- Your car, truck, or SUV should be stocked with a set of tools that will allow you to help yourself out of a situation when help is not likely to arrive any time soon.
- With the right tools, you can mitigate the frustration of a flat tire, a dead battery, or many other common roadside issues.
- A vehicle escape tool like the Lifehammer can literally mean the difference between life and death, so if you get nothing else from this list, get one of those and keep it close at hand at all times when you’re driving.
Most days, your commute to work, the drive to school, or those routine errands aren’t going to present much drama. But a flat tire, dead battery, or another common vehicle problem is always a possibility. And while less likely, there’s also the chance you’ll find your car overturned and at risk of an engine fire, slowly sinking into a lake, or stuck deep in a snowbank on a frigid winter night.
When you keep a carefully curated selection of tools in your car, you may be able to mitigate the severity of the situation you face. Just as important as the tools you choose, where you place them within your vehicle requires careful thought, too.
Your emergency escape tool, for example, should be within easy arm’s reach when your back is pressed against the driver’s seat – think center console, as even the glove box may be too far to reach when you’re pinned by a seatbelt. A flashlight can be tucked into the glovebox, while that shovel, socket set, and other tools are best kept in the trunk and strapped down at that.
Read on to find our selections for the best car tools to have on hand for both minor inconveniences and real emergencies.
Here are the best tools you can buy to keep in your car:
- Best vehicle escape tool: Lifehammer Safety Hammer
- Best car jump starter: NOCO Boost Plus GB40 Jump Starter
- Best multitool: Gerber Suspension Multi-Plier
- Best socket set: DeWalt 34-Piece Socket Set
- Best flashlight: J5 Tactical V1-PRO Flashlight
- Best tire inflator: Helteko Portable Air Compressor
- Best folding shovel: DMOS Stealth Shovel
The best vehicle escape tool
In the event you need to exit your vehicle in a matter of seconds, the Lifehammer ensures that even a stuck seatbelt or jammed window won’t be the cause of an avoidable tragedy.
The Lifehammer Safety Hammer is a tool that helps you escape from your vehicle in an emergency situation. Brian Waterson, first assistant chief of the Port Washington Fire Department in New York said, “The Lifehammer is … a tool not everybody carries in their car, but they should. In the event of an auto accident, you can use it to break a window if the car is on fire to let smoke out or so you can escape.”
After a car accident, there’s a good chance your seatbelt will become jammed, or that in a panic state, you simply won’t be able to press the button to release the buckle. Your best bet is to use the Lifehammer, which has a dedicated seatbelt cutter built into the grip. This tool can also make it easier to get kids out of car seats, too.
In the case of a jammed door, the pointed steel tip of the Lifehammer will easily shatter side windows, offering a more viable escape route. This is particularly useful if your vehicle is surrounded by water. Even if you’re only in 2 or 3 feet of water, the pressure can make it impossible to open car doors.
Measuring 5.3 inches by 10.7 inches and just 1.5 inches thick, the Lifehammer can be easily and discreetly installed in your car with the provided mounting bracket.
Pros: Aids with rapid escape from vehicle, high visibility coloring, glows in dark, good price
Cons: Small and rather lightweight
The best car jump starter
If there’s no other vehicle around to give you a jump, you’d do better to keep the NOCO Boost Plus GB40 Jump Starter so you can restart that dead battery yourself.
Even the newest or most reliable cars can suffer a dead battery, leaving you stranded. But you can avoid such a situation if you keep a jump starter tucked away in your trunk.
We recommend the NOCO Boost Plus GB40, which is the top pick in our buying guide for the best car jump starters. This durable jump starter can deliver up to 1,000 amps and be used up to 20 times on a single charge. It works on gas engines up to 6 liters and diesel engines up to 3 liters.
The NOCO Boost Plus GB40 is easy to use – working essentially like a pair of self-contained jumper cables – and features spark-proof technology. Just connect the clamps, power it on, and start your engine.
You’ll need to charge the GB40 via USB or purchase an AC-to-USB adapter, and it holds its charge for up to a year. A charge indicator on the side of the unit shows you how much juice it has left to share, while a USB output port allows you to use that power to charge small devices like your smartphone.
