First Aid Kit
A deep infected gash while living in a tropical forest in Thailand, a broken arm in the Jordanian desert, a bad fall deep in the Patagonian wilderness, explosive diarrhea on an Indian train, a viral infection in Sudan… Just to name a few.
We have seen our fair share of medical emergencies and ordeals over the years. It has only reinforced our view that carrying a decent travel first aid kit is absolutely essential. And that a lot of the advice given to travelers is outdated, incomplete and even downright erroneous.
First Aid Skills
Before we delve into the finer points of what to carry in your travel first aid kit, it’s important to remember that even a full ambulance kit will be totally useless without at least some basic first aid skills.
- Take a first aid course. If you have already taken one, keep your skills up-to-date. Even re-reading a little about the topic once a year is a good start.
- Make sure you are familiar with more situation-specific skills as needed. What you may face will obviously vary a lot between a motorbike trip through Africa and a 4-week backcountry ski expedition in the Himalayas. Or between a surfing trip in Australia and a trek in Central Asia.
At the very least, you should know how to:
- Perform basic wound cleaning, debridement and dressing.
- Stop heavy bleeding.
- Heimlich maneuver if someone is choking on a foreign object.
- Recognize and treat hypothermia and/or heat stroke.
- Handle traveler’s diarrhea.
- Familiarize yourself with any endemic diseases in your destination, how to prevent them, and what to do if you do get sick.
First Aid Kit Essentials:
Small bandages, or plasters/Band-Aids if you prefer, have an extremely limited use in real life. Their role is to keep the wound clean and humid, but especially low quality ones fall off too easily. And the classic size only covers the tiniest of cuts. Don’t bother carrying more than a few.
Instead, carrying larger adhesive bandages, or even long strips, gives you the opportunity to cut them to the appropriate size. Stock up on these bigger sizes when you can, they are often hard to find in developing countries.
Silver Bandages incorporate tiny strands of antimicrobial silver. They have the advantage of greatly speeding up healing and reducing the risks of infection. Furthermore, they are efficient against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and require less frequent dressing change. That makes them an excellent choice for a travel first aid kit.
Gel Plasters. Compeed or equivalent can save a trek when faced with blisters. It’s always wise to pack a few if you are heading out for several days.
First Aid Kit Essentials:
Gauze is so useful and versatile that it should form the backbone of any decent travel first aid kit. Stem bleeding by applying compression. Thoroughly clean and debride wounds. Soak up blood. Create custom dressings.
Most small kits only contain enough for a cosmetic intervention! Even a relatively benign accident can deplete your reserves in minutes. Don’t be stingy on gauze!
Gauze comes in many different forms and sizes. Medium to large pads are the most suited for general use. Cut into smaller pieces and together with a big roll of surgical tape they can dramatically extend and even replace your supply of adhesive bandages.
Abdominal Pads are used for large wounds and heavy bleeding. It’s a useful addition for remote areas. Even if a major injury seems unlikely, it can be cut into smaller pieces to supplement the regular gauze supply as needed.
First Aid Kit Essentials:
Surgical Tape, Elastic Bandages
And Suture Strips
Surgical Tape. Fragile, paper-like surgical tape like Micropore breathes more but does not stick particularly well. Tear-resistant surgical tape is more versatile in the context of traveling. Make sure yours sticks adequately and that you carry plenty, as this is another critical item in your travel first aid kit. It can also double as repair tape in your travel repair kit when needed. And remember the glue on surgical tape doesn’t like heat and the passage of time.
First Aid Kit Essentials:
Wipes. Every small commercial travel first aid kit seems to come with a couple of antiseptic wipes, usually alcohol, povidone-iodine or benzalkonium chloride based. The problem is that in real life you either won’t have enough to clean anything but a few scratches, or worse, they will have dried out.
Antiseptic Solution. Povidone-iodine (Betadine) solution doesn’t sting like denatured alcohol and is widely available around the world. A small bottle is enough to treat wounds small and big for several days and even weeks. Furthermore, antibiotic resistance is not a potential issue with this broad spectrum antiseptic. Solutions can penetrate in places where ointments fail. For example under a toe nail. Another first aid kit essential.
Over-the-counter topical antibiotics such as Neosporin are a popular treatment for small wounds, cuts and burns. With antibiotic resistance becoming a serious issue, it is now recommended to use a topical antiseptic such as povidone-iodine instead.
However, a small tube of fusidic acid ointment can provide a valuable second-line option for persistent skin infections in a remote setting.
Medication For A
Travel First Kit
What To Bring. Always carry a generous supply of any prescription drugs you need to take occasionally or regularly. Investigate its availability for your destination. You never know how long you might get stranded in a Covid-19 world.
Where To Buy. The price of medication varies wildly between countries. Stock up when its cheap. A course of antibiotics in Switzerland can be 100X more expensive compared to countries like Kyrgyzstan! Because of special pricing agreements on generic drugs, India has usually by far the lowest prices.
When To Buy. Expiry dates often seem excessively conservative. But for potentially lifesaving drugs, it’s best to play it safe, especially if your first aid kit has been exposed to hot and humid climates.
