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First Aid Kit Selection & Design

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Imagine: You're hiking through the wilderness, enjoying the stunning scenery and feeling invigorated by the fresh air and exercise. Suddenly, You misstep and go crashing down a rocky embankment. You lie there, gasping in pain as you survey the damage: a terribly twisted ankle, a deep laceration on your arm, and a sprained wrist. You might feel a rush of fear and adrenaline come over you as you realize just how vulnerable you are out here in the middle of nowhere. However after settling in to the situation for a bit you now remember the well-stocked first aid kit that you packed before setting out. Your fear turns to determination. In this article, I'll share some of my experience with missing essential first aid kit items and also things I brought with me that have saved lives. I'll also explore some key considerations in selecting and designing a first aid kit that can help you stay safe and confident in the face of unexpected injuries in the wilderness. You are likely well aware of the importance of having a well-stocked and appropriately designed first aid kit when venturing into remote areas, but I'd like to footstomp that point even more. Whether you are exploring deep in the backcountry or simply taking a day hike in a nearby park, having the right supplies on hand can mean the difference between a minor inconvenience and a serious medical emergency. Here in this article, we will focus on which of these life saving items to bring, especially those that cannot be easily improvised and maximizing the utility of each of them.

First and foremost, it is important to recognize that the contents of your first aid kit will depend heavily on the nature of your trip and the potential hazards you may encounter. If you are embarking on a multi-day backpacking trip through rugged terrain, your kit will likely be more extensive and specialized than if you are simply taking a leisurely stroll through a local park. As a general rule, however, there are a few key items that should be included in any first aid kit, regardless of the specific circumstances:

  • Tourniquet and/or a hemostatic dressing: The Wilderness Medical Society has, in recent years, stated that commercial tourniquets are significantly better than what we can improvise, so you should carry them. I will tell you the same thing! There is no replacement for the tried and true CAT tourniquet and/ or a hemostatic dressing such as Quik Clot or Celox.

  • Bandages and dressings: These are the bread and butter of any first aid kit, and should be included in a range of sizes to accommodate different wounds and injuries. Look for options that are waterproof and adhesive, as well as sterile dressings that can be used for more serious wounds. One of my favorites is the israeli pressure dressing for dealing with major bleeding, which can also be used for slings and other splinting methods as well.

  • Antiseptic wipes or solution: To prevent infection in any cuts or scrapes, it is important to have a means of cleaning the affected area. Antiseptic wipes or solutions can be used to kill bacteria and other pathogens, reducing the risk of infection. My preference is iodine because unlike alcohol, it will continue to disinfect after drying out and it will also not cause as much pain if accidentally placed into the wound

  • Pain relievers: Whether it's a headache, a sprained ankle, or a more serious injury, having a means of managing pain can be crucial in the backcountry. Consider including options like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, as well as topical pain relievers like lidocaine cream. Many studies are showing a decrease in traumatic stress post injury in patients who receive analgesics (pain relievers).

  • Irrigation Method & Tweezers: Having clean water to irrigate a wound with is essential. Ideally being able to irrigate with up to 1 Liter of water if possible. A few of my favorite backcountry methods that can be used after proper sanitation are a camelbak bladder, a water bottle with a hole inserted into the cap, or a small hole in the tip of a latex glove that I cut with a pair of trauma shears. Remember to always be flushing the dirt and bacteria out and away, not deeper in. Removing splinters, thorns, or other foreign objects from the skin can be difficult without the proper tools. Tweezers can be invaluable in these situations, as well as for removing ticks or other parasites.

While these items are essential for any first aid kit, they represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the range of supplies that may be useful in the wilderness. When selecting items for your kit, it is important to consider not just their immediate utility, but also their versatility and potential for multiple uses.

For example, a roll of duct tape may not seem like an obvious choice for a first aid kit, but it can be used for a wide range of applications, from securing bandages to repairing gear or even fashioning a makeshift splint. Similarly, a small multi-tool can provide a range of functions, including scissors, pliers, and a knife, all of which can be useful in a medical emergency.

Other items to consider include:

  • A space blanket, which can be used to protect against hypothermia or as an improvised stretcher.

  • Zip ties or safety pins, which can be used to secure bandages or immobilize a joint.

  • A whistle, which can be used to signal for help in an emergency.

  • A small mirror, which can be used to inspect wounds or signal for help.

In addition to selecting versatile items, it is also important to think carefully about the design of your first aid kit. In general, a well-designed kit should be organized and easy to access, with items arranged by type and size. Consider using small pouches or bags to keep items separated and easily identifiable, and label each compartment clearly to avoid confusion in a stressful situation.

Finally, it is important to periodically review and update your first aid kit to ensure that it remains current and relevant to your needs. As you gain experience in the wilderness, you may find that certain items are more or less useful than you initially anticipated, or that new technologies or supplies have become available that could enhance your kit's functionality. One thing I always try to think about before packing a first aid kit on a trip is what injuries I am most likely to be dealing with in that environment? What do I need to have on hand right away to deal with those? An example being a pocket CPR mask in the river in order to give rescue breathes in the event of a drowning. Make a habit of reviewing your kit before each trip and making any necessary adjustments, and don't be afraid to seek advice from experienced wilderness travelers or medical professionals.

In conclusion, selecting and designing a first aid kit for wilderness travel is an important task that requires careful consideration and planning. By including versatile items that can serve multiple purposes, organizing your kit for easy access, and periodically reviewing and updating your supplies, you can help ensure that you are prepared to handle a wide range of medical emergencies in the backcountry. Remember that the ultimate goal of any first aid kit is not just to treat injuries, but to prevent them from escalating into more serious conditions, so be proactive in taking care of yourself and those around you.


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