What makes up a good first aid kit may not be the kind of topic that has you bursting to read on, but stifle those yawns!
Being bored to death by something that could spare you from death isn’t the smartest move and those who venture into the wild without a first aid kit usually get found out one way or another.
Accidents happen. A slip of your knife while you’re cutting up firewood or a twisted ankle are minor incidents when basic medical supplies are on hand, but if you’re two days walk from civilisation and have nothing to strap your ankle with you might suddenly develop a keen interest in the kind of things that can hold a damaged body together.
Don’t wait till it’s too late! Read on to learn about essential first aid gear and, for those really pushing the envelope, the extra gear that makes up emergency supply kits (or “bug out bags”) for when the going gets really tough.
Basic First-Aid Checklist
Humans are pretty durable overall. Considering we’re comprised of around 60% percent water (1), contained within skin that can be pierced by blunt drawing pins and the edges of paper, we do pretty well.
The great outdoors is a rough place and, unsurprisingly, roughs us up. Since even “a simple wound, if not treated properly, can quickly turn serious” (2) - and there are no pharmacies in the wilderness - it’s critical that you pack first aid gear when you’re heading out.
Okay, so what do I bring?
A quick browse over the variety of pre-made hiking first aid kits on the market highlights the fact that there is no absolute consensus on what constitutes a first aid kit. Kits can range in weight from a few ounces to several pounds and some of the larger kits contain a baffling number of items.
Rei.com’s “intentionally extensive” checklist of items has more than 50 entries so it’s clear that the first thing you need to do when assembling a kit is boil it down to the essential essentials.
A comparison of several authoritative (3, 4, 5, 6) guides suggests these are:
A pretty obvious one to start with. Be sure to take plasters with a range of sizes and functions. Butterfly bandages, for example, can be used to hold together deeper cuts that a surface plaster wouldn’t close.
- Medical Tape/Equivalent
Bandages will be worse than useless without something to hold them in place. Make sure it’s in your pack.
- Antiseptic Cream Or Wipes
Another necessity. Cleaning out cuts to stop them becoming infected mitigates one of the biggest dangers of the trail.
- Antidiarrheal Pills
Eg Immodium. Annals of Emergency Medicine (July 1992) found that "viral syndromes and diarrhea account for...45 percent of the illness evacuations from wilderness programs" (7). Immodium doesn’t cure diarrhea but it can stop you purging critical minerals and fluids long enough to find your way safely back to civilisation.
Pain is an immobiliser and, if you’re injured on the trail, you’ll be struggling to make it to safety without the aid of painkillers/something to bring the swelling down.
Have any allergies? What about if you simply haven’t discovered them yet? If you suffer an allergic reaction to the bite of some rare insect in a remote valley antihistamines could save the day.
- Safety Pins
Can be used to provide added support to bandages or to turn items of clothing into slings for injured limbs
Ticks are a danger of the trail and can be removed with tweezers. As can splints of wood, thorns and other items that penetrate the flesh and cause discomfort
- Latex Gloves
Bodily fluids are an unpleasant business at the best of times but particularly nasty and infectious if someone falls ill. Use these if you have to deal with your own or (God forbid!) someone else’s bodily fluids on the trail.
Now we’ve got the basics sorted what about extras?
Additions to pack generally fall into two categories: personal preference/needs and location considerations.
We all have personal healthcare considerations/vulnerabilities so it makes sense to tailor your first aid kit to these.
If you’re aware of any existing medical conditions (eg asthma or hay fever) you’d be well advised to add medicines capable of controlling any flare-ups to your pack. Likewise, if blisters tend to plague you on the trail why not add in a blister care pack?
As thehikinglife.com point out, “the dictates of the environment into which you will be venturing” should also be considered. For example, if you’re hiking in snake country you might want to add items to your pack capable of mitigating the effects of a snake bite.
If your hiking trip is in the developing world consider packing a broad spectrum antibiotic and/or a rehydration solution sachet to counter illnesses you’re unlikely to catch at home.
If you’re unsure of the potential health hazards of a hiking location check out the World Health Organisation website or speak to your doctor.
Emergency Supply Kit Checklist (AKA bug out bag)
If complete disaster strikes on the trail the chances are a first aid kit won’t be enough. Bug out bags are the next step up. As theartofmanliness.com report “the Bug Out Bag (BOB) is a self-contained kit designed to get you through at least 72 hours.” If an avalanche strikes, you become lost, stranded through injury or caught up in a storm, an emergency survival kit is designed to help you stay alive until help arrives on the scene or you are able to find your own way out.
Given that we live in perilous times, haunted by the spectre of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, climate change and nuclear brinksmanship (thanks Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump), you might consider a emergency preparedness kit a good thing to have around in any case.
So what should my bug out bag have in it?
These bags are, of necessity, significantly larger than first aid kits. They have to provide for all basic needs over a three-day period, which means that food, shelter, water and sources of heat must be included. Like your first aid kit some of the items are optional/a matter of personal taste. The ones listed below are, according to authoritative sources (7, 8,9, 10), more or less essential:
- First Aid Kit
This is a constituent part of any BOB.
