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Backpacking First Aid Kits: Assemble Yourself or Buy?

Many one-person, commercial first-aid kits contain supplies that can be easily found at home.
Many one-person, commercial first-aid kits contain supplies that can be easily found at home.

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.

Most backpackers assemble their own first aid kits.
Most backpackers assemble their own first aid kits.

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.

Homemade Ultralight First Aid Kit
Homemade Ultralight First Aid Kit

What supplies are missing from commercial first-aid kits? Here are the most common items that backpackers add in:

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.

Disclosure: I sincerely hope you’ve benefited from the information provided by this post. This article contains affiliate links. 

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  1. Cool to see the results of your questionnaire! I really don’t understand people who don’t take a first aid it with them though… Even when I’m only a few hours away on a sunday afternoon walk in my incredibly flat country, I take a first aid kit, because you never know what happens…

  2. I very rarely use my first aid kit, but the few times I have used it, was worth the weight. Being stung by a swarm of bees in the HMW was the most recent and the benadryl and ibuprofen was welcome relief. The roll of leukotape has been used on several hikes so now its getting smaller and lighter. I found that the retail medical kits have low quality supplies. Tape and bandaids that don’t stick is my primary complaint.

  3. My kit is super minimal…some antibacterial ointment, bandaids, sanitizer, naproxen and imodium. That last one is essential…don’t learn the hard way like I did :|

  4. Quick tip: Those with HSA accounts can use that money to purchase first aid items

    • Yep! Be careful if you’re building your own FAK, though, as certain items may not be considered qualified health care expenses. For instance, over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen, immodium, and benadryl may now require a doctor’s prescription to be eligible for reimbursement. There’s a TON of gray area here (isn’t there always!) so check with the IRS or your health insurer if you’re unsure and always save your receipts!

  5. Good piece of writing. I word process the name of pills and expiration dates in 5 pt. type, print out the information slip, and cut out the slips and put them in the small plastic bags with the pills. The bags are available at drug stores. I got in the habit of doing this because I always carry a two-day supply of hydrocodone (I’m very prone to kidney stones) and a police officer told me–to avoid a bad situation with law enforcement–I should include the prescription number, pharmacy name and number, and prescribing physician name and office number on the slip. I also include the words “For Kidney Stones” as well as the expiration date. My urologist says the hydrocodone loses effectiveness in about a year, so I know when to replace it.

  6. Jennifer Weselowski

    I keep condiment vinegar packets in my fak. Cheap n easy. Ive used them for minor cuts abrasions and burns as an aneseptic. Ive used them for bug bites/stings. As a gargle for a scritchy throat. Sun burn relief. As well as a cleaner. I heard its good for poison ivy too. Never encounter poison ivy knock on wood. Ild probably carry around a honey packet too but i never see them anymore but honey definitely is something in the home first aid kit. To me vinegar is as valuable as ductape. Couldnt care less about the fancy crap in premade kits most of it never gets used.

  7. Jennifer Weselowski

    Lmao ….. well shouldnt things have multiple purpose. First aid and salad sounds like a win to me. ?

  8. Between yours and Skurka’s FAK posts, I feel really good about mine!

  9. I included an instant ice pack and some of the chemical hand warmers (for shock).

  10. So happy to see the Imodium :)
    While it isn’t necessarily a safety item, a Shemagh comes in handy if you need a sling or stop bleeding. There are many reasons why are military folks use them on a regular basis.
    One thing to keep in mind is that most are made out of cotton so obviously you want to pack it away when it is cold/wet.

  11. Good article. Have you ever conducted a survey of hiker injuries and illnesses on the trail?? Would be worth while to match the actual problems encountered with approp. stocked kit.

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