Why Assemble Your Own First Aid Kit?
While there are some good outdoor first aid kits on the market, there is great value in putting together your own outdoor first aid kit. In the process of assembling your first aid kit, you will have to think carefully about what to include and how you might use the included items. You should also consider how to pack your kit so you can access the items you need, in the order you might need them. By the time you have completed your outdoor first aid kit, you will know the kit intimately. You will know exactly what is in the kit and be able to find any of its contents quickly.
A personal first aid kit is just that – personal. The choice of equipment to include in your kit is a personal one, based on your training, experience, where you are going and the specific risks you might face. You can always use a good off-the-shelf camping or hiking first aid kit as a base on which to build. Bear in mind that the best part of many so-called outdoor first aid kits is the case or pouch containing the kit. The contents of many travel first-aid kits are limited in scope, containing not much more than some cheap plasters and bandages, making the kit as a whole overpriced. So, do read the contents list and spend your money wisely.
Typically, a good personal kit has items to deal with likely minor personal injuries (such as cuts, bites and blisters), as well as less likely but more serious injuries. The kit should also contain items you could not use on yourself (e.g. CPR mask) but are there to deal with very serious incidents involving other people. The best wilderness first aid kits are ones where the contents, your experience and the likely risks are in sync. This is why assembling your own kit is the best option.
Of course, having a well-equipped emergency first aid kit isn’t enough. You should also seek out high quality first aid training. There are some general skills that everyone should learn such as basic life support (even if you are travelling no further than the office) but you shouldn’t neglect to undertake a risk-assessment for where you are going and use this information to improve your preparation. You should make sure you have training in skills appropriate for where you are heading. This way, in acquiring specific knowledge, skills and equipment, you will have provided yourself and your companions with the best chance of dealing with any incidents that might occur. In considering how well you could cope with a particular remote emergency scenario, you may even change your planned activities or route choice to help diminish the risk. This whole process – of optimising your first aid training and assessing the risks you face – improves your wilderness survival skills and maximises your outdoor preparedness.
Usually, in putting together a wilderness first aid kit of any size, whether it is for personal or group use, you will be forced to compromise: There is only so much equipment you can carry. You can’t take a complete emergency room with you. I favour items that are suited to outdoor use and can endure the wear and tear that comes with wilderness travel. In particular, it is worth considering the robustness and waterproofing of the packaging of your first aid kit items. For example, the packaging of bandages is often flimsy plastic or paper. I try to find the highest quality kit contents. Then the contents of the kit will not only stay in one piece until I need to use it but also the various contents will perform well once they are in use. Some contents can be re-packaged to make them more durable, waterproof or both. For items of your first aid kit that must remain dry, I recommend packing them in Aloksak waterproof storage bags. If you choose your kit contents wisely, for a given level of functionality you can pack fewer of a particular item in favour of making space for other items or saving weight. This practice helps limit the compromise.
I take a modular approach to my basic wilderness equipment. I have discussed this approach in other articles covering essential wilderness equipment and bushcraft survival kit. In the outdoors I always take at least a cuts kit with me – normally in my trouser pocket. In addition, I often carry a military dressing in an easily accessible place – jacket pocket or top pocket of daypack. The next building block up as far as emergency first aid equipment is concerned is my personal wilderness first aid kit. This kit fits into a pouch that can be carried on a belt. It takes up little room if carried in a backpack and easily fits into the side pocket of my 35-litre daysac. The aim of my kit is to be able to do as much as possible with what I have, taking into consideration other gear I carry and what might be improvised. So, my personal first aid kit is considered as part of a modular system.
I’m not recommending that everyone needs or should assemble the same personal wilderness first aid kit I have. Some of the items require specific training in their use before you can apply them. I’m highlighting what is in my kit because I’m often asked and therefore I know people are interested. I’m always fascinated by what others have in their first aid kits too. There’s often a little tip or trick you hadn’t previously thought of. I hope this article will give you the basis to think about what’s already in your personal first aid kit as well as what else you might like to include. More important, I hope reading this might motivate some people to think about areas of first aid in which they might like to have more training. My view is that you can never have too much first aid training, particularly if you are headed for wild and remote areas.
Personal First Aid Kit Contents
For some of the items below I give some rationale for why I carry them. Please don’t take this rationale as a complete explanation of how each item should be used or assume, because you’ve read and understood my rationale, that it is then OK to use these items without appropriate training. Also, I haven’t included every single use to which these items could be applied.
