How to Choose a First-Aid Kit
We’re often not very good at planning for the worst, and fail to plan ahead for emergencies when we’re heading outdoors. After all, what could go wrong?
The answer is, “Plenty.” Having a first-aid kit handy is an essential component of your equipment because it can make all the difference if and when a serious situation arises, or even when you just need to tend to a minor problem.
In 2007 I began backpacking and as time went on I realized there were many things that I either did not know or situations I was not properly equipped to handle. This was highlighted when I took a fall on the trail on New Hampshire’s Mount Whiteface that resulted in a rare eversion ankle sprain. I was two miles from the trailhead, it was cold, and I only had one other person to help me. My only solution to that potentially dangerous situation was to grab my poles and hobble out the two miles to the trailhead.
This experience woke me up to my inability to handle emergency situations, so I enrolled in a Wilderness First Aid class and later a Wilderness First Responder class. Now, as an Expert Gearhead here at Backcountry, I am able to draw from my WFA and WFR classes to assist customers in selecting the proper first-aid kit to suit their needs.
Choosing a Kit: The Big Picture
Figuring out which first-aid kit will be best for you can be difficult, as you balance being prepared for every possible situation against the weight, bulk, and cost of these supplies. Factors you should consider include:
- Group size: The odds you will need your first-aid kit go up as the number of people involved increases, and the quantities you will need will be greater. Planning for the potential needs and emergencies in a group of 10 people is very different than meeting the requirements of a duo or threesome.
- Trip duration: You want to ensure your supplies don’t run out before your trip ends. There are items in the first-aid kit that will be used more frequently such as band-aids, gauze, moleskin, etc.
A wider array of supplies may also be needed to account for allergies or certain health conditions. Thoroughly researching the area you’re heading is critical in selecting the crucial components for your kit, since your needs will differ greatly for a trip to the Amazon rain forest, versus a trip up Mt. Rainier, versus a day hike with the family.
There are a few ways to go about selecting or building your first-aid kit:
- You can build a kit from scratch and compile all the supplies necessary for your trip and group size.
- You can also start with purchasing a basic first-aid kit like the Adventure Medical: Fundamentals First-Aid Kit and adding to it based on your needs.
- Or, find a tailored kit from our large selection of first-aid kits that vary from kits intended for dogs, cyclists, day trips, weekend trips and longer expeditions.
My personal favorite is the Adventure Medical: Ultralight and Watertight .7 First-Aid Kit since it is super lightweight and compact. This accompanies me on all climbing outings; I like that the contents are separated into two bags so I can pick and choose to cut down on weight depending on the day’s objective or trip duration.
To treat the most common situations you might encounter, the following should be a part of every kit:
- Large supply of bandages, gauze, wound-closure strips: Having a range on hand will enable you to treat different situations.
- Ace wrap: Can be used for wrapping sprained ankles, splinting an arm or leg, or keeping an ice pack in place.
- Ointments & alcohol/antiseptic wipes: Critical for cleaning wounds and preventing infection.
- Tweezers, scissors or knife: Valuable for cleaning debris out of wounds, removing splinters, and for cutting down pieces of gauze or even articles of clothing if needed.
- Basic medications: Painkillers, antacid tablets, and anti-inflammatories are just some of the basic medications that everyone should try and have in their kit.
- Epi-Pen and/or Benadryl: It’s very important to know if anyone in your group has serious, even potentially fatal, allergies. If they do, these items are an absolute must.
- Sunscreen: In addition to being painful, a sunburn can lead to dehydration. Sunburn occurs faster at altitude or on snow/water or while out at the crag all day.
- Emergency space blanket: Can be used to keep you warm, build an emergency shelter, and shelter you from the rain, to name a few uses.
Depending on where you are going and what you are doing, you may want to include the following:
- Burn kit: Burns can be fairly common around campfires and camp stoves. Having a burn kit handy is critical to caring for a recent burn.
- Sling: A sling is a versatile piece for not only aiding injured elbows or shoulders, but for other situations such as splinting a leg.
- Instant ice pack: After an injury, swelling can occur rapidly and this may prevent you from putting a foot back into your footwear. Having an ice pack handy will help to decrease swelling.
