Are you ready to get your hike on? Before you hit the trail, it’s essential to make sure you have everything you need, and that includes a first aid kit. But with all the different medical products out there, it’s hard to know exactly what to take along.
A backpacking first aid kit should contain basic wound care items like antiseptics and bandages, as well as some simple pain medications and antihistamines. You should also bring any prescription medications you have and pack medical tools like tweezers and gloves.
Of course, there’s a lot that goes into creating the perfect first aid kit. You’ll need to consider your hiking style, the trip location, and what problems you could run into. In the article below, we’ll go over everything you need to know in order to pack the perfect backpacking first aid kit.
Why You Need A First Aid Kit When Backpacking
If something happens on the trail, your first aid kit will be the only thing you have to treat the problem until you get back to civilization. And rest assured, something will happen. Longer backpacking trips almost alwayscome with injuries. It’s not that likely you’ll experience life-threatening injury or illness on the trail, but you will experience some hardships like cuts and blisters.
An Ounce Of Prevention
Most hikers will get scraped on rocks, burned by the campfire, or blistered by the rubbing of their hiking boots. These are minor injuries, and you might think they don’t warrant treatment at all. But treating them is very important if you don’t want wounds to get worse.
While you might not treat a blister while you’re at home, it’s something you need to pay attention to while backpacking. You won’t be showering regularly, and the outside environment exposes you to all sorts of pathogens. A minor blister can grow, become infected, and cause a much larger problem like sepsis if left unsupervised.
This holds true for all the smaller cuts and scrapes you may sustain on a backpacking trip. Taking a few moments to wash them out and apply some antibiotic cream is so easy, and it could save you from lots of pain or a serious infection down the road.
A Pound Of Cure
Hopefully, you won’t run into any problems more serious than the usual minor cuts. But it’s very possible that you or someone in your party could encounter something more intense. If a serious injury happens, you need to act fast, and you need supplies to help you treat the injury.
Say you fall and sustain a deep wound. If you carry the necessary equipment, you’ll be able to stop the bleeding with sterile gauze and stitch it up with wound tape or sutures. Then, you can dress it and make your way back to civilization. But without any equipment, you could lose a lot of blood and become faint before you can get help.
The same thing goes if you break an ankle. A splint can help you hobble back to safety. However, you may not be able to walk without one, because your ankle won’t support you. Then, you’ll be stuck waiting around until somebody finds you, which might not happen for hours, days, or weeks.
A Spoonful Of Medicine
Of course, breaks and wounds aren’t the only thing you need to worry about. When you’re living outside, it’s easy to become ill from contaminated water or airborne pathogens. If you have standard medications in your bag, you can cure yourself of symptoms like diarrhea just by taking a pill. You won’t become dehydrated and you’ll stay safe.
While you’re backpacking, you’ll be surrounded by new plants and insects. While these are some of the more beautiful aspects of hiking outdoors, they can unfortunately be some of the most dangerous. Allergic reactions happen, and you need to be prepared with an antihistamine or similar medication in case you have an unknown allergy.
If you have a knownallergy, it’s even more important to take your meds. Some people are allergic to bees, some have bad reactions to certain plants. If you know that you’re one of those people, bring your epi-pen or other prescription medication along with you. Not only can it save your life on the trip, but it can also give you peace of mind knowing you’re safe from a potentially life-threatening reaction.
Backpacking First Aid Kit Checklist
So, what should you be bringing in your first aid kit? Each person’s kit will be personalized to fit their needs, but there are a few universal items you can start off with. You need to be prepared for the most common hiking injuries, which include sprains, cuts, and blisters.
It’s also smart to be prepared for less common injuries like broken bones, severe allergic reactions, and illnesses of any kind. To craft your perfect first aid kit, learn about the essentials first, like gauze and over-the-counter medicines, and then pick out additional items as you go on.
