How to Pack a First Aid Kit

Items and tips for staying safe and healthy in the outdoors

On every outdoor trip, there is one thing you should never leave behind: a properly stocked first aid kit. However, just bringing the necessary items along is not enough, cautioned Ted Smith, who teaches Wilderness First Aid through the Wilderness Medicine Institute at NOLS and works as a senior instructor at the REI Outdoor School.

“A first aid kit is great, but you have to know how to use it,” he said. There are many different learning opportunities available through organizations such as NOLS and Wilderness Medical Associates.

Once you know the basics, try out the following tips.

Consider a store-bought kit
“People ask whether they should buy a kit or make one,” Smith said. “Buying a kit is a great way to start off.” These packages will give you the carrying case and the bare essentials, which you can keep or swap out.

Consider the basic parameters of your trip
Choose the items you take along based on where you’ll be, the length of the excursion and how many people go. For instance, you might want to swap out that poison ivy cleaner from your hike in Wisconsin with some aloe (used to treat sunburns) for your desert climbing trip. 

Focus on what you can’t improvise
Often on outdoor trips, people want to cut down on the weight they carry. If you’re limiting your first aid kit to the bare essentials, make sure you focus on things you won’t be able to improvise on the trail, such as rubber gloves.

“I’ve seen people treat patients with zip lock bags on their hands,” Smith said. “It doesn’t work well.”

Other necessary items include biodegradable soap and a high-pressure syringe to clean out wounds, medications such as pain relievers and antihistamines and adhesive bandages (Smith always packs athletic tape).

Transparent dressing can be your best friend
In the wilderness, you often face a conundrum. While you don’t want to expose a cleansed wound to dirt and bacteria, you may need to take off dressing to check that the area is not infected. Transparent dressings, such as Opsite and Tegaderm help you get around this problem. They allow a wound to breathe and you can see right through them to  the affected area.