When you're on the road, you're out in the world, and the world can get dangerous when you least expect it--especially if your car breaks down or runs into trouble. So what can you do about it? You're (probably) not a mechanic, after all.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a mechanic to give yourself a much better chance of getting home or to the nearest repair shop with a small kit of essential tools and equipment--and in the event of an accident or other emergency, you'll even increase your odds of survival.
This short list of items encapsulates some of the most functional and likely items you'll need, while requiring minimal mechanical or other knowledge to employ. They're the basics. You could load your car up with dozens of other tools, of course, but you could also do a lot worse than keeping these nine inexpensive core items with you at all times.
(Note: The items linked are merely offered as examples; there are many options within each item category, varying in quality, price, and application.)
LifeHammer or other window/seatbelt escape device
This small item could be a lifesaver--literally. Kept near the driver's seat via velcro or double-sided tape, it can allow you to break a window if you end up underwater or otherwise trapped in your car, and can also cut the seatbelt (a notoriously tough bit of fabric, for obvious reasons) quickly. Time is of the essence when you're short on air, the car is on fire, or other danger looms. Getting out quickly is made that much easier with this cheap and simple tool.
Socket & screwdriver set
Even on the most modern cars, sometimes things come loose, whether from vibration, age, or other reasons. Often, a simple tightening of whatever's loose will solve the problem. This can be especially helpful with a loose battery terminal connection, a slipped hose clamp, or other simple and obvious problems under the hood. Even if you aren't an automotive whiz, popping the hood and looking for obvious problems like these is easy--just put eyes on the major systems and scan for loose or disconnected sections.
Get a set with multiple socket sizes and screwdriver tips for the most flexibility, and be sure to familiarize yourself with how they go together before stowing the box in your trunk.
Duct tape. Image via Amazon.com.
This might sound a bit too simple, but duct tape can fix a myriad of ills. From damaged body work after a fender bender to temporary emergency fixes on hoses and other parts, duct tape can patch your car back together long enough to limp it to a repair shop and keep you from being stranded--or spending for a tow truck. It's also handy in a million other non-automotive situations. Be sure to get quality tape, as the more expensive stuff sticks better and in a wider range of temperatures and situations.
This length of super-strong fabric can be used for a lot more than hauling your buddy's old truck from one weed-infested yard to another--though it's great for that too. With a tow strap, you can move an otherwise disabled car short to medium distances (think a few miles, rather than across town or to the next state) with nothing more than the help of a passing stranger in a pickup. If you're that stranger in a pickup, you can use it to offer the same help. But a tow strap's super-strong nature also makes it a good all-purpose length of tie-down or rescue rope, too.
Be sure to read your owner's manual to find the proper tie-down and tow points for your car before you add it to your stash. If you should need to use it, an improperly placed strap can quickly cause even more damage if it's attached to the wrong part of the car's structure.
Jumper cables. Image via Amazon.com.
A dead battery is frustrating, whatever the cause. Such a simple piece of equipment, and yet its failure can completely disable a car. Even if the battery itself can no longer hold a charge, a set of jumper cables can get you back on the road and to the nearest parts shop. Choose heavy-gauge cables with durable, high-quality spring-loaded clamps on each end rather than the smaller, cheaper sort. Avoid the kind that plugs into the cigarette lighter/cabin 12-volt outlet altogether. A proper set of jumper cables is more useful and will work with a wider array of cars and trucks.