Choosing the Best First Aid Kit for Your Adventure

From Left to Right  Home based (Be Smart Get Prepared)  Overnight (Surviveware Small)  and Day Trip model (Adventure Medical .7).
Article By:
Ryan Huetter and Viren Perumal

Last Updated:

Expedition Models
Expedition models don't skimp on the amount of tools or quantity of medications. Weight and size are not the main factor in deciding what to stock in them. These models will live at base camp or serve a larger group's needs, say on a multi-day rafting trip or into a remote area in the mountains. Expedition models are essentially remote medical stations for situations where access to medical facilities is limited. They have the same products as basic overnight kits, but with larger quantities and specialized components.

If you're building an expedition kit, you'll want to include some prescription medications, such as altitude medications, antibiotics, and pain management medications, which can make a huge difference in a remote wilderness emergency. To obtain these products, you'll need to discuss the situation with a medical doctor, as no company sells expedition models that contain prescription medications. There are no stand alone expedition kits in our review; instead, users will want to pair up kits, or take a good overnight model like the Surviveware (you'll then need to stock it with additional supplies to meet the group size or trip length).

The REI Backpacker Weekend is the biggest overnight kit we tested. It is bulky  but has a lot of supplies for a group.
The REI Backpacker Weekend is the biggest overnight kit we tested. It is bulky, but has a lot of supplies for a group.

Overnight Models
These models serve the needs of a small group that is far enough from the trailhead that they need to be a little more self-sufficient. These types include basic over the counter medications, wound care supplies, blister treatments, and a roll of tape for ankle injuries. Overnight models may also include splinting material, such as a SAM Splint, elastic ACE wraps and triangle bandages. Our Editors' Award winner, the Surviveware Small, falls into this category. Whenever your trip is going to take you more than two hours away from a healthcare facility such as an urgent care center or an emergency room, we recommend using an overnight model, even if just out for a day trip.

If on expeditions or even overnight trips where there is limited or no cell service to contact help, we also strongly suggest carrying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or a satellite messenger in addition to the medical supplies that we showcase in this review. If you have a serious emergency that either your first aid kit or your training does not prepare you for, being able to contact a Search and Rescue team might make all the difference. You can read more about PLBs, and find out which ones we like the best in our Satellite Messengers and Locator Beacons Review.

The four overnight models we tested all are of similar size  but are not all the same quality.
The four overnight models we tested all are of similar size, but are not all the same quality.

Day Use Models
These are lightweight options that are most appropriate for day hikes that take place a short distance from the car. These are minimalist kits that are carried in case of minor problems that occur on the trail, with the idea that if something major happened, advanced medical care is not far away. These kits are not designed to deal with any trauma or medical problems, but can treat common cuts, blisters, scrapes and burns. There should also be a roll of tape for injured ankles and some common over the counter medications to deal with headaches and pain relief. An example a of kit in this category that we reviewed are the award winning Top Pick for Day Hiking and Lightweight Adventures, the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .7.

The three lightweight/day trip first aid kits compared.
The three lightweight/day trip first aid kits compared.

Car-based Models
Many people do (and more should) carry a large first aid kit in their car. Bulky items or weight do not constrain these models. They are ideal for trailhead first aid, as well as for car camping. They are used for all kinds of first aid opportunities, such as climbing areas or skateboard parks that are near to a parking lot. Car-based models include items that you may not typically carry on a backpacking trip, like chemical ice packs to help reduce swelling, light rain ponchos or glow sticks for nighttime visibility on the road. The TripWorthy Compact Kit best fits this category, with an assortment of general survival items like whistles, sewing kits poncho and glow stick. We would not prefer to carry this type of a first aid kit with us into the backcountry, but would rather put it in the trunk or next to a spare tire so that we know it is there when we might need it.

Additional survival gear is too bulky to bring into the backcountry but can serve a purpose in car-based kits.
Additional survival gear is too bulky to bring into the backcountry but can serve a purpose in car-based kits.

Home-based Models
While it isn't as important for a home-based model to be self-contained (you might have a variety of supplies strewn about your house or apartment), it is a good idea to keep them all in one area for quick and easy access. A home-based model is not limited by weight, therefore you can keep larger amounts of your commonly used items, like band aids, full-sized tubes of antibiotic ointment and hydrocortisone cream, or bottles of pain and fever relief medication. This kit should also have a thermometer, and a list of emergency contact numbers such as poison control and family members' doctors. While only the Be Smart Get Prepared kit was specifically designed for home use, your overnight or expedition model can double as a home-based kit when not in use on the trail. Just be sure to double check all your supplies before heading out on your next adventure.

