A well-prepared first aid and emergency kit should be part of every single one of your trips. Seriously, never go out without one. Of course what exactly you take is not always the same, and needs to be adjusted to the nature of your adventure. If you do not have a first aid kit, yet, a good starting point is to look at ready-made kits, which are available from many brands. You should seek to get a kit tailored to your activity. If you are going hiking, get a hiking kit. Climbing? Get a climbing kit. You get the idea. Potential injuries and their respective treatments are particular to your activity, as are requirements for kit access and weight. If you can’t find one, get a general outdoors kit.
Usually, those kits will contain a good selection of items you might need, but will also miss some you may want to have and include some you most likely won’t need. It’s essential to adjust your kit, remove unnecessary items to save weight, and purchase individual missing pieces. If you already have a kit and some knowledge of first aid in your activity, you can also think about building a kit from scratch, which is what I am doing nowadays. Choosing every single item in your first aid kit individually is more work, but you will most likely end up with a kit that is lighter and better equipped than any ready-made you can get. It will most likely be more expensive, though.
The rest of this post is pretty much a description of what I have in my first aid kit. Or rather in my pool of items to draw upon to build a kit tailored to my planned trip. Of course all the fancy gear is no good to you if you have no idea what to do with it, or what to take. I will cover how to acquire the necessary skills for first aid in my next post. Just to give an example, here’s what I take on a solo day hike:
Also check my post about training for first aid and risk assessment.
Stuff Sacks and Bags
Granted, this is technically not in my first aid kit, but around it. But it is still an essential part when building a piece from scratch. It’s not only necessary to have a bag that can contain all your things, but the kit also has to be organised enough to find everything you need in an emergency. The bag that came with my Ortovox Roll Doc is neatly arranged, but quite small. I now use first aid stuff sacks coupled with clear cubes, both from Exped, which are low on weight but still help you to find everything you need. Remember there is no rule that you have to carry everything in one place. Think about when you may need an item and store them where they are easy to reach. Consider using a key-chain bag for gloves or resuscitation foils.
They should be the first thing in any first aid kit. They don’t need to be sterile unless you want to give birth or perform surgery. If you have a chance of having to treat a person with Latex allergy, make sure you have Latex-free ones. Most will be anyway.
Scissors (or other cutting devices)
Cutting things is often required to treat wounds. You could need to cut clothes to get to an injury or cut bandages or cut people out of ropes or climbing harnesses. Unfortunately, many ready-made kits are lacking in this area, containing laughably tiny scissors you could not cut butter with. Get good scissors or a knife you can use to cut through tough outdoors clothing or even better climbing ropes. My personal choice here is from Ripshears. They have a handy ripper that can help you remove clothes quickly.
Plasters and Wound Strips
Light cuts and chafes are probably the injury you will encounter the most. A good set of plasters is very lightweight, but you’ll be glad to have them. Plasters come in all kinds of different shapes and forms. I usually have some individually packed regular ones, and some with a butterfly shape and longer glue strips for injuries on fingers. My plasters are from Söhngen’s aluderm line. They feature a specially treated surface that does not stick to the wound as much as regular wound dressings.
Wound strips are a particular kind of useful plasters. They are glued over cuts tightly and can close a wound well enough to make stitching unnecessary. I use urgostrips.
Wound Cleaning Pads
To clean the edges of wounds of blood and dirt so that you can apply plasters or wound strips easily. They are not meant to disinfect a wound, just to clean. My choice are Ypsilin pads.
They come in a lot of sizes. Common ones will be rectangular, but there are also particular shapes for fingers or eyes. I use 10x10cm ones from Söhngen aluderm again. They are treated the same way as the plasters. Remember, the silver side faces the wound.
Haemostatic dressings are an expensive piece of equipment, but they may be an invaluable one. They come from military technology and are specially treated to help the clogging of blood, thus doing an exceptional job at stopping the bleeding. I use Quikclot 4×4 dressings.
Everybody knows bandages. They wrap around limbs and keep wound dressings or whatever you want in place. Nothing special here, use your favourite brand. You can also get bandages that already include a dressing.
Israeli Bandage or Pressure Bandage
Just wrapping a bandage around a heavily bleeding wound will not be of any use. You need to apply pressure on the injury to stop the bleeding. An Israeli Bandage or pressure bandage is constructed for that exact purpose so you won’t have to improvise. A single person can use an Israeli Bandage on themselves without any help. A handy piece of kit if you are going solo.
You know Tampons. They’re built to soak up blood, and can be used to stop nose-bleed, an injury you will have to improvise to treat otherwise. Also you might need them for their original purpose.
To fixate bandages and to keep things from moving that should not move. Nothing more to explain.
Something no ready-made kit will contain. If you have a fracture or sprain in your arms or legs, you must splint it. SAM splints are flexible when rolled flat, but if you fold them into an U-profile, they become stiff. Because of this flexibility, you can use them to splint almost anything on arms and legs. One will do for an arm, and two will do for a full leg. A typical, but way less versatile, alternative for splinting are hiking poles.
A triangular piece of cloth that can be used to construct arm slings, fixate splints, or improvise a tourniquet. Most kits will include cheap ones made from viscose. I use cotton ones. Those are way sturdier and can even be used to transport an injured person in a pinch, if you know what you are doing.
Emergency Bivy Bags and Emergency Blankets
Very lightweight and enough to keep one or two persons alive in an emergency overnight stay. You only need to take them if you aren’t equipped to stay overnight anyway. Mine are from Mountain Equipment.
Emergency blankets are to keep a person warm for a short period, I would not rely on them for an overnight stay, though they are better than nothing. Don’t bother thinking about which side goes out and which goes in. The difference is minimal anyway.
If an Israeli Bandage is not enough to stop the bleeding, you may need to apply a tourniquet. You can improvise one out of some broad strips of clothing, but there are also purpose-made ones you can use on yourself.
If you want to improvise one, make sure to use a broad piece of sturdy cloth. Never use wires or cable ties, ropes or similar thin, sturdy items. They will do a fantastic job at stopping the bleeding, but when the limb inadvertently swells up, you won’t be able to remove them again.
Tweezers and Emergency Whistle
Tweezers to remove all kinds of things from places they don’t belong. An emergency whistle so you can signal for help. Mine is from ACME.
To put over the face of an unconscious person while you resuscitate them. You could also carry a resuscitation mask with a pump that makes the process a lot easier. Thus you can go on longer before professional help arrives.
We’re crossing Greenland in August 2021 to celebrate the legacy of Fridtjof Nansen as an explorer, scientist and humanitarian. We are working with the UNHCR to support their fantastic relief efforts for people who’ve been forced to flee their homes or have become stateless – causes Nansen started to fight 100 years ago.
If you liked this blog post, please consider donating towards our expedition or the UNHCR. We can’t do this without your help! Any contribution is appreciated!
Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.