Selecting Commercial First Aid Kits


Which First Aid Kit?


© 2005 Gary L. Benton

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Often when I speak to groups, at schools, or even with friends on the subject of survival, the biggest question I get is what do you eat in the woods, followed closely by, what if someone gets sick or hurt, then what do you do? Well, the first question is easy to answer, I eat what I can find, trap, or brought with me. Other than that, I go hungry. The second question is more difficult to answer, because it is not so cut and dry due to the many variables involved. There is not a first aid kit made that is capable of handling any and all emergencies that can come up in the field, so you have to be very selective about the kit you do have. Remember, in the field you can experience everything from a heart attack to a broken back, but most of the injuries you treat will be burns, scrapes, punctures, and cuts. So, doesn't it make sense to have a first aid kit that will handle the most common injuries you will experience?


When you choose a first aid kit keep in mind that you will not be using it at home, but in the field. In the field you may have severe weather condition, darkness, poor hygiene, and the list goes on (unlike a controlled and safer environment like your home). Then, if you are in a survival situation you may also have a lack of food, deep psychological concerns (anxiety, fear, paranoid thoughts, etc.), and a basic want and need for additional medical supplies.


There are two ways to go when it comes to a first aid kit, you can buy a ready made kit or you can make one. First, let's look at commercial first aid kits and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses from a field use viewpoint.


A commercial kit is easy to obtain (they can be purchase in almost any sporting goods section of larger department stores) and they come in various sizes, as well as different price ranges. But, it has been my experience with commercial first aid kits that you don't always get what you pay for. For instance, most of the kits will contain only one or two of each item, such as over the counter pain killers, various bandages, gauze, band-aids, and so on. Now, if your trip into Mother Nature's backyard is only over night, this kit may work just fine, but for longer stays it will not usually do the job. And, one of the biggest drawbacks with a commercial first aid kit, in my opinion, is the small and generally inadequate instruction manual or pamphlet that comes in every kit. The writing is usually very small print, which mean us older people may have problems reading the fine print and even those with perfect eyes may have problems reading it with less that adequate light. Besides that, it may have components in the kit you don't need or even know how to use properly, such as a tourniquet or snake bite kit (these are usually found in older military first aid kits). And, never take a first aid kit into the field without knowing the contents of your kit before the trip. So, what are your options? I say make your own first aid kit, so you know not only what is in the kit, but how to use the contents (items you cannot use safely and with confidence are not only useless, but dangerous).


I won't address the individual contents of a first aid kit; you can find thousands of those online or in most first aid books. Instead, let's discuss a few questions you should ask yourself before you start building a kit.


