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14 Items Every Parent Should Keep in the Car

From wet naps to paper maps, adhesive bandages and plastic grocery bags, these all come in handy when those minor catastrophes arise.

You drive them to school, shuttle them to soccer practice, take them on errands, and road-trip as a family. That adds up to a ton of time spent in the car with your kids. For the most part, these rides are enjoyable (or at least not awful) and provide some solid family bonding time. But a car tip can go south in a hurry thanks to a bloody nose, a spilled drink, or a backseat brawl between bored siblings. While you can’t preempt every possible car crisis, a little preparation can make snafus less likely — and keep all hell from breaking loose when incidents do occur. Here’s what every parent should keep in their car at all times.

Drinking water

Dehydration is a real issue for kids, especially in the warmer months, so always travel with stash of drinking water. Although single-use plastic water bottles do the job, they create extra garbage. And when that cheap plastic heats up in your hot car, chemicals can leach into the water — not healthy for anyone. A safer choice that also keeps water cool and tasting fresh: Hydro Flask’s 21-ounce vacuum-insulated stainless-steel water bottle with a sport cap for easy drinking. Just fill it with filtered ice water and stick it either in a side-door compartment or right in a backseat cup holder (the bottle is 2.8 inches in diameter).

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Throw Blankets

Keep a couple of thin fleece blankets in your car that you can roll up tight, tuck away, and pull them out when the moment calls. You don’t need anything fancy or cushy — just a cheap throw that can cover small bodies and warm them up (Cannon’s 50-by-60-inch polyester fleece is just $17). These blankets are also clutch for picnicking, covering cold (or hot) bleachers at baseball games, and giving you a dry seat at the playground when all the benches are taken. They fit behind the back seats of sedans, beneath bucket seats in minivans, or rolled up and kept right on any kind of car seat to double as pillow.

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Bath towels

True, much of what a towel can do a blanket can do too. But it’s nice to have both in the car. A designated car towel can sop up spilled water and protect a car seats from a wet swimsuit. We think a well-worn old bath towel works best because it’s not too bulky, aka easier to stow, yet it’s big enough to stand in for a forgotten beach towel on the fly — if it’s still clean, that is. Honestly, our car towel doesn’t have a set home because we use it so often and, shocker, don’t wash it enough (reminder: must wash towel). We’ll stash it wherever it fits after a use, but the truth is it sometimes just rides on the floor. In case you need a new supply of car towels, Amazon offers ’em on the cheap.

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Nonperishable Snacks

Incessant wails of “I’m hungry!” coming from the back seat will sink your ship — and sanity — fast. When you’ll be home in 10 minutes, the kid’s just gotta wait. But when errands take longer than expected or traffic extends your commute, you’ll want to have snacks at the ready. We keep a 6-by-6-inch Ziploc container stocked with a couple of granola bars, two Justin’s Classic Almond Butter Squeeze Packs, a few pouches of Stonyfield Organic fruit snacks, and a six-pack of Ritz Cracker Sandwiches. Another trick: Keep the container hidden so kids don’t ask for snacks just because they spot ’em. We like to stick ours in the space below the passenger seat for easy access.

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Plastic grocery bags

Of course you try to limit your family’s disposable plastic usage, but let’s be real: plastic grocery bags can be a godsend in the car. They’re great for holding muddy cleats or soaked shin guards and ideal for collecting food wrappers, used wet wipes, and soiled diapers — stuff you’d rather not touch again. Just toss the whole shebang. Plastic bags also take up very little space. Just a wrap and rubber-band a few together and stick ’em in your glove compartment or seat-back pocket.

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A Variety of Wipes

Whether for post-potty maintenance or cleaning up sugary fingers, spilled lattes, spittle-covered faces, and those I-don’t-know-what-that-is-but-it’s-sticky messes, these wet wipes are indispensable. The 40-count canister is perfect for the car, as it keeps towels moist and lets you pull out however many the mop-up job requires. We find the center console is a great spot to store Wet Ones — accessible for you and riders in the passenger and back seats.

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Paper napkins

Yes, you need both wet and dry napkins. Paper napkins are a must for meals eaten on the road and for sopping up small, non-sticky spills. They double as facial tissues too, so you can never have too many. We prefer cocktail napkins, actually, because a 20-pack tucks neatly in the glove compartment and stays put, whereas those paper-thin fast-food-restaurant napkins jostle around, fray, and get stuck in the latch (okay, fine, we always have a few of those stuffed in the glover anyway).

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Hand Sanitizer

Keep this 2-ounce pump-action bottle in your glove compartment or center counsel so kids can clean their mitts after swinging on monkey bars, using ill-equipped public restrooms, or sneezing all over themselves. Definitely have them squirt and rub their hands together before they put food in their mouths. The bottle’s small size is easy for little hands to manage without making a mess, and even with frequent use, it should last you quite a while.

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A bottle of sunscreen will come in handy more times than you can count, both for planned fun in the sun and spontaneous stints outside. It’s such an easy thing to forget at home or to not even think to bring if it’s cloudy when you leave your house. We like Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Zinc Oxide Sunscreen SPF 50. It’s gentle on skin so great for all ages, and it’s water resistant for 80 minutes. It also made the Environmental Working Group’s latest list of safest sunscreens for kids.

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Cuts, scrapes, scratches — they can all happen in the car or right before your kid climbs in. You need Band-Aids at the ready, in an array of sizes, so you can contain the blood for now and, if necessary, deal with the wound properly once you get home. The 30-count Variety Pack is perfect for the car because the slim, rectangular box can stand upright in your center console without taking up much space.

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Activity books

When kids get bored in the car, they’ll tell you. Then they’ll tell you again. And again. Or they’ll just start slugging their sibling. To keep those active minds occupies, stash an activity book for each child in the seat-back pocket, under the back seats, or anywhere, really. Activity books are especially great for leaving in the car because they won’t get fried when sun blazes through the windows. See our roundup of the 10 best activity books for kids of all kinds. Another favorite: The 50 States Activity Book: Maps of the 50 States of the USAwhich keeps kids occupied — and on theme.

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A Road Atlas

Yeah, yeah, everyone uses GPS. But what if you’re headed somewhere unfamiliar, your phone dies, and suddenly you’re lost? Or, when navigating through a skyscraper-filled downtown, the satellite signal keeps cutting out? Tuck the Rand McNally 2019 Road Atlas into your seat-back pocket so that, technology be damned, you won’t be screwed. It has full-page maps of each state plus blown-up insets of major metropolitan areas.

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A Tool Kit

All the tools everyone should all have in their car just in case—flashlight, jumper cables, screwdriver, rain poncho, duct tape — you definitely need when transporting children. Lifeline’s AAA 42-piece kit give you all those plus more tools to save your ass if you break down, have a flat, or get into an accident. It all comes in a handy zip-up soft-side bag with handles that fits in any trunk and some spare tire compartments.

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Bonus: An Extra change of clothes for everyone

When your infant barfs all over their front on your way to somewhere, you’ll be stoked to have that extra onesie in the car. Same thing when you pick up your daughter from preschool en route to the dentist and discover her duds are splattered with mud. Stow a quick change for everyone — including a shirt for you, in case the barf (or your coffee) lands on your front — in a small suitcase in your trunk. A duffel bag would also work. Both will protect the clothes from dirt and grime, but a suitcase will also prevent them from getting wrinkled.