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Ultralight Backpacking First-Aid Kit

Ultralight Backpacking DIY First Aid Kit
Ultralight Backpacking DIY First Aid Kit

Homemade First-Aid Kit

A lot of people contact me asking for recommendations on which first-aid kit they should buy and I always tell them to skip the commercial kits and roll your own because they’re way too heavy. As a case in point, I thought I’d give you a tour of my ultralight first-aid kit and the rationale for each of the items.

The photo above shows you the contents of my first-aid kit. In total, the contents weigh 3.8 oz.

  1. I have a 1 oz tube of zinc oxide that I apply to prevent or treat monkey butt and thigh chafing.
  2. There’s also a 1/2 oz tube of triple antibiotic ointment. I mainly spread this on blisters if they pop during a trip. I don’t need a full 1/2 oz and I could carry those little packets of the stuff, but I’d forget to resupply and the extra weight penalty is minor.
  3. I have three small packets of Benadryl, Ibuprofen, and Imodium. The Benedryl is good to control an allergic reaction or to help me fall asleep at night if I’m too wound up. The Ibuprofens are 600 mg each and only available via a prescription in this size. I mainly use them to control knee pain if it flares up on a trip.  I’ve never used the Imodium on a backpacking trip, but if I ever ingest bad water or rotten food, I’ll use them to control diarrhea and prevent dehydration until I can get medical attention. All of these pills are packed in Apex Pill Baggies which are very handy mini-ziploc bags for packing very small stuff including pills. I always mark these with the expiration date of the drugs they contain. As you can see, I have way more of these drugs than I need for a 3-day trip. I carry extras because I forget to resupply between trips, so I’ll always have enough. Again a minor weight penalty.
  4. I bring three types of bandages and tape. Butterfly band-aids which are good to close cuts, bigger sterile gauze pads which can be used to cover scrapes or larger wounds, and leukotape, which is a very sticky tape that’s good for preventing hot spots from becoming blisters. If I have a blister, I’ll apply leukotape tape over it or pop it if it’s painful to drain the fluid. There’s a trick to packing pre-cut strips of leukotape so you don’t have to carry the roll. However, I don’t pop blisters if I can avoid it and just walk on them. In a week or two, the fluid in them reabsorbs into your skin.
  5. The safety pins are good if you need to create a sling from your clothing.
  6. I just added the latex gloves this fall after I took a Wilderness First-Aid Certification Class. If you need to examine someone who is hurt, they’re the most effective way that you can prevent their body fluids such as blood, saliva, or shit from coming into contact with your skin. They can also be used as a warming layer under a pair of gloves to trap the body heat released by your hands.

Multi-purpose Backpacking Gear

If you think that this is an impossibly small first-aid kit, it’s because you don’t understand how it complements all the rest of the gear and supplies I typically carry for everyday use. This includes:

  • Aqua Mira Water Purification Drops – Made with chlorine dioxide, this sterilizes water so it’s drinkable and can be used to irrigate a wound. It’s the same concentration of chlorine found in city tape water.
  • A small tin of Dermatone which I carry, again in my hip belt, for sun protection. It’s white suntan lotion with an SPF of 30. You can also use it to treat thigh chafing in a pinch.
  • Paper towels, torn up for toilet paper, that can be used to stop bleeding.
  • My Swiss army classic knife has a pair of tweezers that I can use to remove ticks.
  • A long-handled spoon, trekking poles or an ice axe, that can be used as splints.
  • My clothes, that can be used to stop bleeding or provide padding for a splint.
  • My sleeping bag, which can be used as padding for a splint.
  • My tent footprint and backpack liners which can be used to warm someone at risk from hypothermia.
  • and so on…

This is a subtle, but important point. As a lightweight hiker, your first aid kit includes everything you carry and even the plants, trees, sticks, and branches around you.

Updated 2016.

What do you carry in your backpacking first-aid kit?

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  1. That's pretty much what my kit looks like, with the exception of the latex gloves (good idea, I should probably add a pair).