Who will carry the kit or where will it be stored? It is important for you to determine this in advance, if you can. First aid kits carried in the car are not the same type of kit usually carried in the field. While car first aid kits can be used in the field, they are usually too big, heavy, and bulky to carry backpacking, hiking, fishing, or hunting. If you are camping near your car, like you might do in a designated camping spot, then use the car kit. But, if you are away from you vehicle, I suggest the group leader carry the primary group first aid kit and each individual carry a small kit for personal use . This personal kit should contain a few band-aids, disinfectants, gauze pads, soap, and so on for very minor scratches and injuries.
  • Who is going to use the primary first aid kit? This should be determined in advance and I suggest the most qualified (training and skill level considered) individual of your group use the kit. Now, most of us are not qualified to do much beyond administering basic first aid treatment, but make sure the person you designate as the kit user has a history of some formal training (if at all possible). Nothing is more traumatic to a victim than seeing the person administering aid reading from a first aid manual, going into an anxiety attack, or demonstrating in some small way they are unsure of their next action. If the person giving aid is calm, cool, appears to be knowledgeable, then the victim tends to relax more. Know your first aid before you need it, because on the job training in first aid is frowned upon by most victims.
  • Where are you going in the field? As stated above, your first aid kit for the car will work if you're staying near the vehicle, but when you move out into the bush you a different type of kit. Additionally, depending on the type of country you are going into you may have to modify your first aid kit a little as well. For instance, if you're going backpacking the most common injuries are scrapes, sprains, and minor cuts from falls. Then again, if you are going camping in a remote location you should be prepared for puncture wounds, cuts, and minor burns. Each new location may require you to repack or reorganize your first aid kit. If you attempt to prepare for every single type of injury and under all conditions, your kit will be huge and heavy.
  • Who is the first aid kit for? Now, this may seem like a silly suggestion, but actually it is very important. Some of the things to consider at this point are; will there be children along on the trip, elderly, persons on mediation, or those with special medical or physical needs? If so, make sure you first aid kit is packed to assist them if they become injured. I also suggest if young children are along, you add a very small stuffed animal to the first aid kit or carry it in your backpack, along with a few special treats for those who are "brave" when they are treated. A small cuddly animal to hold on to will give the child a better sense of calmness in most cases as you clean a scraped knee or remove a splinter.
  • How long does the kit have to last in the field? If you are only going over night, the first aid kit can be a fairly small one. However, for trips over a day I suggest you make sure you have plenty of the most commonly used items. I would bring additional over the counter pain killers, bandaids, additional medical tape, a larger container of disinfectant, a good triple strength anti-biotic cream, and other items (depending on where you are going, how long you will be staying, and what you will be doing on the trip). Just common sense tells us that a small kit with limited quantities will not be enough for longer trips, so plan ahead. I won't get into all the components of a good first aid kit, there are too many lists available online from better qualified sources than me, but I use only those lists from the American Medical Association, the Canadian Red Cross, or just about any North American University Medical Center. While some individual sites may have good solid information, take your medical facts from a dependable medical site.
  • Weight and size of the kit. This consideration is critical, especially when you may be carrying the kit for long distances. Small individual kits (great in the event one of your members gets lost of separated from the main group) can fit into a fanny pack or be worn on a belt, but larger group kits take space and add weight. I suggest the strongest member of the group (ideally this would be the same person who would use the first aid kit) be the one carry the additional weight or the person who has been designated to use it. I like having one person carry the kit, so you always know where it is. I have been with groups that took turns carrying the first aid kit, and in the event of an emergency many long minutes might have been lost before someone remembered who had the kit. Keep your kit as small and lightweight as you can and still have it contain the needed components. Often items can be removed from cardboard containers, plastic boxes or bottles, or other rigid packaging and placed in softer and lighter containers. And, if the first aid kit is packed in a backpack, place it on top within easy reach! You don't want to waste time searching a backpack for a kit while your patient loses blood from an injury.
  • Finally, what type of first aid book should you have in your first aid kit? I suggest you purchase a good quality first aid book prepared by a competent medical authority (doctor, hospital, University Medical Team), the Red Cross, or some reliable organization that specializes in the treatment of first aid. Keep in mind, while there may be tons of first aid books on the market not many of them are geared toward first aid in the woods. So, be selective in your search. Also, if you are inclined to purchase military survival books or first aid books remember some of them may be surplus and thus not up to date (some of the information may be over twenty years old). But, regardless of what publication you purchase, they cannot and will not have all the answers for every situation.

First aid training is available in most cities and towns. I suggest everyone who ventures out of doors take at least a basic first aid course. While huge first aid kits, excellently written first aid books, and the best components money can buy may make your treatment efforts easier, nothing can replace good old fashion training. For instance, you can read all you want about arterial bleeding, or broken bones, but only after you are forced to actually treat the injury will you see the difference between knowing and applying the concept. No book or first aid kit on the market will ever be able to replace quality hands on training, good solid judgment and the added knowledge that is gained by learning the needed skills in the field (experience).


Those that are interested in helping others learn about first aid training, may also consider a degree from AMC online in emergency management.


Gary Benton is a retired United States Air Force Senior Master Sergeant. He is a graduate of a number of U.S. Air Force Survival Schools, including Arctic, Water (Sea and Ocean), Desert, Mountain, and Jungle survival schools. He spent twelve years teaching parachuting techniques and survival skills to Air Force aircrew members. He has an Associates Degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a Bachelors Degree in Safety and Health, and a Masters Degree in Psychology. Sergeant Benton retired from the USAF in 1997 with over twenty-six years of active duty.


Updated: 12/06/12 Annual

First Aid Kits


first aid kits

Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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