- 72-hour supply of clean drinking water
Lack of water will kill you much faster than a lack of food. A gallon of water per day is required, so that’s three gallons in all. That’s a significant load to carry on a hiking trip so you may prefer to pack water purification tablets to clean your water on the trail and/or a US Army style metal canteen in which water can be boiled to make it safe for drinking.
- 72-hour supply of food
Though failing to eat for three days is unlikely to prove fatal in itself, if you’re in a tough situation and unable to provide yourself with an energy boost you will be far more vulnerable. Pack non-perishable foods that can be eaten without preparation (eg protein or granola bars, dried fruit and nuts, chocolate bars, etc) to help you make it through.
- Emergency Blanket
These take up barely any room in your pack and are virtually weightless - not bad for a potential lifesaver that can trap vital body heat!
Fires don’t start themselves. Okay, they do sometimes, but when you want them to warm you up in a snow storm rather than, say, burn down your house, flames are usually less compliant. As well as a BIC lighter and a backup firestarter such as a magnesium striker, you’ll want to pack a source of tinder like cotton balls soaked in petroleum to burn at the base of a fire with enough persistence that even the wettest, most reluctant wood catches.
You may have a digital one on your phone but batteries die. An old-fashioned compass could prove worth its weight in gold.
- Battery-Powered or Hand Crank Radio
Another anachronism that could save your life after your smartphone has gone stupid and died.
- Head Torch and Candles
One ultra-modern source of lighting and an old-faithful backup.
Even if your voice has gone you can still call for help with a whistle.
What else might I need?
Our emergency survival kit is looking in pretty good shape so far. We’ve got food, water, shelter (the emergency blanket), heat and light sorted for a 72-hour period and a radio to call for help. There are, nonetheless, plenty of other items you could potentially add in.
Duct tape is a favourite of many survivalists for its almost inexhaustible number of uses, from taping up an emergency shelter to waterproofing items (11)
Those who like to panic in style may add in “luxuries” like disposable plates and toilet paper, but trekkers will be wary of adding extra weight for anything that might be considered unnecessary.
We’re all familiar with the phrase “dying of boredom.” Perhaps you’d like to pack a book or a game into your survival bag to pass the time? The extra carry weight will surely prove worthwhile when you’re beating your friend at chess in an improvised snow cave!
“First aid kits have a habit of ending up in the backyard, upstairs in the attic, out in the garage,” verywell.com note, “basically, anywhere except where you need them in an emergency.”
Even if your first aid kit is geared towards hiking it still makes sense to keep it somewhere in your house that’s easily accessible should you need it.
It is suggested that this is in a dry area, to prevent moisture or humidity from affecting the medicines in the kit (12). On this basis kitchens sound like a good bet - and a significantly better bet than wet, humid bathrooms.
How to Organize Your Kits
You’ll want your kit, like any item you carry on the trail, to be as light and compact as possible. For this reason, you’re unlikely to want to carry industrial sized containers of aspirin and antihistamines around with you.
A good way of organizing it is to remove medications from their sometimes cumbersome packaging and store them in clearly labelled “resealable bags and plastic bottles.” (13) As well as reducing bulk and allowing you to pack only the quantity of a certain medication you’re likely to need, this has the added benefit of waterproofing the items.
Pack your kit as neatly as possible, making full use of any pockets and pouches in the bag/box to keep items in place. Remember, first aid kits are for emergencies! You shouldn’t have to spend five minutes rummaging around a jumble of items to find a butterfly plaster or the aspirin that could foil a heart attack!
Where to Buy Kits
Pre-made kits can be ordered online, picked up in pharmacies or supermarkets and are also stocked by many outdoor adventure stores.
Picking up a pre-made kit can be a good start even if you plan on making a DIY one. You can make use of the bag and any items that are suitable and add/remove gear from the pack as you see fit.
Know How to Use It!
They will be of limited use to you unless you know a bit about first aid. Consider taking a first aid course to pick up the basics or, if you need an emergency crash course, check out this YouTube guide to first aid on the trail.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where to keep a first aid kit?
Somewhere dry, with a warm stable temperature within the storage boundaries of most medicines (58 to 86 degrees fahrenheit) (14)
What can a first-aid kit be used for?
Providing basic first aid care - dealing with cuts, joint inflammation, allergic reactions and other hazards of the trail
What is a Bug out bag?
A bug out bag consists of a first aid kit and the additional materials required to help you get through a period of 72 hours should disaster strike (15). You'll also want sources of “water, food, shelter, protection and a way to light your way are all musts” (16) for an emergency preparedness kit.
Where should I store a bug out bag?
They should be stored somewhere easily accessible with a stable room temperature.
What size bug out bag should I have?
According to skilledsurvival.com they should be “based on your torso size” and “must fit comfortably on your hips.” Check out the link for in-depth information on how to measure yourself up for a bug out bag.
Who needs a bug out bag?
It could be argued that all of us should have one since, theoretically, disaster could strike us at any time. However, if you are the kind of person who hikes into unexplored wilderness in Antarctica it could be argued, equally well, that you’re much more likely to require one and should probably look into the matter urgently.
How long should a bug out bag last?
It could last indefinitely - so long as it is maintained. Since food, water and other perishables (like medicines) are part of the bag they will need to be renewed at regular intervals to keep the bag in shape. You can check out an in-depth guide on maintenance here.