This is an introduction to preparing a small first aid kit to carry with you in your pocket, purse, or backpack. It was originally written in 2017, and not much has changed as of this 2022 revision. You should still be thinking about two different main uses for a first aid kit:
- Minor cuts & scrapes, and convenience medical needs.
- A major medical emergency where someone is in real danger.
Everyone might want to carry the first sort of kit. It’s all about what’s useful to you, and what sort of things you encounter regularly. The world would be a considerably safer place if everyone had the skills needed to use the second sort of kit. Between CPR, emergency first aid, and a robust ambulance and hospital system, many scary-seeming injuries need not be life-threatening. We live in a society; help out.
Why listen to my advice on first aid kits? I worked as an EMT and technical rescuer for several years, and responded to several hundreds of 911 calls over the course of thousands of hours of duty time. I co-designed the medical curriculum for a major US university’s outdoor program. I’ve taught hundreds of students wilderness medical skills and hundreds more CPR. I have led backcountry hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing expeditions and have been qualified as a wilderness EMT or wilderness first responder since 2008.
You don’t need much training to apply a bandage, though a first aid class will teach you to dress wounds more effectively so that they heal better. Life-saving care like CPR can be very easy to learn, and takes no equipment. The Heartsaver CPR AED class from the American Heart Association is the skill you’re most likely to use to save a life and it only takes a few hours. A wilderness first responder class from NOLS Wilderness Medicine teaches you as much as possible to help someone before an ambulance gets there — even if the ambulance takes a while. Training matters so much more than tools. Learn more about medical training.
The best way to deal with a medical emergency is not to have one. Any time you pull out a first aid kit, something has gone at least somewhat wrong. Sometimes that’s okay; minor cuts and scrapes can come from taking reasonable risks. And some risks are very difficult to avoid. But especially when you’re thinking about major hazards, it’s so much better to manage the hazard before someone gets hurt than to pull out your first aid kit afterwards.
The Cuts & Scrapes / Convenience Kit
Because this kit is about making your life easier, there’s no end to what it can contain. This list starts with the most medical-ish items, and ends with a long tail of utility.
Cuts & Scrapes
The standard of care for a minor wound is to clean it thoroughly cover it with a sterile dressing to help keep it that way.
- Bandages. 3M Nexcare/Tegaderm come in every size you might want and are the most durable and reliable bandages available. There aren’t a lot of colorful options available; if you have young kids, get the bandages they’ll be happy to wear.
- Antiseptic towlettes. Alcohol wipes are a fallback if you don’t have soap and water easily available. Benzalkonium wipes don’t sting.
- Wound closure strips can significantly reduce scarring for larger cuts. But they require some care and training to use correctly.
- Medical tape helps secure bandages especially in awkward places on the hands.
- Nitrile gloves keep other people’s blood off you when you’re helping them apply a bandage. Cutting the finger off a nitrile glove and putting that over a bandaged finger can help keep bandages stuck on longer and help protect against water and dust.
- Wound closure gel can be a great convenience for smaller cuts.
- Blood stopper dressings can make it much easier to bandage some wounds, and help with nosebleeds.
These are over/behind the counter pharmaceuticals which are often helpful. carry the ones which work for you! Don’t forget your own prescription medication! It’s a great idea to carry at least a day or two of essential medication. It can be easy to overlook as-needed medication.
- Naproxen (Aleve) treats pain for longer than other over the counter drugs.
- Asprin is less effective, but also has few interactions with other medications. It is also sometimes used for chest pain.
- Ibuprofen (Advil) treats pain and inflammation at the same time. That may or may not be a good thing.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) treats pain and can reduce fevers.
- Bismuth subsalacylate (Pepto Bismol) is helpful for basically whatever might be happening in your tummy: diarrhea, nausea, heartburn, indigestion, gas, or upset stomach.
- Loperamide (Imodium) treats diarrhea by making you poop less.
- Dimenhydrinate or Meclizine (Dramamine / less drowsy) help with nausea and motion sickness. Meclizine doesn’t make you as sleepy as Dimenhydrinate.
Allergy and sinus medication
- Loratadine (Claritin) helps with general allergy symptoms.
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) helps with general allergy symptoms. It also makes you sleepy and might be bad for you in the long term.
- Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) reduces nasal/sinus congestion. It’s somewhat restricted and only available behind the counter. Sadly, the unrestricted “alternative” phenylephrine simply does not work.
- Tampons/pads. Even if you don’t need them, a friend might. They’re also great for larger wounds or heavy bleeding.
- Hand sanitizer & wet wipes. Just basic hygiene, and especially before dealing with a wound. Not as good as soap and water.
