An Expert Guide to Backpacking First Aid Kits

Camping & Hiking expert David Diet overviews medical kits for hikes, what to look for when buying a kit, and how to build your own.

Photo by Milan Degraeve

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The wilderness is an opportunity for exploration and to test one’s individual resilience via a variety of avenues. Backpacking is one of those activities that while generally safe, always has an underlying degree of danger and risk. A favorite saying of mine, “Be prepared for the worst, therefore all surprises are pleasant,” applies heavily. What does that mean? Simply, make sure you are taking active measures of self-preparation so you can easily avoid an emergency. One of those measures is carrying a medical kit along for your hike.

First Aid kits are part of the ten essentials to take on a hike. For those not in the know, those essentials are as follows:

  • Navigation: Always have a map and a compass in addition to your cell phone or GPS unit. Batteries run empty, cell signal is not guaranteed, and it is better to have a solid backup in case of failure.
  • Hydration: Always take water with you, period. You should be regularly sipping to help avoid dehydration on your hike. Also, seriously consider carrying either water purification tablets or a water filtration device for extended woodland stays.
  • Nutrition: Beyond carrying snacks, take a few meal replacement bars. If stranded for a while, these are invaluable for survival. If taking a multi-day backpacking trip, make space and be willing to sacrifice the weight for an extra day or two’s worth of food.
  • Rain Gear and Insulating Layer(s): Mother Nature is unpredictable. You wake up one morning and the weatherperson is calling for 70°F and sunny for the next five days. Getting out to the trail proves them initially correct. Then, a few hours later, the heavens open and a torrential rain falls, or the temperature drops, and you are miserable because you are soaked and chilled to the bone. Also include an extra pair of socks and gloves or mittens.
  • Fire Starter: You need more than a disposable lighter. Take an old medication bottle and pack it full of waterproof matches. Also include a simple chemical fire starter such as a few cotton balls covered with petroleum jelly. Another possibility is a ferro rod, which is a metal rod that causes sparks to light a fire when a knife or piece of steel is rasped along it.
  • First Aid Kit: Why you are reading this, and we’ll go further in depth below.
  • Tools: A knife, whether fixed blade or a pocket knife and/or multitool always should be carried. For longer treks, either a hatchet or a folding saw should be hauled along for a variety of camp chores.
  • Illumination: It can get dark early in the backcountry. Mountains cast shadows and trees block sunlight from hitting the forest floor. Take a headlamp and a small handheld flashlight.
  • Sun Protection: At minimum sunglasses, a brimmed hat, lip balm, and sunscreen. Being sunburnt is not a fun time, prevent it before it happens.
  • Shelter: If you are on a multiday trip, you already have a form of shelter with you. For day hikers, carry an emergency poncho and blanket. In a pinch these can be strung up for a temporary shelter. They only weigh a tiny bit each and do not take up much space.
A blue first aid kit, three water bottles, a mask, crackers, utensils, a box of matches, a flashlight, two batteries, and other gear

Photo by Roger Brown

First Aid Kits & the Knowledge Required

What is the point of carrying a first aid kit if you do not know how to properly use it? The American Red Cross offers a course in Sports and Wilderness First Aid. These wilderness first responder courses will go more in depth about potential injuries and how to treat them over the general first aid classes. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of pain, give yourself the knowledge to handle the situation effectively.

A first aid manual, such as the US Army’s First Aid Manual, is an invaluable resource to cover a variety of first aid scenarios with easy to read, detailed methods for the application of aid. Download a copy to your phone and print a physical copy. To save space, use your print settings to set it at four pages per sheet. Doing this will cut down on paper (from 120 pages to around 30), while still remaining legible.

No matter how much knowledge and training you have obtained, it will be rendered useless if you do not stay calm and in control of your emotions in an emergency. You must keep calm, cool, and collected as you begin treatment or the potential for being ineffective, or worse, performing the wrong act, rises precipitously.

What Should I Look for When Buying a Kit?

Not all first aid kits are created equal or assembled with backpacking in mind. But do not fret, there are several available pre-designed first aid kits for backpackers! Adjust the size of the kit for both the number of individuals and the number of days. Note what each kit holds and what you will need to add to it. Many kits do not cover blister care items such as moleskin, so keep that in mind.

A larger kit than needed, while slightly more expensive, can be easily broken down into a perfectly-sized personal first aid kit with a preset stock of items to replace as used. Check to see if the kit is in a waterproof container. If not (or in addition), use a large freezer bag to help protect your supplies. A bonus for the freezer bag is that it makes an excellent way to carry out any bio-contaminated waste. The remaining contents of the kit should be as close to the list of items included below as possible.

The contents of a first aid kit laid out on a table, including tweezers, tape, scissors, and gauze.

Photo by Roger Brown

What Should I Buy if Building my Own First Aid Kit?

