BUILDING YOUR OWN HIKING & BACKPACKING FIRST AID KIT

BUILDING YOUR OWN HIKING OR BACKPACKING FIRST AID KIT

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

Preparation “failure” for outings in the great outdoors can result in a wide variety of potential misadventures. These range from nursing a smarting headache or finger wound for days on end to facing a fight for survival after a fall or allergic reaction. Gladly, our chances of avoiding many such misfortunes rise significantly with a little bit of know-how and the addition of one simple but essential gear item.

Enter the hiking and backpacking first aid kit. In this article we will look at why this often overlooked essential should be the first thing in your pack for every adventure. We will also explain why you should consider building your own backpacking first aid kit from scratch and take you through just how to do it.

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of building your own hiking or backpacking first aid kit, let’s first take a look at what you should and shouldn’t do when prepping to take care of your well-being out in the wilds.

  • Do buy the best supplies your budget can stretch to (we all remember that faulty multi-tool in 127 Hours!)
  • Do create a first aid kit checklist or print out one of the lists provided below.
  • Do make sure your kit is stored properly.
  • Do ensure you have enough of each item to cover yourself and your group for the duration of your trip.
  • Do replenish and replace out-of-date supplies.
  • Don't assume that phone coverage or proximity to ‘civilization’ means self-sufficiency is not required.
  • Don't take the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach (over time you’re more likely to resent the excess weight and leave it behind).
  • Don't assume that your kit is self-explanatory — learn how to use it!
  • Don't rely on others to bring the first aid kit (they might just be doing the same thing…)

Safety Doesn’t Just Happen

Many of us hikers and backpackers tend to take a fairly lax and carefree approach when it comes to our health and safety out in the wild. This MO is a curious one for two reasons.

Firstly, the environment in which we practice our sport is, for the most part, far more liable to cause us injury or ailment than where others practice theirs (even football fields, for example, can pale in comparison to a bad day in the Bugaboos or a rain-soaked boulder field in the Dolomites). The number and type of injuries that may befall us while getting our hike on are, quite simply, overwhelming.

Secondly, the places where most of us tend to do our hiking and backpacking are, almost by definition, remote and wild. With no medical assistance in the vicinity, self-sufficiency is key. The body parts we might have to treat with our first aid kit, after all, just might be the same ones we are dependent on to get us back to safety alive and well.

hiking injury

The Washington Trails Association lists the backpacking first aid kit as number six in their list of ten essentials that every hiker should carry. Below, we’re going to explain why we believe it should be number one.

Common Hiking & Backpacking Ailments

Owing to the diversity of terrain we each do our hiking in and other variables such as climate, season and trail difficulty, the harm we can do ourselves while out hiking varies greatly. Having said that, some all but universal ailments potentially in store include the following:

  • Blisters - Without a doubt the single greatest bane of the backpacker and hiker’s existence. Caused by friction between your skin and the material of your boots or socks, these little nasties can be enough to ruin your trip. 
  • Sprains - Rugged, uneven and slippery terrain is pretty much the ideal environment for spraining a knee, wrist or ankle.
  • Cuts and abrasions - Low-hung branches, sharps rocks, slippery scree, backpack straps and (mishandled) camping knives are just a few potential perpetrators.
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    Sunburn - Lengthy exposure to the sun and/or hiking in snow-covered terrain and at altitude make hikers prime candidates for copping an excess of ultraviolet rays.
Hiking First Aid Kit
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    Chaffing - This occurs as a result of skin rubbing against skin or clothing and shouldn’t be underestimated as a source of tear-inspiring discomfort.
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    Cramp - Involuntary muscle contractions that can strike as a result of sustained muscular exertion without replenishing salts and fluids lost through perspiration.
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    Tick Bites - If untreated, these can transmit Lyme Disease, an infectious disease that can result in paralysis, heart problems and arthritis.
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    Breaks and Fractures - Sustained in a number of ways, ranging from trips, slips and falls to being hit by falling rocks or stubbing a toe on a barefoot wander around the campsite. The thought of sustaining a break or fracture out in the wild fills most of us with dread. It is, however, not something we should fear unnecessarily as long as we are adequately prepared…

Advantages & Disadvantages of Buying a First Aid Kit vs Building your Own

Adequate preparation entails carrying some form of first aid kit. You can either choose to build your own hiking first aid kit from scratch or buy a pre-built kit. Below, we take a look at the pros and cons of both options.