Start With The Basics
For first aid in the field, the essentials are pretty much the bare minimum of what should go in your kit. These are the items you’ll likely use the most on your trip, so having them is particularly important. They are your first line of defense against infection and discomfort, and they’ll likely come packed in any pre-assembled first aid kit you buy at the store or online.
The basics include antiseptic wash or wipes to clean out wounds, and an antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. You also need an assortment of band-aids and bandages of various shapes and sizes to prevent debris from entering a wound, and some medical tape to hold everything in place.
Make sure you have an NSAID or ibuprofen for pain management, an anti-diarrheal, and an antihistamine in case you get allergies. These items alone will take you far. However, they won’t take you all the way. If you’re heading out on a longer backpacking adventure, you need additional supplies in case things go very wrong.
Wound Care Supplies
Cuts happen. It’s most likely they’ll be minor, but sometimes they’re more serious. If you step on a sharp stick, you could get a puncture wound. If you fall from up high, the wound could be much more dangerous than a simple scrape. If you trip over a rock, you could sprain your wrist or ankle.
Large cuts and deep wounds need to be treated carefully to stop blood loss, prevent infection, and allow you to make it back home safely. To treat wounds properly, you’ll need hand sanitizer and a pair on non-latex gloves. You can clean them with your basic supplies, but dressing them is another story.
Make sure to bring lots of gauze for packing and dressing deep wounds. Take a few larger bandages just in case, including some butterfly bandages to hold your wound together. Bring a needle and medical thread in case you need to do some impromptu stitching as well.
Treating Sprains And Breaks
Sprains are common, but breaks are less likely. If you do happen to fall and break a bone, it’s important to ensure you can hobble back to safety. You may want to consider a SAM splint. SAM stands for structural aluminum malleable, and it’s used to immobilize soft tissue and bone injuries.
This keeps swelling to a minimum and allows limited use of the injured limb. The SAM splint will allow you to splint up breaks and sprains to keep them safe and increase your mobility. However, it isn’t the only item you need for protection against sprains and breaks. It’s also smart to bring along a triangular cravat bandage.
The triangle cravat is a compact, multi-use item that comes in handy for broken arms. It’s a larger bandage that acts as a sling when tied around the shoulder. You can also use it just like a regular bandage if you’re in need of a larger one.
Your Medicine Bag
You already know the essential medications. However, there are a few other medications that could be worth it to bring along, just in case. A laxative is a good idea, as it’s very common to get constipated on longer trips, especially if you’re prone to dehydration.
Rehydration packs are also a good idea. These electrolyte powders can be mixed right in with your water to stave off the ill-effects of dehydration. Those at risk of heart attacks should take aspirin as a preventative measure, and those prone to hypoglycemia should bring glucose pills.
If you have any prescription medications, you need to bring those as well. You should take all your prescriptions just as you would at home and bring allergy medications like epinephrine if you have it. Depending on where you’ll be hiking, you may want to take additional medications to protect against the specific elements you will encounter. Sunscreen, eyedrops, and other meds could prove helpful.
First Aid Tool Kit
You’ll need certain tools in your first aid kit to complement your medicines and bandages. Often, tools are necessary to apply many of the bandages. You can also use them to create makeshift splints and other first aid items should you find yourself in a bind.
A small multitool will work wonders here, as it contains scissors, a knife, and other handy items. However, multitools can be very expensive and, unfortunately, the cheaper they are, the less functional they tend to be. If a multitool is out of your price range, never fear — you can still carry the tools you need separately.
A pair of scissors is essential for cutting bandages to size. Tweezers are good for picking out splinters, and you can also use them to dig out ticks in areas where they are a problem. It’s a good idea to carry a medical syringe, in case you need to clean out any deep wounds, and a scalpel in case you need to cut into infected flesh.
Duct tape is an essential item as well. You can use it to hold dressings in place and for all sorts of repairs. Bring a whistle to alert others of your location and a space blanket in case of temperature-related illness. Sunscreen, lip balm, and bug spray may also be smart to bring, depending on the climate.