  • Trauma/EMT Shears: The blunt, rounded tip of these scissors helps to prevent the accidental snipping of your patient.
  • Tweezers: Perfect for plucking splinters or cleaning dirty wounds. They also have other uses while in camp.
  • Safety Pins: Multiple uses but mostly for securing bandages to keep them from unraveling.
  • A First Aid Guide: As discussed earlier, a first aid guide is a great resource for situations where you are not sure what to do.
  • Oral Thermometer: Fever is often a sign of a serious illness or infection. Being able to accurately determine temperature will allow you to take the proper measures to help cool the body.
  • Rescue CPR Barrier: These CPR masks not only help prevent diseases, but also any bodily fluids that may come up as the patient begins to breathe again.
  • Cloth Athletic Tape: Besides holding bandages or splints in place, can also be used around the camp for quick repairs.
  • Field Splint for Broken Bones and Ankle Sprains: Buy an extra-large one and trim to fit to provide stability for broken bones on your way to treatment. Splints are not just for broken bones! Use for sprains and strains to allow you to potentially walk out of the woods.
  • Nitrile Gloves: To avoid bio-contamination from blood, sweat, spit, and any other bodily fluids. Protect yourself and your patient as much as possible. Avoid latex as it is an easy preventative measure to avoid adding an allergic reaction to the mix.
  • Wound Cleaning Kit: These generally have an irrigation syringe, wound closing strip or butterfly strip, and iodine flush. Use this for what the name suggests: to flush out wounds.
  • Benzoin Swabs: Tincture of Benzoin is a topical adhesive designed to help bandages stay on longer so adventurers can reduce the amount of rebandaging needed when dealing with an injury.
  • Moleskin: Moleskin is used for the treatment of blisters and to help keep the blister from growing due to friction. Pre-cut sections speed up the treatment time. Also grab an uncut sheet for larger or odd-shaped blisters and trim to fit.
  • Elastic Medical Wrap: Used for securing bandages and splints for protection from the elements after dressings are applied.
  • 1x3in Band Aides: For smaller nicks, scrapes, scratches, and cuts. Unfortunately, Mom might not be there to kiss the boo-boo afterwords.
  • 3in Gauze Roll: Wrapping larger wounds with a soft, absorbent material that should not stick to the wound or for holding bandages in place.
  • Ice Pack: For sprains, strains, headaches, and to help cool someone who is suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. These chemically-cooled pouches require zero refrigeration.
  • Large Handkerchief or Triangular Bandage: Great for a ground covering as you lay out your supplies or for a sling for an injured arm.
  • Pain Relievers: Acetaminophen, Aspirin, and/or ibuprofen not only can relieve minor pain from a long day of hiking, but can also help to break the unexpected fever.
  • Antihistamine: A product like Benadryl will help either slow or eliminate an allergic reaction. Whether bug bites, stings, poison ivy, or another itchy weed, an antihistamine can make the reaction tolerable or even lifesaving depending on the severity.
  • Emergency Blanket and Emergency Poncho: Unexpected weather happens. Your rain protection fails or the temperature falls. Backup covering is essential. These can also be used in a first aid scenario to help comfort the injured, warm them up, or keep the rain off them. The poncho can be an emergency shelter if properly suspended.
  • Hand Sanitizer: You cannot always wash your hands before starting to apply treatment. Help protect yourself and your buddy from infection.

Miscellaneous Items to Consider

  • Burn Relief: Gels and ointments not only make the burn hurt less, but they can also help lower the severity of burns and speed up the healing process.
  • Extra prescription medications: Gathering up a few extra days of medication to carry along is just smart preparation.
  • Chafe Relief Cream or Lotion: Backpack straps will rub and inner thighs will chafe no matter how much you custom fit your kit. A little cream can make life better.
  • Emergency Whistle: Use it for signaling your location for emergency first responders. No matter how accurate your description of your location, a whistle will help draw help in faster.
  • A Waterproof Case to Store Everything: Find one with many different sized pockets on the inside to help organize your kit. A well-sorted first aid kit will help make the application of aid as easy as possible. Keeping it weatherproof just makes sense. You put the effort into creating your own kickin’ kit, protect it.

First aid and first aid kits are an important part of backpacking preparedness. Being prepared for any backpacking adventure duration is the most important task you can perform. Have a plan, have your gear together, let someone know where you are going and when you are expected to be back. Take the time, it will pay dividends in the long run. Remember to have fun and be safe! And if you have any questions about finding the right first aid kit for your needs, please feel free to reach out to me or another expert here at Curated.

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Written By
David Diet
Camping & Hiking Expert
Based out of Cleveland, but raised in Appalachia smack dab in the middle of 15,000 acres of woods and strip mines. A deep love of the woods and valleys was instilled by years of mushroom hunting, gathering wild herbs, berries, and harvesting other delicious ingredients. Plus fort and tree house buil...
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