Carrying a first-aid kit is more than just a good idea. It’s one of the 10 essential items for safe backcountry travel. All kinds of prepackaged options are available, but do they really contain what you need? To better evaluate ready-made kits or to assemble your own, consider the following supplies.
The majority of backcountry mishaps are limited to a handful of minor injuries, including twists and sprains (especially of the ankles); cuts and scrapes caused by branches, rocks, knives, or other sharp objects; minor burns from the stove or campfire; blisters; and general soreness, aches, and pains (especially in the legs and shoulders) from loaded packs and hard miles on the trail.
At a minimum, your first-aid kit should contain the materials you’ll need to deal with these regular injuries. For starters, you’ll want a 2- to 4-inch-wide elastic (“ACE”) bandage for wrapping sprained joints. Look for styles featuring Velcro rather than small metal closures, which can break or be lost. For minor cuts, scrapes, and burns, carry antiseptic wipes and adhesive bandages, including some sized for fingertips and knuckles.
For blister prevention and treatment, pack moleskin or blister bandages and a small pair of scissors. Also carry a good pair of tweezers for splinter and tick removal. Note that Swiss Army versions are adequate for most splinters but often lack the strength to remove a fully embedded tick. Last, carry over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen, to help manage pain and reduce swelling.
Pack your supplies in a heavy-duty, freezer-style zip-locked bag or other waterproof container to protect them from the elements. Compact and lightweight, this basic first-aid kit should travel with you anytime you hit the trails.
More Serious Mishaps
If you’re traveling far from the madding crowd or with a large group, consider upgrading your first-aid kit for graver incidents, such as a broken bone, a major laceration, or a severe burn.
To help stabilize a broken bone, a SAM splint can be molded to the injured limb; smaller versions are available for finger injuries. For a major wound or laceration, you’ll need gauze pads, large wound pads, medical tape, and an irrigation syringe to cleanse the area of dirt and debris. In the event of a severe burn, a moist protective dressing such as Second Skin can help ease pain, foster healing, and shield the wound from the elements. You should also carry a pair of latex gloves in case you need to assist someone who is injured.
And then there are those issues that are far from life threatening but can be irritating to the point of distraction. You might thank yourself later if you carry the following: antidiarrheal medication for gastrointestinal distress; hydrocortisone cream to relieve minor skin irritation such as insect bites; an antihistamine for sinus-stuffing allergies; and a body powder, such as Gold Bond, to reduce painful chafing.
Remember: Even the most comprehensive first-aid kit won’t do you much good if you don’t know how to use it. If you’ve never done so, take a basic first-aid course and learn how to treat common injuries. Better yet, take a comprehensive wilderness first-aid course, focused on the backcountry. Stay safe out there!