This jump starter also features an LED flashlight that can help you see what you’re doing as well as a strobe function that helps others see you.
Pros: Provides up to 20 jumps with one charge, built-in strobe and flashlight, holds charge for a year
Cons: Cannot charge the GB40 from a wall outlet without buying an adapter, some units fail quickly
The best multitool
With a Gerber Suspension Multi-Plier in your car, you will have at hand a miniature toolbox that can help with everything from auto repairs to prepping a meal to first aid.
You can never be sure what’s going to happen any time you leave your home, so keeping a tool handy that can serve you in all sorts of situations is just a good idea. And the Gerber Suspension Multi-Plier can help with all sorts of situations, from auto repairs to first aid.
With a butterfly design, the compact Suspension Multi-Plier houses 12 tools: spring-loaded needle-nose pliers, wire cutter, fine edge knife, serrated edge knife, saw, scissors, crosspoint screwdriver, small and medium flathead screwdrivers, can opener, bottle opener, and lanyard hole.
Folded down, this multitool is just 3.5 inches long, so you can keep one stashed in the glove box of your car (like I do) or even in a compartment of a motorcycle. I love how lightweight this tool is given its rugged construction – it weighs only a bit more than half a pound. And it still works perfectly even after the better part of a half-decade of use.
Pros: Sturdy and reliable build, sharp blades and saws, packs down small
Cons: Carrying pouch is cheaply made
The best socket set
A good socket set, like the DeWalt 34-Piece, can make the difference between you changing your own tire and getting back on the road or being stranded for hours awaiting help.
Any new car comes with a spare tire and the tools needed to put it on the vehicle, but chances are good that said tools are about as cheap and simple as can be. The lug wrench likely included with your car’s spare tire will work to get those lug nuts off the car, but it will make you do a lot of work in the process.
With a good socket set, like the affordable, reliable DeWalt 34-Piece Socket Set, you can efficiently loosen, remove, and replace lug nuts with maximum efficiency and minimal effort. The reversible ratchet makes your efforts as productive as possible and helps prevent muscle strain or even injury. And if your automotive woes go beyond a flat tire, the sockets included in the set will fit many of the common nuts and bolts found within a car.
This set comes with both metric- and standard-size sockets, so you can use the hardware on any type of automobile. Just make sure to stick the handy storage and organization case back in your car before you drive off anywhere.
The DeWalt 34-Piece Socket Set set was included in the “3 Best Socket Sets” list compiled by the gear testers at The Drive. They called it the best value set, saying, “The tools are solidly built, well-constructed, and last a long time. The ratchet handle is very comfortable, and the sockets pop on and off very easily when the center button on the handle is depressed.”
Pros: Good price for good quality, features both metric and standard sockets, compact and rugged case
Cons: Bulky and heavy ratchet
The best flashlight
A bright, compact flashlight is critical for everything from changing a tire at night to helping you hike your way back to civilization when a mere tire change won’t get your car on the move again.
If you don’t have a flashlight in your car, you’re doing it wrong. The ease of directionality a good, small, handheld flashlight offers makes it your best source of light during a nocturnal automotive mishap. With a bright flashlight, you can see to change a tire or jump a battery, look around in the engine compartment, light the way as you walk for help, or seek help by signaling passing cars or people well off in the distance.
The J5 Tactical V1-PRO Flashlight is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand yet its super bright 300-lumen light can throw a beam that reaches 600-plus feet in true darkness. That helps you see far into the night and be seen from far away (especially with a strobe function), and it provides plenty of light for working at night, more than illuminating the space you need to see as you jack up the car, affix jumper cables, or pour in a can of gasoline.
Don’t worry if you’re working in the rain, this little flashlight can withstand submersion. It is also rated to survive 9-foot drops. And all of its brilliant shine is provided by a single AA battery.
Lifewire tested this flashlight and found that it is extremely durable: “Even dropping this little flashlight on the cement garage floor didn’t so much as ding the body.” They also said that it still functioned well after being splashed with water.
I keep one of these compact LED flashlights in my nightstand, another by the front door, and one in my car. If you are going to pass on some of the tools on this list, don’t let this one fall into that column, because most of the other tools are useless if you can’t even see to use them at night.
