PACKING LIST: Backpacking First-Aid Kit
As a lifelong Scout and Scout Leader, I’ve probably created and carried more than 30 unique first-aid kits over the years. I say “created” because – more often than not – retail first aid kits are not specialized enough for backpacking – lacking a few critical care pieces – and generally not conducive to hiking due to their size and weight. With that in mind, I wanted to share how to create a first-aid kit for hiking and backpacking that will keep you safe and ensure you are prepared for your next journey.
No time to create your own hiking first-aid kit? The Adventure Medical .5 Ultralight first-aid kit is a good place to start.
PLANNING YOUR FIRST AID KIT
For most hikers and pilgrims, your first aid kit (also F.A.K.) will be designed to serve one person: you.
While certain items such as bandages are universally needed, your medical history and general physical condition should guide planning your first aid kit. This may include specific medications or gear. For example, if you take blood thinners and are prone to bleeding, additional gauze, pads, or blood-stop may be essential and unique to your kit.
Some items in your FAK will be packed for all trip types while others may be added or removed based on the profile of your next trip. For example, if you are trekking from city to city, then you only need core trauma items because medical help is just a few miles away. If you are backpacking in remote areas where care may be a day or more away, its important that your FAK is prepared for both trauma and sustained care.
If you are traveling in a group, then larger kits (with duplicate supplies) may be needed. Even if each person in a group is carrying an individual first aid kit, it may make sense to bring additional supplies for the group to share depending on the profile of your journey and your general access to medical care.
THE MOST IMPORTANT ITEM IN ANY FIRST AID KIT
If you’ve followed my hikes or read my blog posts, then you may know that I never hike without my Garmin inReach GPS Personal Rescue Communicator.
Beyond its GPS functions, the Garmin inReach Personal Rescue is an essential life-saving device, giving you immediate access to rescue and emergency services in any country as well as the ability to text directly with first responders to assess your situation and plan to provide care. I’ve carried the Garmin InReach all across the world and I strongly suggest you carry a two-way satellite communicator for all hiking trips the life you save could be your own.
FIRST-AID TRAINING AND CERTIFICATIONS
If you have not been first-aid trained (or if it has been a few years since you were trained), I suggest you attend a First-Aid Certification class, such as those offered by NOLS, the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts of America, or at adventure retailer REI. From practical advice on how to treat cuts and scrapes to full NOLS-certification classes for wilderness first-aid, the options near-you or online will ensure you are prepared for routine situations and can identify when expert medical care is needed.
ESSENTIAL ITEMS FOR YOUR BACKPACKING FIRST-AID KIT
As mentioned above, your FAK must be personalized to you and your planned trip, with the specific care items you will need the most; however, there are some “universal” items that should be in every backpacking first-aid kit, including:
- Antiseptic wipes (BZK-based wipes preferred; alcohol-based OK)
- Antibacterial ointment (e.g., bacitracin)
- Anti-sting / anti-itch ointments
- Assorted adhesive fabric-bandages
- Butterfly bandages / adhesive wound-closure strips
- Nonstick sterile pads
- Assorted Gauze pads
- 1″ x 10′ medical adhesive tape
- Fine-point tweezers
- Pain-relief medication (ibuprofin / acetimeniphrin)
- Antihistamine treatment
- Nitrile Medical Gloves (2 pair)
- Blister treatment supplies (see below)
Small packages of these first-aid supplies are available online for a make-your-own kit or to resupply a first-aid kit. While no one retail kit is perfect for all hiking trips, the Adventure Medical .5 Ultralight first-aid kit makes a great grab-and-go retail first-aid kit.
BLISTER TREATMENT SUPPLIES
The best blister treatment is blister prevention, including a good shoe/sock system that reduces friction on your skin. For me, that means applying BodyGlide Foot Anti Blister Balm to the soles of my feet and then wearing Fox River Coolmax Wicking Socks under Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion Socks. The results is that my two worn socks slide against one another when the terrain changes, rather than creating friction – and blisters – on my toes, heel or feet.
- Nail clippers
- Victorinox Swiss Card Micro Scissors
- BodyGlide Foot Anti Blister Balm – Glide works to reduce friction, lowering the risk of blisters
- Alcohol wipes & individual Neosporin antibiotic ointment packets
- Compeed Blister bandages
- Metatarsal pads & bandages
- Adhesive Moleskin
- Needle and thread to lance blisters
- 36″ of KT tape – remove from a larger roll and rewrap around drinking staw; snip straw to 1″ wider than tape
For hikers in the USA who may be unfamiliar with Compeed, it is often available from Amazon or local retailers as hydrocolloid bandages. Compeed bandages provide a cushioned layer to protect skin and blistered areas from infection. Another unusual item in my kit are my Metatarsal pads. As I frequently have sore footpads after sustained hiking on concrete or stone pathways, I find that these are the best preventative in my kit against stone bruises.
MY SPECIALIZED FIRST-AID GEAR
There are a few items that I generally carry / wear that have a first-aid application, including:
- Nylon Webbing Belt – Can be tightened around a wound for direct pressure or to secure a bandage
- Swiss Army Brand Knife – either the TINKER model for city-to-city or the TREKKER model in the backcountry
Here are a few additional specialized first-aid items that I may carry for solo-hiking in the backcountry or when medical care may be more than 3+ hours away:
- Self-adherent cohesive bandage wrap – Easy to apply one-handed, this wrap does not pull at wounds / skin
- Israeli-style Compression Bandage – a sterile constricting wrap for pressure that easily secures to itself
- Recon Medical Tourniquet – As a solo hiker, I recognize that I may have 30-45 seconds to stop blood loss in a dire emergency
- Hemostatic Quick Clot Sponge / Gauze – Quickly stop bleeding from open wounds
- Ankle brace / splint – for strains or temporary support
PACKING YOUR FIRST-AID KIT IN YOUR BACKPACK
I keep all of my first-aid and blister supplies together in a single, quart-size zipping freezer bag. I place my zipping bag into a small, red ultralight stuff sack, which I always store in the top pocket of my backpack. While the bag-in-a-bag model is overkill, carrying the red stuff sack makes it easy to find or to explain to someone where my first-aid kit is located in my backpack if I need assistance. (EX: “The red bag in the top pocket.”)
MORE ABOUT MY GEAR
To learn more about my recommended gear and gear hacks that I use when hiking, including my recommended packing lists for the Camino de Santiago or other trails, please visit the GEAR section of this blog.
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. In 2020 and 2021, I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.