How to Choose the Best First Aid Kit

A basic kit  generally assembled to suit a variety of activities.
Article By:
Gentry Houghton & Cam McKenzie Ring

Last Updated:

A first aid kit is a necessity for anyone; no matter where you are or what sport or outdoor activity you're involved in, you never know when you may find yourself in need of some first aid supplies. Though no one ever wants to get hurt, it's better to be prepared for the worst than to find yourself without the right tools in an emergency situation. The American Red Cross recommends that you keep a first aid kit in your home and car, and it's a smart idea to always carry one with you into the backcountry. However, theses supplies are only as effective as the knowledge base of their user; informing yourself on the basics of first aid care is a critical step in dealing with injuries in the backcountry. At a minimum, a basic first aid and CPR course from your local Red Cross Office is the first step towards getting the skills you need. Those looking to increase their knowledge and abilities have many options in wilderness medicine courses to choose from, from reputable groups such as the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS and Wilderness Medical Associates International.

When it comes to selecting the right first aid kit for your needs, there are many options available to you. You can purchase pre-made kits of various sizes depending on our intended activity and length of trip, or you can always assemble your own kit. We put five different models to the test in our First Aid Kit Review, and compared them based on the quality and usefulness of their supplies, their versatility, bag durability and weight. Go check out our award winners to see which models ranked highest, or keep reading to see what we recommended carrying in a kit.

Types of First Aid Kits

There are many types and sizes of kits available, and their contents and weight vary depending upon your intended activity and length of trip. The kit you take on a two-week remote backpacking trip is not the one you need on a short day hike close to civilization. We've classified the different types available into five main categories, along with recommendations of what should be in each type of kit and where you might purchase those items. Keep in mind that the following lists are only suggestions and are meant to be overly extensive. You may find it more beneficial for you to weed through the following items in order to create a more specific first aid kit (or multiple kits) for your desired activities.

Day Use Models

When you're not travelling far or for long from your car or trailhead, a lightweight day use first aid kit is all you need. These kits have enough supplies to deal with minor cuts and scrapes on the trail. Our favorite kits that we tested in this category were our Best Buy winner, the Lifeline Trail Light Dayhiker and our Top Pick for Day Hiking and Lightweight Adventures, the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .5.

Here's what we carry in our day use first aid kit:

Bandage Materials
  • Assorted adhesive bandages; the American Red Cross recommends a kit have about 25 bandages in various sizes, which you can pick up in prepackaged assortments at your local grocer or pharmacy for just under five dollars.
  • Gauze pads in various sizes; these pads are typically made of cotton for medical use and are most often applied as dressings in place of other types of fabrics that may burn or stick to a wound. They come in 3x3 inch and 4x4 inch sizes and you'll want a few of each for your day use kit.
  • Nonstick sterile pads are applied directly to the wound to provide cushion and protection while also creating an absorbing layer for any seepage.

Bleeding Control
  • Medical or surgical gloves; avoid latex if possible and shoot for a nitrile glove such as the ones made by SafeTouch.

Blister & Burn Treatment
  • Blister relief, such as Moleskin from Dr. Scholl's, 2nd Skin, or Glacier Gel.

  • A breathing barrier with a one-way valve, used to protect the rescuer during CPR. You can pick up a keychain sized barrier from the Red Cross store that also includes instructions for correct use.

  • Fine point tweezers for splinters and other various pointy objects, ie: cactus needles.
  • Safety pins.

Medical Information
Even on day trips, it's a smart idea to bring along the following:
  • Medical consent forms for your entire family.
  • Medical history information for each family member or activity partner.
  • Emergency phone numbers, including contact information for your family physician, your pediatrician if you have children, as well as local emergency services, road service providers and your regional poison control center numbers.

  • A pain relief medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), which also helps reduce swelling. For day hikes, one or two single use packets is usually sufficient.
  • Antihistamines to treat allergic reactions, such as diphenhydramine (Benedryl).
  • Insect sting relief treatment for relief from both bites and stings, such as the Sting Eze pen.

Wound Care
  • Antiseptic towelettes for cleaning and disinfecting wounds; we recommend wipes with a benzalkonium chloride (BZK) base such as these Curad Alcohol Wipes.
  • Antibacterial ointment for protection against infection of burns, cuts, scrapes and other wounds.
  • Compound tincture of benzoin, which is most commonly applied to the skin before a bandage to help it adhere longer. It can also be used to protect your skin from an allergy to the adhering agent itself. You can pick up a box of fifty benzoin swab sticks, which are handy to have in stock for your kit.
  • Waterproof medical adhesive tape can be used to keep bandages in place; we recommend a waterproof tape, but in a pinch you could also use athletic tape that you may already have with you.

