When you’re out on the trail, you never know what’s going to happen. Backpackers experience everything from stubbed toes and blisters to bee stings, rolled ankles to broken arms, and hay fever to severe intestinal illness. Being prepared to deal with these situations is incredibly important, but preparing to deal with a medical problem in the field can be just as intimidating as expecting problems in the first place!
Luckily for you, we’ve simplified the process and created a comprehensive guide to creating your own homemade first aid kit.
In this article, we’ll go over all the nitty gritty details of how to make a first aid kit, whether your needs are for quick overnighters or high-altitude trekking.
Identifying Your Needs
Before we get into building the perfect backpacking first aid kit, it’s important to figure out just how much (or how little) you need to bring along. There are a few things to consider here, so let’s take a look at them in depth:
Every backpacker wants to cut down on their weight, and rightfully so. Certain situations call for an ultra-lightweight approach to first aid out of necessity, like long-distance trekking and thru-hiking trails over one hundred miles.
Other situations don’t require lightweight, but a casual overnight in the woods also probably doesn’t require a hefty first aid kit. If you find yourself going on moderate backpacking trips for several days, especially into the backcountry, having a kit with a little more bulk is merited.
Isolation and Risk
The other factor to consider in your kit size is how risky your trip is going to be. In many areas, you may never be more than a few miles from a road, cell phone service, or other hikers. In these places, basic first aid will usually do – if a higher level of care is needed, you have a good chance of getting to help quickly and easily. However, if you travel deep into the backcountry or off-trail, you might want to consider bringing along a few more tools.
Additionally, trips that involve risky activities (like climbing or mountaineering) or terrain (like high-altitude, uncertain water sources, or rough trail) mean a higher risk of injury and illness, and a few extra ounces of preparation could mean the difference between misery and fun – or even life and death.
Based on these considerations, we’ll go over what to put in a first aid kit based on three groups: the Bare Necessities (for those who need simplicity), the Prepared Packer (for those who want a little more in their toolbox), and the Hospitalist (for those who lean far on the safe side).
Always have the Bare Necessities handy, and pick and choose from the last two categories based on your needs. Now let’s get down to it!
First Aid Tools #1: Wound Care Supplies
The first group of first aid tools we’ll go over is probably the most used on the trail – wound care supplies. This category is all the stuff you need to take care of cuts, scraps, and blisters, as well as more severe injuries like deep lacerations and amputations.
THE BARE NECESSITIES
Adhesive bandages. Bandages are the most used part of almost everyone’s first aid kit, and for good reason. These sticky things can be used to cover popped blisters, minor cuts, scrapes, burns, and hot spots and work to both encourage healing and prevent infection. Keep at least a couple of various sizes.
Medical tape. Medical tape, such as 3M Micropore, Durapore, and Medipore, are great multi-use tools to keep on board. Tape can be used to cover small wounds, keep bandages and splints in place, and even support a sprained ankle on the trail. Invest in high-quality tape for reduced weight, better stick, and less skin irritation.
Alcohol wipes. Alcohol wipes are used before bandaging on cuts and scrapes to prevent infection. They can be purchased in single packs for easy use!
Antibiotic ointment. Antibiotic ointment, such as bacitracin or triple antibiotic ointment, can be used after cleaning and before bandaging to prevent infection and scarring. You can purchase individual packets of ointment or re-closable tubes from as small as 0.5oz.
THE PREPARED PACKER
Blister pads. In addition to adhesive bandages, a prepared packer may opt to bring blister pads or moleskin along in their first aid kit. Specialized blister pads can be used to reduce pain and help healing for blisters and burns alike.
Gauze pads. Gauze can be used to pack deep cuts (called lacerations), stop bleeding, keep wounds dry and clean, and pad splints. A pack of several 2” x 2” or 4” x 4” sterile pads is lightweight and easily packed, and can go a long way in preventing a bleeding injury from becoming an emergency.
20-40ml syringe. Syringes, without needles, are used to “irrigate” wounds. When you hit the dirt, some of that dirt sticks in your injury. Fill a syringe with water and squirt it into cuts or across scrapes to remove debris before applying alcohol or antibiotic ointment.
Compound tincture of benzoin and adhesive wound closure strips. If simple bandaids won’t do, benzoin and adhesive wound closures are the next best thing to stitches. Benzoin cleans a surface and prepares it for a hearty adhesive, like those in Steri Strips, which can be used to close deep wounds or cuts on joints.
Hemostatic gauze pads. Hemostatic agents are special minerals or chemicals that help clot blood and stop bleeding. These products, like QuickClot, can be essential to stopping heavy, life-threatening bleeding.
Occlusive dressing. These dressings, such as Tegaderm, can be used to quickly cover and seal wounds that are at high risk of infection or re-injury.