    I also carry a small tube of Krazy glue/Super glue. You can use it to close and protect small wounds, especially on hands and feet. If you gash yourself horribly then it won't help, but I've accidentally cut a finger to the bone and used it successfully. It keeps the dirt out, stops the wound snagging, and apparently helps the healing process too. It's non-toxic. Plus you can use it to mend your boots :-)

  2. I've never been a super glue fan but I know that many people are, especially for blisters. I've also sliced my finger to the bone accidentally but a bandage, antibiotic cream and tape have worked for me. The key is just to keep the wound closed and sterile and it will eventually heal without stitches.

    The latex gloves are new this year since I got my Wilderness First Aid cert. I figure I can also use them as a vapor barrier liner if my fingers start to get frost nip.

  3. Great kit, and it's pretty much what I carry as well. Recently I've discovered a product, which I found out about from an old Army Medic buddy of mine it's called Celox, a blood coagulant. Without getting too technical, if you're bleeding to death, (femoral bleed) you apply this product to the wound, it will save your life. Not a bad trade off for 35 grams and $20.

  4. I recently started following your rss feed after I found an article about first aid here, so funny that you should post your new kit so soon after I started following.

    Super glue was definately frowned upon at my Wilderness First Responder class. I would avoid it, and pack and wrap the wound.

    I'd add Co-hesive, Elastic Vet Wrap to your list. It's just extremely useful for about everything from bandaging to splinting, and it's reusable, light, cheap.

    My list is based on 10 day trips for 2 to 4 people, and for guiding trips, you can find it here: http://www.nessmuking.com/articles/equipment/an-e

  5. Bryan, good article with some valuable suggestions. I like the waterproof WFR cheat sheet and SOAP notes. Didn't know about those. I just happened to be reading NOLs Wilderness First Aid last night and noticed that they recommend against a bringing SAM splint because there are plenty of raw materials (sticks) that can be used instead. But I can see how it would be a very useful item if your are water borne. Personally, I think a SAM splint is a great item and if I were leading a group, it's the first item I would add to my kit.

  6. I almost think that using a SAM splint is better for a solo traveler. And I tend to leave it home on group trips, depending on where I'm heading and the planned activities.

    As an experiment, pretend you have a broken leg and try to splint it using material you find in the woods while dragging yourself around. Then try using that material to fashion a comfy, compact, complete splint by yourself. Vet wrap is super handy in this exercise.

    Finally, compare using a SAM splint to do the same. It's so much easier for a solo traveler.

    On my solo trips, I always have to weigh that ease of use with the weight of my pack. And I tend to leave it home. Most of my breaks have been those that a SAM splint wouldn't work on anyway. Broken rib, broken tailbone. :)

    Nice website. Very enjoyable.

  7. I saw pics demonstrating how to use a sit pad or sleeping pad as a walking splint, with spare cord to tie around.

    I have found tweezers to be useless the one time I had a tick – between my very nearsighted eyes, shaky hand, and having a very tiny tick, it was so embedded that it would not come out despite recommended method with tweezers, and I had to go to a doctor who could not get it out either and had to scalpel out part of my flesh to get it all. I have since gotten a tick puller and do nightly inspections when traveling in tick territory. The puller does not rely on my ability to pull just right or squeeze just a little. I'd rather have the puller than risk another infection.

  8. Why I switched to long pants, even in the summer. See your point though.

  9. I was wearing long pants when I got the tick. I always wear long pants. I have since added short gaiters and permethrin to put on pant legs, gaiters, hammock, straps and boots. You are never so serious about these things as when you get a rash two feet long on your thigh after a midnight trip to the ER with half a tick in your leg. Why, yes, I am paranoid, and I can't afford more medical bills.

    At least the permethrin will also keep the skeeters from biting through the hammock.

  10. Sounds scary. I'm with you on the permethrin. I got one bug bite all last season and it was at a trail head parking lot when I was putting on gear. Be safe.

  11. I think I carry even less. Ibuprofen, tylenol, immodium. A few small butterfly strips, repackaged zinc-oxide, leuko tape, small gauge roll. I think that's it as far as actual firstaid goes. If it's going to be wet I'll add some repackaged hydropel. It can vary slightly depending on conditions but that's pretty much it. Mostly a blister kit plus a few meds.

