Keep Painful Lessons At Bay With A Good First Aid Kit

I was midway through a four-day, 56-mile solo hike in a remote Western canyon. As I dropped down a steep hillside, the spring snowstorm that had accompanied me for hours abated, and warm sunshine made tentative peeks through the clouds. My intended campsite was only a mile away, and I was looking forward to cooling my tired feet in a creek. Little did I realize how much I'd need it.

As I descended, I discovered the day's precipitation had turned the trail into a canal of mud that glommed onto my hiking shoes like peanut butter. Suddenly, it happened: My right ankle rolled badly. The pain immediately told me that I wouldn't shake this one off quickly. After hobbling slowly to the creek, leaning on my trekking poles, I pulled of my right shoe to find a bright purple golf ball of hurt next to my anklebone. Plunging it into the creek's frigid meltwater, I contemplated my situation.

Alone, deep in the wilderness, the likelihood of anyone coming along to help was just about nil. So after cooling my foot for about 30 minutes, I pulled out my basic first-aid kit, wrapped the ankle in tape, gobbled some ibuprofen, elevated my foot, and spent the evening relaxing in a beautiful spot thinking optimistic thoughts, By morning, the swelling had reduced completely. Though the ankle was still a little tender, I could walk. I retaped it and went hiking.

A first-aid kit is the piece of outdoor equipment gear that probably (hopefully) gets the least amount of use per mile carried. But when you need one, you don't want to be without it. The trick is buying or creating a kit that suits your needs and provides essential supplies without adding unnecessary weight.

Factors to consider when choosing a kit's contents include the number of people in your group your trip's duration, strenuousness, and potential hazards and how long it would take to reach a hospital. These factors can vary markedly from trip to trip, and you may want to have more than one customized kit ready to g for example, one for a trip with just two or three adults, another for larger groups or a trip with children.

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

A variety of ready-made first-aid kits are sold by outdoor retailers and many others stores. They come in different sizes and forms and generally contain a similar assortment of first-aid supplies, but vary in the quantity of items of the level of advanced first-aid they can support. Most designed for small groups range in price from about $10 to $40, while full-on expedition kits can approach $100.

But don't choose one based on a price that seems reasonable or because it's the size you're willing to carry. Choose it based on your needs.

Home-made Remedies

Identifying your needs is made easier by assembling a kit yourself. The process helps you think through the potential risks of your planned excursion, and enables you to know exactly what you have at hand in the event of an emergency.

After assembling the basics (see below), customize your kit to address any special needs of your group or outing. For example, you might need to add prescription medications, a snake-bite kit in rattlesnake country, an epinephrine pen for someone with severe allergies (bee stings, food, etc.), or a thermometer and meds at an appropriate dosage for children.

Go Light, But Plan Right

Climbers and hikers heading out only for a day trip, or trying to keep their loads as light as possible, often forego the first-aid kit because of its weight and bulk. But rather than ditching it entirely, think instead about how to reduce your kit's weight and bulk while still carrying some basic essentials.

Many standard items of gear can double as emergency first-aid devices. Trekking poles can be used as splints. A cravat can be fashioned from a T-shirt. A handful of different types of bandages weigh next to nothing. I always carry a roll of athletic tape, for everything from blister prevention and treatment to tape an ankle sprain. Throw in a film cannister of some anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, and you've got a very basic but useful first-aid kit.

Whether putting together your own first-aid kit or buying a prepackaged kit from a store, carry it in a waterproof container like a sturdy zip-lock bag or small Nalgene bottle. When loading your pack, keep your kit readily accessible - in an emergency, you won't want to disgorge the entire pack's contents to reach it. And when you use any contents of a first-aid kit, remember to replace those items immediately after your trip.

Lastly, consider taking a wilderness first-aid or wilderness first-responder course. Any basic first-aid training is useful of course. Any basic first-aid training is useful, of course, but programs catering to wilderness skills teach participants how to handle numerous types of medical emergencies and injuries in the backcountry, where advanced life support from an ambulance or hospital is not available within minutes. Courses are widely available, from the Appalachian Mountain Club, Red Cross chapters, the YMCA and other civic organizations, and accredited wilderness first-aid programs like SOLO and Wilderness Medical Assosciates.

A good first-aid kit is like your most storm-worthy outerwear: You'd rather not have to use it, but you're really happy to have it when you need it.

Building A First-Aid Kit: The Essentials

For a basic first-aid kit, consider the following cheklist of contents, listed in rough order of the most commonly used items (be sure to place the items in a waterproof container such as a zip-lock bag):

  • Ibuprofen, or some other painkiller and swelling-reducer such as aspirin or acetamenophin (Tylenol).
  • Several adhesive bandages (a.k.a. Band-Aids) in a variety of sizes one-inch strips are most commonly needed
  • A tube of povidine iodine treatment for wound care
  • Moleskin or Spenco Second Skin for blisters
  • A roll of one-inch athletic tape
  • Several alcohol wipes for disinfection
  • A decongestant such as Benadryl for allergies
  • A knife or scissors
  • Two large cravats
  • Two large gauze pads
  • Four 4-by-4-inch gauze pads
  • A few safety pins
  • One six-inch Ace bandage
  • One SAM splint for fractures or severe strains
  • A small medical reference book
  • A paper and pencil
  • Vinyl or latex gloves
  • A CPR mask

Courtesy of the Applachian Mountain Club

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