How to Be Prepared in Case You Get Injured in the Backcountry
You never want to be caught in a dangerous situation in the backcountry. Review your first aid supplies and emergency gear with Camping & Hiking Expert Kat Smith.
When spending time outdoors, it always pays to be prepared. Whether you’re going for a casual day hike with your pup, a multi-day backpacking trip to summit that elusive peak, or a bike-packing adventure across the country, a lot can go wrong. You should always carry first aid supplies and emergency gear so you can stay safe and comfortable when the unexpected happens.
First Aid Kit
Even if you are going out on a short hike that you’ve done a million times, there is always a chance for injury or illness. Hot and sweaty conditions can lead to blisters, uneven footing can cause a rolled ankle, overgrown trails can leave cuts and scrapes on your arms and face, and one mis-step can cause a fracture or deep laceration. Carrying basic first aid supplies can save your day or your trip!
A pre-packaged first aid kit, such as the Adventure Medical Kits Adventure First Aid 1.0 is a great option, as it is lightweight and packable, and comes with many of the essentials. But it may not address all of your specific needs based on your trip length, location, group size, and individual medical history. Whether you start off with a commercial kit and add or take away specific items or you create your own kit from scratch, stocking your pack with strategically selected first aid supplies tailored to you and your adventure can keep you from heading home early!
The first aid items you need in order to be prepared for most situations can be broken down into four categories: 1. Medications 2. Wound care 3. Orthopedic injury care 4. Tools.
Most medications are super light and small, so they’re easy to stash in your first aid kit. Rather than bringing an entire bottle of pills, save weight by calculating how many pills or tablets you may need based on your trip length and typical needs and pack them in a ziploc bag. Medicines that may prove valuable on a hike or backpacking trip include:
- Ibuprofen, Advil, or Tylenol: pain relief, anti-inflammatory, fever-reducer
- Imodium: antidiarrheal
- Tums or Pepto Bismol: relief from heart burn, indigestion
- Benadryl or similar antihistamine: relief from acute allergic reactions (such as hives, rash)
- Aspirin: for use in the event of a heart attack or for heart attack prevention
- Zyrtec or Claritin: relief from seasonal allergies
- Epi-pen: treatment for anaphylaxis
- Hydrocortisone cream: anti-itch, relief from skin rashes
Each person or group is different, so you may not need all of these medications. For example, I don’t suffer from seasonal allergies and I am not severely allergic to anything that is known to cause anaphylaxis, so I don’t carry Zyrtec or Claritin or an Epi-Pen with me. On the other hand, this list is not all-inclusive. If there is an over-the-counter medicine that you take regularly, bring it with you! And don’t forget your regular prescription medications!
Wounds are very common in the outdoors, and they come in all shapes and sizes. From blisters to abrasions to deep lacerations, being prepared to clean and cover a wound can keep you on your way, and not on your way home!
Essential wound care items include:
- Antiseptic wipes or alcohol wipes: for cleaning an open wound
- Gauze pads: to clean a wound
- Neosporin: antibiotic ointment for preventing bacterial infection
- Bandaids: to cover minor wounds
- Steri-strips: to use as a substitute for stitches to close deeper cuts and lacerations
- Non-adhesive pads: to cover larger, more severe wounds
- Medical tape: to secure bandages, very versatile
- Blister pads such as moleskin, donut pads, gel-based pads: to prevent rubbing on an existing blister
- Gloves: to keep yourself safe and follow Universal Precautions while helping a group member with an open wound (go with latex-free gloves in case anyone in your group has an allergy!)
Just like with medications, your wound care supplies should be tailored to you and your group. If you are traveling solo, you probably don’t need to carry gloves. If you are comfortable using (and potentially ruining) a clean shirt to clean and cover a wound, you may not need to pack gauze pads and non-adhesive pads. If there are supplies you are more comfortable using, pack those! I personally love using stretchy self-adhering tape rather than typical medical tape. While most of these supplies are lightweight, there’s no need to overpack. Take the time to think about which items you need, and which items you don’t.