Emergency Supplies
  • A whistle (for emergency rescues), which may also be found on your backpack.
  • A key chain sized bottle of sunscreen.
  • A waterproof bag, like a sandwich size Ziploc, with an emergency fire starter, such as the Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter and some toilet paper.

The contents of this basic kit include: two Ziploc bags to keep toilet paper  antacid tablets  fire starter and kindling  compound tincture of benzion and headlamp dry  plus sunscreen  skin repair  gauze pads  antiseptic towelettes  band aids  water treatment tablets  moleskin  an ACE bandage  elastic shoe string  safety pins  tweezers and surgical gloves.
The contents of this basic kit include: two Ziploc bags to keep toilet paper, antacid tablets, fire starter and kindling, compound tincture of benzion and headlamp dry, plus sunscreen, skin repair, gauze pads, antiseptic towelettes, band aids, water treatment tablets, moleskin, an ACE bandage, elastic shoe string, safety pins, tweezers and surgical gloves.

Overnight Models

If you're staying out for more than a day, you'll most likely be farther from a trailhead and need to be more self-sufficient. Our Editors' Choice winner, the REI Backpacker Extended is a good example of an overnight kit. Here are some more items you'll want to carry with you in addition to the basic supplies found in a day use model.

Bandage Materials
  • Rolled gauze.
  • Liquid bandages offer a breathable, waterproof and flexible protective barrier for small wounds and even blisters, such as the New-Skin Liquid Bandage.
  • Oval eye pads; Dr. Don W. Houghton, O.D., says any over the counter product is sufficient. While several sources recommend the addition of these pads to your kit, Dr. Houghton does caution that patching an eye with pads can allow a secondary infection to set it with anaerobic bacteria.

Bleeding Control
Larger quantities of gloves, and potentially:
  • A medical waste bag and box that can be used for sharp items.

Blister & Burn Treatment
  • Aloe vera gel for sun exposure relief.
  • Hydrogel-based pads, which offer cooling relief for burns and can be used for absorbing drainage from wounds to help prevent infections.

Fracture & Sprain
  • Elastic wrap, such as the ACE bandage for immobilizing joints and securing bandages in areas where you need to retain maximum flexibility.
  • A triangular cravat bandage; we recommend stocking your kit with two or three of these and also encourage you to familiarize yourself with these types of bandages as they are extremely versatile.
  • Finger splints.
  • A SAM splint, for supporting and immobilizing fractures.
  • Athletic Tape; a quality roll of two-inch athletic tape is an indispensable tool for taping injured ankles and providing stability to the joint. It can mean the difference between a hiker with a twisted ankle needing a rescue and being able to hike out under their own power.

  • An irrigation syringe with 18-gauge catheter for flushing wounds.
  • Steel sewing needle with heavy-duty thread.
  • Trauma shears, also known as tuff cuts, are blunt-tip scissors used to safely cut clothing from an injured person.
  • A single-edge razor blade, though any disposable razor is sufficient and cheap enough for a variety of uses.
  • Standard oral thermometer; anything you find over-the-counter at your local pharmacy is sufficient.

Medical Information
  • A small notepad with waterproof writing utensil.

  • Aspirin for heart attack response. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, you should never give aspirin to children.
  • Antacid tablets, like Tums, to settle upset stomachs caused by indigestion and to provide heartburn relief.
  • Loperamide tablets are used to soothe the effects of diarrhea, as well as bloating and gas relief.
  • Throat lozenges.

Wound Care
  • First-aid cleansing pads with topical anesthetic to kill germs and infections surrounding wounds.
  • Cotton balls and cotton-tipped swabs.
  • A small bottle of sterile saline, which is an eye irrigating solution used to flush out chemicals or foreign bodies.
  • Petroleum jelly, or similar lubricant in case of chaffing.

Emergency Supplies
  • A small roll of Duct tape (everything can be fixed with duct tape, right?).
  • A magnifying glass.
  • A small mirror.

Personal Hygiene
  • Hand sanitizer, either BKZ- or alcohol-based.
  • Lubricating eye drops.
  • Anti-itch eye drops for allergy relief.
  • Biodegradable soap, such as a concentrated soap like Campsuds.
  • A water-treatment system; we recommend carrying a system like the Sawyer Mini and carrying backup chlorine tablets.
  • Sunscreen, with at least SPF 30.
  • Insect repellent; a head net may also come in handy.
  • Disposable Human Waste Bags, like the Restop 2 Disposable Travel Toilet, if you are camping in an area where you need to pack out your own waste.

Our Editors' Choice winner  the REI Backpacker Extended  comes loaded with useful and quality supplies  a removable day hike module  and a comprehensive wilderness medicine guide.
Our Editors' Choice winner, the REI Backpacker Extended, comes loaded with useful and quality supplies, a removable day hike module, and a comprehensive wilderness medicine guide.