1. Gloves: Powder-free nitrile (not latex as some people are allergic) gloves. I fold them in pairs and store them in a plastic bag for protection from getting snagged in the zip of my kit. I pack this at the top of my kit as I’ll need gloves first if I’m tending to someone else.
2. Drugs and medication: I pack the blister packs in an Aloksak waterproof storage bag to keep them together and protected. I also include a sheet of waterproof paper on which I have written dosages, side-effects and contra-indications. The baseline for my kit is the inclusion of an analgesic, an anti-inflammatory, an antihistamine, Imodium (Loperamide), and Diarolyte.
Warning: You should always make sure that you are not allergic or prone to any other adverse reaction to any medicines you choose to include in your first aid kit. If in doubt, speak to a pharmacist or your doctor. Also, unless you are permitted by the remit of your training and relevant laws to administer or offer the medication in question, any medicines you include in your first aid kit should be for your personal use only and not given to anyone else.
3. Antiseptic wipes: I find having a few of these in my kit handy for cleaning up, wiping blood off cutting tools, camping equipment etc. For antiseptic use on cuts and grazes, I use Betadine – see #13.
4. Minor Wound and Blister kit: This is similar to my stand-alone cuts kit so I’m effectively doubling up on many of the items I use most when in the outdoors. Again this is packed in an Aloksak waterproof storage bag. Below is an expanded view of the kit:
From top left to bottom right, this sub-kit consists of the following:
– Sterile gauze swabs: These have various uses and I find them particularly good for padding or protecting more serious cuts on my hands.
– Steri-strips: Steri-strips are wound closure strips for lacerations, etc. I find these very useful for more serious cuts but care is needed not to seal-in dirt, etc. and cause infection. I recommend getting proper training in how to use them (including wound irrigation, etc).
– Suture kit: I was trained to suture by a doctor and I include sutures in my kit for the rare occasion, far from help, where suturing may make sense. The vast majority of wounds can be dealt with in other ways.
– Melolin wound dressing pads: These pads are cushioned, non-stick and absorbent, and I find them useful for minor burns and grazes, particularly ones that ooze a bit. I don’t use them very often so include only a few.
– Plasters: Nexcare plasters by 3M are the best I’ve used. They are made of quality materials, hypoallergenic and have a healthcare-industry grade adhesive. They stay on for longer (particularly when used in combination with Friar’s Balsam – see 14), and I achieve better protection of cuts, grazes and minor burns than with cheap plasters. I also use far fewer of them than cheap plasters. This frees up space in my first aid kit.
– Compeed: I find these padded gel plasters extremely good for dealing with hot-spots and blisters. Applied properly, they stay on for days even when hiking hard. Therefore, I carry only a few of assorted sizes in my kit.
– Moleskin plaster: I find these good for hot spots and areas that need protection from rubbing but where the padding of a Compeed plaster is either unnecessary or impractical. These are from a Spenco blister kit.
– Tempa-Dot thermometers: Tempa-Dots are single-use thermometers have nothing much to do with cuts or blisters but I keep them here as they fit well and stay protected.
6. Military dressing: A 10x19cm first field dressing for serious wounds and bleeding. These military dressings are very absorbent and much better than cheap pharmacy-bought dressings. The packaging has an internal plastic coating and is waterproof; this not only keeps the dressing dry but the packaging can be employed to create a non-stick covering for a burn or used to create a valve for a sucking chest wound. These military dressings are being replaced by the Israeli trauma dressings and so will mine eventually.
7. Nasopharyngeal airway: A nasopharyngeal airway can be employed in some circumstances to help maintain an airway. I take the view that while it would be great to have a full range sizes of NP and OP airways, I don’t have space in this kit and one NP airway is better than nothing. It can also be used for other things. If you haven’t been trained to use one of these, then it shouldn’t be in your kit.
8. Syringe: This is for wound irrigation. While a volume of 20cc would be more efficient, I carry a 10cc syringe as it saves space. For irrigating my own wounds I use water from my own drinking water bottle. For other people I use their drinking water.
9. Blunt needle: For use with the syringe (see #8). While you can use the syringe on its own and generate a good amount of pressure, the narrower gauge of the needle generates greater pressure for wound irrigation. I carry a blunt mixing needle as it is not sharp and therefore poses little threat when stored or in use.
10. CPR Mask: While not as good as a pocket mask (which won’t fit in a kit this small), this is a robust mask. The strong packaging can be employed for other jobs too.
11. Small bandage: I find these cheap, small bandages useful for cutting to size to dress a cut or burn, particularly on fingers. I typically use this material over a piece of gauze or a steri-strip.
