But what is in that lifeboat to help an individual or a family cope with adverse conditions? Too few drivers keep basic tools and other necessities and helpers to endure a night or more alone in a car, or the basics to get a damaged car back on the road.
There are a few small things you can carry to make life on the road easier. If you're going to be on the road every day, these items will prove themselves useful in the long haul. Fit as many into one carrying case as you can unless the vehicle has cleverly designed stow-away slots for specific items.
First-aid kit: It's an obvious one, but how many drivers actually carry a first-aid kit? In the critical minutes before emergency care arrives, you could give an accident victim the care they need. Many luxury vehicles come with well-equipped kits, so check before you buy.
Blanket: This one goes hand-in-hand with the first-aid kit. A victim at an accident scene may need to be kept warm to prevent shock. And if you're broken down in unexpected weather, the blanket may keep you warm when your vehicle cannot.
Spare tire and jack: A well-maintained spare tire and jack can mean the difference between a fifteen-minute inconvenience and an hour-long, $75 ordeal. While other drivers are waiting to be towed to the near tire depot, you can change your own and roll for more than fifty miles to the shop of your choice. Make sure to check the condition of your spare each month or so. If you often travel in remote areas, replace a "temporary" spare with a real fifth tire that fits the vehicle.
Water and food: This is a no-brainer, right? A few bottles of water and shelf-stable or vacuum packed snacks. Don't buy snacks that will be compromised in a hot car. And change them at least twice a year.
Spare wiper blades: This may seem like overkill, but it's not. Foul weather can wear down wiper blades more quickly than you think -- especially in wintry climates with snowy, salted roads. Keep them on hand and change when the windshield gets bleary. Most blades can be refilled in less than a minute; the replacements are available, usually for less than $5, at local car-parts stores or from your dealer.
Jumper cables: You can always find another driver to give you a jump-start - but can you always find a set of cables? A good set of cables costs less than $20, and offers instructions on how to jump your car if you're not sure. Most major department stores, such as Kmart and Target, stock these in addition to the car-parts stores.
Sharpie and paper: In the event you have to leave your vehicle, you want to be able to leave a note.
A socket-style screwdriver with driver and multiple "bits" in various Phillips and standard-style sizes: This tool is far more versatile than a regular screwdriver because you can pick the bit type and size that exactly fits the fastener you're trying to remove. Some kits come with a small selection of sockets and drivers for those Torx (star-shaped head) screws that are increasingly commonplace. It's an essential tool to have and keep with you in the car.
A roll of duct tape or electrical tape: Duct tape has been the emergency mechanic's best friend for years; with it, you can temporarily bind a leaking radiator hose or quickly patch up shattered glass. Electrical tape is great to have on hand when you need to keep an exposed electrical connection from touching something it shouldn't. Toss a roll of each into your tool kit.
A pair of medium-size vise-grip pliers: These can be used to remove things or hold them together in an emergency. Vise-grip pliers can temporarily hold up an exhaust system that's about to fall off. They're also great for working out bolts (or screws, etc.) that have been rounded off or stripped. They can be used in lieu of a bulky socket set because they'll fit almost any bolt and have the grip strength to remove most fasteners. Get two so you can use one to keep a locknut from turning with the bolt you're trying to remove.
Pen magnet: This handy tool can help you dig out keys that fell between the seats, or retrieve a tiny screw you dropped someplace inaccessible to your hand. Get the telescoping type that looks and functions just like a radio antenna. There are also flexible models that can be bent to work around obstacles. Both are great to have in certain circumstances where almost nothing else will do.
Pry bar: If you've ever been in a minor fender-bender where the fender rubs the tire, you'll know the value of a pry bar. It can turn an otherwise inoperable car into one you can get home, and save you some bucks on towing charges.
Mini-compressor: You can buy a small, hand-held air compressor that runs off the car's cigarette lighter/power point for less than $30. These compact, lightweight units can be a godsend if you find a tire is low on air and can't find a gas station with an air pump. They're also great for inflating kids' toys and air mattresses. Get one that has a built-in emergency flashlight.
Emergency cell phone: If you are one of the few who don't have a regular cellphones, invest in an emergency-use cell phone that tucks away in the glove box. These phone are inexpensive (the plans call for a very limited number of calls per month or even just 911) but can be lifesavers if you have or witness a serious accident. You can also use them to report possible drunk drivers and other emergency situations.
Flashlight, disposable lighter and Flares: The flashlight and lighter are self-explanatory. Flares can be used to signal for help, mark off your car from oncoming traffic and even work as emergency lighting.