Let’s be honest—most of our outdoor adventures are day hikes or one-night backpacking trips, not week-long expeditions. So a lot of us go into the backcountry without the added weight of a first aid kit.
And that’s no good. So we called up our friend Tod Schmilpfenig of NOLS, who literally wrote the book on wilderness medicine, to ask him what’s in his first aid kit.
You’ll be surprised how little is in there—Schimelpfenig says the whole thing fits in a 3″x 5″ ziploc bag.
1. Nitrile gloves
Blood-borne diseases are way too nasty to risk handling bloody patients bare-handed. And while medical gloves can be improvised from plastic bags or even ski gloves, makeshift gloves won’t allow you the same dexterity as the real thing.
If someone in your party is really bleeding, you’re going to want a full range of motion to treat them. Besides, nitrile or latex gloves are cheap, lightweight, and pack down to the size of a flash card.
2. A blister kit
Sure, it’s great to prepare for the worst. But chances are the injury that ruins your trip won’t be the work of a mountain lion, a land slide, or a band of inbred hill people. It’ll be something boring and pedestrian like a blister on the bottom of your foot.
3. A bag o’ pills
When Schimelpfenig packs his kit for short trips, he focuses on items that can’t be improvised in the backcountry. And for most of us (shamans and witch doctors excluded), that puts medicine pretty near the top of the list.
But you don’t need to haul an apothecary cabinet into the woods to be prepared. Schimelpfenig just packs enough Ibuprofen, Benadryl, and Imodium for himself and his group. That gives him the tools to treat pain, allergic reactions, and diarrhea.
This one you either need or you don’t. Epinephrine is a prescription medication—an injectable synthetic adrenaline that can open the airway of a person undergoing anaphylactic shock. Generally speaking, it’s only carried by folks with severe allergies.
Schimelpfenig carries the stuff in a vial with a syringe, but most folks who carry epinephrine bring an autoinjector like the EpiPen pictured above. If you carry one, you probably already know how to use it, but you should make sure your hiking / backpacking partners do before you it the trail.
If you don’t carry one, ask around before leaving the trailhead to see if anyone in your party has one, and where they keep it if they do.
That’s it. Seriously. Schimelpfenig doesn’t bring a stuffed bag of medical gear on his trips, but that’s because he has the backcountry savvy to make bandages and splints from bandannas and sticks, and knows that you can clean a wound about as well with potable water as you can with hydrogen peroxide.
Schimelpfenig is the program director for the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS. And while you don’t have to be a leader in the field to carry a minimalist first-aid kit, you should definitely pair it with some knowledge.
Schimelpfenig recommends a 16-hour Wilderness First Aid course to anyone who plays in the backcountry on the afternoons or weekends. For those with their eyes on more serious expeditions, or who plan to lead trips (commercially or otherwise), he suggests the intensive Wilderness First Responder course.