for an elderly person could be life threatening. On the same note, it may also be a good idea to keep an extra pair of glasses in an elderly person's vehicle (should they need vision correction). It's always a good idea to make sure that an elderly person has a medical card on them so emergency responders can better care for them.

Often times, when it comes to assisting our elderly loved ones in an emergency situation, it's best to have an emergency bag already packed and in an easy place to retrieve it as you're walking out the door. This ensures that even if an elderly person will be receiving an escort in someone else's vehicle to safety, you'll still have all the supplies that you'll need. Finally, be sure that any shelters you're evacuating to are well-equipped to treat elderly people.

Individuals with Disabilities

Aside from the elderly, any handicapped people or individuals with disabilities are likely also going to need special attention getting to and situated in a vehicle in the event of a disaster. To help these people, you can generally follow the same steps that we outlined above for assisting the elderly, but there are a few other things that are worth noting when fleeing a disaster zone:

  • Take a community approach to disaster: By this, we mean don't just make one person responsible for assisting a handicapped person during disaster. Make sure there's a whole "community" of people that know what to do to ensure the individual can get to a vehicle and seek shelter safely. Engage multiple parties in the planning process. Proper planning may even consist of consulting with a healthcare provider for an outline of steps and best practices to follow. Be proactive with this to ensure the best possible outcome.
  • Make sure any special needs supplies are packed into a car survival kit. It might even be a good idea to pack a separate survival kit in addition to the car survival kit that you should already have stowed away in your car. Pack medicine, special needs devices, and any therapy objects that can help a special needs person stay more comfortable in a time of crisis. Lastly, we should also mention that you should pack your patience when assisting a special needs person. These people may need more time to comprehend what's happening, and while it's essential to evacuate safely, make sure that the individual realizes the situation and knows that it's imperative to flee. This isn't always easy to communicate, which makes being proactive important.

Considering Pet Owners

Like assisting an elderly person, people fleeing with pets also need to take special considerations when traveling to a safe zone. When it comes to pets, food and water are the most important things you'll want to make sure you have on you. Generally, it's recommended that you take at least 3 days worth of pet food with you. This food can easily be packed into a car survival kit or put in a special compartment in the vehicle, though we'd suggest making sure that it's in a container or sealed bag so as not to attract pests. Keeping an extra leash on hand can also come in handy when it comes to prepping your vehicle for your pets in an emergency situation.

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It's never fun to think about having to flee your home when a disaster hits — but it's always better to be safe than sorry. Proper disaster preparedness entails equipping your vehicle with everything you'll need to stay comfortable — and in some cases, survive — as you seek shelter or wait for help to arrive.

How prepared is your vehicle for the unthinkable?

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