Orthopedic Injury Care
Just like wounds, orthopedic injuries can range from mild and tolerable to severe and life-threatening. While you likely won’t be able to heal an orthopedic injury, being prepared with a few specific supplies may allow you to finish your trip, or give you just enough comfort to be able to hike yourself out of a bad situation.
- Ace bandage: provides compression to control swelling, provides support and stability for sprains
- Splint such as Adventure Medical Kit SAM Splint: provides immobilization for fractures or joint injuries
- Sling: provides support for an upper extremity injury, such as a shoulder dislocation
If you feel comfortable fashioning these items using the resources around you, you can leave them out and lighten your load. A supportive splint can be made using a rigid branch or piece of bark and medical tape (part of your wound care items!). A shoulder sling can be created using an extra shirt and safety pins (part of your tools, see below). Just like with the other categories, bring what you need, leave what you don’t, but if you are leaving items behind, have a plan!
Pick and choose your tools based on what you will need. While each individual tool may be light, their weight will add up. The four tools that I always carry with me include:
- Tweezers: for removal of splinters and cactus spines
- Scissors or knife: to cut cloth, bandages, steri-strips, etc.
- Safety pins: to secure a shoulder sling
- CPR mask: to save a life!
If you carry a multi-tool or pocket knife, you likely won’t need to bring scissors. I often camp and hike in the desert where small cacti line the trails, so a tweezer to remove cactus spines from my lower legs (or more commonly, my pup’s paw pads!) is a valuable tool for me and has proven to be worth its weight, but it may be an item that you deem unnecessary. Use your judgment when building your first aid kit and deciding which tools to bring, and which ones to leave.
In addition to your first aid kit, it’s important to be prepared with essential emergency gear any time you go on an outdoor adventure. It may not seem like it, but there is a lot that can go wrong when hitting the trail, especially if you are slowed down by an injury.
The weather can turn in the blink of an eye, so you may have begun your hike on a warm, sunny day, but rain, wind, lightning, or even snow can blow in quickly.
Many hiking trails don’t have great cell phone service, so if the trail is not well-marked and you lose your way, you can’t rely on Google Maps to help you get home.
A 5-mile hike that usually takes you an hour and a half may take you double or even triple that amount of time if you get injured, and in the winter months, darkness rolls in quickly.
You may be waiting hours for search and rescue if you are unable to walk yourself out.
You never know when you may be spending more time than you anticipated out in the elements, so it’s important to have an emergency kit that you hopefully never have to use, but can save your life in the event that you do.
Items that many hikers include in their emergency kit includes:
- Headlamp such as the Black Diamond Storm 400 Headlamp, and extra batteries
- Navigation tools such as a compass, a map of the area, or an electronic GPS navigation system that has an SOS function, such as the Garmin inReach Mini GPS.
- Water and a water filtration system such as Potable Aqua Water Purification Tabs or a SteriPen Ultra UV Water Purifier
- Rain gear and extra layers or an emergency blanket
- Multi-tool such as the Leatherman Squirt PS4 Multitool or a pocket knife
- Firestarter equipment
- Gear repair equipment
Fortunately, most of the items listed above are fairly small and lightweight and could be left in a small stash pocket in your pack at all times. That way, you will always have it and will never forget it. When counting ounces for a long backpacking trip, some of these items may seem unnecessary. But an emergency kit is one of those things that seems inconvenient until the day that you actually need it! Be smart when you are packing, and prepare for the worst!
So you’ve purchased all your first aid and emergency gear, packaged it into a lightweight kit, and you’re ready to go! But before you do, make sure you have the most important things—education and a plan! You don’t necessarily need to take a wilderness first aid course (although that’s a great idea!), but you do need to know how to use the gear you have with you.
Take the time to learn and know basic first aid care, such as cleaning and dressing a wound. If you choose not to bring a shoulder sling because you would rather make one with a t-shirt and safety pins, know the technique and even practice it! Review the possible things that can go wrong on your trip, and make a plan in case things go awry.
So next time you head outside, be sure to have your first aid kit, emergency gear, and a plan! Whether you’re going out for a day hike on a heavily-trafficked trail, or out into the desolate backcountry, don’t get caught in a situation that will end your day early, or worse, put your life at risk! Reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated for advice and all the emergency gear you might need.