First Aid Kit – a practical guide to building yours!

When most people think of a first aid kit, the first thing that pops into their mind is the little plastic box that you get at the superstores in the pharmacy isles. This little plastic box usually contains a few adhesive bandages, triple antibiotic ointment and maybe a couple of alcohol pads. If you are lucky enough, maybe even a few gauze bandages. Do not get me wrong, there is a time and place to use each of the items previously mentioned. but a true first aid kit goes beyond bandages and gauze. In this post, I would like to dive a little deeper into a first aid kit that can truly be effective in an emergency. I am not giving you medical advice and am not a doctor. I am simply illustrating how to put together an effective first aid kit that you can use to treat basic injuries while in the field.

I am a retired military medic. I have extensive experience in emergency medical care, I was responsible for ambulance dispatch and the training of over 40 Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technicians on a rotational basis in the emergency department. I have trained hundreds of medics over 20 years in the service and I always trained my personnel to think outside the box. No emergency medical call is the same as another and you must always be ready for anything that can happen at any time. It was during this time in the service that I began understanding what truly needed to be inside a personal first aid kit. Because most of the time you will not be treating yourself in an emergency but rather someone you are with or someone you just happened to come upon that needs serious help.

Most people approach survival or bushcraft with an attitude of learning what they can do with a full tang knife and a ferro rod. How they can build a shelter to keep warm when the weather takes a turn for the worst or how to find and purify water. Although these skills can save your life, they are not the only skill that you should practice! Yes, it is extremely important to be able to summon fire to your beckoning and be able to stay dry when it rains but, It is equally important to know how to recognize a broken extremity and how to care for it in the field until you can get to a medical professional. There are countless books and blog posts on backwoods first aid and medicine, and this is not an in-depth post on those skills but rather a look into what I have found to be an all-around good first aid kit to carry with you in the woods, backpacking or camping.

Your first aid kit does not have to be in a big and heavy bag. The one that I found that works best for me is a small bag I purchased at the local dollar store. The bag came empty and it was like a painter’s canvas, left up to my imagination to fill. So, I sat down and wrote down what could be needed on a piece of paper. I thought of the most common injuries around the campsite or backpacking trip and once these injuries were laid out on paper, I was able to write down what items would be needed to take care of those injuries. Many common injuries require the same supplies, cutting down on the number of items that are required in your kit.

The most common injuries you will face while camping or backpacking:

  • Burns
  • Puncture wounds
  • Lacerations
  • fractures
  • sprains / strains
  • blisters
  • abrasions

These seven injury types can range from minor to severe and a good first aid kit should be able to take care of every one of these injuries. At the very least, your kit should hold you over until help can arrive or you can reach emergency medical care. Let us get started going over the basic items you can carry to treat these injuries.

  • Alcohol prep pads
  • 2×2 gauze
  • 4×4 gauze
  • Gauze roll
  • Nitrile exam gloves
  • Feminine Napkins (maxi pads)
  • Tampons
  • Adhesive Bandages
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Iodine solution
  • Waterproof medical tape
  • Tourniquet
  • Fingernail Clippers
  • Scissors
  • Hemostats
  • Repair needles (7 different sizes)
  • Dental floss
  • Triple antibiotic cream
  • Super Glue
  • Lip Balm
  • Cotton Swabs
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Ibuprophen (Motrin)
  • Ranitidine (Zantac)
  • Ductape
  • Tweezers

This sounds like a lot, but all these items fit into a small first aid kit. Everything listed in this kit can handle every one of the seven injuries listed above. I also carry an Advanced Life Support (ACLS) pocket field guide and a tiny CPR mouth shield in my kit as well. As with any first aid care, remember to practice safety first. A lot of times you will not be the only one to receive first aid out of your kit. Use the exam gloves when treating other people because you do not want what they have, and vice versa. Plus, it helps to keep the spread of germs to the wound.

The 2×2 and 4×4 gauze as well as gauze roll are perfect to cuts, burns, blisters and any other injury for which you need to stop bleeding. Remember, on a bad cut, always add more gauze rather than take the old off until bleeding stops. If you are unable to control bleeding, that is where the maxi-pad or tampons come in handy. Tampons are great for puncture wounds, small caliber gunshot wounds or for severe epistaxis or commonly called, bloody nose. Generally bloody noses will stop on their own but in rare circumstances a nasal tampon will have to be used. Feminine tampon can be used but only as a last resort. Speaking of last resort, a tourniquet should be the last line of defense if you cannot get bleeding to stop. Pressure applied to the cut and lifting the extremity above heart level is the first thing to do, but when it is an arterial cut, apply pressure below the cut to the artery and pressure to the cut as well. When bleeding cannot be stopped with pressure, this is when you should apply the tourniquet and immediately call for help and seek medical attention. If you have an arterial cut period, medical attention should be sought immediately.

