The Ultimate Guide to First Aid Kits

By Sabina Staempfli - Travel

Has this thought ever crossed your mind?

‘I’m heading out on an adventure Yaay! Uuuuuuuuugh now I have to pack a first aid kit! It can’t be too big because I don’t have the space and it can’t be too small because I’ll be out in the middle of nowhere! Aaaaarrrgh what do I do?!?!?’

Ok so you might not be as dramatic as that… but have no fear! The ultimate guide to first aid kits lies ahead.

Here’s the quick and dirty. Think about the nature and length of your trip and pack what you need of the following items, put each one or a few together in small clear zip lock bags and put them all in a bigger zip lock bag. With this method you can see everything easily and have quick access to supplies if you need them fast. And it’s waterproof. And it’s moldable and not bulky. And! If you pack it right and get rid of all the unnecessary packaging it can be a nice reasonably small size and with a little bit of knowledge and know-how, you can cover yourself in most situations.


The Must Have Prevention Tools:

  • 1. Sunscreen/Lip balm with SPF
  • 2. Bug Spray
  • 3. Hand Sanitizer

I keep these in a separate easily accessible area in my pack.


The Must Have Basics:

  • 4. A Good Multi-Tool
  • 5. Tweezers
  • 6. Syringe and Needle
  • 7. Non-Stick Gauze Pads and One Roll Non-Sterile Gauze
  • 8. Plasters (Band-Aids)
  • 9. Antibiotic Ointment (Polysporin)
  • 10. Moleskin
  • 11. Clear Tape
  • 12. Vaseline
  • 13. Thermometer
  • 14. Steri-Strips
  • 15. Iodine Swabs and Alcohol Swabs
  • 16. Gloves
  • 17. Tensor Bandage


The Must Have Drugs:

  • 18. Ibuprofen
  • 19. Tylenol (Acetaminophen)
  • 20. Benadryl
  • 21. 1% Hydrocortisone Cream
  • 22. Anti-Fungal Cream
  • 23. Fluconazole tablet (For Girls)


If travelling to an area where you might get ‘Travelers Diarrhea’:

  • 24. Gravol
  • 25. Imodium
  • 26. ORS packs
  • 27. Azithromycin
  • 28. Tums


If traveling to Altitude

  • 29. Diamox


Optional:

  • 30. Splints


Ok so you’ve packed your kit- but do you know how and when to use it? Fear not! Read on!

Sunscreen

We all know that prevention is the best medicine and that a bad sunburn can cause unduly pain and discomfort but a lot of us outdoorsy people are still terrible at lathering up. I know it’s cool to have a sweet sandal or goggle tan but trust me, if you keep doing it you’ll end up looking like a leathery turtle not to mention you know... cancer. Don’t think that if you have darker skin that you’re exempt from the rule—you might not get burned as easily but you are still at risk for developing dangerous changes in your skin that could lead to skin cancer. Reapply often, especially if you get sweaty or wet (honestly there is no such thing as “waterproof” sunscreen; from my experience it’s bull), and cover up as much as you can. Anything above SPF 30 is fine unless you’re a pasty ginger then buy the highest SPF you possibly can and keep covered! Don’t forget a hat, sunnies and good lip balm to protect from blisters.

Bug Spray

This depends on your tolerance to bites and also the area’s risk for mosquito borne diseases like Malaria, Dengue and Zika. If you don’t know if you are traveling to an area that is at risk for any of these… you seriously need to do some homework before you go. Go see a travel doctor and pay the small fee so they can prescribe you some drugs if you need it. Get your vaccinations updated while you’re at it. And if you are even thinking anything even remotely resembling a “Hmm but vaccines …” …just stop right now before I have to slap you. Don’t tempt me. At a travel clinic they will have current up to date information that always changes so just because you’ve been to that place before doesn’t mean it’s the same level of risk. For antimalarial medication I’ve personally had best results the brand Malerone. It is expensive but I have found it to have the least amount of side effects. No wacky hallucinations at night equal better days. As for bug spray, make sure you get one that lasts a long time. Some of the lower end brands give you 15-minute protection from malaria aka useless as f*. Deet and Picaricin (now available in Canada woohoo!) are the best ones that give you the longest protection. And remember… first sunscreen THEN BUG SPRAY not the other way around or you lose all the benefits from bug spray.

Hand Sanitizer

Single. Most. Effective. Way. To. Prevent. Getting. Sick. Is that clear enough?? If you have dirt/liquids/anything you can see or feel on your hands, wash them first then use the sanitizer to get the itty-bitty stuff off.

A Good Multi-Tool

I treated myself to a kickass Victorinox multi-tool for my 20th birthday and I have used it on every single trip I’ve been on. A multi-tool is absolutely invaluable to any trip and can be used so many in first aid situations from using the pliers to pull out bigger chunks of wood stuck in skin to helping you fashion splints out of wood using the saw or knife to cutting tape and bandages to size. Be creative, BUT also be smart when using it because sometimes it can also be the cause of having to use the first aid kit. Remember! Cut AWAY from yourself, NOT towards (a classic tip but often forgotten especially by kids).