PROS

CONS

Pre-made Bought First Aid Kit

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    No effort required
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    Usually contains the majority of essentials
  • Not tailored to your personal needs or the needs of your group
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    You may have to purchase a second (and possibly third) kit if hiking in different group sizes
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    Many contain cheaper and lower quality supplies

DIY First Aid Kit

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    Customizable — can be tailored to your needs
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    You can personally choose the best option available for each item that goes into the kit
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    It is, strangely, a lot of fun compiling your own kit!
  • It might take a little bit of effort 

How Much Do You Need to Bring

The bare minimum or a miniature drug store for your back? How much you need to bring will depend, essentially, on the duration of your hike and the size of your group. Finding a happy medium that covers all bases but isn’t so heavy that we resent carrying it is the ideal scenario.

Solo Vs. Group

Travelling in a group means we need to take into consideration any specific medical issues of other members of our party and stock our backpacking first aid kit accordingly. To ensure we have enough of everything, we should at least double our supply of each item. Try to customize your kit to the location, the members of your group and anticipated or common ailments/injuries for both, i.e. extra rehydration salts for hot climates, extra antihistamines for group members with allergies. Owing to the ailment’s prevalence, we’d recommend taking a pair of blister patches for every pair of feet there are in your party, times the number of days you’ll be hiking. 

Pro Tip: Spread the Word

Spread the word about the importance of carrying a hiking or backpacking first aid kit. We all know at least one devil-may-care type who thinks “it’ll never happen to me”. Letting them know otherwise just might save their skin (and the rest of them, too…!) 

For solo hikers, the hiking and backpacking first aid kits listed below represent a generic, advisable personal minimum but do not take into account any specific ailments or health issues you may have.

Single-day Vs. Multi-day

On multi-day trips, increased exposure and fatigue naturally mean accidents and ailments are more likely to happen. Some of the more prevalent (and potentially unavoidable!) of these include:

  • Sunburn
  • Fatigue
  • Cramp
  • Chaffing
  • Blisters
  • Headaches
  • Athlete's foot

When prepping for a multi-day trip, stock extra supplies to treat the above ailments and be prepared to be entirely self-sufficient. Also, make sure you take enough prescription medication to last the duration and then throw in an extra day’s worth, just in case. 

On single-day trips, you can afford to leave out certain items owing to your (likely) proximity to medical services. That said, be sure to take enough to treat small injuries and to get yourself safely to where those services are provided. 

Our Extensive List of (Potential) First Aid Supplies

We've compiled a pretty comprehensive list of items you may wish to consider when building your own first aid kit. Note, the list is not exhaustive nor are we  suggesting that your kit should contain every item!

This is simple a list for your consideration, what you choose to bring will depend on the size and the medical needs of your group, the duration of your trip and the likely conditions you will encounter.

First Aid - Basic Care

The following is an extensive list of items required to treat common, non-life-threatening and smaller injuries

ITEM

DESCRIPTION & COMMON USES

Antiseptic Wipes

Necessary for disinfecting/sterilizing wounds, cuts and scrapes. BZK (benzalkonium) wipes are preferable but alcohol-based wipes will also do the trick.

Assorted Adhesive Bandages

Varying lengths and widths to cover different sizes of cut or wound. Fabric bandages adhere better than plastic.

Compound tincture of benzoin

Acts as an extra adhesive on bandaging and helps to seal cuts and wounds.

Antibacterial ointment

Ointments such as Neosporin, Bacitracin, Polysporin and Germolene help to prevent infection.

Gauze pads (various sizes)

For cleaning wounds and applying ointments.

Medical adhesive tape

To secure bandages and dressings. Waterproof varieties recommended. A ten-yard roll with a minimum 1” width should suffice.

Butterfly bandages 

Used to assist the closure of small wounds and cuts.

Nonstick sterile pads

Protect wounds from infection and can be removed without re-opening the wound.

Blister treatment

Pads such as Dr. Scholl’s help to heal and prevent blisters.

Insect sting relief treatment

Pads or wipes which contain some form of antiseptic, analgesic, anesthetic or antipruritic and reduce irritation and inflammation.

Safety pins

For securing bandages, slings and dressings.

Tweezers

To remove ticks and splinters.

Antihistamine

To treat allergic reactions to foodstuffs, pollen, dust, animals, plants etc.

Ibuprofen or other painkillers

For use in a variety of situations, ranging from headaches, toothaches and menstrual pains to relieving pain in sprained ankles or wounds.

Wraps, Splints & Wound Coverings

The following items are used to treat more serious injuries such as breaks, lesions and sprains.

ITEM

DESCRIPTION & COMMON USES

Elastic wrap

To compress strains and sprains.

SAM splints

A lightweight and more versatile means of immobilizing bone and soft tissue injuries.

Finger Splint(s) 

To immobilize and protect injured fingers.

Hydrogel-based pads 

Protect dry or dehydrated wounds and minor burns.

