How to Choose the Right First Aid Kit for your Adventure

I've noticed there are a few different philosophies about first aid kits in the backcountry. At either end of the preparedness spectrum there are the Rescue Rangers and the Don't Worry Be Happys.

The Rescue Ranger is the outdoor enthusiast most likely to wear black or camouflage. His or her pack weighs twice as much as most because it includes an ax, firearm, and a first aid kit the size of my computer bag. This person often collects certifications, and tells everyone else they're "doing it wrong."

Then there's the Don't Worry Be Happy hiker. You'll be lucky to find a few crusty Band-Aids and a tube of expired antibiotic ointment in his or her bag next to the rose-colored glasses. This is also the person who will raid your stash when they need something ... I'm sure I've upset a few people by now with my stereotypes, but let's be real, one of these descriptions probably just reminded you of someone you know.

All humor aside, knowing what first aid supplies to carry is more of a personal decision than a defined list. It can be confusing!

Erika Wiggins First Aid 73015

Here are some considerations to keep in mind as you choose the right solution for your pack:

DIY kit or prepackaged? — Once you've made a list of all the items you want to carry, you can buy all of the components separately and assemble your own kit, or you can by one that's already put together. I recently read a study comparing which route is more affordable, and the commercial kits cost slightly less on average. Knowing this, I opt to purchase my kits ready-to-go. It saves time, and I know most companies sell refill packs when needed. If you do want to build your own kit, check out this post by Wilderness Medical Associates: Building a Wilderness First Aid Kit.

What activities will you use it for? — If your main sport is paddling, you can buy kits in waterproof cases. Backpacking? Look for a lightweight kit. You get the idea. If your area has special considerations, add items to the store-bought kit.

Time to likely rescue — Commercial kits are often labeled by the number of people in the party and days they will be out. This is helpful when it comes to having enough bandages for scrapes or painkillers. However, the more important consideration is, "how far away will you be from help?" For example, many hikes I've been on were within a short distance from emergency help, and there was cell coverage. However, I've also been on hikes where I would need to stabilize someone for a day, or maybe longer, before help could arrive. This is where a more comprehensive kit is needed.

What is your skill level? — A first aid kit can only be as good as your skills. If you don't know how to use what you have, don't bother carrying it. A better solution is to take a wilderness first responder course (like one of these from our friends at Wyoming-based NOLS) so that you do know how to better care for someone in the backcountry.

Special needs — Does anyone in your group have a medical condition that may need treatment? If so, add their specific medications etc to the kit. Most doctors will coordinate with their patients to prescribe medication supplies for a personal first aid kit.

Consider two kits — Often people will backpack in, set up camp, then hike around for a ways to check out their surroundings. This is when a second "go-pack" of basic supplies to stuff in your pocket. Think bandages and something to stabilize a sprain. Anything else you could run back to camp and pick-up. This smaller kit can simply be part of the bigger one with it's own bag to hold it together.

Now that you have some pointers, it's up to you to decide the right balance between size, weight, and safety. I know I already mentioned this, but taking a wilderness first aid or first responder course is a wise move if you plan to venture far from emergency rescue. As adventures, we have a responsibility to be self-sufficient in the outdoors. In the backcountry, when seconds count, it may be hours before help arrives ... meaning you make the difference.

Looking for some support on buying or building your own first aid kit? Check out our buying guide on first aid kits and outdoor safety.
Erika Wiggins
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Erika Wiggins
Blogger at The Active Explorer
Erika Wiggins is a Salt Lake City based freelance writer specializing in travel, food and adventure sports. She travels extensively throughout North America and Mexico seeking new experiences. In addition to adventure sports, her passions include fitness, local cuisines, strong coffee and beer. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and TheActiveExplorer.com.
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