The Ultimate Guide To Your Backpacking First Aid Kit

No one wants to think about injury while backpacking, but the truth is that accidents can happen. This is why first aid is one of the most important aspects of camping and hiking. 

Unfortunately, it’s an area that is often overlooked by backpackers.

With thorough preparation, almost no backpacking injury is too much to handle. Here is everything you need to know about your backpacking first aid kit.

Assess Your Needs

Before you begin to assemble a first aid kit, there are some questions you should ask yourself. Every backpacker has a different set of circumstances which you must address.

Where & What

Where will you be backpacking?

Different locations have different risks associated with them. These risks must be identified before your excursion, not during.

Are there a lot of ticks where you’ll be hiking? Then do not forget your deep woods bug spray! Are you trekking through snow? You may want to include a heat reflective blanket.

What will you be doing on your adventure? Are you going to be climbing a mountain? Walking through rocky streams? Crawling under fallen logs? If you are climbing mountains, you may want to double up on moleskin to prevent blisters, for example.

You should always know how long your adventure is going to be before packing your kit. Naturally, longer trips will require more equipment.

Group of backpackers on the side of a mountain.

Group Size

Another important factor of hiking first aid is the size of your group.  Are you backpacking with one other person, or ten people? The size of your first aid kit will depend on the amount of people in your group.

When you have more people in your group, you should include larger quantities of first aid kit supplies.

Identifying Issues

The larger your group is, the more likely it is that at least one person has some sort of special need.  This can range from allergies to asthma to arrhythmia and everything in between. It is important that each backpacker shares this information with the rest of the group.

The treatment for these ailments must always be on hand. When backpacking with someone who’s allergic to bee stings, for example, your first aid kit should include the appropriate EpiPen.

I have asthma, which can become a bit of a problem with strenuous hikes. I always double (sometimes triple) check that my inhaler is packed in my first aid kit. If I leave without it, I run the risk of getting myself into deep trouble.

For this reason, it is important that each person carries a personalized first aid kit. One group kit may not be enough coverage for a large number of people with ranging ailments. It’s safest to keep your own vital medical supplies on your person at all times.

Day Plus Three Rule

If you, or anyone else in your group, takes prescribed medication, I recommend a “day plus three rule.”

I’ve come up with this rule to ensure that you never end up in a situation where you do not have access to your medication. For however long you plan your trip to be, bring an extra three day’s worth of meds in your first aid kit.

This DOES NOT mean you should ingest three times your usual dose when hiking. This simply ensures that if you find yourself lost in the wilderness, your medication situation is covered for up to three days. Feel free to add days onto this rule, depending on how paranoid you are.

Pre-Made or Homemade First Aid?

When it comes to deciding on a first aid kit, you generally have two major options. Do you want to buy a pre-made, professionally assembled kit? Or would you like to craft your own? There are pros and cons associated with each.

Pre-Made

There are plenty of options when it comes to pre-assembled first aid kits. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to purchase one, consider the following pros and cons.

Pros:

  • There will be no need to search for medical supplies. Most essential items will be in the pre-made kit.
  • Contents are already organized, making assembly less complicated.
  • Often cheaper as you do not have to buy supplies separately.
  • Usually comes in pouches that are specifically made for the outdoors.
  • Usually have well organized pockets and compartments, making for easy location of essentials.

Cons:

  • Not as customizable. It is sometimes difficult to fit extra items into pre-made kits.
  • It can take longer to get acquainted with the contents of your kit. Familiarity is key.

I WOULD NOT recommend removing any items from a pre-made first aid kit. Everything that is in there, is in there for a reason.

Homemade

Pros:

  • You will have total control of what does and what does not go into the kit.
  • Your kit can be as large or as small as you’d like.
  • When you pick out and assemble each item yourself, you know exactly where everything is right off the bat.

Cons:

  • Takes more work to assemble.
  • Homemade kits are usually more expensive, as you must buy each item separately.
  • As the responsibility falls on you, it’s possible that you may forget some important items.

Assembling a Kit

Regardless of whether you buy a pre-made pack or make your own, it is of utmost importance that you have all of the essentials when backpacking. Before you even step out the door, be sure to check that you have each of the items on this first aid checklist.

The Basics

  1. Assorted Bandages
  2. Assorted Gauze
  3. Alcohol Based Antiseptic Wipes
  4. Bandaids
  5. Cotton Swabs
  6. Finger splint
  7. Latex Gloves
  8. Medical tape
  9. Moleskin (for blisters)
  10. Non-stick pads
  11. Powdered Electrolyte Drink (Gatorade, Pedialyte, Drip Drop, etc.)
  12. SAM Splint
  13. Safety Pins
  14. Tube of Antibiotic Ointment
  15. Wound Closure Strips

Medication

  1. Antihistamine
  2. Anti-Diarrheal Pills
  3. Asprin/Ibuprofen
  4. Eye Drops
  5. Insect Sting Treatment
  6. Poison Ivy Treatment
  7. Prescription Medication

Tools

  1. Duct Tape
  2. Multitool (usually includes knives, scissors & pliers)
  3. Miniature Mirror
  4. Safety Matches
  5. Thermometer
  6. Tick Remover
  7. Tweezers
  8. Whistle

General Safety Essentials

  1. Feminine Hygiene Products
  2. Hand Sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol)
  3. Lip Balm
  4. Personal Locator Beacon (for emergency location)
  5. Surgical Mask
  6. Sun Screen

Details Matter

When it comes to keeping an efficient first aid kit, details are important. This means proper organization and clever planning. There are lots of tips I’ve used over the years which have made a huge difference.

