What is the farthest distance you have been away from a road? A town? What about a hospital? Backpacking, camping, and outdoor activities in general, take place away from developed areas. We are drawn to the outdoors for the wide open spaces, clean air, and lack of people, but this also takes us far from emergency services. There is no secret hospital hidden in the woods, no police department patrolling mountaintops. There is only you, and the people you are with. If an accident does happen, nobody is going to come to the rescue. Even if you are equipped with a GPS/satellite phone, it’s not as if paramedics are at the ready for your call. Search and Rescue Operations can take hours, sometimes even days to pinpoint a lost hiker or an injured person. In most medical emergency situations, the most critical time of taking action is within the first few minutes. Bringing along your own medical supplies and understanding how to use each part of your first aid kit can prove to be a life saving practice.
What to Pack in Your First Aid Kit
The following list is by no means set in stone. I am not a medical professional, nor do I pretend to be. However, this is what I bring on every expedition and I have customized it over the years. I do pack it specifically with an ultralight mindset, and I encourage all my readers to amend their own kit as they see fit.
- Bandaids, small to large
- Alcohol Wipes
- Antibiotic cream
- 1 pair of latex gloves
- Ace bandage
- Medical tape
- Sewing needle and thread
- Veterinarian adhesive
- Anti-chafing stick
I like to think of bandaids as the most versatile, simple, and possibly greatest medical invention to ever hit backpacks. Ok, maybe that is a bit much, but I really do love them.
I carry many different sizes, small, medium and large. Small bandaids I use on my fingers and arms. There are few hiking trips where I don’t suffer from small wounds to my hands, whether it be from scrambling, bushwacking, or even falling.
I will sterilize my wounds as soon as safely possible and if necessary, cover them with a bandage. This protects from infection and prevents sun damage to the newly exposed flesh. I will replace the bandages at night and depending on the severity, let them breathe while I sleep.
When disinfecting cuts and scrapes, wiping the dirt out of the wound with an alcohol wipe is a bombproof way of disinfecting the area. They are also incredible useful for doing first-aid on a fellow hiker. And of course, alcohol wipes are great for cleaning electronics, especially after a fall in the mud.
Undervalued and underappreciated in a woods setting, soap is highly useful in the outdoors. Use it to wash your hands before eating or even clean the dishes. If you are cleaning a cut, washing it with soap will help prevent infection. Just because you’re not showering, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use soap!
I never go anywhere without a healthy amount of antibiotic cream. My favorite brand is Neosporin. This is just conjecture, but from my experience, I heal faster when using Neosporin. I like to put it on bug bites, scrapes, cuts, blisters, chafing, and even sunburn, right before sleeping. The way it reacts with my skin is always beneficial.
Antibiotic cream is also a great way to prevent infections from abrasions. I highly recommend applying it to any wound you may incur.
1 pair of latex gloves
Thankfully, I have never had to use my pair of surgical gloves while in the backcountry. I bring these along in case I stumble upon a fellow hiker in need of assistance. Because blood-borne disease is a risk, even in the woods, it is smart to be prepared for coming into contact with bodily fluids.
If you are applying first aid to somebody, always wear gloves. There is no point in you becoming infected just for being a good samaritan.
Non-adhesive and generally made from cotton, gauze is there for serious injuries. It can help clot the blood and stop bleeding fast. Because it is non-adhesive, it can used as the primary layer against the skin before affixing more medical supplies.
I have never had the opportunity to stem heavy bleeding and I hope to spare myself from it. But it is always in my bag.
An elastic, non-adhesive bandage. This is great to use on sore ankles and knees as reinforcement for hiking injuries. It is also a great method of sealing gauze onto a serious wound. Turn it into a sling for stabilizing broken bones or use it to hold ice onto an injury. You are limited only by your imagination, I recommend to always bring an ace bandage.
Adhesive, one sided tape, that is stronger than your average office supply. Use it to seal gauze on wounds or hold bandages through rough and tumble scenarios. Carrying some of this tape is well worth it, especially if you need to use it.
Sewing Needle and Thread
A multi-purpose tool, I have never traveled without a needle and thread. I use it frequently to repair clothes and gear as punctures and tears occur. But the reason I keep it in the medical kit is for stitches.
If I do cut myself deeply and the bleeding will not stop, I can use it to suture the wound. Thankfully, this has never occured but its obvious benefits makes it the bedrock to any first-aid kit. It can even be used on others.
Think of veterinarian adhesive like super glue, for the skin. Vets use it to close surgical wounds on animals. It also works well on human skin and I bring it along as additional insurance for heavy cuts. I am no surgeon, and using the adhesive can help close a wound almost immediately.
