Being able to treat blisters, minor burns and cuts, insect bites, and aches and pains is part and parcel of every backpacking trip. Most backpackers carry a first-aid kit to treat minor injuries on the trail so they can keep hiking without having to end a trip prematurely. Many hikers also acquire basic wilderness first aid training in order to stabilize sprains and splint broken bones while search and rescue services slowly make their way to backcountry accident scenes.
We recently ran a survey to see how many backpackers carry a first-aid kit and whether they assembled their own or purchase a commercial kit. While the contents of the first-aid kits carried by backpackers varies, we found that 73% of the 474 backpackers we surveyed had assembled their own first-aid kits instead of purchasing a commercial one, while 19.8% reported purchasing a commercial kit and augmenting it with extra first aid supplies that were not included. Just 4% of the backpackers we surveyed purchased commercial kits and use them as is, without adding or removing items, while a slightly smaller percentage of backpackers, just 3%, don’t carry a first-aid kit at all.
What do these results signify? Carrying a backpacking first-aid kit is clearly perceived as a need, since 97% percent of respondents reported that they carry one. However, the 73% who assembled their own do-it-yourself first-aid kits do not see sufficient value in purchasing a commercial first-aid kit, while the 19.8% who do, feel the need to augment them with additional supplies.
What are the shortcomings of the smaller first aid kits and why do most backpackers assemble their own? You just need to take a look at the contents of these kits to understand. Take Adventure Medical’s Ultralight/Watertight .7 Hiking and Trekking First Aid Kit, which is designed for 1-2 people for 1-4 days and has a retail price of $27. It contains medical supplies that are already found in the home including band-aids, moleskin, duct tape, safety pins, tweezer, alcohol wipes, medical tape, and common over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and benedryl. As such, they provide very little added value beyond something you can pull together from your medicine cabinet and pack in a ziploc baggy.
What supplies are missing from commercial first-aid kits? Here are the most common items that backpackers add in:
- Triangle bandages
- SAM Splints
- Nitrile gloves
- Small scissors
- Compeed blister plasters
- New skin
- Oral rehydration salts
- Quik Clot
- Tick removal devices
While including these items would increase first aid kit manufacturers’ costs considerably, they’re all well motivated and useful items to include.
While there will always be frugal backpackers who make their own minimalist first-aid kits, it’s curious why the basic first aid kits sold by manufacturers are so easy to replicate with over-the-counter meds. I suspect that backpackers, as a group, are too well-educated about wilderness medicine and what their peers carry to purchase such low-value first-aid kits, which are probably targeted at a different recreational audience.
About this Survey
This survey was run on the SectionHiker.com website which has over 300,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking gear.
While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general backpacking population based on the size of the survey results where n=474 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant.
There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: backpackers who read SectionHiker.com might not be representative of all backpackers, backpacker who read Internet content might not be representative of all backpackers, backpackers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all backpackers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on.
The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the very strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers who are interested in learning about backpacking first aid kits and what their peers use.
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