ALMOST EVERY CAR HAS SOME STORAGE SPACE, and more often than not it’s treated as a “junk drawer” for random receipts, traffic tickets, and unfinished food. But with a little organizing, you can stock your glove box or trunk with stellar essentials for just about any situation.
Tools for pressing matters
I’m reluctant to use the term “emergency,” simply because it conjures up blaring sirens and trips to the hospital, which is not what this is about. Instead, These items are simply things that are good to have in a pinch, whether it’s changing a tire or fixing a burst seam.
Headlamp/flashlight/lantern: Sometimes you’re going to need more illumination than what your cell phone can provide. With LEDs replacing every other bulb type on the market, these products have never been smaller, brighter, or cheaper.
Duct tape: The Alaskan adage goes something like this: “If it should move, and it doesn’t, use WD-40. If it shouldn’t move, and it does, use duct tape.” Books have been written about its many uses, and after the Mythbusters crew built a fully-functioning cannon out of 2-inch thick duct tape panels, we can safely assume that this is the stuff that holds the universe together. Dark matter? Pshh. It’s just clear duct tape.
Multi-tool (remember Swiss Army knives?): They used to be the standard for combo-tools. Who cares if you never used the fish scaler? At least you had one. Today, multi-tools can be found in any flavor, from the classic Leatherman to your basic skateboard/snowboard tools, all with various sizes of wrenches and screwdrivers.
Don’t think they’re worth it? My friend Evan and I fixed a broken bike on the streets of Seattle with one. And that’s how we got to the brewery that night. Weighed against the cost of bicycle repairs and the distress of not imbibing, I’d say this investment paid off handily.
Sewing kit: Including dental floss. It keeps your teeth clean, its handiness for binding and stitching things back together is limited only by the number of knots you know and sewing needles on hand and it and works better than thread for backpack and wetsuit repair.. Get a few needles, learn a few stitches. I’ve saved a number of jeans and shirts using a few feet of floss, and if you get good at it, people will complement your stylish “distressed” threads.
Hygiene and health
Sometimes, our days are scheduled in ways that don’t allow us to groom until we’re turning in for the night. These items help keep up our healthy habits on the go.
Deodorant: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to go immediately from work to a meeting. Or from a meeting to a dinner. We all have some days where we don’t make it home before the next event, and we just don’t have time to freshen up a little bit.
Cup holder gum dispenser: I love coffee in the morning, but I can’t stand having coffee breath until lunch.
A pair of socks: Feet can get pretty gnarly if they’ve been stuffed inside shoes all day. One clean pair of socks, complemented with a swipe of deodorant, can improve your sense of peace immensely.
Granola bars and/or peanut butter: Really, this is just about keeping snacks handy. Some of the best travel advice I ever received was to never neglect my stomach. If I’m hungry, I’m grumpy, and I don’t like being grumpy anywhere.
Water bottle: I average one desert crossing on I-10 per summer, and having extra water is one of the most essential things you can have on your person. One liter is the minimum, but if you can swing a gallon or two behind the driver’s seat or in your trunk, that’s even better.
Velcro hanging trash bag: With so many options for trash storage, it’s a wonder people still use their cars’ floor mats as a mini-dump. I have two, and they save me hours of combing my vehicle for gum wrappers and the like.
If there’s anything better than being the life of the party, it’s being the life of a spontaneous party. Beach barbecues, a café rendezvous, and pick-up-and-go games offer plenty of opportunity to connect with friends and strangers alike.
Lighter, matches, and tobacco: Even if you don’t smoke, friends can be made in an instant if you’re the only one in earshot who can provide a cigarette. And let’s be honest: ever since Lauren Bacall blindsided Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not with her sultry “Anybody got a match?”, I think we’ve all hoped for a chance encounter like that one that would change our lives.
Waiter’s corkscrew: Watching a sunset from a mountain ridge or building a bonfire on the beach can be made better with the appropriate beverages. But if you just bring the wine, good luck trying to open it without a bottle opener.