Marathoners and backpackers alike are painfully aware of chafing. Both Men and Women have unique body shapes that cause certain areas of the body to rub against itself, creating blotchy, red, and painful areas of irritation.
I have experienced chafing so severe that it has prevented me from walking for multiple days in a row. I no longer grit my way through it and instead, I am proactive.
Similar to a deodorant stick, I can glide the anti-chafing stick onto parts of my body that will rub. I do this several times a day, including before the hiking begins. I highly recommend it, especially if you are planning to do serious mileage.
Easy enough to forget, your lips are exposed to the elements 24 hours a day on a backpacking trip. They can quickly become cracked, sunburned, and painful. There have been times where I lost my appetite because my lips hurt from being extremely chapped.
Always invest in SPF rated chapstick and apply liberally. Preventative medicine is always the best medicine.
I swear by my multi-tool. It contains a blade, and pliers, both of which have excellent first-aid uses. Cut bandages and pretty much anything else you might use in the backcountry. The pliers are always useful for removing splinters and other foreign objects from the body.
Blisters: The Most Common Backpacking First Aid Scenario
If you are new to backpacking or have never experienced a need for first-aid, it can be confusing to prepare for. While it is always smart to be prepared for everything, there is one scenario which will happen, blisters. Understanding how to prevent and care for blisters on your feet is a skill all backpackers should be aware of. Having a well supplied first-aid kit can make blister care a normal part of your outdoor routine.
Blisters on Your Feet
Afflicting hikers of all creeds, from experienced to novice, blisters, sores, and open wounds on the feet can be a disaster. When walking miles a day, your feet will bear the brunt of the burden. The most important thing you can do is try to prevent blisters before they occur
- Keep your feet dry. When fording rivers or streams, take off your shoes and socks. Your skin is much easier to dry compared to socks and shoes.
- When hiking with wet feet, take plenty of breaks. Take off your socks and shoes and air out your dogs. This can dry the skin out and prevent blisters while simultaneously allowing your shoes more time to dry.
- Treat hotspots right away. If you feel a small pebble in your sock or an uncomfortable rubbing spot, stop immediately. Walking only half a mile with a hotspot can quickly cause a blister. Put the ego aside and take a break, take off your shoes and remove any irritants. You will make up for lost time with strong, healthy feet.
- Avoid sweaty shoes. Depending on your hiking style, avoid clunky, non-breathable footwear. Your feet are constantly under pressure and they will build up a sweat quickly. Sealing them inside non-aerated shoes can create an environment where blisters and even fungus thrives.
While blister prevention is all well and good, there will come a point where you will inevitably suffer from them. Blister treatment is not something that should be avoided, engage with your feet and they will love you in return.
- Stop hiking and take a look. If you feel a blister formed, stop hiking and take a look at it. It might be gross but it is still your body, and only you can help it.
- Wash the blister area. Washing blistered feet might be painful at first. The skin will be raw and at times, extremely painful. Trust me, a simple wash can do wonders for pain relief and morale. All it takes is a dunk into a stream and some gentle lathering of soap on the affected area to make you feel great.
- Change your socks. If hiking becomes too painful, try changing your socks. A Clean pair, fresh from sweat and bacteria, can make your feet feel wonderful. Unsaturated from your foot gunk, a simple sock change can sometimes fix the entire hike.
- Moleskin? Some people swear by moleskin and claim it prevents pain associated from blisters. In my own experience, I have never had moleskin stay on my skin for more than a few miles before it falls off and clumps into the bottom of my socks. Blisters commonly occur between toes and under the foot. Both areas are high impact areas, couple that with foot sweat, and good luck making moleskin stick.
- Popping blisters. I always hesitate to pop my blisters. It opens the area to infection and can create more problems than it solves. However, there have been plenty of times where I would not have been able to hike unless I drained a blister. If it comes down to it, disinfect the blade you will be using, with alcohol and fire.
Make the incision as small as possible, just a pinprick if you can. Gently drain the liquids and heavily disinfect the region with antibiotic cream. Try to keep as much of the dead skin on your foot as possible. I recommend doing this minor procedure right before bed, giving your body time to heal while you sleep.
Practice Preparedness for Backpacking First-Aid
Hiking is no walk in the park. Days of strenuous physical activity, in remote locations, is a dangerous activity. Being away from healthcare systems and emergency responders means taking responsibility for yourself and others with you. Having a well thought out first-aid kit can be a lifesaver in an emergency situation. Whether you are providing care on yourself, or for fellow hikers, knowing what to expect can be the difference between hesitation and action.