  12. I'm just re-bagging my first aid kit for a climb this weekend, and I found in it something else that I think should be in everyone's emergency kit: a couple of photos of your loved ones. Just a thought…

  13. After 40 years of hiking in all sorts of terrain and weather I put together a custom selection of items that fits me and my needs for personal injury, protection and cleanliness experiences for a 7 day trip. Also the load gets lighter as I use them up!:

    1. 4 small packets of a triple Antibotic jell.

    2. 4 Large breathable stretchable Bandaides,2×4

    3. 1 size 8 Surgical Needle for stitching closed wounds. I was so glad to have this when I opened up a spot on my left pointer finger to the bone while cleaning a Trout. I used regular thread from my "Housewife Kit".

    4. 4 regular sized bandaide

    5. 4 Knuckleband bandaides

    6. 6 Spot Bandaides

    7. 6 Vicoden tablets

    8. 6 Bayer Aspirins in small packets

    9. 4 Antifungal creams in small packets

    10.4 Excedrin Pm Tablets, coated Aspirin free

    11.6 small Packets Sunscreen

    12.6 small Packets Bug Screen

    13.7 Personal cleanliness packets (PAWS)

    14.1 elastic soft knee brace

    15.1 Elastic bandage roll

    16.1 small folding scissors as a backup to my Victorinox classic knife scissors..

    17. 4 packets Electrolyte Heat replacement tabs

    18. 4 small packets of Insect Sting relief pads

    19. 4 small packets of Burn Jell

    20. 4 large Safety Pins

    21. 4 small packets of Benadryl for reactions

    22. 6 Imodium tablets

    23. 1 Roll of Tums or Rolaides

    24. 4 Condoms

    25. Personal Medications in plastic pill container.

    26. 3 Personal disposable Thermometers

    27. 3 Poison Ivy/Oak wipes in small packets

    This grouping seems like a lot of stuff, but the secret is the Small individual sized packets which saves space and weight over Pill bottles, and Tubes and keeps me from carrying more than I need and also keeps the product dry and out of the damp. I buy them all from Minimus.biz since they came into business a few years ago before that I had to find them at a "Truck Stop" to buy them.. The entire kit fits into a half quart sized Plastic Bag. And truthfully, I have managed on more trips than I can count to have used every item in that group. In case your giggling, the Condoms make great Water bags for carrying extra water in.

    The Surgical Needle I found on eBay, but some States will only allow them sold under a prescription..So ask your Doctor. Their are a number of tutorials on how to use them on the Web if you search…

    Items I used to carry but no longer do since I found a source of personal sized packets and use other items in their place:

    A pair of elastic surgical gloves as well as a nail clipper and a Thermometer, tourniquet, arm sling (now use Bandanas) Caladryl, tubes of Neosporin, Can of Bug Spray, Tube of Suntan lotion, Mercurachrome, I bet I dropped a full pound or more from my pack going to the small individual packets…

    I'd enjoy reading other peoples lists to see what you carry…

  14. I realize this is an old post, but I felt the need to correct something said by chaiG above. He mentions Hemostat which is a coagulant. These types of products are becoming more mainstream and are freely available at REI, etc.

    The unfortunate thing is that people aren't leaning about the risks of coagulants before using them. They should absolutely never be used outside of your extremities–if you apply Hemostat to your abdomen, neck, back, etc, you will be in a significant amount of trouble.

    Additionally, when you apply coagulants to your extremities, you should be aware that they have a serious impact, and that you will most likely require surgery after application to fix yourself up permanently.

    Overall they are a very valuable tool, but some folks tend to pull the trigger on them too quickly. They should really only be used if you have severed a major artery (eg. blood is spurting) and ONLY on your extremities.

    Thanks for the great post! I'm working on a new mountaineering aid kit, and after hanging out with some search and rescue folks, I think I've got some nice additions. I'll post a trackback here when I write about it!

  15. Zac, you are of course referring to the Kaolin based trauma packs are you not? and not the Hemostat scissors correct?

  16. Eddie, you are correct. I'm mostly referring to products like QuikClot which are sold primarily as a powder or a bandage wrap with the coagulant embedded in it.

    I'm certainly not an expert, and that's why I don't carry a coagulant–I'm just giving the advice that if you are going to use one, you should be adequately trained (eg. not just talked to the sales guy at REI).

