Updated: Feb 28
In a world where almost any product imaginable is available to make life easier and more comfortable, there are a select few who choose to leave behind the plush safety of civilization even if only for a few days.
When venturing out into the wild, be it forests or deserts, one item of great importance to consider packing is a first aid kit. It is much like when a pilot brings a parachute with them when flying; they hope that they do not ever need to use it, but will be glad to have it if the need arises. No matter how long or short your backpacking venture is, include these first aid items and travel with peace of mind.
This list will be divided up into several categories, absolute necessities, and optional (but advised) articles. Additionally, combinations and substitutes will be covered, to help you create a first aid kit that keeps you safe as well as meets your travel needs.
This guide is not meant as a professional medical advisory or consultation, and whoever is carrying these items should be trained or informed in how to use them properly.
"Whether you are going out on a short day hike, or backpacking from Mexico to Canada, your first aid supplies should have a few mandatory staples in it."
Whether you are going out on a short day hike, or backpacking from Mexico to Canada, your first aid supplies should have a few mandatory staples in it. In the event of injury or accident, these will help you immediately, as well as keep you safe from infections down the trail.
A scrape, cut, or splinter can seem innocuous in the moment, but they can open a door for bacteria and harmful microorganisms to attack your body. A disinfecting agent will clean out your wound and keep you infection free during your trek. They also are helpful for cleaning off your hands or eating tools before consuming food. Sealed alcohol pads and antibiotic creams are standard choices. Alcohol based hand sanitizer works well for both purposes and can even help in starting a fire.
If anyone in your group has allergies these are a must. Although they may be weighty, allergies are no joke and should be prepared for. Same goes for inhalers for anyone who has asthma.
“Bad things can happen in the woods, and when they do, the Sam Splint was the most used item for bodily trauma I used during my 5 years as an outdoor guide. Whether it was a rolled ankle on a backpacking trip, or a sprained wrist due to a climbing injury, the splint was the go to aid.” - Chris Friedland, a backpacking guide and outdoor recreation therapist.
The company that makes Sam Splints touts that it has over 25 uses for injuries on extremities as well as on the neck.
Sealable bags for storing used medical supplies such as bloody Band-Aids. Remember, sanitation is part of safety, especially when away from civilization and modern trappings.
Used to clean out wounds with water before treating with antibiotics. Alternatively, you can use a Ziploc bag filled with water. Tear off the corner of the bag to allow water to be released in a small but adequate stream. If you are carrying a bladder and hose hydration system, like a camelbak, you can also use that as an improvised irrigation device. Make sure the water is clean!
Most likely you already have water purification tablets with you (if not, get some as a “just in case” item). These can be added to the irrigation process to help clean a wound, as the tablets have small amounts of chlorine, which is a great for cleaning out unwanted micro-baddies.
Thin medical style gloves are an easy way to keep yourself clean while dealing with an injury, be it your own or someone else’s. Dispose of used gloves in a biohazard bag when done.
Bandages will cover a wound, keeping it from becoming infected or irritated. Put them on after cleaning and applying antibacterial ointments. Gauze can be used in conjunction with tape or something similar to cover larger wounds or where Band-Aids have a hard time adhering.
Cuts that are almost borderline in need of stitches can be attended to with liquid bandages. Some people bring superglue instead, because of its multi-use properties, but we recommend sticking with the real thing.
These have a variety of functions. They can be used for securing fabric into a makeshift sling, helping remove splinters, and much more. Their weight is almost negligible, so there is no reason not to throw a few into your pack.
Bonus Tip: Carrying Case
This seems like a no-brainer, but you will want your first aid equipment to all be in one bag or case, rather than having to search separate pockets to find what you are looking for. Some articles may be compromised if they get wet, such as Band-Aids, so opt for a waterproof/water resistant case. This can be a specialized container, or a simple quart or gallon size Ziploc bag.
The Nice to Haves...
These following items are not top priority but are highly advised to have with you. If you are trying to reduce the amount of items in your pack, you can opt out of bringing all of these. If you can spare the space and weight, bring as many of these articles as you can, you or a friend may just need them!
Preventative first aid that will keep you from painful and annoying sunburns while on your adventure. Long term, sunblock can reduce the risk of skin cancers. Apply it often as your sweat can begin to dilute and degenerate the potency of the protective agent.
Keep away pesky pests, especially those that are bloodsucking. Notice: it will scare off mosquitos, but not lawyers.
Use these plier-like tools for a variety of functions. They can remove splinters or thorns from skin, and they work just as well for ticks.
Make cuts in bandages, gauze, wraps, or other first aid items. Most likely you will have a knife with you, which can be a proper substitute for scissors.
Use this to secure bandages or gauze, as well as for a variety of injury attending purposes. A common use is to help cover up blisters, to reduce friction from your footwear. If you are already packing other adhesives such as duct-tape, you can use that instead.
If you tend to suffer from chaffing or blisters, then pack a small container of Vaseline. Apply it regularly to prevent or reduce these painful rubbing injuries that can make backpacking miserable. It also can be used as a balm for chapped lips.
Long and arduous hikes can lead to sore and pained muscles. Packing some ibuprofen or something similar can help you when major aches arise.
This material is designed to artificially simulate blood clotting, and is used to stop major wounds from bleeding profusely. In the highly unlikely event of a serious accident, you can reduce blood loss by applying this product. Stories of people falling during extreme sports tell how the clotting properties helped them before professional medical assistance was administered.
A blister is a serious thing when backpacking, as your feet are your only mode of transportation, and even mild irritation over many miles can add up to major pain. These patches will cover the blisters and eliminate the friction between your footwear and foot that is causing them.
The main goal of backpacking first aid is to keep you mobile. If injury or irritation is minor, you want to be able to continue your adventure as planned. If a serious accident befalls you, first aid gear will help you get back to the trailhead and on your way to more comprehensive care. As you prepare for your next backpacking adventure, start building your first aid kit with the items from the first list, and experimenting with more optional items from the second.
Sometimes, you already have backpacking gear that could have first aid functions; for example, tent stakes and tape or straps could be used for a makeshift splint. Mother Nature also offers options as well. Look around, and you could possibly use a natural item for your benefit as well. Most importantly, you need to know how to address common outdoor injuries.
The best first aid equipment in the world is almost useless without the knowledge of how to utilize it. So as you gather your safety supplies, search out trainings or classes on basic first aid. When it is finally time to hit the trail, travel safely and with the assurance that you can handle any unforeseen circumstances that may lie ahead. Happy hiking!