15 Essentials For A Backpacking First Aid Kit
1. Antiseptic Wash
You don’t need to bring a bottle of rubbing alcohol along with you, though that will work in a pinch. It’s a better idea to take hydrogen peroxide, as this doesn’t hurt when you apply it to cuts or scrapes. It’s your decision whether to bring a bottle or wipes, as each choice has its pros and cons.
Antiseptic wipes are more lightweight and compact. They’re easier to store and transport. A bottle of antiseptic wash is heavier and bulkier, but it will prove more useful if anyone has a deeper puncture wound on your trip. You can’t clean deep wounds with wipes, so you must use a liquid wash.
2. Triple Antibiotic Ointment
A triple-antibiotic ointment is a must-have for cuts, scrapes, burns, and foot blisters. Dabbing a bit of antibiotic ointment will prevent infections, so get the strongest stuff available at your local pharmacy. One popular choice is Neosporin, though other brands like Polysporin and Bacitracin are also available.
The ointment you choose is entirely up to you. To save on weight and space, bring the smallest-sized tube you can find, which will be about as long as your middle finger. You won’t need any more than that. A little bit of antibiotic cream goes a long way, but don’t be scared to apply it liberally when you need it. You should apply it three times per day, changing the wound dressing each time.
3. Multi-Sized Bandages
In this case, bandages mean adhesive bandages, like band-aids. These bandages are key for covering and dressing wounds, as they prevent debris and other infection-causing compounds from entering the wound. You should bring several different sizes, as it’s very impractical to use a huge bandage for a small burn. Likewise, you can’t put a finger-sized band-aid on a deep gash.
It’s smart to pick up a multi-pack of bandages and take several of them out while you hike. Whatever you use on your hike, you can just replace later. Bandages are thin and lightweight, so err on the side of caution and bring a few more than you think you need. It won’t add any extra burden on your back, but it could save you from a nasty infection.
4. Rolled Gauze
A roll of gauze has many different uses. You can use it to dress wounds, wrap it around sprains to provide support, or wrap it around another sterilized dressing to hold everything in place. Buy two rolls of gauze in different sizes, so you can use them for different functions and on different parts of your body.
You’ll be able to buy self-adhering gauze that sticks to itself, which is very handy for wound dressing. If the gauze doesn’t stick to itself, you’ll need to use pins or tape. This just adds to the number of items you need to bring, tacking on additional bulk. If possible, try to cut down weight and volume with self-adhering gauze.
5. Hemostatic Gauze
Hemostatic gauze is specially designed to stop bleeding. Hopefully you won’t ever need it on the trail, but it can be especially handy for larger wounds where blood loss is a big threat. Hemostatic gauze can also be a lifesaver for individuals who have clotting problems. By covering the wound with hemostatic gauze, you can clot the blood, stop the loss, and save the life.
Much like rolled gauze, you can get hemostatic gauze strips in several sizes. You should bring along several sizes. Even though smaller wounds don’t usually require this type of gauze, you can still use it on any wound. This will cut down on your pack weight and let you rest easy knowing you and your group are safe.
6. Butterfly Bandages
Butterfly bandages have become very popular in recent years. Many people use them in place of stitches when possible, and they are a much safer option than stitching your wound on the trail. Though not every injury can be dressed in butterfly bandages, they are still worth taking.
When you buy them, take the time to read the instructions on the packet and learn how to apply them. Butterfly bandages aren’t difficult to use, but there is a learning curve. You want to surpass that learning curve while you’re safely at home, not when you’re dressing a wound on the trail.
7. Needle And Thread
For some injuries, butterfly bandages just won’t cut it. Longer wounds might be too big for small bandages, and if that’s the case, you may need to stitch the wound yourself. While it’s not that likely you’ll need to suture a wound, it’s something that musthappen if your wound requires it. Otherwise, the risk of infection is too great.
