I’ve met overnight hikers carrying First-Aid kits that would put your average paramedic to shame. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also encountered walkers on longer treks armed with nothing but duct tape and a “I’ll be ok, nothing ever happens to me” attitude.
For most of us, the answer lies somewhere in between. Find a balance that meets both your individual needs as well as the dictates of the environment into which you will be venturing (e.g. I’ll often carry a broad pressure bandage for snake bite when hiking in Australia).
Before each and every hike, sit down and evaluate the length and nature of your trip. Go through all the items in your first-aid kit and ask yourself three questions:
- Do I really need this?
- What could happen if I don’t have it?
- Is there something missing?
Hikers are often surprised at the number of redundant items they are carrying out of habit rather than necessity. And finally, remember that when it comes to backcountry first-aid, prevention is better than cure. Making objective decisions based on common sense and research (see Education below), should always be considered your first line of defense when heading out into the wilderness.
What to take?
Minimize bulk and weight by carrying appropriately sized quantities of your chosen items. Below is a list of what I might carry in my first-aid kit on a five-day wilderness backpacking trip:
- 3M Micropore Medical Tape – Lightweight, breathable surgical tape for blisters and cuts.
- Nitrile medical gloves – To prevent cross-contamination in case you need to examine someone. It is important that they should be latex-free, as latex is a common allergen.
- Antiseptic or alcohol wipes (3) – Cleaning wounds.
- Butterfly closure strips (3)
- Dressing/Gauze – Sterile non-stick absorbent; for larger wounds.
- Triple Antibiotic Ointment – Sample size tube.
- Hand sanitizer – Repackaged in a mini dropper bottle.
- Ibuprofen tablets (10 – 200 mg) – Anti-inflammatory and pain relief (Note: Be sure to list expiry dates and recommended doses for any medications that have been repackaged).
- Antihistamine tablets (3) – For bites and allergic reactions.
- Duct tape – Tiny roll. Handy for any and all repairs.
- Small utility tool – Which has a knife, scissors, and tweezers; e.g. Swiss Army Classic Knife.
- Sewing needle – Use dental floss as thread.
- Safety pins (2) – For slings fashioned from clothing.
- Tiny whistle – Check the sternum strap of your backpack; chances are you have one without knowing.
- Emergency fire starter – Normally a small Ziploc bag of clothes dryer lint or a couple of vaseline-coated cotton balls. Occasionally a Light My Fire Firesteel if I feel like channeling my inner-frontiersman (Note: I generally only take a fire starter if I’m heading out into extreme or remoter-type areas).
- Small business-size card – Listing emergency contact and any important personal medical information.
When hiking in developing countries, first aid supplies are often thin on the ground. Generally speaking, your best bet is to bring any necessary medications from home. If you forget or run out, don’t worry too much as most medications can be purchased in developing countries without a prescription. The prices are invariably cheaper, however, the catch is that you may not always be getting the genuine article.
Before embarking on your trip, gather as much ‘health-related’ information as possible in regards to your chosen destination. The World Health Orgainization (WHO) website represents a good starting point for your research.
For hiking trips in the developing world, I usually add the following items to my general list of essentials (Disclaimer: These items are what I carry. I’m not specifically recommending them for others. Be sure to consult with your physician before taking any medication):
- Broad-spectrum antibiotic (e.g. Ciprofloxacin)
- Diarrhea stopper (e.g. Immodium)
- Rehydration solution sachet
- Medication for giardiasis (e.g. Tinidazole)
If you plan on spending any significant amount of time in the wilderness, it makes sense to do a First-Aid course. In the event of a crisis situation, skills such as CPR, injury management and how to deal with venomous bites and stings, can potentially be lifesaving.
For general reference purposes, I recommend William Forgey’s Wilderness Medicine: Beyond First Aid and Paul Auerbach’s Medicine for the Outdoors. Both books are written in a clear, concise style and represent excellent resources for the novice and experienced outdoors person alike.