What I carry in my backpack is not a substitute for what’s between my ears. This is especially true with my first aid kit when hiking and backpacking in the wilderness: rather than thinking of this collection of items as a get-out-of-jail-free card, I’m much better served by having researched beforehand the environmental and route conditions I will likely encounter, and then using common sense in the field: identifying risks, respecting the limits of my group, and making conservative decisions.
On each trip, I hope to avoid medical situations completely. In the instances when I have, I’ve been humbled by how few things I can fully treat in the field — minor cuts, burns, and scrapes; overuse aches and pains; minor allergic reactions, diarrhea, and acute mountain sickness; plus a few other things. For anything more, I’m looking at a self-rescue or an assisted evacuation.
Gear list: Backpacking first aid kit for soloists and groups
My DIY first aid kit has been field-tested by and refined over hundreds of solo and group trips, throughout the Appalachians, High Sierra, Desert Southwest, and Rocky Mountains. To download it as a PDF or editable spreadsheet, go here.
- Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
- Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
- Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
- Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
- Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised
A first aid kit does not translate into medical know-how. For that, consider some training — at least CPR certification, but ideally Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder (especially for trip leaders and avid soloists) through organizations like WMI (NOLS), WMAI, and SOLO.
DIY or commercial first aid kits?
Commercial first aid kits like the AMK Ultralight are convenient, but I’d recommend assembling your own. A DIY kit will be less expensive (at least for what you get, especially in the long run as you need to replenish items) and it can be better tailored to the unique medical needs of your group, activities, and environment.
You may be forced to buy amounts in excess of what you need. With the leftovers, create additional first aid kits for your home and vehicle(s).
Solo versus group kit
On a group trip, medical situations are more likely and more diverse in nature, simply due to there being more people, each with a unique medical history. Appropriately, then, my group first aid kit is more robust than what I carry when solo — I bring more items and greater quantities of each item.
My solo kit is a slimmed-down version of my group kit. For example, I leave behind aspirin (which I don’t need, but which I might give to an older group member with symptoms of a heart attack) and disposable gloves (since it’s okay for me to be in contact with my own body fluids), and I bring a smaller utility tool because I likely will not need it as often or as much.
The amount of each item I carry is a function of the trip duration, group size, and my sense of its importance. My philosophy is this: If I really need an item, I want to have enough to address fully the medical event.
For example, if I come down with iliotibial tendentious (“runner’s knee”) I want enough anti-inflammatory medications so that I can take full dosage until I exit or arrive at the next town with a drugstore. And if I were to badly cut myself, I want enough wound dressings and tape to treat it properly.
I have never weighed my first aid kit. If you do, you are welcome to share what you get. But, frankly, its weight is irrelevant: my kit has what I need and not much extra (or any extra), and knowing its weight would not prompt me to reconsider its contents. If I were striving to be an “ultralight” backpacker (whatever that means), my approach towards first aid would be no different.
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