First Aid Tools #2: Splinting and Padding
Some of the most common injuries on the trail include sprains and strains of the joints, ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues. The usual treatment for these types of injuries includes ice and rest, and unfortunately, those two things aren’t often accessible while backpacking.
However, having a few materials for compression and splinting can significantly reduce pain and reduce the risk of turning a minor injury into a major one. These splinting tools can also be used for more severe injuries like dislocations and breaks until you can get to advanced medical care.
THE BARE NECESSITIES
Triangle bandages. Triangle bandages, or cravats, are large, triangular strips of non-adhesive cloth that have a million uses. Okay, maybe not a million, but a lot. They can be used to splint and sling an arm or shoulder, tie a leg splint, stop bleeding, and pad a splint or DIY backboard.
Safety pins. Usually included with cravats, safety pins are useful for “tying the knot” when you don’t have enough fabric left over.
THE PREPARED PACKER
Rolled gauze. A roll of soft gauze, like triangle bandages, can be used to splint, stop bleeding, and pad. Since gauze is packaged sterile, it can also be used to pack lacerations or placed directly over open wounds.
ACE bandage. ACE bandages or other elastic wraps are great for applying pressure and holding splints in place. They can be used alone to hold pressure for tendonitis on a knee or elbow or to hold a stiff splint in the correct position.
Flexible splint. Flexible splints, like SAM splints, are lightweight, padded splints with a metal core that can be bent into any shape. They’re super useful for splinting elbows, wrists, ankles, and knees, and can be placed flat in the bottom of your pack to support the rest of your gear.
Finger splints. While not a necessity, finger splints can definitely ease the pain of a broken or strained finger on the trail. Couple with some medical tape for mega pain relief and prevention of further injury.
First Aid Tools #3: Medications
Medications are an often-overlooked part of first aid, but are a lightweight addition to a DIY first aid kit that can save trips and lives. Always bring any prescription medications with you on the trail, and supplement with these over-the-counter medications. And remember, never give medications to anyone without asking if they have an allergy to it or take a medication that interacts.
THE BARE NECESSITIES
Known under the brand name Immodium, loperamide is an anti-diarrheal medication that you can buy over the counter. While some may argue this isn’t an essential in a first aid kit, experienced backpackers will say differently.
Diarrea at home is often an inconvenience, but during a backpacking trip it can quickly turn into life-threatening dehydration. Invest in individual packs or keep a few in a plastic baggie labeled with the medication name, the dosage and instructions, and expiration date.
Also known as Benadryl, this is another essential medication to carry. Benadryl is the first line of defense for allergic reactions mild and severe, and is used even in emergency rooms to treat anaphylactic shock – a life-threatening complication of allergic reaction.
It can be used to reduce symptoms of hayfever, bee stings, poison ivy, insect bites, minor burns, and food allergies. Once again, buy individually labeled packages or keep in a plastic baggie labeled with the name, dosage, instructions, and expiration date.
THE PREPARED PACKER
When it comes to pain relief, ibuprofen (sold under the brand names Advil or Motrin) is the go-to for many. It falls into a class of medications called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and has few side effects. Ibuprofin can be used to reduce pain and swelling and encourage healing for athletic injuries like strains and sprains. Ibuprofin allergies are fairly common, so never give to another person without asking!
Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, is a pain reliever and fever reducer that can be used on trail to help reduce pain and break high fevers with few side effects. Again, buy individual packs or label clearly with name, dosage, instructions, and expiration date.
Baby aspirin. This is another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication that holds another major benefit besides pain relief. Aspirin also works as a blood thinner, and can help postpone the major complications of heart attacks when taken early.
For any hiker at risk for heart attacks, carry baby aspirin and chew it if heart attack symptoms occur. Cardiac symptoms, like chest pain, are an emergency, so get off the trail as soon as possible and seek professional care.
Cortisone cream. Like Benadryl, cortisone is useful for combating the symptoms of insect bites, poison ivy, allergic hives, and minor burns. While not necessary, it can provide instant relief for pain and itching.
Aloe vera gel. Aloe vera is a time-tested folk remedy for sunburns, and can be a major relief for hikers. It can also help to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke after a sunburn, and helps keep your body from becoming too dehydrated.
Glucose and oral rehydration tablets. Oral rehydration tablets contain a number of essential electrolytes that help water absorption during dehydration. Dissolved in water, these tablets keep the fine balance of salt and water in your body stable, preventing further complications from water loss. Glucose can be used similarly, and used alone for quick energy and diabetic emergencies.
Epinephrine, acetazolamide, dexamethasone by prescription. Epinephrine is a high-power medication that treats severe allergic reactions. Many people with severe allergies carry an injectable form in a pen, and if you or someone you are travelling with has a severe allergy, it’s essential to keep on-hand.