Additionally, a needle and thread can help a lot with repairs on your equipment and supplies. It’s a multi-use item, so it’s great for ultralight backpacking. It’s small, cheap, and lightweight, so it makes the list of essential gear.
8. Medical Syringe
Also known as an irrigation syringe, a medical syringe is a tool used for squirting antiseptic solution or water into a wound to remove debris and bacteria. The syringe handle pressurizes the stream of liquid, and this additional pressure is usually enough to clean out dirt, rocks, and other debris without hurting the afflicted person.
A medical syringe is particularly useful for deep wounds or puncture wounds that are hard to clean properly. These syringes come individually wrapped, so they provide a sanitary cleaning method in unsanitary conditions. Most medical syringes weigh less than an ounce and cost less than a dollar, so there’s really no excuse to neglect them in your kit.
9. Pain Medication
A little bit of pain medication can go a long way on a hike. Choose an over-the-counter, pain-relieving drug like aspirin or ibuprofen to get rid of aches and pains in sore muscles. It will also help after a sprain, strain, or other injury.
Pain medication should be taken wisely, and only if it’s needed. Many people prefer Tylenol, as it’s one of the most heart-safe options. If you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease, always consult your doctor before picking any pain med for your backpacking trip.
An antihistamine quells allergic reactions, improving your condition from hay fever and seasonal sniffles. For hikers, it’s especially useful for poisonous plants and insect bites, which can happen frequently on the trail. Antihistamines will help with pain and swelling and take about 30 minutes to kick in.
Keep in mind that antihistamines like Benadryl can make you sleepy. Even if you buy one that specifically states it won’t make you sleepy, it still can. With that in mind, weigh the risks of hiking while drowsy against the risks of an allergic reaction. Usually, you’ll end up taking the medication.
An anti-diarrheal like Imodium or loperamide can save your entire hike. It’s all too easy to catch a case of traveler’s diarrhea on the trail, especially if you’re relying on a filtration system while drinking from natural water sources. Diarrhea can be particularly dangerous while you’re hiking because it causes dehydration.
Fatigue and weakness also come into play, and these three factors combined can cause a litany of unfavorable circumstances. It’s incredibly easy to stop diarrhea with a tablet. They are lightweight and low-cost, so bringing a few with you just makes sense.
12. Hydrocortisone Cream
Hydrocortisone cream is a great catch-all for skin problems. This topical cortico-steroid ointment suppresses your body’s natural immune response to reduce burning, itching, and swelling. It provides cool relief for conditions like poison ivy, bug bites, and those mystery rashes that are common in the great outdoors.
You can also use hydrocortisone for hemorrhoids, mouth ulcers, and heat rash, as well as a plethora of other conditions. Hydrocortisone is available at any pharmacy, grocery store, or gas station in amounts as low as just a few ounces to reduce the weight of your first aid kit.
13. Nitrile Gloves
Many people neglect to bring gloves with them while backpacking, but this is a big mistake. Backpacking is a dirty business, and you often won’t be able to wash your hands thoroughly with soap. When someone gets hurt, you’ll need to treat them at once and dirty hands make for a less-than-sterile situation.
Having a pair of gloves on hand allows you to spring into action immediately. Just pull them out of their package and get to work cleaning and dressing a wound. If possible, choose nitrile gloves over latex. Many people have latex allergies and having nitrile on hand will eliminate the possibility of a surprise allergic reaction in the field.
Tweezers might not seem important, but this handy little tool can be a lifesaver on the trail. Tweezers allow you to pick out splinters without cutting your hands open, which is great for traversing any backcountry environment full of thorns and brambles.
Furthermore, tweezers are great for picking off ticks. It’s very important to remove ticks and other insects as soon as they latch on to you, because they can carry diseases and cause infections. Look for a pair of precision tweezers, which have a sharper and more stable tip. They give you more room to maneuver and are easier to use.