Rolled Gauze

For wrapping wounds and other injuries. A 4”x 4-yard roll will cover longer trips and weighs next to nothing.

Rolled, stretch-to-conform bandages

An upgrade on rolled gauze, these allow for greater movement in injured areas such as elbow joints, knees or fingers.

Cleansing pads with topical anesthetic

To clean out wounds. The anesthetic properties numb the area while you clean. 

Hemostatic Gauze

Seals wounds more effectively than powders or creams. 

Liquid bandage

Ideal for protecting cuts, scrapes and wounds on areas where bandages and plasters are liable to fall off, i.e. finger joints, elbows and knees.

Oval eye pads

For protecting and treating eye injuries.

Triangular cravat bandage

To create slings, tourniquets and protect head and eye injuries.

Medications & Treatments

The following items include treatments for more specific injuries and ailments. 

ITEM

DESCRIPTION & COMMON USES

Hand sanitizer

To sterilize hands prior to treating an open wound or cut.

Lubricating eye drops

To treat eye infections and injuries. More likely to be required in arid, dusty terrain and in the case of photokeratitis (snow blindness).

Antacids 

To treat acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion and coughs.

Throat lozenges 

Lubricates irritated throat tissues. Particularly useful at high altitude or in very dry or cold climates.

Aspirin

Can be used to treat pain, fever, inflammation, or to stop an impending heart attack.

Antidiarrheal pills

To treat the symptoms of diarrhea.

Poison ivy/poison oak treatment

Barrier creams such as IvyBlock will help to prevent developing a rash. Cortisone creams or calamine lotion will help reduce itchiness should a rash develop.

Antifungal foot powder

Because multiple days on the trail can turn your feet into a happy (and pungent!) breeding ground for fungi. We recommend Desenex Foot Powder.

Oral rehydration salts

To prevent and treat dehydration. Also useful for staving off cramp and muscle fatigue.

Injectable epinephrine

To treat life-threatening allergic reactions.

Glucose or other sugar solution

To treat hypoglycemia.

Aloe vera gel

To relieve sunburn, rashes and chaffing

Prescription medications

Antibiotics, insulin, antidepressants etc

Ibuprofen or other painkillers

For use in a variety of situations, ranging from headaches, toothaches and menstrual pains to relieving pain in sprained ankles or wounds.

Tools & Supplies

This list includes non-perishable items used to assist the treatment of both smaller and more serious injuries.

ITEM

DESCRIPTION & COMMON USES

Waterproof container

To protect supplies and medication.

Medical waste bag

To dispose of used items.

Duct tape (small roll)

Useful for securing splints or bandages.

Hand warmers

​A very welcome addition should one of your team develop signs of frostbite.

Suture needle and thread

To stitch larger wounds.

CPR mask

Aids resuscitation during CPR.

Medical gloves

For sterilization and treating someone else’s wounds (nitrile varieties are best) 

Small mirror

To assist with eye and facial injuries.

Safety razor blade/scalpel

For minor field surgery.

Scissors (blunt tip)

To cut dressings and remove clothing from injured areas.

Thermometers

A standard oral thermometer and a

low-reading thermometer to gauge fevers and hypothermia respectively.

Cotton-tipped swabs

For cleaning wounds or applying ointments.

Irrigation syringe

​To irrigate and cleanse wounds. An 18-gauge catheter is preferable.

Suggested Hiking & Backpacking First Aid Kits

The following are included to help you prepare your kit for a variety of trips: day hikes, overnight trips, multi-day trips, ultralight trips and excursions as a group.

Day Hiking First Aid Kit List

The following list comprises a collection of ‘bare essentials’ every hiker should consider carrying on a day-hike and forms the core of any hiking or backpacking first aid kit. 

  • Aspirin
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    Ibuprofen
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    Antacids
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    Medical adhesive tape
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    Blister treatment
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    Antihistamine
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    Knife and scissors (or multi-tool)
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    Tweezers
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    Small mirror
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    Elastic wrap
  • Oval eye pads
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    Insect sting relief treatment
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    Antiseptic wipes
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    Assorted adhesive bandages
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    Triangular cravat bandage
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    Cleansing pads with topical anesthetic
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    Rolled gauze
  • Antibacterial ointment
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    Splints
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    Safety pins
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    Butterfly bandages
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    Hand sanitizer
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    Medical waste bag
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    Prescription medication, ointments and lotions
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    Waterproof container

Overnight First Aid Kit

Your overnight hiking first aid kit should comprise everything in your standard daypack with a few additional items and extra quantities of others:

Additional Items

  • Thermometers
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    Aloe vera gel
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    Oral rehydration salts
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    Hemostatic Gauze
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    Rolled, stretch-to-conform bandages
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    Antidiarrheal tablets

