What Tools Should I Keep In My Car?
You can’t take them all with you, but you only need a few to get out of a bad situation.
If you're new to automotive DIYing, you'll likely convince yourself anything can be fixed anywhere and load your trunk up with all the tools you could ever need. You'll drive around like that for months on end, paying no mind to how much extra gas you're burning to haul those tools around. Only then to call the tow truck anyway when things go wrong. I speak from foolhardy experience.
The side of the road or a dark parking lot is no place to perform extensive repairs, and there's no shame in putting your roadside assistance membership to work. However, you should have a few tools stashed in the trunk to get yourself back up and running in case hauling it home isn't an option or a simple repair presents itself.
But what do you actually need? The Drive's crack team of roadside warriors is on the job to help you determine what tools you should carry in your car for emergencies alongside the tire iron, spare tire, and jack it came with. Keep in mind that the list below serves as a general guideline, and you can tweak things as you see fit. For example, I carry a timing light and dwell meter in place of an OBDII scanner in my 1969 Dodge Charger project car. That said, if any of you pros reading along have suggestions on what tools to carry, drop them in the comments section. We're all here to learn.
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I'm taking it on faith that your jack and tire iron haven't been removed from your trunk, storage area, or inside the rear hatch as of this writing. As well as that your car didn't come with run-flat tires from the factory, which is something you’ll need to make sure of. But if you're working with what the manufacturer gave you, that scissor jack is a rickety thing just barely good enough to meet safety standards. I've seen them fail, and the results can be ugly. Do yourself a favor and keep a jack stand in your trunk as to ensure you don't get smushed. Make throwing on the spare less likely to get nasty.
Screwdrivers are necessary to get a variety of jobs done. But not every fastener calls for the same size or type. Instead of cramping twenty screwdrivers into your tool bag, set yourself up with a bit driver with various bits to work with. Get a good one, though, as there are many that'll leave you looking for loose bits in the engine bay.
Small Ratchet and Socket Set
It's wise to carry a mechanic's tool set with multiple rachets whenever you head out for a road trip, but that's not necessary for routine commuting. You'll likely only need to deal with medium to small fasteners, if any at all, in an emergency. And a small ratchet and socket set is all you'll need for that. I say go with a 3/8-inch drive set, as it covers most common fastener sizes, and you can always add onto the set with adapters and additional sockets if need be.
Combination wrenches are great to keep on hand if you have room for them. However, careful selection of an effective ratchet and socket set allows it to handle the majority of fasteners. You never know if you'll come up against a pass-through fastener or other tasks a single ratchet simply won't handle. Therefore, it's worth keeping an adjustable wrench on hand. I personally prefer something with a short handle as it's easier to use in tight spaces.
As long as your vehicle throws a code (the dreaded check engine light on your dash), you can plug in and give yourself a good idea as to what's going on. It can also help you decide whether or not you should even attempt to handle the problem where you're at. You don't need to buy a premium unit to keep in your trunk. You just need to make sure it'll work for your vehicle.
Your phone's built-in flashlight is handy, but it's not ideal when you're bent up like a pretzel trying to fix something deep in the car's bowels. Your phone will also probably be mostly dead when you do break down because that's just the way things work. So, do yourself a favor and throw a good flashlight or headlamp in your bag, if not both.
Tire Pressure Gauge
A tire pressure gauge might be given a run for its money by modern TPMS interfaces, but it’s still worth keeping one in the glove box or tool bag of every vehicle. At the very least, it’ll serve as a reminder that you need to keep tire pressure in check as temperatures fluctuate. It also allows you to work with dated tire filling stations that don’t have a built-in gauge. Heck, you should be checking readings against a consistent baseline anyway.
Zip ties are the perfect solution for so many problems. They're a permanent solution...unless they are, but maybe you hit road debris and it pulled part of your skid plate down. Are you going to drag it all the way home because the clips are long gone? Nope. Just zip tie it back up, and move along. This is just one example of how these infinitely useful buggers are, and you absolutely need to keep a few in your car.
Everyone's got a favorite plier flavor. I personally prefer to keep a set of needle-nose pliers with me, but diagonal cutters and linesman pliers often make their way into my trunk kit. They're not the kind of tool you absolutely need to get off the side of the road, but plenty of opportunities for them to make your life less miserable will present themselves.
The one tool that will get you out of trouble more than anything else is a jump starter. Dead batteries seem to take everyone by surprise, especially as temperatures drop. Being able to quickly jump your car and get yourself to a parts store or the home shop to handle the situation is invaluable. A portable jump starter might not fit in your tool box or bag with everything else, but it's worth packing along anyway. Going with a unit that has a built-in compressor can also save you from serious drama when paired with a tire repair kit.
By mentioning test lights, I'm not suggesting that you should be attempting big wiring jobs on the side of the road. However, if you're more familiar with electrical systems than the average bear, it's a quick way to troubleshoot when a situation arises.
It might not be a bad idea to carry wire strippers, a crimping tool, and some butt connectors for minor repairs if you’re daily driving a project car. Again, I don’t encourage performing wiring repairs in dangerous settings, but small wiring issues come with the territory.
A multimeter is another critical troubleshooting tool that can help you quickly pinpoint issues on the side of the road. It takes things further than a test light by not only telling you if power is present in a circuit, as well as how much. This data can be extremely useful when trying to find a problem. If you need to save space, you can buy a test light that provides a voltage reading as well.
The list above is meant to serve as a general guideline. As time passes and you face different situations, you might add to the list or even eliminate some things. As you should, your emergency tool kit should be personalized to match your vehicle. To better illustrate how much things can vary, the video below showcases another person's selection of tools they keep in their vehicle in case of an emergency.