15. Duct Tape
Duct tape might not be the first thing you think of when you imagine essential first aid items. But it serves a whole host of purposes, from holding bandages in place to repairing equipment and more. You can even use it to immobilize a broken limb or create a makeshift splint.
Many people use duct tape as a tourniquet to stop a wound from bleeding. They use it as a bandage to close a wound and protect it from debris. If you run out of other medical supplies, duct tape is the perfect back-up for pretty much everything. It’s versatile, flexible, and malleable enough to suit your specific needs.
Buying A First Aid Kit vs Making Your Own
You can buy a first aid kit at any outdoor retailer, or you can make your own DIY first aid kit from products sourced around your house or at the pharmacy. But which is the better option for convenience, protection, and price? That depends on your personal preferences, but there are several factors to consider before you decide.
Buying A First Aid Kit
Many people choose to buy a pre-made kit because it’s the easier option. They don’t have to think about what to buy. Everything is already there in the kit, and they can just toss it in a bag and hit the trail. Usually, you can pick up a pre-made first aid kit for under $50. It’s convenient, fast, and cheap.
The problem with this approach is that you really don’t know what’s in the kit until you open it up. If someone has sudden-onset diarrhea with dehydration, you could open the kit and find that there’s no Imodium included. In that case, what could be an easily-solved problem turns into a nightmare.
When you buy a pre-made kit, you limit your supplies to what’s inside it. You put your trust in a manufacturer whose goal is their own bottom line, not your health and safety. If you buy a pre-assembled kit, make sure you know exactly what’s inside.
Open it up before you pack it, and supplement it with other items to ensure you have everything you need. Consider buying a more extensive kit specifically made for backpacking. This will cost a lot more, but it’s a good compromise if you don’t want to DIY your kit.
Making A First Aid Kit
Making your own kit is a bit less convenient. You need to first decide what to put in it, then go out and buy all the products. You need to organize them and arrange them, so they fit inside the kit, all while making sure to keep it lightweight and compact.
Making your own kit is a slower process, and usually more expensive. However, many backpackers tend to lean towards this option when heading out for longer trips because making your own kit gives you agency, power, and complete control over your experience.
When you make your own kit, you can take the hiking conditions into consideration and bring supplies specific to that area. You can bring extra supplies like duct tape, which are rarely included in a kit. You’ll be able to adjust the number of medical products you bring based on how many people are going with you, and you won’t be lugging around things that won’t be useful to you.
Furthermore, you can buy better products.Many pre-made kits have tiny bandages or flimsy pieces of gauze that don’t really function optimally for outdoor conditions. When you make your own kit, you have control over the quality of the products. You can pick and choose what to spend your money on, and you’ll know exactly where everything is and how to use it if you need to.
Personalizing Your First Aid Kit
Whether you make your own first aid kit or buy it preassembled, you’ll need to personalize it for your trip. The items on this list are a great place to start, but it’s important to consider the conditions on your backpacking journey and bring additional items when appropriate.
Think about the climate you’ll be hiking in. Hotter climates require specific first aid items, as do cold-weather climates. If you’re going backpacking in the summertime or in desert conditions, you need to bring rehydration tablets, aloe vera gel to treat sunburns, and bug spray in case of insects.
Hiking in colder weather or snow could mean you need eye drops, hypothermia blankets, and warming gloves in your wintertime first aid kit. High-elevation backpacking may warrant altitude-sickness medication or sunscreen to protect against the intense sunlight so often found on the mountaintops.
It’s important to think about where you’ll be hiking, what the conditions are, and how they could affect your safety. Once you figure out the dangers in the region of your trip, you’ll be ready to take preventative measures and personalize a first aid kit according to your distinctive needs.
Your first aid kit should include the essentials to keep you safe from infection on your hike. Besides packing antibiotic cream and wound dressings, you should personalize your kit with any additional items you may need depending on the conditions, like sunscreen, bug spray, and pain medicine.