I get a lot of questions about health care on the road. How can I avoid getting sick? What do you do about vaccines? What happens when I do get sick? Since I’m not a doctor, I don’t like giving medical advice beyond a few general tips so I’ve asked Mike Huxley, a registered nurse and author of the blog Bemused Backpacker to pen a few articles on health and safety on the road. This is the first in a series on the subject.
A first aid kit is an essential piece of equipment on any gap year or backpacking adventure, but most travelers aren’t sure exactly what they need to take with them. So here is an expert guide on how to pack a first aid kit and what to include in it.
I have been traveling the world for almost fifteen years now, and in all that time I have patched up more travelers’ scrapes and sprains than I can remember. Before I was a nurse this generally just involved handing out the occasional plaster (adhesive bandage or Band-Aid for you Americans) and laughing at a travel companion’s misfortune, as guys tend to do to each other, but since qualifying to work as a nurse I have strapped up a sprained ankle or two on jungle treks, dressed countless small cuts and wounds, and even once cleaned and treated a dozen small leech bites on the legs of an unlucky trekker, among other things.
Thankfully pretty much all of the incidents I have dealt with so far have been minor. Even during my times spent volunteering as an expedition medic in the Sahara, the jungles of Kalimantan and Borneo, and many other amazing places, I have been able to deal with most accidents and injuries that have crossed my path.
I have only been able to do all of this, however, because I have always packed my trusty first aid kit. It has evolved and been refined over the years, but I have always carried one. As any experienced traveler or health professional will tell you, things can and occasionally do go wrong on any trip, and taking a well-stocked kit with you is always advised.
What most of this advice is missing, however, is a note of balance. A well-stocked kit is vital, but there is absolutely no need to go overboard. You don’t need to heft a pack around that the average paramedic would be proud of, and you certainly don’t need to carry around the entire stock cupboard of your local pharmacy.
When I first started traveling, I did what most sensible people do and carried a commercially available emergency first aid kit. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these packs at all; in fact they are excellent and in a pinch I would still recommend them to any traveler. However, over the years, with a lot of experience and my nursing qualification behind me, I have refined my own kit to reflect what I will use out on the road and what I know what will make for a much better first aid kit for the average traveler too.
The best first aid kits are simple but varied and will have a variety of dressings and equipment to deal with the absolute basics. More importantly, they can be used with little or no training. So what items should you include? Here are my picks for the essentials.
It goes without saying that these are an absolute essential in any first aid kit. The most common form of minor injury is a cut or a graze, so it is always a good idea to carry a handful of plasters in a variety of sizes. If you think you will be doing a lot of trekking on your travels and you aren’t used to that form of exercise, then some blister plasters are a good idea. It isn’t necessary to go overboard and carry so many you could start your own tiny field hospital; just a few of each type will do, as you can always restock when you pass a pharmacy.
Gauze is the medical jack-of-all-trades. I never carry a first aid kit without a supply of gauze in it, and I can’t tell you how many times it has come in useful over the years. It can be used to apply pressure to a wound, clean an injury, soak up blood, help stop bleeding, and even form part of a basic dressing for small-to-medium wounds.
A clean wound and a layer of gauze kept down with either tape or a bandage is often enough to allow time for you to go and get it looked at by a professional.
The best type of gauze to carry in a first aid kit is individually wrapped sterile squares. This eliminates the need to cut them to size when you need them quickly and obviously makes it easier to keep the wound clean and sterile.
Crepe bandages (ACE or elastic bandages)
For when you have something a bit bigger than a cut, basic crepe bandages are useful for keeping small dressings clean and in place until you can get some medical attention. Remember, you’re only going to use them in an emergency and hopefully only until you can get some professional medical care, so you don’t need too many of these, just one or two at most.
Surgical tape is one of those essential emergency items for when you need to apply and secure gauze or a bandage to a wound, although plasters can do the same job if need be.
These come standard in any commercially available first aid kit (although you can buy them separately too) and are obviously useful for trimming gauze or bandages to size. Just be careful if you do carry scissors to ensure that your first aid kit goes in your checked bag when you are in transit or else airline security will take them off you.
Tweezers are another item that often come standard in most first aid kits and can be useful for pulling out splinters, getting out little bits of stone or dirt when cleaning a wound, or any number of other practical uses.
For some reason this tends to be the one thing most people overlook when thinking of first aid, but antiseptic wipes are an absolute essential in any good pack. No one wants a cut or wound to get infected, and antiseptic wipes are perfect for cleaning it before applying a dressing. Just a small handful will suffice for most packs. Like most basic items, they are easy to replace at any pharmacy when you run low.
Apart from the obvious benefits (staying sexually safe), these handy little items can be used as emergency water carriers or even filled with ice as an emergency ice pack. I’ve personally never had any call to use them in that manner, but it is a handy bit of information to keep in mind.
Pain relief medication
A small pack of basic paracetamol (acetaminophen if you are American) or any of the associated brand names is usually sufficient, but ibuprofen or other similar medications are fine too. It doesn’t have to be fancy — basically whatever you normally take for pain relief when you have a headache or minor pain.
Also known under a variety of brand names such as Imodium, this is useful for stopping diarrhea for short periods when you need to catch a bus or train. Remember, these are for those emergency moments only when you are actually in transit, as they do not cure diarrhea and shouldn’t be used when you can rest up for a couple of days. (Normally the best way to treat diarrhea is to let everything pass through your system normally and drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids.) If you use them sparely, properly, and as directed on the pack, loperamide tablets can be useful additions to any travel first aid kit.
It happens to all of us on our travels: we get bitten by some form of insect and end up with a painfully itchy bump or rash. Don’t worry, the absolute majority of the time the bumps and stings aren’t anything to worry about at all, but they are damned annoying! This is why a good antihistamine cream is a useful addition to help control the itching and swelling.
It’s also a good idea to carry antibacterial creams like Neosporin for any cuts and scrapes you get. This will help heal them faster as well as prevent any possible infections.
Obviously this list can be tailored or added to depending on your trip needs (a tropical jungle trek will require different planning than a city break in Europe), and any good first aid kit should also include any specific, individually prescribed medication or antimalarial prophylaxis. For the majority of travelers, however, the items and kit listed above will cover the absolute majority of basic incidents and accidents.
For any injury, illness, bang, or scrape that requires more than the basics and cannot be covered by the kit above, you should seek professional medical attention. Keep the weight and bulk in your pack down, and remember that unless you are extremely far off the beaten track, you should be able to seek out professional assistance to deal with medical emergencies pretty easily if something happens you can’t handle yourself.
So go pack up your own little first aid kit and keep it stashed in your pack for emergencies. Odds are you will probably never use it — and I hope you never need to — but if you have one, at least you can enjoy your travels with peace of mind and be safe in the knowledge that you are prepared.
Important Note: When carrying any generic medication, it is essential that it is kept in its original packaging when you are traveling in case customs officials need to check it. If you have never taken any of the above medications before, check with your physician, nurse, or pharmacist before you do, as you may have a specific medical history, condition, or allergy that general advice cannot cover.
The information provided here is for general travel health advice and information only. It is provided by a qualified nurse, but it is not a replacement for a personal consultation with a travel nurse specialist, your GP, or a doctor specializing in travel medicine who can tailor advice to your individual medical history and needs.
Michael Huxley is a registered nurse from the U.K. and writes about his travels on the blog Bemused Backpacker. There he blogs about backpacking, sustainable travel, and health related issues. It’s an awesome blog!