- Lip balm: Be sure it includes sun protection.
- Thermometer: Thermometers can be incredibly useful in determining whether someone in your group is in need of immediate medical attention.
- Insect repellent: Not only makes your trip more pleasant, but can protection against disease-carrying insects.
- Tape/safety pins: (fractures, sprain, strain) Use to secure bandages, wraps, and splits in place.
- Irrigation syringe: Flushing a wound out with sterile water is critical to preventing infection.
- Gloves: Gloves not only protect you from communicable diseases from the person you are treating, but they protect your patient as well.
- Easy Care guide/Instruction manual for basic first aid: There are booklets available that have information for a variety of emergency situations when you do not have immediate access to medical care; sometimes they’re even included with a pre-made kit. Keep in mind that these instruction manuals are not a substitute for professional medical training.
Another aspect of first aid is being prepared in case you or your group is lost/stranded, particularly when injured at the same time. A good kit will include the following; you can buy a complete kit, or assemble your own.
- Whistle/signaling mirror: When you’re lost or off-trail, being able to signal for help is one of the best methods for being found.
- Emergency poncho: Staying dry is crucial in the backcountry. Being wet can decrease morale, create foot issues from continual exposure to moisture, and take you to the beginning stages of hypothermia. This poncho can also be modified for use as a survival shelter.
- Lighter or matches: Starting a fire can be key to survival. Fire allows you to treat water, cook food, stay warm and signal for help.
- Compass: So you can navigate to safety when when you lose the trail or your bearings, or the cloud cover rolls in.
- Tablets to treat water: Pumps can break and SteriPen batteries can die; iodine tablets are a compact backup plan.
The above lists are long, and simply may not be practical or necessary for shorter excursions. There are certain items, however, you want to be sure to bring along for the following activities:
If you’re hiking or trail running make sure you have supplies to treat a blister or hot spots where rubbing occurs. Besides a properly fitted shoe or boot, having supplies on hand in your kit is the best way to prevent a blister. If a blister pops, infection is a risk so it’s crucial to address hot spots as soon as they surface. To learn more about preventing and managing blisters, click here.
- Lots of bandages
- Hand repair balm
A first-aid kit that has extra bandages is critical since climbers often find themselves cutting their fingers or splitting the skin on their fingers near the cuticle. The worst thing to do if you have a cut on your finger is to dip it into a chalk bag, since foreign particles are now entering the wound. Promptly cleaning and caring for any break in the skin, however small, is important.
Climbers will often associate tape with protection for crack climbing, bur tape has many other uses, from protecting sore wrists and ankles to making splints. The last critical piece I recommend for all climbers is hand repair balm. Climbing is hard on skin, and the recovery process for skin takes time. Having hand repair balm readily available will help speed up healing.
Backcountry winter activities
- Emergency blanket
- Strong, collapsible ski poles and tarp for constructing sled to evacuate
- Duct tape & Voile straps
The time of year and current weather conditions are incredibly important factors to consider when planning your winter first-aid kit. Injury while skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing in the backcountry can expose you to the added risk of hypothermia. If you or a partner becomes injured, not only do you need to be prepared to treat the injury but you’ll want extra layers to keep you warm. An essential item to add to your winter first-aid kit is an inexpensive emergency blanket or two to help the victim retain body heat. Poles that can be used in traction splints or for erecting shelter or creating a sled to transport a victim are also useful. The last essential components are duct tape and Voile straps. When your equipment fails, you’ll be infinitely thankful for the day-saving versatility of these backcountry essentials.
A properly equipped first-aid kit should be at the top of everyone’s packing list. Unexpected situations can be handled much better if you have the right tools to treat wounds and injuries. Aside from being equipped, I think all hikers and outdoor enthusiasts could benefit from a Wilderness First Aid course or Wilderness First Responder training. Having this knowledge not only helps in unexpected situations but also helps you plan your trips and think about the risks associated with what you are hoping to do. If you have any first-aid kit questions or gear questions, I’d love to connect with you and help you get more prepared for the outdoors.