We largely live in a world where medical treatment is only a phone call away. But in the wilderness, there’s no 911. When you are injured and miles from help, you have only a couple of things that will help you: your brain and a well stocked first aid & emergency kit. My kit has been a work in progress since I began hiking and camping and I finally feel like I have exactly what I need for minor and major medical issues. I actually carry two “emergency” kits, one is my first aid kit, and the other is for more general emergencies like inclement weather, getting stranded, etc. I will talk about both kits in this post.
I was lucky that when I first started hiking, I had some experienced friends to guide me. One of the most important things they taught me was to always carry a first aid kit. Even on the shortest of hikes, it gives peace of mind and can help treat something that can start as an annoyance but turn into something more painful or dangerous if left untreated. My first kit was an Adventure Medical Kit, and I still use the cool waterproof pouch, though the contents have changed since I got it. I bought the .7 size which states it’s good for 1-2 people for 1-4 day trips. It came stocked with the usual: bandages, gauze, a variety of topicals for burns, stings, cuts, etc., over the counter meds, latex gloves, and a tiny roll of duct tape. Right from the start I added a roll of athletic tape, which was a lifesaver when I twisted and fractured my ankle about 3 miles from the car. I was able to stabilize the ankle and walk out on it without doing more damage to it or being in too much pain.
Over the first year or two that I had the kit, I mostly used the bandages, triple antibiotic, and ibuprofen. The gloves came in very handy when I was on a hike with a group of patients from my former job and someone who I was aware was HIV and Hepatitis C positive needed some wound care. I would restock those items as needed, but felt like I was carrying some stuff that I would likely never use and that there were other things I would need that I did not have. Once I began doing more extreme type hikes, longer trips, and frequent rock climbing, I slowly began adding things to my kit so that it would have all the things I might need while still being light and portable.
The things I always have in my kit no matter how far I’m going:
- Bandages. Band Aid types are fine, but I have become a huge fan of Tegaderm style bandages as they are more waterproof yet
breathable, more sterile, allow better movement and mobility, and they can be easily adjusted to different sizes. I carry a variety of sizes as well as ones that can be cut to fit. We also carry triangle bandages, gauze, and wound packing sponges, though I carry much less gauze than was originally included in my first kit
- Topicals- I always have hydrocortisone, triple antibiotic, alcohol wipes, and some sort of insect sting relief. I buy the boxes of single use packets from Amazon. They are cheap and make it easy to keep your bag stocked without adding the extra weight and bulk of full size tubes
- Moleskin– absolutely essential. Nothing else can help treat blisters as effectively. I always make sure this is well stocked.
- Athletic style tape– it can be used to stabilize a sprained ankle or a broken finger, it can cover pesky blisters, or it can help keep a bandage or gauze pad in place on a wound
- Tweezers- do yourself a favor and ditch the crappy plastic ones that come with most first aid kits and get a good pair of metal ones.
- Scissors- I carry medical trauma shears which can be used to cut bandages or moleskin but are also tough enough to cut through clothing, rope, and other tough materials
- Dental floss– the uses are seriously limitless. But commonly used to repair shoelaces, clothing, or gear. You can use it as string to keep tarps/shelter in place, you can use it as fishing line, a tourniquet, or even to help start a fire. It’s strong but lightweight and easy to carry. Oh, and you can also floss your teeth with it.
- Safety pins- these can come in handy in repairing clothing or gear, or keeping an elastic bandage in place. I always have a few of them on hand, and I just pin them to the outside of my first aid pouch for easy access
- Medications- I carry lots of ibuprofen, always. I also usually have a couple of doses of allergy medications. Benadryl is ideal as it can be used in the event of an allergic reaction and also helps with seasonal allergies. It’s safe to use on the dogs if one of them is stung or bitten and is having a bad reaction. I know some people also bring something like Immodium, which is a great idea. I also make sure to always bring any medications that I am currently taking, including an extra day’s worth in case my trip takes longer than planned
- Surgical skin glue- if a wound that would normally require stitches happens, this can help seal it until you can get professional medical treatment. Just make sure to clean the wound thoroughly before applying the glue
- Nitrile gloves
- ChloraPrep swabstick- for disinfecting a serious wound
- Syringe of sterile saline for flushing wounds
- If you have an allergy that requires an EpiPen, make sure to carry one at all times and replace it when it expires. It’s also always a good idea to let your companions know where it is and how to use it in case you need someone else to administer the shot for you.
Mike carries a trauma kit when we go on overnight or longer trips much like the one he uses when deployed. Most of this stuff is probably overkill for your average hike or camping trip, but he knows how to use it and it doesn’t hurt to bring it. The kit contains the following items (ensure you know how to use them and have proper first aid training):
- Nasopharyngeal tube– to clear an airway
- HyFin chest seal and/or Halo Seals– for treating penetrating chest wounds or securing other wound dressings
- Trauma wound bandage/Israeli bandage– for large wounds
In my “other” emergency kit, I keep the following items:
- Emergency blanket
- Spare batteries for my headlamp
- Water purification tabs
- Hand warmers
- Waterproof matches
- Snacks (usually a granola bar or two)
There are some items I also always have in my pack that could also be considered “emergency” supplies:
- Pocket knife and/or multi-tool (my multi-tool has a built in tripod you can use for your camera, easily my most used feature on the tool!)
- Emergency whistle
- Sunscreen (I’m a big fan of the single use packets, no worries about spillage and they are lightweight)
- Bug spray
- Small flashlight (in case my headlamp decides not to work)
- Duct tape (small amount)
- Warm hat (Fall, Winter, & Spring)
- Gloves or mittens (Fall, Winter, & Spring)
I recently saw this bracelet, which is pretty awesome. It combines paracord, a compass, a whistle, and a magnesium fire starter. I’m thinking of getting it to lighten my pack a bit, I just have really small wrists, so wearing it is probably not an option.
For those just starting out, I highly recommend getting a lightweight kit like the Adventure Medical Kits and adding things like extra ibuprofen, moleskin, dental floss, athletic tape, and upgraded bandages like Tegaderm or more heavy duty Band-aids.Especially on overnight trips or long mileage hikes, bring more bandaids than you think you need.
You can then create a second bag with your emergency blanket, matches, flashlight or headlamp, water purification tablets, etc. Check your flashlight and headlamp before each trip and bring spare batteries. Mike’s headlamp stopped working in Yosemite, we put in fresh batteries and it still didn’t work. I always bring a spare light that clips on to a baseball hat which he was able to use to find his way around camp after dark. We sent the headlamp back to Petzl when we got home and they returned it to us saying it works fine. It’s been fine ever since, and must have just been a glitch, but that just shows the importance of checking your gear regularly.
What are your must-have items in your first aid kit? Let us know in the comments!
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