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How to build a basic 1st aid kit

Not everyone is a medic but everyone can and should carry a basic 1st aid kit on their travels. Here's how!

What kind of kit is this?

Most travelers know little to nothing about treating illness or injury while on tour but that doesn't mean you shouldn't prep and pack a basic first aid kit.

I've been trained as a first responder by the Antigua, Guatemala Fire Department and wilderness first responder by the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute I've been building and carrying kits for over a decade. Although I have professional training and know how to deal with just about anything that could happen I also know the limits of my abilities. This kit and this blog is about doing a lot with a little and knowing when you've done as much as you should.

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What goes into your kit

The following are the categories of items you'll need...

  • tools
  • wound care
  • injury treatment
  • prophylactics
  • medications
  • literature
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The tools you carry are the most important part

Tools are non-consumable and if you have nothing but a few first aid tools you can still do a great deal to treat injuries and care for wounds in the field.

Tools you need...

  • a pencil
  • tweezers
  • nail clippers
  • a wound irrigation syringe

A pencil is important if you plan to adventure far from definitive medical care. Most issues in the back country are met with a few fevered minutes of treatment followed by hours or days of monitoring. Use your pencil to record your patient's vitals over time and take notes on their condition. If you end up in a situation where you have to transfer care you can hand these notes over. Bonus if you use the SOAP note format!

The rest of the tools are pretty self-explanatory but please ask questions in the comments below if you have them!

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    What to pack for wound care

    Wounds are everything from minor cuts and scrapes to burns, bites and even serious trauma. With just a few consumable items you can improve the outcome towards a speedy recovery from most any wound.

    Wound care needs include...

    • several sterile gauze pads and rolls
    • a few adhesive bandages of assorted sizes
    • wound closure strips
    • a few rolls of medical tape
    • a few burn pads
    • blister repair pads
    • a couple of benzoin tinctures

    Important: All wounds need to be cleaned before you dress them. For most you should only use potable water in your syringe. Animal bites or wounds from contaminated objects can be flushed with benzoin tinted water first so long as they are flushed with plenty of potable water after.

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    Injury treatment needs

    Injury treatment supplies include...

    • a few rolls of athletic tape
    • a few elastic bandages

    Athletic tape allows you to support a usable ankle injury which is a very common thing to see on your travels. If the injury is more serious - be it sprained joint or broken bone - you should be able to fashion splints using other items you are carrying or that are laying around and keep them in place with tape and elastic bandages.

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    An ounce of prevention

    The best medic is an idle medic and the best trip is one where no one gets sick or hurt.

    What to pack to prevent...

    • latex gloves
    • condoms

    As a responder your willingness and ability to act makes you the most important person on the scene! Do not take any risks that could result in adding you to the list of sick or hurt.

    In the case of blood or bodily fluids use gloves. You can stuff a few pair into an empty plastic pill bottle. Tip: the blue ones have a calming pyshological effect!

    The condoms are a useful way to improvise if you run out of gloves - you can put one condom on each of your fingers to... I'm kidding, condoms are for sex! Ladies and gentlemen I'm talking to both of you. There are so many ways you can hurt yourself or your partner by having unprotected sex. Be responsible!

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    Don't forget to take your medicine

    What to pack in terms of meds...

    • Benedryl
    • NSAIDs
    • an antibiotic ointment
    • sugar

    Anyone having an allergic reaction can be offered Benedryl and even in the case of severe reactions should always be given Benedryl first.

    Non Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. Ibuprofen and Aspirin are common examples and both are good to have on hand for anything that hurts or swells. Note that Aspirin is a blood thinner too which is good if you are having a heart attack but bad if you are bleeding a lot.

    Antibiotic ointment can be applied to the gauze you use to dress a wound after it has been thoroughly cleaned to create a chemical barrier against infection. Never place it directly in the wound!

    Sugar can be given to a diabetic that is suspected to be hypo or hyperglycemic. If they are in shock do not give them anything that could obstruct their airway. Honey packets work best.

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    A few pages of paper go a long way

    Though these items aren't absolutely necessary I'd still have them with me...

    • Wilderness Field Guide
    • cards for any certifications you may hold
    • a blood donor card that tells your blood type
    • a note you've printed with any known allergies or medical conditions
    • an ID, especially if you are an organ donor

    The Wilderness Field Guide is a quick reference resource to help you navigate your way through treatments for nearly everything. It even has some pages in the back you can use for notes.

    Sometimes responders get sick or hurt too. If someone finds you unresponsive they'll be better able to effect a positive outcome if you left a note with a few hints of what might have gone wrong.

    Your kit might also be a good place to keep your driver's license when you travel, especially if you are an organ donor. Should the unthinkable happen maybe you can save a few more lives on your way out?

    Some closing thoughts

    Packaging - get rid of all the superfluous packaging - plastic and paper bags and boxes and such. Then group your items by type or size or whatever makes sense to you and put them together into resealable plastic bags.

    Container - You can use just about anything as a container. I like the retro look (and the price) of the bags of the first aid kits in army surplus stores. The brain of a hiking backpack is another good option.

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    Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in the comments below.

    Safe Travels!