- Spare N95 respirator because there’s a global pandemic. (Learn more about respirators.)
- Blister bandages. If you have never had blisters, this may not be for you. If you have, hake sure to get the ultra-squishy hydrocolloid ones.
- Sunscreen protects you from the unshielded fusion reactor next door.
- Covid rapid test. Won’t it be nice when you look at this list and think “Huh, why would you carry one of them? Isn’t that like carrying a Smallpox rapid test?” unless that’s because Smallpox is back, in which case forget I said anything.
- Tweezers need no justification. Get ones with really sharp tips.
- Magnifying fresnel lens. For really annoying splinters which are hard to find.
- Scalpel. For removing that stubborn splinter or safely draining the blister that’s going to pop in your shoe.
- Oral thermometer. Non-essential, but great for confirming “Yes, I really am sick, and should take the day off.”.
- After-bite zapper. Despite the as-seen-on-tv vibes, this really does seem to work, and is easier to find than ammonia wipes.
Not really medical items
- Small flashlight or headlamp. Helps you see when it’s dark; I don’t know what else to tell you.
- Multitool with knife and scissors. If this isn’t your speed, consider getting a compact ‘survival’ ceramic blade for cutting tape.
- Spare charger/battery for your phone. Calling 911 or getting a car to urgent care take your phone. Bonus: since everything else in society also requires a phone, this is multi-use!
Things not to carry
You should probably skip larger bulky dressings (gauze) or heat/cold packs for the kit you always have with you. They’re bulky and less reliable. If you have a large wound, you’re never going to have enough of the right cleaning and dressing supplies in a pocket kit. You need to go to a better-stocked cabinet for the right supplies. Instant ice packs are either too small to work well or too large to carry. Besides, you’re almost always better off with ten minutes of cold running water (burns) or a big long-lasting ice-pack from your freezer (sprains & strains).
The Emergency Medical Kit
These items could make the difference between being able to save a life and not being able to. That doesn’t mean that this list contains everything you might want in an emergency! And none of these items are useful unless you know what they’re for and and when to use them.
In California, these medications should be available to anyone with training (epinephrine) or can be prescribed by a pharmacist (naloxone).
- Epinephrine auto-injectors (Epipens) make a life-threatening medical emergency less immediately-life-threatening. If you live in California, get the generic, it’s much cheaper and just as ergonomic.
- Naloxone (Narcan) nasal spray immediately halts opioid overdoses.
- Albuterol inhaler and spacer. For serious asthma attacks. If you don’t use the spacer, it doesn’t work nearly as well.
- Sugar or single-serving honey packets can immediately turn around one sort of diabetic emergency and don’t make things much worse for the other kind. The opposite is extremely not true: never give someone insulin.
- Nitrile gloves and an N95 respirator keep their blood off of and out of you. Googles help too, but those are hard to fold flat and fit in a bag.
- Hemostatic sponges (QuikClot) stop bleeding fast.
- Emergency pressure bandages secure major bleeding.
- Tourniquets stop massive hemorrhage of the limbs. Stretch-wrap-tuck tourniquets are less bulky and easy to apply. CAT-style tourniquets can be applied to oneself. You can’t improvise a tourniquet, but you should still try because you’ll probably end up with a decent pressure bandage instead.
- Oral and nasal airways help with breathing if there’s a major injury to the face.
- Chest seals kinda maybe help seal chest wounds.
- Pen, notepad, marker, and watch with second hand. Essential record-keeping tools.
- Trauma shears. You’re unlikely to use them even in a serious emergency, but they’re the most robust pair of scissors you’ll ever find.
Unusual personal risks
There might be other items which should go in your personal kit because there’s an unusual risk which you personally face. But rather than stocking the antidote for the highly-venomous snakes you juggle, consider just… not doing that any more? I’m not the boss of you, but I think that eliminating that strange risk is probably a much better plan.
It’s possible that there are unique immediate life threats associated with your lifestyle or line of work. If so, you might want to get medical supplies to address that particular emergency. But here’s a much better suggestion: change the way that you live your life to eliminate that one thing that is unusually likely to kill you. See above about prevention. If that’s not possible for some reason, then stock the antidote to the highly-venomous snakes you like to juggle.
This packing list isn’t standalone. It’s there to support the training that you (hopefully) have. You may want other items based on your situation.
This list also assumes that you have access to an emergency response system: you can call 911 or 112 and an ambulance will be along shortly to get you to a fully equipped hospital. If that’s not true, your safety plan probably needs more work than this article can offer.
Sometimes, I’ve linked to specific products I like. I have not been compensated or incentivized in any way to make these specific recommendations. They’re just items that I personally appreciate.