Tweezers

Great for getting rocks and chunks of wood out of skin. After use, wipe with an alcohol swab and store in the zip-lock bag for next use.

Syringe and Needle

I usually take a 5ml syringe with me as well as a couple of small gauge sterile needles. DO NOT reuse the needles. I repeat… do not… reuse the needles. They have a hollow area that can’t be sterilized with alcohol swabs. Needles are great for picking small things out of skin that the tweezers can’t get to and they are also great for wound irrigation (washing out the gross stuff) when combined with the syringe. The small gauge of the needle helps you get the pressure of the water up and force the little stuff (that you can’t see) out of wounds. Once it’s irrigated, clean with iodine and cover up the wound so that the little stuff doesn’t get in again. When you’re done with the needle put the cap back on it CAREFULLY, duct tape it shut and throw it into a sharps bin when you get home. Don’t know what any of those words mean or where to get them? Make friends with a nurse or a doc, they tell you all about it and maybe even snag you a few supplies from their place of work.

Gauze

Most commercial first aid kits come with a ton of non-sterile gauze. Don’t waste space with that stuff. Take a small roll that you can cut when you use it to wipe away blood but if you need more than that you can always use a bandana, piece of clothing, tampons or sanitary pads (very absorbent). And if you’re bleeding more than those things can absorb, you probably need to get out of there anyways. Non-stick gauze (basically a really large Band-Aid) comes in really handy when you have oozing wounds or are using antibiotic ointment. It keeps the wound from drying out and allows you to not have to peel away any skin when changing the dressing, which hurts.

Plasters/Band-Aids

I prefer princess-themed ones, but whatever floats your boat. Probably will be the most used item in this first aid kit.

Antibiotic Ointment

You should use this on all your cuts and scrapes especially in the woods. Clean the cut or scrape, and put a small amount of the ointment on a Band-Aid (or a piece of non-stick gauze if it needs to cover a bigger area). Using the ointment and covering it ensures you don’t get an infection, meaning you can continue to use that limb... which is good if you know… you like using your limbs. You don’t need to use a huge glob, it actually works better when it’s just a thin layer. Don’t use your finger to spread the ointment, put the tube directly onto your sterile dressing/plaster so it doesn’t get contaminated.

Moleskin

For blisters, prevention is best: buy your shoes earlier next time and work them in… you dummy. Try to keep feet and socks dry as best you can (easier said than done, I know). Oh and don’t try to dry your socks by the fire, they really do melt. Trust. Last resort is to use moleskin. Get the stuff that you can cut to shape, and remember it’s all about friction. If it’s still rubbing it’ll probably hurt and get worse. The moleskin can provide a comfortable barrier just make sure you cut it big enough to cover enough area.

Clear Tape

You only need a small amount of this, usually to keep the gauze in place. You can use duct tape if you want, but it’s not breathable and doesn’t stay on skin very well.

Vaseline

Good for many things: can provide a barrier for chafing, can relieve dry or irritated skin and can moisturize cuts. Take only a small amount, use only a small amount.

Thermometer

Don’t take one with a battery (it can run out and doesn’t work in the cold) and if you have a glass one make sure you have a good protective case for it. Don’t bother with those dinky little disposable plastic covers, all you need to do is wipe the thermometer with an alcohol swab before you use it, let it dry COMPLETELY (very important because that is what makes it sterile and safe to use), then wipe it again after you use it. A thermometer will let you know if you have a fever. This is important because if you have a fever for more than a few days that is not controlled with Tylenol you need to try to find a way out of the bush because there’s probably something else going on. A fever is usually classified as anything over 37.5 C but it starts to get more worrisome after 38.5C. This is when you should start to take some Tylenol, which is a painkiller and also an antipyretic (anti-fever), following the instructions on the bottle. Tip: cut the instructions out of the cardboard box the bottle comes in and put it in the bag with the meds. DO NOT TAKE MORE than the recommended daily amount, which is 4g per day. Kills your liver faster than chugging rubbing alcohol (no joke).

Steri-strips

These babies are the duct tape of health supplies, or as I like to call them…MacGyver sutures (stitches). Here’s how they work: you get a big cut, you put pressure on it to stop the bleeding (push on it real hard), you clean it using the iodine swabs, then you make sure the area is dry and slap on a few steri-strips across the cut with the edges of the cut approximated (meaning close together but not overlapping), which will allow it to heal properly. They work best when wrapped with gauze or a tensor afterwards to keep them in place. You leave strips on (don’t replace them) and try not to get them wet abut even if they get wet they should stay on. If they don’t hold right away or if they get soaked with blood right away then you probably should either a) put some strips more on, or b) press on the cut longer and harder to stop the bleeding, or c) you need real stitches so get the f* out of there before you’re left with a massive scar or bleed out. Fun times eh?

Iodine Swabs and Alcohol Swabs

Iodine swabs are for cleaning cuts and scrapes so you don’t get infections. Alcohol Swabs are used for cleaning things like tweezers or scissors to make them sterile but are not good for wound cleaning because they tend to irritate more than help. Get the individual small packets (that look like the hand-wipey things you get when you order wings) so you can use them once and burn them when you’re done.