How Much To Take. Keep a small record of usage and doses if you carry a larger selection of drugs. It will be of invaluable help in an emergency.
First Aid Kit Essentials:
Paracetamol is the go-to over-the-counter painkiller for light to moderate pain and mild fever, cheap and readily available in most countries.
Ibuprofen. The other popular over-the-counter painkiller also has anti-inflammatory properties, which will mainly appeal to people practicing sports.
Tramadol is a strong painkiller, generally only available on prescription, although this can easily be bypassed in many developing countries. A good analgesic for remote locations, where you might have to cope with a broken leg for a couple of days. Be aware that some countries, especially in the Gulf, consider Tramadol as a drug and will throw you in jail if you forget even one pill in your kit.
Even with good hygiene and water purification, this curse seems to be inevitable if you travel long enough. Beyond staying well hydrated, which includes the intake of electrolytes, there are a few treatment options that fit in your first aid kit.
Charcoal Tablets. An excellent natural first line of defense, activated charcoal tablets can help alleviate mild diarrhea, and more generally any digestion problems. It’s hard to find in many countries, consider bringing a good supply.
Antiemetics. Loperamide tablets, also known as Immodium, should only be used to temporarily stop diarrhea, not to treat it. For example if you can’t delay taking a bus or a train. Your body is trying to get rid of the pathogen, and antiemetics only suspend the symptoms, not the underlying cause.
Ciprofloxacin Or Equivalent. The nuclear option, and more than once a savior in the darkest moment. If your traveler’s diarrhea is gradually getting worse over the course of several days, a course of the antibiotic or a healthy dose of patience are your only options. A course of 500mg of ciprofloxacin twice a day for 3 days will eliminate a broad spectrum of bacterial pathogens, although it won’t help against viruses and an ever increasing number of resistant strains. Erythromycin is also a popular alternative. Theoretically a prescription drug, it is (far too) easily available in many developing countries.
Urinary tract Infection (UTI) will cross the path of more than 50% of women at least once in their lifetime. 20 to 30% of them will experience recurrent UTIs. While UTIs can affect men as well, women are more at risk, even more so in a travel setting.
Most UTIs are not dangerous and can be treated easily with antibiotics, but they should nonetheless be taken seriously. Even the simplest UTI can have severe consequences if not treated in time.
Having a set of UTI specific antibiotics ready is a female traveler’s true essential.
- Cloudy, bloody, or strong-smelling urine;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Muscle aches and abdominal pain.
- Low fever, pressure and cramping in the abdomen and lower back might indicate a bladder infection.
- High fever, upper back and side pain pain, chills, fatigue and mental changes might indicate a severe kidney infection. This is a serious emergency and requires an immediate visit to a doctor.
Time is of the essence when the first symptoms appear. Untreated, the infection can travel up the kidneys and cause serious damage.
With UTI symptoms, the two days separating you from the next clinic might very well feel like hell. The local pharmacy might not hold the right medication. Using the wrong treatment might help the microbes causing the infection to develop a resistance to antibiotics. We cannot stress enough how important it is to be prepared.
Speak with a doctor and explain your needs. As a traveler, you might not have the chance to visit a clinic every other day if your infection doesn’t respond to treatment. Choose antibiotics that are known to encounter little resistance. Have a contingency plan in case it does, such as a set of a different antibiotics.
Adopting a few simple habits while travelling can help prevent UTIs.
Most UTIs are caused by a bacteria commonly known as E. coli, which is usually found in the digestive system. You might have guessed where it comes from and how it gets to your urethra…
Keeping a good hygiene throughout your travels is a simple and efficient way to prevent infections. Consider trading toilet paper for water (and soap). You’ll increase your chances to stay healthy significantly.
Sexual intercourse is among the most common causes of UTI, especially when suddenly more frequent, intense or with a new partner. Make sure to always pee right after. Ask your partner to wash his hands, bums and intimate parts before laying with you. Use protection (condoms) against sexually transmitted infections. While chlamydia cannot infect the bladder, it can still infect the urethra.
Also worth mentioning:
Cranberry extracts (not juice) cannot treat UTIs but can help reduce the risk of recurrent UTI if taken daily.
Stay well hydrated! Drinking lots of liquids will give you a chance to expel microbes before they creep further up your urinary tract.
Vaginal Yeast Infection. Also known as candidiasis, yeast infections are very common in women. It is estimated that 75% of women will get more than 2 vaginal yeast infections over the course of their life.
The symptoms can be very uncomfortable and if not treated early, the infection can spread to other parts of the body. It can even be passed on to others.
A round of anti-fungals such as fluconazole (shown above) will treat any candidiasis, including vaginal yeast infections and oral yeast infections.
The most common symptoms of a simple vaginal yeast infection are:
- vaginal itching
- swelling around the vagina
- burning during urination or sex
- pain during sex
Whitish-gray and clumpy vaginal discharge is another classic symptom. Some people say this discharge looks like cottage cheese. The discharge may also be watery. The symptoms can become more severe over time.