    There's a lot of great info on this topic at the Healthline Outdoors site here: http://www.healthline.com/blogs/outdoor_health/20

  17. I've also included two packets of Gatorade mix (single-serve size) for diarrhea or dehydration to replace electrolytes.

  18. You can purchase small individual packets of "Electroylyte" tablets from minimus.biz which are healthier for you than Gatorade and cost less and insure you get the proper amount of replacement chemicals instead of a guess which using Gatorade does..the only reason Hospitals use Gatorade is because people are familiar with the taste, kids like it, the can add more chemicals to it and they can charge a lot of money for it…

  19. Mine is a little bigger as I’m the dad and sometimes just the go to guy. I have added a clotting agent, a new product. Works really well for major wounds and the occasional misstep coming done a scree field. Yes I take kids, I also do a lot of trail maintenance and sawyer work to make passage easy. Moleskin for those who may have ill fitting shoes. Lots of band aids makes the pain go away in anyone under 16 years. Sun screen and some burn relief. Yeah this is the one area I don’t want to skimp in as I have used all the above as well as those in your kit pretty much annually. I’ve even doctored people in other parties when someone in the group has forgotten their group kit. Happy hiking.

    • Just a precautionary statement on those Quick Clot units or dressings..Depending on the severity of the wound, some of those Units should ONLY be removed at the Hosptial by a Doctor or a P.A. experienced in their removal..The Military who designed those and which saved thousands of our troops lives make that recomendation so it is just not me…..

  20. Vinyl (or similar) rather than latex gloves as they don’t age into a goopy mess. Otherwise I use a very similar kit myself. I like to keep a set of aquamira pills and some powdered gatoraide of propell in it as well so that there is always a backup for hydration. After taking WFA, I’ve included a SAM splint. I also include some cable ties – but for gear repair.

  21. +1 on Minimus.biz and EZDose Pill baggy tips.

    My $.02 tip — add one new razor blade sealed in clear packing tape (think scalpel)

    Wrt many other SectionHiker posts about sharing loads ….. My kit is like eddie’s (big, almost a quart Ziploc, 8 oz) while my son and wife’s each fit in a snack-size Ziploc (1 oz.). Likewise, I train my Scouts to think of personal and Patrol-level gear.

    Preventative back-county medicine almost equals hand-washing, even more important than filtering water; see http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/water-risks.html . And then sunblock, footcare (blisters), poison ivy, and insects. If you prevent those, you hurt & carry less.

  22. Place a piece of plastic saran wrap. It weighs very little. And if you have a suckng chest wound or abd wound, it will save your life. Retired nurse trick.

  23. If you are business owner, you can seek the advice of a health and safety consultant to provide you with a first aid provision assessment. That way you will know exactly what first aid provision you need to ensure that you will comply with regulations in your country.

  24. I represent a travel and adventure company and in my latest First Aid for Wilderness workshop, I learned the importance of a proper first aid when you are out there in wilderness. Earlier we just used to had only a small first aid kit with minimal items but now we are carrying a full fledged kit containing all the essential items for different minor and major medical emergencies.

  25. Interesting tricks, I would like to add some Multi-purpose tools that would a great asset to your safety kit:

    1. Duct tape – duct tape doesn’t seem like a common thing to find in first aid kits but they can be useful when binding splints and other injuries. Of course they are commonly used in other common hiking repairs as well.

    2. Safety pins – when tapes just don’t cut it, safety pins can be used to hold things together. They can also be used for gear and clothing repairs as well.

  26. I use olive oil instead of zinc for rashes. Extra calories too!

  27. Valuable comments . I was enlightened by the information . Does someone know if I might be able to get ahold of a sample permit search copy to complete ?

  28. I guess I’m weird, but I don’t carry a first aid kit at all. Most stuff can be improvised, and the small stuff most boo boo kits have can just be dealt with. Of course, I was a medic in the Army, so I have extensive medical knowledge, and I wouldn’t advise people to not carry a first aid kit. It just works for me.

    It’s basically an extreme extension of your multipurpose backpacking first aid articles. I do carry zinc oxide diaper rash ointment, for chafing and emergency sunscreen.

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