It’s tempting to purchase a pre-packaged first-aid kit, throw it in your pack, and think you’re covered. Unfortunately, many pre-made kits are expensive, generic, heavy, include items that aren’t very functional in the backcountry, and are often missing items that could really make a difference. Here are some guidelines for making a great kit.
The best first-aid kit is the one you build yourself.
The first time you open up your first-aid kit should not be when you need to use it. If you keep a supply of first-aid items at home, you can then hand-pick your kit’s contents and tailor it to each trip. Stocking your own kit also allows you to use whatever container makes the most sense—a small dry bag, a lightweight stuff sack, or a first-aid pack with dividers. It’s often easy to find first-aid items at your local medical supply store or online. A kit that you carefully assemble helps you know you have the right quantities of the items you’ll need. You’ll also know exactly where to find things in your kit, which can be very important in an emergency.
Create a kit that is specialized for your trip.
Consider how a kit might need to be different depending on activity, location, and duration. A day trip within cell service and near roads might not require as many supplies for long-term care. However, a two-week expedition off the grid might require different items, such as supplies to prevent infection of wounds, medications for gastrointestinal problems, or supplies to treat environmental challenges such as oral rehydration salts in a hot climate. Know and prepare for the medical needs of your group by asking about preexisting conditions that may need care.
Consider the likelihood of different injuries and illnesses.
Common hiking injuries include blisters, sprains, and strains. Common mountain biking injuries, however, might include more abrasions and fractures. Stock your kit with more of the supplies that you’re likely to use during your trip. While some things like splints and litters can be improvised, there are certain things that, if you truly need them, are irreplaceable. Examples include: antihistamine and epinephrine (prescription only) for severe systemic allergic reactions, aspirin for suspected heart attack, sterile absorptive material for severe bleeding, glucose for diabetic emergencies, a one-way valve mask for CPR, etc.
Take a wilderness medicine course.
We can all work on our training and skills to deal with injuries and illnesses in the backcountry. Taking a wilderness medicine course is the first step toward gaining competence in first aid for remote settings. With those skills comes experience with and knowledge of the equipment and supplies needed to provide care. The more you know about how to use each item, the better prepared you’ll be to build your own first-aid kit.
“A kit that you carefully assemble helps you know you have the right quantities of the items you’ll need. You’ll also know exactly where to find things in your kit, which can be very important in an emergency.”
Gain the knowledge and skills to prevent injury & illness in the backcountry.
One goal in the backcountry is to not need to use the first-aid kit at all. Traumatic injuries are often prevented with sound risk management and decision-making that begins long before you leave the pavement. Environmental problems are generally preventable with proper acclimatization and self-care. Medical problems can be a wild card and knowing how to assess and respond to them through medical training is even more important.
My hope is that this post is a reminder of things you have already considered. If not, I hope it’s an inspiration to learn more. Read more about first-aid kits from the Wilderness Medicine Training Center.
Tiana White is the outdoor program director at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, and an instructor for the Wilderness Medicine Training Center.