Travel board game: Scrabble is my personal favorite, but fast-rising are the micro-versions of popular board games. Take a break from your iPhone games and engage with something a little more tangible.
Harmonica/mouth harp: Sure, it’s a little quirky, but lots of people have an inner urge to be a troubadour. Camping and backpacking trips especially lend themselves to improvised music around the campfire.
Portable LP gas barbecue grill & gas canister(s): If you’ve got the room in your trunk, I’d highly recommend getting one of these. They’re the perfect solution to any night when you and your friends aren’t quite sure what to do. Why not go to a scenic area to watch the stars come out, all while waiting for your steaks to cook?
For functionality’s sake
Having an under-prepared vehicle is kind of like getting caught with your pants down. The first question you’re asked is “Why?,” followed by “Can you fix it, please?”
Cigarette lighter A/C adapter: Sure, they’re a little pricier than you would think, but if on a road trip, you might as well invest. It’ll keep your phone and laptop charged, and if you cared to bring anything else with a two- or three-pronged plug, you can use it on the road (in a pinch).
Disposable camera: Thanks to cell phones with cameras, these things are going the way of the buffalo. But being able to snap a few 35mm photos of an accident can mean the difference between a hefty fine and getting off the hook—assuming you’re innocent, of course. And if you happen to see Elvis or aliens, you’ll have the means to prove it. Just like everyone else.
Laminated sheet of key contacts: This is more for others than yourself. Should anything happen to you (God forbid), a glove box is one of the first places the authorities will look for information on you and who to contact in the event of an emergency. Having something like a list of contacts is a golden ticket to getting your family and friends to your side as quickly as possible.
Red bandana: No, this isn’t for the rodeo. Many states have a law declaring that if you carry anything in your vehicle that extends a certain distance past your rear bumper, you have to mark it with a red flag (or something similar). Keeping one of these handy will keep you from having to explain to the nice policeman why an extra two feet of 2x4s are hanging out of your flatbed.
Plus, it doubles as your headgear to any I-Love-the-80s house parties you may attend.
$10 in quarters, dimes, and nickels: If you live in the city, chances are good you know where all of the free parking is. But if you’re passing through, metered parking is still around, and you’re going to need something to pay for it. Plus, when your change container gets close to full, you feel kind of rich!
Pen and notebook: Everybody writes something, even if it’s a shopping list. Having a writing pad nearby can keep you from forgetting your best ideas, and allows you to take notes on the fly. Moleskine came out with a credit card-sized notebook recently, which are sold in packs of two for less than ten dollars. Throw in a permanent marker to this array, and now you can write on anything.
Finally, a collection of items for our couch-surfers and cannonball-run enthusiasts. This is for the best of the best; the ones who collect road miles like they’re jelly beans.
Sleeping bag, pad, and backpacker’s hammock, and two 10-foot segments of rope: Given the right combination, these things take up much less room than you might think. If you’re tired and looking for a stopover, hooking up the hammock is as easy as tying two bowline knots. It sure beats lying down on the ground. The pad keeps the mosquitoes from poking at your back through the nylon of the hammock. Plus, it’s just a little warmer.
Gas can: I wouldn’t have made the drive from Anchorage to Seattle without the extra three gallons I carried in my flatbed. There are stretches on the Alcan where, if you run out of gas, you’re definitively screwed. One of these fuel cans is an absolute necessity for the wandering wheelman, as it can mean the difference between arriving happily at your destination and being a day or two behind — and thoroughly burned out.
Business cards: Surely an oddity in a list of essentials, but face-to-face connection remains the best way in the world to network and establish (hopefully) long-lasting business relations. If you’ve come from far away, you’re already interesting. Leave them with a business card, and you might just be expanding your clientele to a new region.
Photograph of someone/somewhere you love: Hide it! But not too inconspicuous. You want to keep it far away enough to forget about it, but close enough to get a nice surprise every other week. Granted, this one’s for the more absent-minded among us, myself included.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how strictly one adheres to this list—it’s based on one person’s experience, and your vehicle is going to reflect your own needs and quirks. But I’m serious about the dental floss. The stuff is magic.