- butoconazole (Gynazole)
- clotrimazole (Lotrimin)
- miconazole (Monistat)
- terconazole (Terazol)
- fluconazole (Diflucan)
Vaginal yeast infections occur when there is an imbalance in your system. This can be caused by changes in your diet, changes in hygiene routines or state of health. Adopting a few simple habits while traveling can help prevent vaginal yeast infections.
Keeping a good hygiene throughout your travels is a simple and efficient way to prevent infections. Change underwear regularly. Natural fibers (cotton, linen, silk, etc.) are preferable to synthetic ones. Avoid sitting in wet underwear (or bathing suit) for long.
Make sure to use a PH neutral soap to wash your intimate parts. The fungus causing the yeast infection is naturally present in the vaginal area, but its growth is normally kept in check by the Lactobacillus bacteria living there. Using a regular soap intervenes with the balance of your vaginal flora and prevents the bacteria from doing its work.
Avoid: douching, feminine deodorant or scented tampons or pads, and wearing tight pants, pantyhose, tights, or leggings.
General Health Considerations
A weakened immune system or the use of antibiotics can trigger an imbalance in your system. Taking the right type of probiotics after a round of antibiotics can help counteract it. If you are prone to yeast infections, consider adding yogurt or probiotics (supplements with lactobacillus) to your daily diet.
Poor eating habits, a diet rich in sugar more specifically, is also a risk factor for yeast infections. Keep a well-balanced diet as you travel, especially near your menstruation cycle.
Yeast infections also tend to occur more when the body is under stress or sleep deprived. Take care of your mental health while you travel and make sure to get enough sleep.
Yeast infections aren’t considered STIs, but they can still be contagious. You can pass a yeast infection during oral or vaginal intercourse. It’s also possible to transmit the infection via sex toys and by kissing someone with oral thrush (yeast infection of the mouth).
Use protection (condoms) against sexually transmitted infections.
Women with HIV are most at risk to suffer from complicated yeast infections. Make sure to carry the proper medication for you.
Other Useful Medication
Cortisone (or equivalent topical corticosteroid). A small tube can treat autoimmune conditions such as eczema, atopic dermatitis and some allergies, but also strong reactions to insect bites and poison ivy.
Antihistamines. Relief from symptoms of allergies, such as rhinitis, conjunctivitis and allergic reactions to insect bites.
Topical Antifungal. A tube of Clotrimazole can treat vaginal yeast infections, but also athlete’s foot and other fungal infections of the mouth and skin.
Co-Amoxiclav. A broad spectrum antibiotic for trips to remote areas. To treat skin, chest and urinary tract infections.
Epinephrine (Adrenaline). An injector should be part of any complete travel first aid kit for remote destinations. Allergies are increasingly becoming an issue, and help might be a long way in case of an anaphylactic shock.
Pro Tip. Strips of pills don’t survive well in backpacks. Add a layer of clear tape on the back to reinforce the metallic seal.
Tools & Other Useful Items
For A Travel First Aid Kit
Pocket Knife/Multi Tool. A small pair of scissors is essential to be able to customize dressings. Tweezers can remove dirt, splinters and ticks. Both, along with a small sharp knife, can help debride wounds as long as they are ascepticised. These functions can all be conveniently found on a good pocket knife, which doubles as a tool for repairs and cooking.
Survival Blanket. An ultralight and compact addition that gives you a fighting chance against hypothermia and more generally exposure. And that unplanned night in the mountains.
Sodium Chloride Tablets. A strip of Micropur can be used to treat drinking water, which is already a reason on its own to bring them with you. In the context of wound cleaning and debriding, treated water also reduces the risk of infection.
Syringe. A small syringe doesn’t weigh much, and can generate a strong water jet to deeply clean wounds without causing much mechanical irritation. In the wilderness, you might already carry one to backflush your water filter.
Gloves. A more serious kit should have a couple of pairs of gloves, ideally made of nitrile because of the reduced risk of allergic reaction compared to latex. Beyond the protection of the person giving first aid, it is much easier to keep a pair of gloves clean, thus reducing infection risk.
A Compact DIY Travel
First Aid Kit List
Designed to get you to the nearest pharmacy, clinic or hospital, while retaining the capacity to get you through a few days if needed. It should cover you in the large majority of situations without weighing you down, without taking much space in even a small day pack, and without breaking the bank.
The following DIY travel first aid kit weighs less than 300 g / 10 oz (without the pocket knife or multi tool), and will set you back less than 20 bucks if you buy the medication in a developing country.
- 2-5 medium to large adhesive bandages, ideally containing antibacterial silver
- 1x small bottle of povidone-iodine, 15-20 ml is plenty
- 5-10x medium to large gauze pads, individually wrapped
- 1x big roll of tear-resistant surgical tape
- 3-4x basic elastic bandages
- 1x strip of ibuprofen
- 1x activated charcoal tablets
- 1x strip of loperamide
- 1x course of ciprofloxacin or equivalent (optional, if heading to countries where traveler’s diarrhea is frequent)
- 1x small tube of 1% hydrocortisone
- 1x strip of antihistamines
- 1x emergency blanket
- 1x strip of Micropur sodium chloride tablets
- Pocket knife with scissors and tweezers