Cuts in the wilderness can be common. You are always using a knife or axe. Sutures may have to be applied at some point. This is where the dental floss and needles come in handy. Dental floss comes sterile right out of the package but if you need to apply sutures in the field, use alcohol or flame to sterilize your needle. I carry the hemostats in my kit for suturing if needed.  Superglue can also work in a pinch if you need to close a minor wound. Super glue was used in a spray form during the Vietnam conflict to repair damaged organs until the wounded soldier could make it to surgery. It also helped stop bleeding. Super glue right off the hardware shelf will work in a pinch, and I have used it on myself numerous times. I sliced my hand open accidentally and needed sutures, but I was 40 miles from the nearest emergency department. I wiped the wound down with betadine and closed the wound with superglue and covered the wound with a gauze pad. There are medical grade superglues on the market but for my first aid kit, I use the $1.88 four pack of glue and it works fine for me. If you want to carry this item in your kit, the determination of what brand is up to you.

Obviously, burns can happen any time you are dealing with a fire or heat source. Most of the time burns are 100% avoidable if you are paying attention to what you are doing and not being careless. The type of burns you will normally deal with in the woods come from fire, hot liquids and steam. A burn can lead to infection very quickly. A first-degree burn is where the superficial cells of the epidermis are injured. The most common first-degree burn is… sunburn. A second-degree burn is where the burn has extended through the epidermis and into the dermis (the second layer of skin). Second-degree burns also are known as partial-thickness burns. These burns are extremely painful. Third degree burns extend through the epidermis and dermis into the fat layer. When treating your burns in the wilderness with your first aid kit, the most important step is to KEEP IT CLEAN. This is easier said than done. Research has shown that cleaning the wound with an iodine solution will keep it clean and help with the healing. Iodine has so many uses in treating and cleaning wounds. I keep mine in a .88 cent travel spray bottle from the local super store. This way I have a large quantity (2 ounces) and its small enough and light enough to carry everywhere I go.

Hand sanitizer has many uses in the first aid kit. First, the obvious use, sanitizing those germ magnets we call hands. It can be used to clean abrasions as well (yes, this will sting a little) but my favorite use for sanitizer is starting a fire! If you cannot get a fire started, a few squirts of hand sanitizer will get you on your way to a nice warm fire. Alcohol pads can be used as well and can burn a little longer than a match. Generally, your hand sanitizer will be well used in the field and must be resupplied after a camping trip or two.

I carry Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Diphenhydramine and ranitidine in my Kit. Let me break this down and give you my thought process for why I carry these 4 medications. Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen belong to different drug classes. Acetaminophen is an analgesic (pain reliever) and antipyretic and Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Each drug works great for pain and headaches and such, but I alternate them to keep pain manageable. I will take the ibuprofen and 2 hours later take the acetaminophen then repeat every 2 hours. This method works great to keep pain manageable and keeps you within the labeled dosing and time frames for those two medications. Diphenhydramine is for allergic reactions and for allergies and such. While the ranitidine is for acid reflux or indigestion. However, combining diphenhydramine and ranitidine together can be an amazingly effective treatment for allergic reactions and is even the first line treatment in the emergency department. As always, if you are having an allergic reaction, and are having trouble breathing, please seek medical attention immediately! I am not allergic to anything that I know of, but I do not want to be 5 miles in the woods and find out that I am. So, if I start having an allergic reaction to anything, I will take those two medications and head to the emergency department quick like and in a hurry.

I carry scissors, fingernail clippers, tweezers, and repair needles. Most of these are obvious tools but some can be uses for many different things. Fingernail clippers can be used to clip fishing string, and other fine detail work with threads and such. Tweezers are great for splinters and small delicate work that your fingers are just too big for. The needles have many uses. Not just for first aid suturing but for sewing clothing, hammocks, tarps and backpacks. There are times when you need a needle to dig out splinters from your fingers or foot as well. I have used the scissors to cut pine needles to make pine needle tea. Anything you bring with you in the woods can be helpful if you can use it for more than one purpose.

The last item that I use in my first aid kit is Duct tape. I keep it wrapped around the diphenhydramine bottle. The reason I do this is because I know which bottle is diphenhydramine and because it allows me to carry about 2 foot of tape instead of an entire roll in my kit. Duct tape can be used for many things. I have used them for blisters countless times. Buddy taping broken fingers together (you can use super glue for this also) and keeping a cut waterproof and held together. Everyone knows that duct tape is the super survival item. I have seen it used on survival shows where this was the one survival item someone brought with them. Another popular show used duct tape to make a raft. The possibilities of duct tape are endless.

This has been a short breakdown of my personal first aid kit. I have used the items that I have outlined for you so many times. Every item in the kit has more than one use. Every item in the kit has purpose. There is not one item in this kit that would only be used for one thing other than the CPR mouth shield. A first aid kit is just that… it gives first aid! It is not a trauma kit, or a surgical kit but rather a bag of tools to patch up minor to moderate wounds to allow you time to get to medical professionals. A first aid kit should be light weight and have enough items to treat your injuries for the duration of your trip into the wilderness.

Let me know if you found this post helpful in the comments below! visit my youtube channel for more outdoor tips.


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