How to build a first aid kit

“What do I put in my first aid kit?” This is the single most common question I get asked about wilderness medicine.

September is National Preparedness Month, and recent flash floods, hurricanes, heat waves, and destructive forest fires have all shown us the importance of being prepared for disasters and emergencies. This is super important for everyone. 

If you are planning an outside adventure, a little planning for yourself, your family, and your loved ones will ensure that you have the safest and most enjoyable trip possible. A well-stocked first aid kit will provide peace of mind and increase the chances that you can continue your adventure if an accident happens. As they say, “luck favors the well prepared.”

Lessons learned from experience

Almost 20 years ago, I spent a lot of time contemplating first aid supplies as I embarked on my first gig as an expedition doctor. We were headed on a two-week expedition through the fluted peaks and hanging glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, and I carefully considered all the necessary equipment and medicines we would need for two dozen people. I had a go bag on my back, a blister kit on my hip, and a base camp duffel stashed away on the burro train. I was ready!

On the first day, I was reviewing contingency plans, and I inquired about satellite phone availability in case we needed an evacuation. The lead guide pointed over to a horse grazing nearby and just said, “caballo blanco.” That “white horse” was the extent of our evacuation plan. Even with my poor language skills, I quickly realized that I was going to need to re-evaluate my concepts of emergency preparedness.

While organizing medical equipment for an expedition is an extraordinary undertaking, it taught me a few concepts that anyone can use to streamline first aid kit preparation and minimize stress. Today I want to share a few of those lessons learned.

My medical support preparation for a 150 mile expedition-length ultramarathon through the Sahara Desert.

The best first aid kit is the one in your pack

First, it is important to understand that you will not be able to take everything you want. Some equipment will have to be left at home. 

It’s impossible to have an all-purpose medical kit for every situation. Focus on high-probability issues and high-consequence conditions that are easily treatable. I like to say “most common things happen most commonly.” Of course, if there is a rare but personal necessity, bring that as well.

Remember, it doesn’t matter how comprehensive your kit is if you left it in your car trunk.

Make a plan

Making a good first aid kit starts with a plan: know the type, length, and duration of your trip.

Where are you going? The environment you’re traveling through will help focus your supplies, as a trip up into the mountains can involve very different types of potential injuries and illnesses than a bushwhack through forests.

Other important considerations include the duration of the trip, number of people traveling, and specific medical problems of those in the group. 

If traveling in a group, consider having each person bring their own personal supplies, then bring one group medical kit for larger, less likely issues. Communicate and clarify what everyone is responsible for.

Always have an exit strategy in case something goes wrong or someone gets hurt. Know your proximity, method, and routes to access medical care. Remember that emergencies and evacuation always take longer than expected. Consider including minimalist emergency survival gear and redundancy of necessary items. If your water filter breaks on the trail, it’s much better to have a backup than to build a fire and boil all your water for the duration of your backpacking trip. (Trust me; I know.)


Purchasing a commercial first aid kit

Your first aid kit needs to be accessible, functional, and protected. A commercial kit is a good place to start as the pockets and organization will give you a good idea of what you need to bring. Many products are weatherproof, and they give you room to customize the kit to your unique needs. 

Consider the following guidelines before purchasing a commercial first aid kit:

  1. A good first aid kit should be weatherproof, if not fully waterproof.
  2. It should be organized to facilitate ease of access.
  3. Pick a size that you like and makes sense for your needs.
  4. Evaluate and pack multi-purpose items and medications whenever possible. 
  5. There should be redundancy (extras) of the most important and necessary items.

Wound care supplies

Accidents happen. Blisters are common. Proper wound care supplies can make the difference between minor discomfort and major infection. 

Your first aid kit should include:

  1. Bandages: You simply can’t have enough band-aids. I like to pack an assorted size of fabric band-aids, some gauze packets, cloth tape, safety pins, and a roll of Coban adhesive wrap for compression bandages.
  2. Disinfectant: Clean wounds with clean water, wipes, and/or disinfectant gel.
  3. Sheers: Scissors, or a knife/multi-tool from your back are important for cutting bandages and dressing wounds.
  4. Gloves: Prevent infection and spread of disease by covering your hands with nitrile gloves.
  5. Antibiotic Ointment: While there is poor scientific evidence to support the utility of antibiotic ointment, the potential benefit of preventing a skin infection is worth the inclusion of some small ointment packs in your kit. 
  6. Splint: a SAMsplint is a wonderful inclusion to take care of everything from stabilizing a broken wrist to a potentially catastrophic cervical spinal fracture. 
  7. Wound closing: A small wound stapler will do wonders for that gashed head. Head wound like to bleed—a lot. Super glue in your kit can fix small cuts as well as torn gear. Duct tape also provides a good alternative to commercial wound closure devices.
  8. Tweezers: be prepared for splinters and stingers.
  9. Anti-itch cream: if traveling through areas known to have lots of poison oak/ivy.

Important medications

Medications are just as important than the emergency supplies in your kit. Having a few key options can help keep you comfortable and healthy throughout your journey.

  1. Over-the-counter medicine for pain and inflammation: Minor aches and pains are common when heading into the outdoors, as the unfamiliar terrain will stress your muscles in new ways. 
  2. Antacids: Outdoor trips away from your pantry involve a different diet than what you usually eat at home. This can affect the acid in your stomach as well as the ease of digestion. Consider an antacid like bismuth salycilate or calcium carbonate in chewable tablets, or famotidine to make your mealtimes much more enjoyable.
  3. Constipation and diarrhea: A more important consideration on longer trips, over-the-counter medication for both constipation and diarrhea can make the difference between a suffer fest and a pleasant expedition.
  4. Prescription medications: Check and double-check to make sure everyone in your group is well equipped with any normal prescription medications.

Other must-have preventative supplies

A first aid kid alone is not enough to guarantee a successful outdoor adventure. Before grappling with wilderness medicine, simply prepare for the wilderness itself.

Many medical problems and uncomfortable experiences can be prevented with basic supplies. A short list to maximize comfort and prevent simple problems includes:

  1. Insect repellant
  2. High SPF sunscreen and lip protection
  3. Sunglasses
  4. Allergy medicine
  5. Duct tape
  6. Safety pins
  7. Antimicrobial wet wipes 
  8. Ear plugs for snoring tent mates

Get ready for your next adventure!

Remember that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Many common outdoor injuries are easily preventable or treatable.

Prepare for your next adventure by downloading the free GOES Health App. Our activity-specific “plan and prepare” section provides further tips and information based on your activity and specific conditions like climate and altitude. 

A plan and the right supplies will help ensure that your traveling companions have a positive experience…which translates to an enthusiastic partner on your next adventure. Now you’re set to get out there and have fun!

Stay safe, Grant

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