Acetazolamide and dexamethasone are two medications taken to prevent and treat high altitude sicknesses, and are often used by mountaineers and trekkers above 17,000ft. These are three medications that require a prescription, so talk with a doctor and learn how to properly take them before packing them into the backcountry.
First Aid Tools #4: Bits and Pieces
Our final section includes all the tools and tidbits needed to complete your perfect first aid kit. These are some of the most importing things to have, and savvy first-aiders have them well-stocked every time they step foot on the trail.
THE BARE NECESSITIES
Swiss army knife or multi-tool. Whether you’re using gauze, cravats, moleskin, or scraps of the shirt of your own back, having a knife handy is always important. Keep a multi-tool or multi-purpose knife in your first aid kit for cutting materials at all times, even if you have another knife handy – you never know when your hunting knife might make its way off your pack!
Fine point tweezers. While most people associate tweezers with splinter and slivers, their use goes far beyond fixing minor inconvenience. Splinters left in the body can cause nasty infections, especially on the trial. In the case of wounds like abrasions and cuts, tweezers can be used to “debride” – or pick out bits of dirt, rocks, and whatever else may be lurking in there (you can use that syringe from above for this, too).
Tweezers can also be used to remove jellyfish tentacles, poison ivy, sumac, and oak leaves, and ticks – the nasty arachnoids responsible for serious illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Nitrile gloves. Even while backpacking solo, you may encounter someone ese who needs your first aid skills. Gloves protect you from contact with potentially harmful body fluids, like blood and mucus, which can transmit diseases ranging from colds to hepatitis and HIV.
Since latex allergies are common, invest in some disposable gloves made from nitrile. Roll or wad a few pairs and pack ‘em in!
Duct tape. Ah, the ever-loved duct tape. Duct tape can be used to secure splints and bandages in a tough spot, and can even be cut and used as wound closure strips if nothing else is available. While not strictly “first aid”, duct tape can be used to prevent injuries by taping together shoes and boots that fall apart and patching holes in clothing to prevent hypothermia.
First-aid manual. What good is a first aid kit if you don’t know how to use anything in it? Several savvy backpacking companies make pocket-sized first aid manuals that go over wound care, splinting, medications, and more – like snake bites and identification and signs of heart attacks and strokes.
THE PREPARED PACKER
CPR mask. Although CPR can be done without a mask, it’s important to protect yourself from others’ body fluids. Pocket CPR masks can be bought in a variety of sizes, and while they often have a little bulk, are made of lightweight plastic. Take a CPR class through Red Cross or another reputable organization to make sure you know how to use it properly – and hopefully you never have to!
Low-reading thermometer, digital. A digital thermometer is a useful tool for determining when a first aid situation is turning into an emergency. Make sure you get a thermometer that can read low temperatures, as hypothermia, or low body temperature, is a common emergency in the wilderness.
A thermometer can also help you determine how severe an illness is by showing a fever, or if heat exhaustion is turning into heat stroke – a potentially deadly condition.
Cotton swabs. Some may say that swabs are a luxury item in the field, while others preach that they are absolutely essential. Whatever you decide, cotton swabs help apply creams and ointments without introducing more bacteria (from, say, your dirt-caked fingers), and can be used to gently clean wounds.
Notepad and pencil/pen. Often, keeping track of symptoms, progress, and vital signs before you get to a hospital can give doctors the clues they need to give the best care.
If you give first aid, especially for an illness or a severe injury, write down the dates, times, and details – including symptoms, vital signs (like pulse and temperature), and the person’s level of alertness – and follow up every few hours.
Medical waste bag and sharps container. You can use a medical waste bag for any gauze or bandages with body fluids on them, and a sharps container for used tweezers or epinephrine needles have them. Carrying extra bags for waste follows the “pack it in, pack it out” principle of backpacking etiquette, and adds very little weight and bulk.
Paramedic shears. A step up from a simple knife, paramedic or EMT shears have a protected tip that allows you to easily cut materials and safely cut clothes off an injured person or wound site. These shears are bulky and heavy, however, so you might consider skipping them unless you’re embarking on a high-risk adventure.
Putting It All Together
Now that we have all the tools listed, it’s time to put them together! You can sort your materials several ways – most used to least used, emergency supplies (like a CPR mask) to non-urgent supplies (like bandaids), or by category (wound care, medications, etc.).
However you choose is best for you, your supplies need to be kept safe, clearly marked, and dry. Supplies like gauze and medications that need to be sterile should be kept in waterproof bags – simple zip sandwich bags work great, and for a little more protection you can invest in some durable OPSaks. Make sure that medications are labeled clearly and that you check before each trip for expired pills.
For our top picks of the best first aid kit to help you, check out our article to find out.
Finally, throw it all in a dry bag or nylon zip bag, and pack it in! We’ve gone over everything you need for the perfect homemade first aid kit, and you’re now prepared to head out on the trail. Have any trail first aid stories you want to share? Let us know in the comments!