Recently I was packing for a hiking trip that would take me through Colorado’s Weminuche and Rio Grande Wildernesses. When I reached for my small first aid kit – something I bought in an outdoor store years ago – I was reminded of its overall inadequacy.
As an EMT, I have a hefty medic bag full of clever instruments and bandages. The drawback is that the bag is about the size of a backpacker’s pack, and probably weighs more, which makes it inconvenient to haul into the wilderness. Inspired to improve my store-bought version and having supplies readily available, I determined to whip up my own edition of a wilderness first aid kit. Below, I will share with you the recipe to assemble your own homemade kit, the supplies that I included and why I chose each item.
Please note: The following are objects that a lay-person may use and do not require advanced training or skills. However, I recommend current certification in First Aid and CPR. The American Red Cross is an excellent resource for training and now offers courses entirely online as well as conventional classroom instruction. Simply search www.redcross.org/take-a-class. Be prepared to pay a moderate fee.
Recipe: Wilderness First Aid
Prep Time: Minimal
1. Assortment of Well-Chosen Items
If your trail-mates are anything like mine, plan to carry your own pack. That being said, this recipe includes objects which are relatively light and may be multipurpose, to make the most use of limited space and weight. This leads us to first item on the list:
We all know that tampons are extremely absorbent; but think outside the box when it comes to uses: tampons may be cut into small sections for a bloody nose, or be opened flat to make a dressing for hemorrhagic wounds. Tampons have uses outside of the first aid kit as well. A tampon may be torn apart to make tinder for starting a campfire, inserted into the neck of a water bottle to obtain a crude water filter, or used as a wick for a homemade candle.
b. Chewable Aspirin
Not only will aspirin alleviate sore muscles after exercise or treat a fever, aspirin has been proven effective at increasing the survival rate of myocardial infarction patients (otherwise known as “heart attack”) when taken at the onset of chest pain. Many cardiac emergencies happen in the backcountry, where travelers are pushed beyond reasonable physical limits by environmental elements and themselves. Select chewable aspirin, like low-dose baby aspirin so that you don’t need water to take it. Take what is recommended on the bottle for a headache or sore muscles. For chest pain, start with two baby aspirin (81 mg).
Check with your physician before taking aspirin. Some contraindications for aspirin are: an allergy or sensitivity to aspirin; a known bleeding disorder; a history of asthma; gastrointestinal ulcer or bleeding; pregnancy; recent surgery; or already taking medications to prevent blood clotting.
An antihistamine, like Benadryl® will help relieve symptoms of non life-threatening allergies, such as hay fever, and the common cold. Take an antihistamine to ease irritated skin due to insect bites, poison ivy, oak or sumac, minor burns and minor scrapes. Relieve allergy symptoms including congestion, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, itchy or watery eyes, itchy nose and throat.
d. Electrolyte Powder
It is so easy to get dehydrated when you’re working hard, especially in conjunction with rationing water between sources. Gatorade® works great to replenish electrolytes and defend your body from dehydration, but the bottle it is not always convenient to pack. I prefer packets of electrolyte powder, which may be purchased over-the-counter, such as Pedialyte® Powder Packs, Gatorade® G2™ Powder Sticks and some Crystal Light® On-the-Go (be sure to check that the packaging advertises that it helps replenish electrolytes). These packets are small and virtually weightless, may be easily added to a water bottle or Camelback®, and come in an assortment of flavors to spice up your water routine.
Gloves are a requirement! Beyond keeping hands clean and protected from the wound, the use of gloves also reduces the likelihood of introducing dirt and bacteria into the wound from your hands. Many people are allergic to latex, so play it safe with gloves that are latex free such as nitrile exam gloves. The stretchy nature of a glove makes it useful for other purposes, and may be cut cross-wise – either at the wrist or finger sections – to obtain a compression bandage or a water-resistant layer of bandage over dressings.
f. Alcohol Prep Pads
A wound site is a breeding ground for bacteria, so help keep it clean with a swipe from a sterile alcohol pad. Alcohol prep pads are decent for disinfecting tools and hands as well. Moreover, the alcohol in the pad makes it highly flammable, and therefore, an excellent fire starter.
