A Practical First Aid Kit for the Everyday and the Extreme

The Recommended First Aid Kit

It’s difficult to recommend a generalized first aid kit for everyone because different people do different activities and have different risks. There are a few must-haves though, and then I’ll go into how to personalize your first aid kit to meet specific needs.

Critical Items:

Listed in order of importance

  1. Hemostatic Gauze - makes blood clot faster, stopping bleeding.
  2. Israeli bandage - closes wounds and puts pressure on the bleeding area.
  3. Chest seal/Occlusive dressing - treats punctured lungs, neck wounds, and abdominal injuries
  4. SAM splint - stabilizes almost any broken bone.
Items of a personal first aid kit inside a medical bag

The critical items treat injuries that will most likely kill you or cause permanent damage if left untreated. Chest seals, israeli bandages, and hemostatic gauze are the core items that every first aid kit needs to be built around. If you have nothing else in your kit, have these items. SAM splints are only a necessary item when you're not within range of an ambulance.

For backpackers and hikers SAM splints could save your life, but usually broken bones will not kill you before the ambulance arrives like the wounds treated by the other three.

You may wonder why tourniquets aren’t listed. In my opinion tourniquets fall into a special category because even though they can save your life they can also be completely useless. A tourniquet is for injuries that bleed so bad they can’t be controlled by pressure, bandages, elevating the limb, etc. When you get this kind of injury you can bleed out in less than 1 minute.*

Ideally you’d want to be able to take the tourniquet out and apply it in <30 seconds. If it takes you over 30 seconds to realize there is an injury, get to your patient, open your bag, and find the tourniquet, it’s probably too late. If the injury isn’t quite that bad it can probably be stopped just fine using pressure combined with Quikclot and an Israeli bandage. Also, tourniquets only treat bleeding on your arms and legs, not on your torso, neck, or head. I do cover tourniquets completely here.

*Heart pumps blood at ~5 L/min. Average human body has ~5.5 L of blood. >40% blood loss requires immediate and urgent volume therapy,[1] i.e. you need to do more than stop the bleeding to save your patient.

Common Items for a First Aid Kit:

  1. Surgical Glue - super glue for skin
  2. Medical Tape - good for securing everything from gauze to splints
  3. Nitrile Gloves - protect you from blood borne diseases and gross things like vomit
  4. Wound Cream - soothes, protects, and speeds healing of burns, cuts, and bruises
  5. Povidone Iodine - cleans cuts and protects against infection (can also purify drinking water)
  6. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) - calms allergic reactions, helps motion sickness, sleep aid
  7. Antiemetic Drugs - prevent and treat motion sickness
  8. Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen - reduce fever, pain, and inflammation
  9. Sterile Gauze - good for small to medium cuts
  10. Folding Scissors - collapsible, durable, good for cutting things
  11. Medical Bag - holds and organizes your equipment
  12. Zinc Lozenges - stops the common cold
A view of all the items of the personal first aid kit

The common items are for daily issues that most people see in regular life. You may not need all of these because some of the uses overlap, but each has its own benefits. Both Benadryl and Bonine help motion sickness, but Bonine is less drowsy. Aspirin and Ibuprofen both reduce fever, pain, and inflammation, but they have different contraindications.

You may wonder why band-aids and butterfly stitches aren’t listed. A few band-aids won’t hurt, but in my opinion band-aids are less useful than medical tape with gauze because the cuts they treat are very small and stop bleeding quickly on their own. In this setup I replace butterfly stitches with vetbond skin glue because I haven’t seen a butterfly stitch yet that will stay on a cut. If you start sweating, if the cut starts bleeding (as cuts do), or if you move around a lot, the butterfly stitches fall off.

Optional Items for a First Aid Kit:

  1. Triangular Bandage - used to sling/stabilize fractures or sprains
  2. Ivarest - reduces poison ivy, oak, and sumac symptoms
  3. Mylar Blanket - reflects body heat
  4. CPR Mask - prevents disease transmission from mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
  5. N95 Mask - protects against TB and filters harmful particles out of the air
  6. Tourniquet - stops uncontrollable bleeding in the arms and legs
  7. ACE Bandage - pressure bandage that speeds recovery from sprains, strains, and other injuries
  8. Cold Pack - instant cold pack that can pull the heat out of burns and reduce swelling in injuries
  9. Antidiarrheal - controls symptoms of diarrhea

The optional items are most useful in certain situations but may not be useful for everyone. Triangular bandages, Ivarest, and mylar blankets are mostly useful for people who hike or camp a lot. CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation can be performed without a mask in an emergency, so a CPR mask could be unnecessary for a normal first aid kit. You may want an N95 mask if you’re likely to encounter TB or spend a lot of time breathing air pollution.

A tourniquet works great if you’re willing to have it ready at all times. ACE bandages and cold packs are useful if you play sports or hike a lot. An antidiarrheal is often good for frequent travelers who are exposed to new diets often.

Bulky Items for a First Aid Kit:

  1. Portable Defibrillator - used to restart a person’s heart (cardiac arrest)

An AED is useful in high traffic areas or for people at high risk of sudden cardiac arrest. AEDs are extremely easy to use, and have step-by-step, usually spoken as well as written and pictographic, instructions on what to do. You do not have to be medically trained to buy an AED. Those who have coronary heart disease and the elderly are most likely to need an AED[2].

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About Peter Oldani - Author of Inside First Aid

About the author

Peter Oldani graduated college with a B.S. in biomedical engineering, worked as an EMT to gain hands on experience in emergency medicine and completed active shooter training as part of New York State’s initiative to prepare civilian organizations for disaster response.