Packing your first aid kit

08 Sep 2014 00:28
Tags first-aid how-to

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New medics usually don't pack their kits well. You might identify medical supplies with social status and hoard unnecessary or rarely useful supplies, or supplies you don't know how to use. If you have a chaotic bag, you forget basics or lose them in your bag.


The only essential basic supplies are those you use to protect yourself (from weather, bodily fluids, etc.). If you have exam gloves, proper clothing for the weather, a change of socks for yourself in a ziploc bag, and a bottle full of your personal drinking water, you can improvise or quickly source much of the rest.

  • Ask businesses for trash bags. Rip or cut arm and head holes in them. Hand out homemade ponchos.
  • Grab free packets of honey from a Starbucks and use them for wound ointment.
  • Ask a bar or restaurant for lemon or lime wedges for cold-fighting vitamin C.
  • Ask a pizzeria for cayenne pepper flakes for keeping toes toasty.


These supplies are difficult to improvise when you need them, so keep them handy.

  • 15 pairs of nitrile or vinyl gloves that fit you (they come in s, m, l, and xl), packed in ziploc bags (2-3 pairs per bag). Keep a couple pairs in a ziploc in your pocket in case you lose your pack.
  • 30 nonsterile 2x2 gauze squares packed in ziploc bags.
  • 5 sterile 2x2 gauze squares packed in a ziploc bag (one of these plus tape equals a band-aid).
  • 5 sterile 4x4 gauze squares packed in a ziploc bag (one of these these plus wound ointment and roller gauze equals a dressing change).
  • 5 gauze bandage rolls.
  • 2 ACE-type compression wraps
  • 1 roll of 1 inch medical tape (micropore, transpore, or silk tape).
  • Some duct tape (less than 1 roll, wrapped around your pen or something)
  • 1 unit of wound ointment or wound salve (like ching wan hung burn ointment, honey, or a salve recommended by your local herbalist).
  • 1 liter of water in a sports-top bottle you don't drink from (for washing wounds, hands, etc.).
  • 1 small bottle of liquid soap packed in a ziploc bag in case it leaks, or individually-packed castile soap towelettes (for washing wounds and hands).
  • 1 bag of cough drops, slippery elm lozenges, or slippery elm bark.
  • Trauma shears.
  • A change of socks.
  • Lightweight high energy food (like energy bars, nuts, or dried fruit).
  • Pen and paper.
  • A handbook (like Buck Tilton's Backcountry First Aid and Extended Care, or bookmark one of the first aid guides on this page in your phone).

Pack your kit in a few quart-sized ziploc bags to shield it from leaks, weather, and contamination. Put the ziploc bags in a convenient location — a fanny pack, fishing vest, small backpack, or shoulder bag.

Additional items

The kit lists below should get you thinking about how important the basics are in all kinds of situations. If members of your group are trained to manage these situations, you may carry some of these supplies, stockpile them in a bin, toolbox, or locker at your housing site, or keep them in your car. If you carry them, pack them underneath the basics, so you can get your most important supplies easily.

Most medics pack only for the situations they see most often. If you find yourself in a situation unprepared, be safe, support the person's dignity, use community resources, and collect the supplies to be prepared the next time.

Cold weather care

These items are useful for cold-weather care.

  • Personal preparation, including a buddy, so you do not become a casualty.
  • Hats and dry socks packed in ziploc bags; emergency ponchos.
  • Water; especially hot water in thermoses with refill options and disposable cups. Instant hot chocolate, instant miso soup, instant hot cider, ginger tea with honey, or Jell-o (with sugar) for the hot water; something to stir with.
  • Candied ginger and other snacks.
  • Instant handwarmers or a microwavable rice bag handwarmer.
  • Talcum powder.
  • Cayenne powder or flakes.
  • Mylar emergency blankets and other insulating materials.

Do not dispense or administer any pharmaceuticals. If the person wants Burow's solution/Domeboro from the pharmacy for a foot soak, give her directions to the nearest pharmacy. When she returns, draw the water and let her mix the remedy into the foot soak basin.

Care of infected wounds

These items are useful to have on hand for dressing change and care of infected wounds.

  • Plenty of nitrile or vinyl gloves that fit you (packed in small ziploc bags for your carry kit).
  • Plenty of clean sterile or nonsterile gauze squares packed in small ziploc bags (2x2, 3x3, or 4x4 are good sizes).
  • Soap, water, and a basin or sink.
  • A way to heat water for a wound soak or compress (an insulated container to carry hot water from a nearby friendly business; a cookpot and stove, hotplate, can of sterno with rocks or bricks to elevate your pot, camp stove, etc. Don't forget a lighter or matches if you will need it and fire safety equipment like a fire extinguisher, wool blanket, or bucket of wet sand).
  • A big container of table salt (poured into a labeled ziploc bag) and (optional) a small container of bleach.
  • Cling wrap or a clean plastic bag.
  • Individual packets of honey, a tub of drawing salve, or a tube of ching wan hung ointment.
  • Sterile gauze squares (3x3 or 4x4), preferably Telfa non-stick dressings.
  • Roller gauze, silk tape, and a permanent marker (for labeling dressings).
  • Biohazard trash bags.
  • Antiseptic surface cleaner and paper towels or antiseptic surface wipes.

Acquiring supplies

The most expensive place to get supplies is at a pharmacy. Good local medical supply companies are much better, and you can put in a big order then pick it up. Internet ordering is also a good idea. Try,, and eBay, or call manufacturers and ask for factory seconds or overstock as a donation. If you have a nonprofit sponsor it can be tax-deductible for the donor.

Consider keeping a supply dump somewhere for your group with an inventory person who keeps everything organized so medics can resupply on the fly, and replenishes the supply dump when anything gets low.

Another perspective

If you're browsing and very tempted by that $200 pre-packed kit, please read this blog post about first aid kits by my old friend Anne before you buy anything. The take-home message? One size never fits all, and training is way more important than ownership.

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