As a new hiker, we’re usually focused on gear, weight, colors, technical specs, etc. Some of the broader concepts tend to get lost in the details. Such as, “Hey, what will I do if I get a big infected blister?”. That’s when it hits you – you forgot to pay attention to your hiking first aid kit!
As a seasoned backpacking guide and (once) certified Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, I can’t even tell you how often I’ve had to fall back on a well-stocked first aid kit. By far the most common injury I see is a blister.
After that, common injuries include small abrasions, hot water injuries from cooking, and digestive issues from one source or another. If you’re not ready for these occurrences they’ll take you, or your partner, off the trail in a hurry.
By the time you’re done reading this article you’ll have a better understanding of what to look for in a backpacking first aid kit. I’ll toss in a few common mistakes to be sure to avoid and follow it all up with a handful of hiking first aid kits you can choose from if you’re looking.
5 Tips to Choose the Best Backpacking First Aid Kit
So, what have I learned over the years?
There are a few key things to look for and a few pitfalls to avoid. Beyond that, the contents of your hiking first aid kit should reflect your level of knowledge and proficiency in emergency medicine as well as the unique situations you expect to encounter on each hike.
Be careful listening to the opinions of Joe Schmoe on the forum boards. Instead, seek the advice of real wilderness medicine experts when looking for answers.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
There are two ways you can make a mistake on this part. Some hikers put every possible medical tool into their first aid kits. This is a mistake.
Some hikers try to go without a first aid kit, or with a kit that isn’t sufficiently stocked. This, also, is a mistake.
Yeah, you’re going to have to tread a very fine line between overstocked and under-stocked. Let me put this into perspective. When I hike alone I carry a smaller first aid kit. I know the likely problems I’ll encounter are fewer and within a narrower band of probability.
When I hike with big groups I carry a much larger kit because I could be called on to respond to a nearly unlimited number of trauma or medical emergencies for the group.
Use It Or Lose It
Avoid including items in your first aid kit that you’re not familiar with. Either learn how to use the items (butterfly closures, irrigation syringes, etc.) or ditch them. They won’t do you or anyone else any good if you open that fancy new first aid kit just to realize you don’t actually know how to use the sphygmomanometer.
It’s good practice to open your first aid kit as soon as you get it to familiarize yourself with the contents and their location in the kit. If you’re unsure of how to use something, be sure to look up a video or ask a professional. Then actually practice using it. Triangle bandages do make great slings, but if you’ve never practiced tying them you’ll likely do more harm than good.
Pack for the Likely Scenarios
I will tell you that 95% of the times I open my med kit it’s for blisters on other people. I don’t get blisters often but dealing with blisters on hikers in my group seems to consume nearly all of my time in the med kit. Learn how to properly clean and dress a blister – I’ve seen crippling infection set in on blisters that are improperly treated.
After blister treatment, good old ibuprofen and NSAIDs are the next most used item. Benadryl is another common one that gets used a ton. Pack tons of roller gauze, 4x4s, and antiseptic cream of your choice.
Honestly, if you’re prepared to deal with the above-mentioned situations you’ll be ready for 99% of trail problems. Of course, there’s always the unlikely but entirely possible major injury or critical medical situation that can’t be predicted but are all too real.
Restock Your Kit
This seems like a simple one, but it’s a crippling mistake. After each trip, be sure to note what got used and replace any contents. Nothing sucks like running out of antiseptic halfway through a trip because you forgot to restock.
If you’re through hiking make sure you restock at each stop or you’ll find yourself quickly running out. If supplies are hard to find, just mail yourself a few packs of the common stuff – gauze, antiseptic, ibuprofen, etc.
If you bother to keep records long enough, you’ll eventually start to note patterns. After a year or two of hiking, you’ll have a record of what you normally use. This way you can tailor your kit over the years to your liking. Just be careful about leaving stuff out in case you do need it some day down the road…
Consider Building it Yourself
If you have specific needs or enough training to understand what contents you’ll want in your kit, then make the kit yourself. Use a zip lock bag, stuff sack, or buy an empty medical kit. Then selectively fill it with the contents you want or need so you don’t end up with a bunch of crap that won’t ever get used.
Don’t forget the tweezers!
Hiking First Aid Kit Reviews
When it comes to first aid kit, I’ve yet to meet one that doesn’t need to be modified out of the box. However, these first aid kits are a decent place to get started and tailor to your desires as you go!