Gloves

Use these if there is lots of blood or any other body fluids involved. Again, trust.

Tensor Bandage

Good for sprained limbs and to keep splints in place. Most important thing is to make sure that you don’t cut off any circulation (by putting in on too tight), make sure limbs aren’t going numb or tingly or white (bad).

Ibuprofen

Magical glorious ibuprofen. It’s an anti-inflammatory and painkiller and the only thing that can get rid of my migraines. Good for joint and muscle aches, headaches and other pains. Follow the directions on the box. Max dose is 3.6g per day but your stomach will probably tell you way before then too cool it on the pill popping habit, man. Don’t bring the liquid kind, they melt and cause a great big mess.

Tylenol (Acetaminophen)

As stated above, Tylenol can be used effectively for fevers but it can also be used for pain. AGAIN, don’t take more than 4g per day. Use the directions on the box.

Benadryl

Benadryl is an antihistamine, which means that it can help with mild allergic reactions such as inflammation from bug bites, certain rashes and environmental allergies. Get the chewable kind just incase you have any kind of throat swelling happening because it’s harder to swallow whole pills than chewed ones. That being said, make sure that you know your allergies to drugs, to environments and to food. If you’ve ever been advised by a doctor to carry an Epi-pen with you this would be an EXCELLENT time to fill that prescription and get one or even two of those babies. Allergic reactions can include swelling of various body parts (the most dangerous ones include the face because your throat can close up and without oxygen you can’t live) but come in lots of shapes and sizes so if you do have an allergy… KNOW THE EARLY SIGNS. If you do have to use an Epi-pen, it’s NOT a ‘cure’ and you need to get to a medical facility ASAP because depending on the severity of the reaction, the pens only have enough epinephrine to keep the reaction at bay for a short while (minutes-hours) and you might needing more than a few doses to keep your throat from closing up.

1% Hydrocortisone Cream

This is a mild over the counter steroid cream for the nastier rashes, skin irritations. Follow the directions on the tube.

Anti-Fungal Cream

Use for fungal infections. Duh.

Fluconazole

For us gals, there’s nothing worse than having a yeast infection while traveling or on a trip in the woods. Remember prevention—take wipes with you and keep clean. Guys you could use this too but it won’t do anything and you’d be wasting about $20.

Gravol

For nausea, useful in countries where you need to sleep on busses and to stop from throwing up that unclassifiable meat you had from the street vendor.

Imodium

Stops the runs. And I’m not talking about marathons. Travellers diarrhea is classified as 3 unformed stools in 24 hours plus one symptom of enteric infection (fever, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain/cramps, blood in stool). Imodium is useful in countries where you are exposed to things your body is NOT used to. Remember to stay hydrated with ORS (see below).

ORS Packs

Oral Rehydration Solution packs are useful when you are very dehydrated, most commonly from excessive diarrhea. When you get too dehydrated your electrolytes get imbalanced this can actually be life threatening. You can make your own ORS by combining 6 teaspoons of sugar and ½ teaspoon of salt into one litre of purified water. This is basically the poor man’s Gatorade and will give you the necessary electrolytes to keep your body in beautiful homeostasis (meaning well balanced, aka not dead). I like to fill a few small pill bags with the sugar/salt combination so I can mix it in my water bottle quickly when needed.

Azithromycin

This is the type of antibiotic usually prescribed by doctors for when Imodium doesn’t work. See your travel doc for details.

Tums

It’s always nice when traveling to have some of these babies for comfort from gastro esophageal reflux (heart burn).

Diamox

For altitude, prescribed by a doctor. This drug was originally designed to be a diuretic for people with congestive heart failure. It basically puts your body into a slightly acidotic state, which deepens your breathing and allows you to suck in more sweet sweet oxygen. Works pretty well to prevent altitude sickness however, it makes you pee A LOT and also makes you more sensitive to sun. Remember to lather up/cover up, drink lots of water, and follow the instructions the doc gives you about when/how to take it. Also be very informed about sign and symptoms of altitude sickness and never ever underestimate the severity and consequences of not acclimatizing properly.

Splints

Lots of different kinds of splints on the market, but you can always fashion some out of things you have available outdoors.


It’s important to remember that these are just general guidelines. Try to familiarize yourself with everything in your first aid kit and when in doubt about the severity of injuries or illnesses NEVER EVER hesitate to reach out to a health care professional (if there’s not one on your trip... hint hint). Also, I strongly recommend taking a wilderness first aid course if you are going to be on an extended trip in the bush. At first glance you may think that it’s an unnecessary expense, but the course is so much fun and it’s incredibly useful.

Feel free to comment if you have any questions or concerns or if you just want to send me pictures of your amazing looking first aid kits!

Safe and happy travels!

By Sabina Staempfli - O.E Ambassador

Sabina is an avid outdoor adventure seeker who in her spare time also works as a Registered Nurse in Emergency Rooms all over the country. Currently out on contract in the humble hamlet of Turtleford, Saskatchewan, her basecamp is in Toronto.

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