Extra Quantities

  • Prescription medication
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    Aspirin​​​
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    Ibuprofen

Multi-day Backpacking First Aid Kit

On a multi-day backpacking trip, keeping the weight down is one of our foremost concerns. We should, however, consider making sacrifices elsewhere prior to trimming our first aid kit. As with the overnight kit, you will need extra quantities of some supplies. The law of averages, moreover, dictates that the more time we spend outdoors the higher the risk of sustaining an injury or becoming ill. For this reason, we’d recommend adding the following items to those already on our overnight first aid kit checklist:

  • Antifungal foot powder
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    SAM splints
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    Finger Splints
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    Suture needle and thread
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    Irrigation syringe
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    Throat lozenges

Ultralight Hiking or Backpacking First Aid Kit

An ultralight hiking or backpacking first aid kit can be made by reducing the quantities of each item, removing packaging and leaving out any non-essential items from the day hiking first aid kit list above. Some potentially non-essential items you could choose to leave out include:

  • Elastic wrap (if you’re prepared to make do with rolled gauze)
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    Small mirror
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    Antacids
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    Antidiarrheal pills
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    Oral rehydration salts
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    Splints
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    First aid cleansing pads with topical anesthetic
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    Triangular cravat bandage

Group First Aid Kit

The quantities you require of each item will depend on the size of your group. We’d recommend doubling up on the most frequently used items (adhesive bandages, aspirin, ibuprofen, insect sting relief treatment) per every four group members. Some of you, no doubt, will balk at the additional weight this entails carrying, but remember that many hands (or backpacks) make light work. 

A few items you should consider including in a group kit are:

  • Injectable epinephrine
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    Antihistamine
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    SAM splints
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    Glucose or other sugar solution
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    CPR mask

Downloadable Backpacking First Aid Kit Checklist

We have pulled together all the above information to give three possible combinations of first aid kits for day hiking, overnighting or multi-day backpacking in a single spreadsheet that can be filtered, copied or downloaded as a PDF.

The spreadsheet is below or can be accessed by following this LINK HERE.

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Using Your Gear to Complement Your First Aid Kit

Many of the gear items that make up your standard hiking and backpacking kit can double-up as medical kit. All it takes is a little bit of know-how. Here are some common pieces of kit that can do a bit of medical moonlighting if you how to use them:

Mountain rescue - splinting a broken leg
  • Trekking Poles and Emergency Survival Bag - In the event of emergency services being unable to reach you and a stricken team member (or vice-versa), the following trick could be a lifesaver. Take your survival bag and cut two holes in the corners opposite the bag’s opening. Fasten two pairs of trekking poles together with tape and slide one pair through each hole. You now have an improvised but functional stretcher.
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    Tent Footprint or Backpack Liners - These can be wrapped around yourself or a team member to prevent hypothermia.
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    Swiss Army Knife or Multi-tool - To save carrying additional gear on our above lists, the scissors on these can be used for cutting bandages or removing clothing around a wound and the tweezers for removing ticks.
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    Trekking Poles or Ice Axe - These can be used as a makeshift splint in the case of a fracture or severe sprain.
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    Water Purification Tablets - Tablets which use chlorine dioxide can be used both to sterilize water and to irrigate or cleanse a wound, helping to prevent infection.
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    Suncream and Lip Balm - If you have nothing else at hand, suncream or a moisturizing lip balm can act as a reasonable lubricant or salve in areas affected by chaffing.

Get Medical Training!

Buying or preparing your hiking or backpacking first aid kit is not the final step, but the first. Many hikers and backpackers fall into the trap of assuming that once they’ve got everything together and safely stowed in their pack, they’re good to go. This, sadly, is roughly comparable to buying a sweet pair of climbing shoes and expecting them to turn us into Alex Honnold overnight (we’ve tried it…doesn’t work!)!

Pro Tip: Check your First Aid Kit from Time to Time

Be sure to check the use-by dates on creams, ointments and pills in your backpacking first aid kit and replace them when necessary.

If you happen to be caught in a downpour, check your kit afterwards to ensure nothing is damaged and needs replacing

In reality, learning how to use your kit takes a bit of effort. This can be done online (aimadventureu.com isn’t a bad place to start) or by reading books such as Medicine for the Outdoors: The Essential Guide to First Aid and Medical Emergency or Backcountry First Aid and Extended Care.

Cpr training outdoors. Reanimation procedure on CPR doll

A better bet is to take a more hands-on approach and treat yourself to a first aid training course. These are provided by a number of organizations such as the British Red Cross, the American Red Cross and Rei.com, as well as many regional mountain rescue teams and outdoor adventure companies.

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About the Author Kieran James Cunningham

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

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