A favorite supply of mine, Coban™ is an elastic wrap that behaves like tape but adheres only to itself. The sky is the limit for uses, as it will secure nearly anything to anything. For example: use as a wrap to secure a splint, maintain dressings in place, support a sprain, or to obtain compression to reduce edema and swelling. Even fashion Coban™ into a homemade headband – it will stick to itself but not your hair.
h. Israeli Tourniquet, a.k.a. “Emergency Bandage”
Don’t be scared away by the name: you never know when you may have to cut off your own appendage to save your life, in Aron Ralston-like fashion. Also called the Emergency Bandage, the Israeli Tourniquet was developed by an Israeli Military Medic, adopted by the United States Military for combat, and is now also used by EMS and other field personnel. The all-in-one device provides elasticized bandage, non-adhesive dressing sewn in, and a compression bar for uncontrollable blood loss. The bandage may be applied one-handed, although not quite as easily as tourniquets manufactured for that particular purpose.
A simple tourniquet may be achieved in the backcountry with a wide strap, Coban™, or section of exam glove, etc. and a stick. The benefit to the Israeli tourniquet is that the bandage reduces the need for additional dressings, offers the flexibility to use the device as a tourniquet when needed – or not, and may easily be cut apart for use as something else, if desired.
Rules for tourniquet use: Affix tourniquet roughly two inches proximal (nearest the body’s core) the wound site. Don’t over-tighten, simply tight enough to occlude artery and stop bleeding. Record the time the tourniquet is put in place. Once it’s on, leave it on.
For more information on how to apply a tourniquet, see the following YouTube video.
Shears are not a necessity in your first aid kit if you always carry a knife or a Leatherman®, but if you don’t, be sure to include a pair of good shears. I prefer the Raptor® by Leatherman, which features six-tools-in-one, including: stainless steel folding medical shears, a strap cutter, a ring cutter, a ruler, a wrench, and a glass breaker. The multi-tool meets a variety of potential needs (and it’s manufactured in my native state). The Raptor® is pricey but well worth the investment.
j. Assorted Bandages and Dressings, including the Triangle Bandage
Include a few sterile, non-adhesive dressings in a medium size. Keep in mind that anything too large can be cut smaller with your shears. An elasticized bandage will secure the dressings, however Coban™ will also meet this need. A roll of bandage provides an excellent impromptu clothing line, and doesn’t tear as easily as Coban™.
Another one of my favorites: the triangle bandage has so many uses that it would be unwise to leave it off this list. Cut simply from loose-weave cotton, the large triangle may be folded to function as a trauma pad, a sling, used in place of Coban™ or an elastic bandage to support a splint and appendage, as well as used for a scarf, headband, washcloth… the possibilities are endless.
k. Thermal Blanket
Also known as a space blanket, a thermal blanket is a lightweight metal-coated sheet that is designed to retain the majority of a person’s radiated body heat. A thermal blanket is critical in cold weather emergency situations, or in trauma events – such as extreme blood loss – where maintaining body heat is an essential component in shock management.
Do yourself a favor and choose a thermal blanket that is metallic. The reflective surface flashes in the sun, allowing it to be used as a locator beacon in the event of a possible Search and Rescue operation.
If you’re aware that you have a life-threatening allergy and have been prescribed an epinephrine injector such as the EpiPen®, include that as well. Are you like me and need your asthma inhaler the moment you start climbing or come anywhere near pollen? Be sure to take that, too. Will it be appropriate to pack sunscreen? The answer should always be yes. You get the idea: keep in mind the environment through which you will be traveling and your own particular needs.
When I was a child, I scraped a knee while playing at the park with my older sisters. It bled, and my sisters who did not want to abandon the park to walk me home, smeared tree sap across my knee and slapped a leaf over the abrasion. Although I was young, I recognized the primitive bandage as pure genius. With that in mind, the most important ingredient in any first aid kit is always you. You don’t have to be an Emergency Medical Technician or Wilderness First Responder to be successful at rudimentary first aid: you bring your own experience and skills with you. Don’t have something you need? No problem! A little resourcefulness and creativity goes a long way to ensure your basic needs are met.
Happy trails and safe travels, Misadventurers!
This communication is for entertainment and informative purposes only, and is not intended to be medical advice. Please seek medical advice from your physician.
Leah Chambers is an EMT who loves to read, write, hike, snowshoe, and garden. She is interested in Wilderness Therapy and enjoys genuine conversations with close friends.