Plan for the worse and hope for the best. But always, always! take a first-aid kit. Plus, how to build your own.
By Fina Scroppo
There’s one thing Suhanki Raviandran never leaves home without: a first-aid-kit. Years ago, on a trip near Singapore, her son was badly bitten by insects. The bites were hugely problematic: not only do mosquitoes carry deadly diseases, but by scratching the bites her son also put himself at risk of serious infection in a climate where infection can accelerate if not treated quickly. To dull the intense itch and pain of bites—and limit his scratching—Suhanki applied a topical antibiotic and an insect bite anti-itch treatment she packed in her first-aid kit until they could visit a pharmacy for stronger medication suited to treat such bites in that part of the world.
“When we travel outside of North America, I include everything in my kit—pain medication, calamine lotion, citronella oil, antihistamines, you name it,” says Suhanki. “My husband often gets on me about how much I pack, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Unlike the Raviandrans, some travellers can neglect to pack a first-aid kit, relying instead on on-call physicians at hotels, local pharmacies and hospitals.
But medical care won’t always be available, so you need to prepare for different situations, says Rick Caissie, national director of Injury prevention with the Canadian Red Cross.
For example, explains Caissie, there are different first-aid kits for different situations. If you’re hiking in the wilderness or canoeing down a river for days in an isolated location with no access to emergency care, you’ll want to prepare accordingly. So, splinting a fracture might be necessary; a mole—or second skin could help with blisters on heels or hands; anti-septic wipes, gauze and bandages could stop the bleeding of a wound and protect it from infection until it gets stitched up.
Caissie even recommends adding duct tape to a kit in this situation.
“It’s a great way to fix a tent hole, patch your tarp, a sleeping bag or air mattress. I even used it to fix a broken paddle when I was canoeing once. It got me through the following two days,” he says. “And it’s even great for waterproofing a bandaged area,” but he recommends removing the tape at night.
What and how to pack depends on your location, length of stay and distance from medical care. In other countries, says Caissie, medications like antibiotic creams or ointments can be difficult to find—they often don’t exist, are labelled by a different brand name, or can be inferior in quality or even counterfeit. Whether you’re exploring a tropical locale or scaling a blustery mountaintop, there are some essentials to include in every kit, for example, antiseptic wipes or soap (to clean hands before applying any dressing), instant ice packs, sterile gauze pads, adhesiive bandages, safety pins, and one of Caissie’s must-haves, lip balm, to prevent lips from getting chapped and swollen.
If you’re packing a first-aid kit for air travel, you’ll want to store liquids in a container with a proper seal and carry it in a waterproof bag that won’t leak when checked in with baggage. Be sure to also check expiration dates of ointments or medications—and replace products you’ve used up on your last trip. Follow the label’s instructions for safe and effective storage, such as ideal temperature.
Arming yourself with first-aid supplies is important, but Caissie suggests travellers take it to the next level.
“If someone is serious about adventure travel, take an adventure or wilderness first-aid course.” In the Red Cross wilderness program, for example, participants learn about triaging, so assessing the type of injury, treatment options and protocols for emergency care and evacuation. “You need the knowledge behind it,” says Caissie. “Then purchase the tool .”
Backpacking first aid kit list
- Resource booklet(s) and emergency numbers (see redcross.ca; iamat.org; voyage.gc.ca)
- Antiseptic wipes or soap
- Hand sanitizer
- Antibiotic ointment/cream
- Sterile gauze pads, assorted sizes
- Adhesive bandages, assorted sizes
- Adhesive tape
- Aspirin, ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen (Advil and/or Tylenol)
- Anti-diarrheal medication, laxatives, antacids
- Oral rehydration salts
- Antihistamines, cough medication
- Insect repellent/insect bite treatment
- Sunscreen, lip balm
- Safety pins
- Instant ice packs
- Disposable non-latex gloves
- Flashlight, with extra batteries in a separate bag
- Prescribed medications (with copy of prescription)
Natural Backpacking first aid kit list
- Honey: with no expiration date, it works well as an antibacterial agent, ideal for treating wounds, cuts and burns
- Wet, cold, mud: when ice isn’t available, use cool mud to treat swelling and reduce itchiness
- White distilled vinegar: to treat and soothe jellyfish stings, in particular, box jellyfish stings
- Aloe vera gel: for soothing sun-burns, rashes and minor burns
- Calendula Marigold: usually made as a cream or ointment to treat wounds, burns, stings, sunburns
- Arnica (such as plants in the sunflower family): usually applied as a cream, ointment or taken as a tincture, it soothes muscle aches and strains, reduces inflammation andheals wounds
Wildnernes Backpacking first aid kit list
- Sterile Syringe: used with clean water to flush wounds or sand in eyes in place of clean running water
- Moleskin/second skin: to apply to blisters
- Water-proof candles
- Quick splint
- Windproof jacket
- Sugar packets or candy • High-energy foods
- Sturdy pocket knife
- Flashlight (plus extra batteries)
- Duct tape: patch up tents, sleeping bags; waterproof a bandage
- Whistle: to signal distress and keep bears away
NOTE: this is a guideline only. Always get individualized advice from a qualified health professional.