Expedition Models

An expedition model is essentially a remote medical station. They are heavy, but serve the needs of a large group in remote locations. The Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Fundamentals is the only expedition model that we tested, and it weighs over two pounds, which is a significant addition to anyone's backpack. Expedition models will contain everything listed above, but in greater quantities, as well as some additional items listed below.

  • Poison ivy and/or oak preventative, such as the Ivyx Pre-Contact Solution, which does not allow the plants' oils to be absorbed by your skin.
  • Poison ivy and/or oak treatment; the American Academy of Dermatology recommends calamine lotion (the same stuff used for chicken pox relief) and for mild exposure, hydrocortisone cream; we suggest you carry both in your kit.
  • Glucose or other sugar for treating hypoglycemia, such as the ReliOn Glucose tablets.
  • Oral rehydration salts, such as Recover ORS, for replacing necessary electrolytes lost during a bout of diarrhea, food poisoning, stomach flu, or excessive exercise.
  • Antifungal foot powder; like Gold Bond.
  • Prescription medications, including backups of any of your necessary personal medications. By law, no first aid kit comes with prescription medications. Talk to your physician about obtaining small amounts of antibiotics, pain or altitude medications for your expedition kit.
  • Injectable epinephrine, such as the EpiPen, for treating severe allergic reactions. It must be obtained through a prescription from your physician.

Emergency Supplies
This expedition model is large and heavy  but contains all the supplies you need to treat a variety of illnesses and injuries for a large group of people.
This expedition model is large and heavy, but contains all the supplies you need to treat a variety of illnesses and injuries for a large group of people.

Car-based Models

It is a smart idea to always keep a first aid kit in your car. You never know when you might come upon a roadside accident, or need some supplies when at a play park with your kids. A car-based kit should contain all of the basic first aid supplies similar to those found in a day use model listed above. In addition, there are some extra items that are useful for a roadside situation.

Fracture & Sprain
  • Full CPR Rescue Mask; since weight is not a consideration, you can keep a full CPR mask in your car-based kit.

Emergency Supplies
  • Glow sticks for nighttime visibility on a roadway.
  • Disposable rainjacket.

This kit's contents include some useful items for a car-based model  like a glow stick and emergency rain poncho.
This kit's contents include some useful items for a car-based model, like a glow stick and emergency rain poncho.

Home-based Models

The main difference between a home-based model and one designed for hiking or outdoor pursuits will be the quantity and size of the supplies. Since most people use a home-based kit for the majority of their first aid needs (unless you live on the trail!) you'll want to have larger quantities of all your supplies in this type of kit. This includes full-sized bottles of medications and tubes of antibiotic ointment instead of single use packets, and a larger number and variety of band aids. We did not specifically test a home-based first aid kit in our review. There are many prepackaged kits that are designed for home use available for purchase, or you can assemble your own kit based on the above lists. You can also use your overnight or expedition models when at home, but be sure to carefully inventory and restock your kit before heading back on the trail.

First Aid Kit Maintenance

It's a good idea to give your first aid kit a regular checkup. If you're using it a lot, particularly a home-based model, have a look every three months to ensure that no medications have expired and that your tools are working properly. The last thing you want is for your child to be running a fever in the middle of the night only to find that your thermometer is broken, or to need a bunch of band aids and discover that you have completely run out of them. While some medications lose their potency after their expiry date, others turn toxic. Be sure to always check the expiry dates before taking or administering any medication, and properly dispose of the ones that are past date.

Final Thoughts

Again, we cannot overstate the importance of familiarizing yourself, at a minimum, with basic first aid and CPR techniques; there's no point in carrying around a CPR face mask if you don't know how to use it. We also encourage you to take the time if you have children to prepare them for medical emergencies in an age-appropriate manner. The American Red Cross even offers classes designed specifically for children, and for children's caregivers. While the best accident is the one you prevent, it's always best to be armed with as much knowledge as possible in any emergency situation. Here's hoping your next adventure is a fun and safe one!

Gentry Houghton & Cam McKenzie Ring
About the Author
Born and raised in West Texas, Gentrye was exposed to the great outdoors at an early age through trail rides, hikes around Palo Duro Canyon and skiing in New Mexico. After graduating with a Journalism Degree from Oklahoma State University, she was first exposed to rock climbing inside a little gym and bouldering around a little park in Tulsa, Okla. Through these experiences, an idea was sparked to return to Texas and bring climbing along with her. Over five years ago, she and her partner founded the only indoor climbing facility in Amarillo, Tex., where they also explored adventure atop the Grand Teton, the North Face of Sugarloaf in the Organ Mountains, New Mex., Thailand and beyond. Now, she resides in the beautiful Elk Range that surrounds Redstone, Colo., where she plays in the hills with her husband and their Great Dane. Gentrye finds her connection to the world around her by spending long days in the mountains: rock climbing, hiking, trail running and skiing.


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