How to Thrift an Emergency Car Kit

If you own a car, it’s a wise idea to carry along an emergency kit all year long – you never know where or when you might break down or need a few supplies.  But winter requires some special additions to your everyday emergency kit.

It’s true that you can buy prepackaged car emergency kits at varying price points, from a cheap basic set to a more intensive survival kit.  Some prepackaged kits may not contain everything you would need to feel comfortable or prepared for an emergency, especially items like an extra coat or a blanket to keep you warm.  It’s a great idea to investigate these options and choose the one that best fits your lifestyle and budget, then thrift additional items to prepare for any emergency.

Don’t get stranded on a snowy roadside without these supplies.

Warm Coat / Coveralls

It’s a good idea to keep a spare coat in your vehicle throughout the winter season – from as soon as the autumn chill starts to set in until the spring thaw – for a couple of reasons.  First, if you get stuck, your regular coat may not be enough to keep you warm if you have to wait for a long period of time.  Perhaps you are on the way to a holiday party and you are in a cocktail dress with a dress coat that’s more fashion than function.  You’ll want a heavier coat to deal with your situation, even if you are just waiting in the car for AAA.

It’s a good idea to pick a brightly colored coat if you can find one – think reds, oranges, and yellows.  Refer to our article on Winter Essentials for more coat-buying tips.

Coveralls are another great addition to your emergency kit.  Refer back to the cocktail dress scenario:  it could be a little drafty trying to dig out your car or deal with a dead battery.  Even if you are just wearing nice work slacks, you might not want to get down on the ground to change a tire.  Coveralls or a snowsuit would solve the coat and bottoms problem all in one.  I scored a pair of vintage Montgomery Ward coveralls I found at my favorite Salvation Army for under $10.  (There was even a matching men’s suit!)

If coveralls really aren’t your style, at least throw in some thrifted jeans or some type of bottom that will literally cover your butt in an emergency.  You might want to opt for something large enough to fit over another pair of pants since it’s unlikely you’ll want to strip down to your skivvies in the bitter cold.


Thrift a nice sturdy bag to store all of your supplies in.  It’s a good idea to gather most of your supplies first so you can get a sense of how big your bag should be.  If you plan to be more minimalist, you can afford to get a smaller bag – but if you want to be prepared for almost anything, aim for a larger duffle bag.  Check the men’s and children’s section for high-quality sturdy bags.  Often the women’s section of purses gets overrun by fashion handbags and stores separate the luggage and other types of bags like shopping bags, backpacks, canvas bags, and duffle bags into a different section.

You’ll want to look for a thick fabric that won’t tear and quality zippers that won’t catch, snag, or get stuck easily.  I think sectioned bags or bags with lots of pockets and dividers are a good idea for emergency bags because there are often items that you will use frequently.  You don’t want those frequently used items to sink to the bottom of the bag (any girl with a large purse knows how easily this can happen!)

Bonus points if you can find a brightly colored bag – it’ll be easy to spot in a dark trunk.  My Eddie Bauer bag is a dark brown, but I plan to enhance it with some reflective tape.

Checklist for Other Items

It may not be feasible (or even advisable) to buy all necessary items from a thrift store.  If you opted to buy a prepackaged kit, check for these items before purchasing them from a big box store, camping store, or army/military surplus outlet.

  • Wool Socks
  • Protein Bars or MRE
  • Drinking water
  • First aid kit / supplies
  • Reflective tape
  • Folding shovel
  • Duct Tape
  • Whistle
  • Compass
  • Fire Starters
  • Local Map
  • 550 Paracord
  • Multitool
  • Waterproof Matches

Other Items you May or May Not Find in a Thrift Store

These items may be tricky to locate in a thrift store, or you may not trust the quality of a secondhand item.  If you do find these items in a thrift store, check carefully for quality and only buy if it looks new.  You might also check certain consignment stores that might have these items behind the counter.

  • Flashlight:  I don’t see many flashlights in thrift stores, but it doesn’t mean they couldn’t crop up once in awhile.  Generally these are so handy to keep around, I don’t think they get donated often.  They do sometimes crop up in garage sales.  Any flashlight you find in a thrift is probably a cheap plastic one – it might be worth it to splurge on a great durable flashlight (Maglites are a personal favorite.)  Test before buying whenever possible; perhaps you could carry some spare batteries on your shopping trip for this purpose.  Check for any corrosion in the battery compartment as this may affect the workability of your secondhand flashlight.
  • Multipurpose Knife/ Tool:  Thrift or consignment stores may keep fancy Swiss Army knives behind the counter.  Often quality knives will come with a warranty, and they will last a long time.  If you can find one cheap secondhand, it’s probably worth the buy.  Tools like screwdrivers are also handy in the event of a mechanical breakdown.
  • Lighter:  Some consignment stores will sell fancy lighters, or you can pick up the dollar store variety.
  • Old Cell Phone:  even cell phones that are not currently serviced by a provider can still dial 9-1-1 in an emergency.  During an emergency, you may have forgotten your regular everyday cell phone at home or it could break.  Throw in one of your old phones if you still have one lying around, but you may find one in a thrift or consignment store if you’ve already cleaned your old cell phones out.  Make sure you have a charger or can still buy a charger for that phone model or you’ll be stuck with a dead battery.  A car charger is great so as long as your car battery is still good, you can juice up the phone on the spot and won’t have to remember to take the cell inside to charge it.