Pros: Amazingly bright, dim and strobe modes, compact and durable, uses single AA battery
Cons: Cycling through output options can be tedious
The best tire inflator
Sometimes changing a tire isn’t the best fix. For a slow leak, a tire inflator can get you to the shop for a proper repair, or with a good tire patch kit, you can do the repair yourself.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “proper tire pressure is the most important part of maintaining your tires. It affects safety, their durability, and your fuel consumption.” So if your tires are low on air, you might have a big problem on your hands.
With a Helteko Portable Air Compressor Pump in your car, you may well be able to skip that impromptu tire change and instead drive your car to the shop for a proper fix, keeping your spare in good condition and avoiding the headache of jacking the car up, taking off the nuts, and so on. Measuring 5.5 inches wide, 8.3 inches long, and 3.25 inches high, it’s a compact pump that you can easily stow in the trunk of your car.
This pump connects to your car’s 12-volt outlet (for example, the lighter) via an 11.5-foot cable. It will quickly fill even the flattest of tires, be they on your car, motorcycle, or bicycle. Its handy LCD display lets you know the exact PSI pressure within the object being inflated, so you’ll know just when to stop the airflow. And in case you’re not monitoring progress closely enough, you can preset a cutoff pressure, at which point the unit will shut itself down.
The Helteko has a maximum output rating of 150 PSI, which is much more than any personal vehicle is going to need. But as it runs at quitter than 50 decibels, it won’t much bother nearby neighbors. I keep a tire inflator in our family car at all times, and I’ve used it on multiple occasions where, without the device, I would have been forced to either change a tire or else call for a tow.
Pros: Fast air output, auto-shutoff feature, quiet operation
Cons: No option for AC outlet connection
The best folding shovel
The DMOS Stealth Shovel works on snow, dirt, gravel, mud, sand, and more, and when not working, it packs down small enough to fit into a corner of your trunk or under a truck bench.
The one time you dig yourself out of the snow, off the beach, or out of mud, you will pay for the price of the DMOS Stealth Shovel in cash saved on a tow.
And why is the DMOS Stealth Shovel a great choice for keeping in your car? Size, for one thing. Packed down, you could stash this shovel in a medium-size backpack, but when its handle is fully extended, it measures 56-inches long, giving even taller users plenty of leverage.
Even though the shovel weighs only 3.3 pounds, it easily digs into heavy snow, dirt, gravel, and more. The thin but rugged toothed blade only adds to the digging power. I own two DMOS shovels, and they’re awesome. I often use mine for shoveling snow despite owning several snow shovels.
Figuring out how to properly disassemble and stow a DMOS Stealth can be tricky at first (DMOS made a video to help you), but given how well the shovel performs once set up for use and considering how small it packs down, it’s well worth it.
Pros: Folds down small yet suitable even for taller users, weighs just 3.3 pounds, suitable for multiple types of material
Other items you should always keep in a car
The aforementioned tools can help you out of numerous binds, from the annoying to the serious, but they are hardly the only items you should keep in a vehicle properly prepared to face the dangers out there on the road.
Water: However you pack it, have at least a liter on hand for each person in the car. Or better yet, 3 liters.
Disposable gloves: Roadside service can be dirty stuff. Keep your hands away from contact with fuel, oil, or chemicals with reliable disposable gloves. These are also a good idea for use in the unfortunate event of a medical emergency. I keep two pairs of Venom Steel Rip Resistant Nitrile Gloves in both cars.
First-aid kit: A compact first aid kit like the Swiss Safe 2-in-1 might not be a tool, per se, but in the event of an accident with injuries, you’ll be quite pleased to have it on board, especially if paramedics aren’t soon to arrive.
Tire chains: If you’re likely to be driving in snowy or icy conditions and you don’t drive some rugged four-wheeler, then tire chains are a must-have. Get an expandable pair like the Security Chain Company’s SZ143 Super Z6 Cables – they will work on most sedans and SUVs.
Cat litter: Believe it or not, but a few scoops of cat litter can get you out of many stuck car situations. Spread some litter in front of and behind the tires when you’re bogged down in snow or ice, on mud, or even on oil, and the stuff can give your tires just enough bite to lurch free.