The Be Smart Get Prepared Kit is not meant for the backcountry  so its size does not make a big difference.
The Be Smart Get Prepared Kit is not meant for the backcountry, so its size does not make a big difference.

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 is 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 no matter how far you are from the trailhead. However, these supplies are only as effective as the knowledge of their user; informing yourself on the basics of first aid care is a critical step in dealing with injuries or medical emergencies.

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 to perform the basic care in an urban or frontcountry setting. Those looking to increase their knowledge and abilities as it relates to providing care in the backcountry have many options in wilderness medicine courses to choose from. Reputable groups such as the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS and Wilderness Medical Associates International have many programs throughout the United States to pick from, from 24-hour programs to intensive month-long Wilderness EMT programs.

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 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, durability and weight. Go check out our review 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 the length of your trip. The model 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 kind 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 to create a more specific first aid kit (or multiple models) 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.

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 by reputable name brand companies 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. Vinyl gloves are adequate but are lesser quality and tend to tear much easier.

Blister & Burn Treatment
  • Blister relief, such as Moleskin from Dr. Scholl's, 2nd Skin, or Glacier Gel. Bilsters can end up becoming big problems if left untreated, so any kit that has hiking in mind should include supplies to treat them, and extras should be added to kits without a deep inventory of blister related items.

  • A breathing barrier with a one-way valve, used to protect the rescuer during CPR from the transmission of bodily fluids. 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. We like the small precision forceps much more than the longer metal tweezers, but whichever you use, make sure the point is not rounded, but pointy or square tipped. No plastic tweezers should be considered.
  • 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 are 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. (These also work great for cleaning your keyboard.)
  • 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, ankle wrap or moleskin donut to help it adhere longer. It can also be used to protect your skin from an allergy to the adhering agent itself.
  • Butterfly bandages for wound closure; you can purchase a box of 100 for under $6.
  • 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 Surviveware Small 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.
  • Stretch-to-conform rolled bandages such as the CONFORM stretch bandage.
  • 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:
  • Hemostatic gauze, which aids in blood clotting to stop bleeding quicker.
  • 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 a 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.
  • Skin repair bar or skin repair creme for minor rips, tears and cuts - we recommend the Climb On! brand. Their sample pack is a great option for outfitting your first aid kit, and also comes with their chapstick.

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.
  • Sunscreen, with at least SPF 30. We find NoAd to be the best value. Look for UVA and UVB protection.
  • Lip balm; like the Climb On! Lip Lube.
  • 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. Kits designed for long expeditions will weight quite a bit more and be larger than most of the kits featured in our review, but when treated as group gear the burden is easily shared amongst the group you will be traveling with. Expedition models will contain everything listed above, but in greater quantities, as well as some additional items listed below.

  • A low-reading thermometer for detecting hypothermia, such as the ADC ADTemp II Thermometer. Also useful is a Pulse Oximeter, a device that can help take heart rate as well as give a reading on a patient's blood oxygen level, a useful piece of information when diagnosing altitude illnesses.

  • 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
It is also worth carrying a satellite messenger or locator beacon in order to contact advanced care in the event of a major emergency for those trips far from the trailhead.

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
  • Instant cold packs; like the Dynarex Packs.

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

Emergency Supplies
  • An emergency heat-reflective thermal blanket.
  • Glow sticks for nighttime visibility on a roadway.
  • Disposable rain jacket.

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. Many prepackaged kits 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!

Ryan Huetter
About the Author
Ryan Huetter grew up near the coastal tidewaters of the Puget Sound in Washington State, but has since traded moss and rain for the sunshine and splitter cracks of the Sierra Nevada. Since graduating from Western Washington University in 2006 with a Bachelor's degree in Outdoor Adventure Management, he has called the Sierra home. Working as a full time mountain guide while pursuing IFMGA certification, he is able to enjoy the unbelievable year round skiing and climbing the Sierra is known for.

Ryan's passion for climbing has taken him around the world, from Yosemite Valley, where he has climbed over 20 different big wall routes, to seven seasons in Patagonia, where he has made many major ascents, including Fitz Roy and first ascents of remote alpine walls. But year after year the Sierra Nevada remains Ryan's base and he loves introducing people to the Range of Light. Ryan's favorite Sierra climb is the Third Pillar of Dana, coupled with fish tacos from the Mobil Station, of course.


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