Waterproof Snow Boots

Like the coat example, your feet may not always be dressed properly for an emergency.  If you suddenly need to dig your car out of some snow or change a flat tire, those cute pumps are not going to do you any good.  Waterproof rain boots would also be helpful during the spring rains so your feet don’t soaked.

It’s a great idea to buy some wool socks at a big box store and tuck them inside the boots – I would advise against buying socks in a thrift store due to the possibility of transferable foot fungus.  Luckily socks can be found on the cheap at most other stores.

Winter Accessories

We covered this in our Winter Essentials post, too, but it’s worth highlighting again here.  Thrift a great warm hat, scarf, and gloves.  These supplemental winter accessories can live in your trunk in case of an emergency, and they don’t need to be terribly cute to be functional.  Focus on the material – wool is probably best here – quality, and function more than fashion.

It’s a good idea to keep plenty of spare winter accessories in your emergency kit because they can be easily lost or forgotten, especially if you like to switch them out every day to match your outfit or if you’re rotating through several different coats.  Maybe you don’t normally wear a hat to avoid hat hair, but in an emergency hat head will be the least of your worries.  One of your trusty gloves could fall out of your pocket.  These accessories can also double up for duty in case the weather is suddenly much colder than you anticipated when you dressed that morning, or even lending to a friend who wasn’t prepared.

Blanket / Quilt

Thrift a very warm quilt.  Give it a sniff test to make sure it doesn’t smell like mildew or must, a potential result of sitting in Grandma’s attic for too long.  If you have to sit and wait for help, you’ll love having a blanket to snuggle under while you wait.  This can also be useful for grabbing for a chilly autumnal hayrack ride or an emergency stay-the-night-at-a-friend’s situation.

I’m planning to sew my own car quilt out of thrifted t-shirts in bright colors like orange and fluorescent yellow – this way it can double as a bright flag if I need it and will make sure I’m visible if I’m sitting on the roadside.  I thought about this after seeing someone on the side of the interstate after dark, changing a tire on a black car in a black hoodie.  You don’t have to pick such extreme colors, but something colorful or bright might be a good idea for those dark winter nights.

How to Pack your Car Emergency Kit

Now that you’ve gathered most of your supplies, it’s time to start packing.

Put large items and things that don’t need to be as readily accessible at the bottom of your bag.  Pack things like the flashlight right on top or in a handy side pocket so you can grab it immediately in the event of an emergency.  Put the bulky jumper cables at the bottom.

Pack your extra coat or coveralls in a space bag – it will save a lot of space, especially if you’ve got a pretty fluffy coat.  I investigated a way to do this yourself and it’s as simple as getting a thick-quality trash bag and sucking out the air with a vacuum – check out the original post.

For things like drinking water and nonperishable food, keep these separated from any other items that could potentially leak or contaminate them like antifreeze bottles or the lighter.  Even though they are sealed up, don’t take a chance.  If you’ve ever had problems with mice in your car, you may want to take extra precautions to seal up food tightly so they won’t try to get in.

Don’t forget to schedule a safety check to replenish or replace supplies as needed.  Nonperishable food will keep for a long time, but still has expiration dates.  If you want to be very organized, try creating a private calendar with Google Calendar or a similar program and set up reminders to check certain safety measures in your car and your home.  (A calendar solution stored in the cloud is good, that way if you lose your cell phone or planner, you will still have all the info.)  You could make an event to replace all the protein bars in your vehicle emergency kit, schedule car maintenance checks like tire pressure and fluid checks, and even add events for your home like replacing batteries in smoke detectors or checking expiration dates on your home stash of canned goods.  Learn how to set up a Google Calendar and how to set up a recurring appointment.  If you feel that’s a little too detailed for you, just plan to check your supplies at a regular interval.

Print or write out a list of what you’ve packed, and keep this inventory list handy so you know what you’ve got.  It’s good for shopping so you can avoid stocking up on multiples and also good in the emergency itself so you know what you have to work with.  Again, a super-organized way to keep track could be a Google Spreadsheet or similar list-making app of 1) what you have in your kit, 2) when it was last checked / replaced, and 3) any notes (like the flashlight requires D batteries so you can remember when you’re shopping for more, etc.)  A bonus for keeping this list digitally is that you can include a link to the calendar item so you can remember when the next check is scheduled.  Again, this might be way overkill for you – just pick whatever works best for you.

That’s it!

Did we miss anything?  Have you ever been in an emergency situation and wished you’d had a certain item with you?

2 Responses to “How to Thrift an Emergency Car Kit”
  1. Great ideas and it never hurts to be prepared.

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