The way I was brought up, jumper cables are basically a part of your car. I might not always have remembered to keep every single item of the ideal emergency car kit in my trunk, but a pair of jumper cables were always there, because why the hell not? They’re cheap enough and easy enough to keep around. But that only solves half the problem—you still find someone with a working car to lend you some juice. Unless, of course, you have a portable jump starter.
Why and how to jump a car
As a quick refresher on what it means to jump a car, this is what you do when your car’s battery is dead. In a traditional car with a gas engine, the battery is only there to get the engine started, and to operate little extras like the headlights and radio. The gas is what fuels the engine, and the engine recharges the battery as you go. A perfect little system—until you leave your lights on overnight and the battery dies. Now your car won’t start.
The process for jumping a car is simple enough you can print it on the bag that your jumper cables are kept in, like so. (This was my secret all through my 20’s, as I helped out one hapless friend or stranger after another. Did I have the procedure fully memorized? No. Did I quickly read it off the bag as I was unzipping the cables? You betcha.)
Start with “red on dead” (positive terminal on the dead battery), then connect the positive on the good car, negative on the good car, and finally connect the last clamp to some bare metal like the engine block. Then get in the dead car and turn the ignition. If it doesn’t work, you probably have some crud on the battery contacts; scrape it off and try again. Once your car is started, make sure to drive it around a bit for the engine to charge the battery back up. We have a more detailed guide to jumping a car here.
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Electric and hybrid cars are different, of course, and outside the scope of this article. We have some basic info here, but defer to your car’s manual.
How to get a jump when you need one
If you’re the rescuer with the good car and the jumper cables, you’re all set. But if you have a dead car and cables, the old way would have you look for a kind stranger who can move their car next to yours. In a busy parking lot, this is no problem: Just ask whoever is around.
If you’re on your own, don’t forget that you can call a cab or an Uber; most drivers will happily take your money to sit there for five minutes while you hook up your jumper cables.
But now we get to the easiest way of all: These days, you can buy a cheap portable battery, similar to the brick you already use to charge your phone. The only catch here is that you need to check regularly to make sure it’s charged, since the charge will drop below useful levels after a few months of sitting in your trunk.
Our friends at Jalopnik like the THOR 1000, which costs about $40, but there are plenty of others out there with varying capacities and extra features. The manual for the THOR shows how easy it is to use: Just connect the included jumper cables, and then start your car. No flagging down strangers, no maneuvering cars around because for some reason you ended up in the most awkward corner of the parking lot. Just hook it up, start your car, and then you can pack it up and be on your way.
A portable battery will usually also include a flashlight and a USB port to charge your phone, so it can help you out of more emergencies than just a dead car battery. These days, I still have those traditional jumper cables in my trunk, but when I go on a road trip I make sure I have a fully-charged portable starter battery with me as well.