How to Build A First Aid Kit for Hiking

By Suzanne Wiley

When hiking, it is important to keep your pack as light as possible to reduce fatigue and exhaustion, preventing stress on your body and reducing injuries. The challenge is to pack the right gear in the right amount to stay safe and have a good hike. Sacrificing what could be an essential piece of equipment to make your pack a few ounces lighter could end up being an incredibly huge mistake. Most mishaps on the trail are due to unprepared or inexperienced hikers who don’t have equipment or skills to hike responsibly.  Problems also arise when experienced hikers are overconfident in their abilities. That said, even the most diligent and skilled hiker can have accidents or get lost.

There are Ten Essentials everyone who ventures into the backcountry should take with them. These classic Ten Essentials first appeared in 1974, in the third edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. The Ten Essentials have now become the standard gear to pack for hikers, backpackers and climbers. The list has changed throughout the years, adapting to technology and modern tools.

Group of hikers hiking on a grassy mountain
Keeping your pack light reduces injuries

The list also varies slightly depending on the source. The American Hiking Society lists them as:

  • Appropriate footwear
  • Map or GPS
  • Extra food and water
  • Rain gear
  • Safety items (light, fire, whistle)
  • First aid kit
  • Knife/multi-tool
  • Sunscreen
  • Backpack

In the 7th edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, published in 2003, the Ten Essentials are listed as: navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first aid supplies, fire, repair kit/tools, nutrition, hydration (always take more than you need) and emergency shelter. The Boy Scouts of America’s Ten Essentials are map and compass, sun protection, extra clothing, flashlight, first-aid kit, matches/fire starter, pocket knife, trail food, water bottle and rain gear.

Man opening a first aid kit
This small first aid kit includes moleskin.

Many of the Ten Essentials are the same, but one item is on every single list—a first aid kit. Every hiker should carry first aid equipment on every single hike, every single time.

The most common hiking injuries are sunburn, blisters, bug bites, poison ivy, chaffing, ankle and wrist sprains, muscle cramping, knee injuries, minor scrapes, burns and stomach illnesses. Fortunately, unless you have a severe allergy, none of these are life-threatening, are treatable and mostly preventable.

Weight is a constant issue for hikers and backpackers, so you need an ultralight backpacking first aid kit that doesn’t add bulk. If you pick one that is too heavy, you’re more likely to ditch it to fit your extra water. However, foregoing first aid supplies is a mistake. You need a lightweight kit filled with the basics with extra room to add your own first aid items catered to your specific medical needs.

The 12 Survivors UltraLite Mini First Aid Kit is constructed of durable honeycomb ripstop nylon, has six mesh see-through zippered pockets and weighs only 11.3 ounces filled and has plenty of room to add your own supplies.

This hiker’s first aid kit includes:

  • Moleskin to prevent and treat blisters
  • Elastic bandage to wrap sprains or use as a sling
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Alcohol prep wipes
  • Sterile gauze to control bleeding and cover wounds
  • Butterfly bandages for deeper cuts

Suggested additions are your preferred OTC pain relief, allergy and stomach medicine, any prescription meds, sunscreen, needle or safety pins, anti-chafing ointment, burn cream, hydrocortisone cream, emergency blanket and electrolyte tablets.

Inspect your kit before every hike. Terrain, weather, length, and type of hike will dictate additions and subtractions from your medical kit.

Reducing Your Risk

Just Google “missing hiker” and countless stories of injuries, deaths, and disappearances should scare you enough into understanding the importance of being prepared.

Outdoor rangers offer advice to hikers:

  1. Never assume your safety.
  2. Expect the unexpected.
  3. Prepare to spend the night, even when camping wasn’t part of the plan.

To avoid accidents and ensure a safe return, follow these nine hiking safety tips:

  1. Tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back.

The famed climber and hiker Aron Ralston who amputated his own arm to free himself from an 800-lb. boulder says, “I surely could have called someone else, my roommates, my parents, at that point to let them know where I was going. To me, it was the same decision a lot of us make about going to the grocery store around the corner to get a gallon of milk. For me, that was the level of risk I was anticipating for the day. I definitely thought about that as being one of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in my outdoor career.”

  1. Stay on the trail.

Geraldine Largay, an experienced hiker, stepped off the Appalachian Trail on the morning of July 22, 2013, to relieve herself. She never found her way back. She attempted to send texts but because of poor cell reception were not received. She established a base camp and journaled about her repeated attempts for rescue. After not showing up to an arranged meeting point where her husband would resupply her, he called the police. A search ensued—one of the largest for the Maine Warden Service. Geraldine’s body was found two years later 3,000 feet from the trail—just a 10-minute walk.

  1. Take a charged cell phone.
  2. Pack a basic survival kit including a flashlight, fire starter, and a whistle.
  3. Research the trails before you go.
  4. Treat hot spots as soon as you feel them.
  5. Map out reliable sources of water before you go.
  6. Have correct-fitting shoes, keep feet dry and pack an extra pair of socks.
  7. Use the buddy system.

Cassie Franks, an avid hiker living in the Pacific Northwest says prevention is key. She suggests clipping your toenails before heading out. Repeated pressure on longer toenails can cause severe pain and lost nails. She is also an advocate of using hiking or trekking poles, as experts advise. She says, “Use hiking poles for steep terrain and for water crossings. Having an extra balance point can prevent falls and sprains. They may look dorky, but once you realize how close you were to a broken ankle while 10 miles down the trail, you’ll love them.”

Red ultralight roll up first aid kit
There is room to add your own supplies to the Ultralight kit.

Her hiking first aid tips:

  • Small bottle of alcohol gel (hand sanitizer – sterilizes and also relieves itching from bug bites and nettles)
  • Bandanna (can be used as sling, tourniquet, or to apply pressure to a cut)
  • Tweezers, nail clippers/file
  • Waterproof bandages that seal on all edges
  • Adhesive moleskin to prevent/reduce blisters
  • Maxi pads/pantiliners (great for wound care or as an adhesive pad to prevent rubbing/blisters under a backpack strap, etc.)

Cassie says, “Before I created my own backpack strap pads out of a gel wrist rest, I would always go on hikes with maxi pads over my collarbones to prevent bruising and chafing!”

Though there are horror stories, don’t let them discourage you from getting out. Hiking is not only a beneficial cardio workout, it reduces the risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, and helps with depression and anxiety.

The benefits of hiking outweigh the risks, especially when you go prepared…and don’t forget your first aid kit!

What do you put in your first aid kit? Share it with other hikers in the comment section.

Click here to purchase the Ultralight mini first aid kit from 12 Survivors.