Of all the kits on our list, this one is my top pick. I even carried a heavily modified version of it myself for a summer on the Appalachian Trail. So what makes this one stand out above the others?
They actually packed it with an appropriate amount of the right items! It lifts my heart to see a first aid kit that’s packed well.
They included 14 alcohol pads, 15 antiseptic wipes, and 6 antibiotic packs. These are critical blister treatment items and should last one or two people several weeks of hiking (unless you’re unusually prone to blisters). If you’re hiking with a larger group of 6+ it might last you a week of backpacking if you’re lucky.
One thing I don’t like is that they chose to include 50 “junior bandages” (small band aids). Who needs 50 tiny band aids??? Please, tone down the mini band aids and instead give us more ibuprofen which they only chose to include 6 tablets of. You’ll definitely want to add more ibuprofen!
Also, the plastic tweezers are a huge letdown. I wish they would charge us more for the kit and replace it with a useful metal pair of tweezers. If you’ve never tried to fish out tiny splinters in the woods with plastic tweezers, let me tell you… you’ll be in for a frustrating experience.
Ultimately this hiking first aid kit will serve but I think you’ll find it lacks in some areas and is overstocked in others. Like all hiking first aid kits, I would encourage you to modify it to your needs.
Depending on exactly what your needs are, this med kit might actually be as good or better for many hikers than the first one we reviewed. I like that there’s a reasonable number of band aids!
One thing to watch out for is the low number of antiseptic gels and prep pads. Prep pads get used like candy for cleaning and sterilizing before working on a blister, dressing a wound, or practically any other work. You can never have too many of those suckers so add a few extra to this kit if you purchase it.
For most individual or partner backpacking trips it probably won’t be necessary to carry all 1.2 pounds of first aid equipment in this case. Some will choose to carry everything but the kitchen sink, others may want to pare it down.
This is the perfect kit to start with and then begin modifying to your needs. The fabric carrying case makes for a nicely self-contained package that you can grab and go anytime.
For those of you in the lightweight or ultralight category of hiking, this one is right up your alley. Truthfully if you want the lightest weight med kit, you’ll have to make it yourself from scratch. Don’t trust yourself to make a med kit from scratch? Then consider the Oumers First Aid kit.
I love the tiny package and lightweight contents for hiking and backpacking. I personally carry a med kit of about 1.5 ounces, so this one’s right up my alley. The 10 pcs alcohol pads are nice for killing germs before you lance a blister.
You’ll want to add ibuprofen because let’s face it, we can never have too much on the trail. The surgical tape is perfect for custom made bandages and band-aids when paired with the roller gauze.
One major oversight is antibiotic ointment and mole skin. However, this kit wasn’t *technically* made for hiking so you’ll want to add those in yourself. At just 2.6 ounces you’ll end up with a decent kit overall at probably ~4 ounces.
If you’re a lightweight hiker and you’re not interested in modifying your first aid kit, the Lifeline Trail Light could be the kit for you. It’ll cost you a bit more up front than the Oumers kit, and you’ll still have to modify it. However, it does have a more ideal set of first aid contents.
Sting relief pads, antibiotic ointment, gauze pads, and tape are all included and absolutely necessary for standard trail maintenance. While there are a few ibuprofen pills, acetaminophen, and antihistamine pills you’ll definitely want to add more. There are only two of each type and if you’ve ever been hiking on long trips you’ll know that two packets are just not going to cut it.
I like that it comes with tweezers and moleskin too. While the tweezers are metal, the moleskin will need to be upgraded to be sufficient.
This one is a bit unconventional. But, paired with some of the lightweight kits above, could really round out a first aid kit for backpacking. It is unbelievably small, which is nice. To achieve that they’ve mostly stocked the kit with wipes, packets of medicine, and band aids. Why? Because they’re all super small and flexible and that way they can compress.
While it’s a total of 5 ounces overall, it’s packed to the hilt with things like band aids, burn cream, and alcohol prep pads. It won’t make a great comprehensive first aid kit, but it does have prep pads, ointment, and medicine you may need on the trail. For most people, the Lifeline kit combined with this kit will be more than enough to cover any normal situations.
As a note, this might make a decent day hiking kit and a perfect supplement to a longer backpacking first aid kit.
First aid kits must be tailored to the length of your trip and the number of people in the party. Remember that your level of knowledge and skill, to some extend, predicates what you will choose to include in any given first aid kit. What is the best hiking first aid kit? Frankly, that completely hinges on where you’re hiking and what you expect to need.
In my opinion all first aid kits need to be modified.