12. Transpore Tape: Like the Nexcare plasters, Transpore tape is made by 3M. It is durable yet easy to tear when you are applying it. Much better for outdoor use than micropore tape and it doesn’t soak up water like zinc oxide tape does.
13. Betadine: Betadine is an antiseptic liquid which contains povidone-iodine. It acts against a broad spectrum of pathogenic organisms that might cause skin infections and is ideal for applying to cuts and abrasions in the outdoors. I carry a 15ml bottle. While in Queensland, Australia I found it was useful for removing leeches as well as disinfecting the bite afterwards! Unfortunately due to the European Biocides Directive 98/8/EC, this type of iodine product has been unavailable for sale within the EU since October 2009. Iodine is still available outside of the EU.
14. Friar’s Balsam: Also known as compound tincture of benzoin or compound benzoin tincture, this is different to pure tincture of benzoin. All can be used as a styptic and/or antiseptic (it stings like hell so better to use the Betadine for antiseptic purposes). The main additional benefit of Friar’s Balsam is its stickiness; it can be applied around a wound before applying a plaster or tape and it will help either adhere for much longer. I have decanted a small amount of Friar’s Balsam into a very small dropper bottle which can be used to paint the liquid onto the skin with reasonable precision.
15. Temporary tooth filling: This is a temporary cavity filling material for emergency use only.
16. Superglue: This is for personal use only. Standard superglue is different to medical superglue. Don’t mess around with it unless you understand the differences.
17. Tweezers: Uncle Bill’s Sliver Grippers are tweezers with a sharp point. They are good for splinter and thorn removal. They also lend themselves well to tick removal.
18. Safety pins: These are not for making a really tidy sling but for helping remove splinters, thorns etc. I find it a good way to safely have a sharp point in my first aid kit without risking damage to any contents or myself. If the point isn’t sharp enough, it can be sharpened with a sharpening stone.
19. Whistle: Using a whistle is a lot less effort and more effective than shouting – either in calling for help or responding to someone who needs your assistance. While I normally have a whistle around my neck, I find having everything I need in my first aid kit reassuring – in an emergency I can just grab my kit and go. The whistle I have here is a Fox 40 Micro, the same model as mentioned in this article.
20. Shears: Tough cut or EMT shears are highly effective at cutting through clothing, straps, webbing, rope, etc, and much safer to use than a knife. Mine are a small model made by Merlin Medical. I attach small, otherwise loose items such as my tweezers (#17), safety pins (#18) and whistle (#19) to my shears via a quick-release clip. This way I can easily find the small items by grabbing the shears. This also helps me keep everything organised and prevents losing the small items.
21. Cigarette lighter: I often use a lighter to disinfect my tweezers or a pin before removing a thorn or splinter. Also, if I need to light a fire, I have a lighter to hand, immediately. You don’t want to be bow-drilling if someone has immersion hypothermia…
22. Head-torch: I once had to provide first aid to someone who was seriously injured in a remote area of forest and it was already late afternoon. By the time the paramedics arrived (by helicopter), it was getting dark. None of them had a torch with them. I had my usual head torch with me but ever since then I’ve always carried a dedicated emergency lamp in my first aid kit. The Petzl e+LITE Headlamp is perfect for the job. It is small, lightweight, has lithium batteries (which work better in cold conditions than alkaline batteries), a 10-year shelf-life and is waterproof (up to 1 metre under). It has various modes, including strobe which can be particularly useful in emergency situations.
All of the above items fit into a pouch measuring 15cm x 12cm x 7cm. Unfortunately the canvas pouch I have been using has started to disintegrate and I will probably trial something of a similar size from Maxpedition’s range as a replacement.
While I’ve organised everything in my kit to be easily accessible in the order I need, I generally have some other items I can also use. I usually carry the following in a daysac or backpack and I consider it part of an extended first aid kit that can be used in conjunction with my personal wilderness first aid kit:
A Malleable splint: Sam Splint or similar; this is a malleable foam-covered aluminium splint that can be formed into a multitude of shapes and used to help splint or immobilise part of a casualty’s body.
Bandana: I carry at least one large bandana as they have several uses, one of which is to create a sling. There is as much material in one of these bandanas as in two standard triangular bandages.
Water bottle: I carry at least one litre of water in a water bottle. This water can be used for the irrigation of a wound (see #8 and #9 above), for example.
I hope you find this article useful or at least food for thought. Please do let me, and other readers, know about any first aid kit advice, tips or tricks that you’d like to share by leaving a comment in the comments section.
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