Choosing a Pouch

If you decide on a DIY first aid kit, then you must choose a pouch to carry your equipment. It’s important that the bag you choose is waterproof. Weather conditions can change quickly and without warning. The last thing you want while backpacking is for a rainstorm to come and destroy all the contents of your first aid kit.

Keep your medical supplies dry and safe.

Do not use drawstring bags or pouches that are too thin. These types of bags may expose your supplies to too much heat. Most medications need to be kept at room temperature.

I also recommend finding a brightly colored pouch. Pick something that will stand out against your environment. If you drop your bag in the wild, it will be easier to locate this way.

Avoid choosing colors like green or brown. Red, blue or orange pouches work best.

Try to find a kit that has a clasp or strap. If not, be sure it is small enough to fit into your backpack. It’s not smart to keep a first aid kit in your hands, as you’ll be more likely to lose it.

Compact and Clutter Free

Camping first aid kits work best when they’re somewhat compact. Remember: you may be carrying your equipment for hours (or even days) at a time. Aim for light weight. The heavier your kit, the less you’ll look forward to toting it!

ALWAYS check all expiration dates before your trip. This especially applies to the medication category of the checklist. Some items expire quicker than others. Defective medication is a waste of weight and space.

One of the most efficient ways of organizing your kit is by using air-tight bags. Too much clutter = too much confusion. In the case of an emergency, you do not want confusion in the equation. Air-tight, plastic bags in assorted sizes can help fix this.

I personally use the 3 x 4″ bags for items like antiseptic wipes, bandaids, safety pins, aspirin and cotton swabs. I use larger bags for tweezers, thermometers, bandages and tick removers. This stops the smaller contents of the kit from falling out or sliding around in your pouch.

Another tip to avoid confusion is keeping index cards with instructions. This is especially important for the items in your kit that you are not too familiar with. For example, if you can’t remember how to apply a finger splint, there’s no shame in keeping instructions within your pouch.

Backpacking During a Pandemic

As we all know, the whole world has completely transformed over the last few months. Safety and health standards have changed. The way we interact with others has changed. That does not mean that your love for backpacking has to change.

This presents the question, is it safe to go hiking during a pandemic? When taking the proper precautions, the answer is absolutely yes.

Be sure to stay at least six feet away from people who are not a part of your household.

Always bring a surgical mask and wear it whenever you are in close proximity to others. Do not backpack in large groups. If you have one available, bring an extra mask with you. If the one you’re using becomes lost or damaged, it is helpful to have a backup.

If you are camping with a group, try to sleep in separate tents. If this is not possible, be sure to use a tent that allows at least six feet of space between each person.

Do not touch your face while backpacking. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as soon as you get the opportunity to do so.

Always use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Use alcohol based antiseptic wipes to clean your phone and other items before using them.

If, for any reason, you need to touch your face or touch another person, I suggest using rubber gloves. Immediately dispose of them afterward. I recommend backpacking with a bag that is specifically used for garbage.

DO NOT LITTER!

It is imperative that we follow all safety precautions as laid out by the CDC. We must all make the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, you shouldn’t let fear drive you away from the great outdoors. When following the correct protocol, the risk of contracting COVID-19 while backpacking is low.

Educate Yourself

In addition to being physically prepared, mental preparedness is crucial for first aid. You can’t hire a doctor or nurse to stay by your side for every backpacking trip you embark on. Therefore, the more you know, the better.

No, I don’t suggest going on WebMD and searching for all backpacking related ailments. However, it is beneficial to do a little bit of homework about first aid.

There are tons of first aid books to choose from that will end up helping you in the long run. If reading is for you, pick one out and absorb as much knowledge as you can. You may even want to take one of these books with you for reference during your backpacking trip.

Basic Illustrated Wilderness First Aid by William F. Forgey and Lon Levin is a great option. It covers everything you’ll need to know and is super easy to understand.

If you’re looking for something more hands-on, the American Red Cross also offers courses in first aid and CPR. If in-person classes are not your thing, they also have online classes available.

In addition, there are tons of international programs that offer courses in first aid. A quick search of Google should provide you with dozens of options.

Summary

At the end of the day, we all want our backpacking trips to go smoothly and safely. This precise reason is why first aid is so important.

Remember that acquiring a first aid kit does not need to be as complicated as it sounds.

Make sure you always have everything listed in the checklist. Keep your kit organized. Pay attention to the details. Be conscious of your circumstances and use your head. Allow safety to remain your first priority.

If you follow all the guidelines, you’ll have peace of mind on your next backpacking excursion.

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