Chapter 27: Your Ultralight Backpacking First Aid Kit – Include a Lot in a Two-Ounce First Aid Kit

When you tell a friend or family member you’re going on an overnight hike, one of the first pieces of friendly advice you might hear is, “Be sure to take lots of first aid equipment.”

Of course, you need to be ready for emergencies, but an ultralight hiker can do that with just a few ounces of gear. Remind your friends, and yourself, that you’re more likely to be injured driving to the trailhead.

One of the lightest first aid kits available is the little yellow one called a “Pack 1” that weighs only 1.1 ounces and includes 23 items. This is a good start. It includes a first aid guide with a surprising amount of information, a needle, 10 small bandages, 3 larger bandages, a knuckle bandage, 2 adhesive strips (4”), a gauze pad, an alcohol pad, an antiseptic pad, a small piece of moleskin, and a moist travel towel.

The plastic it comes in weighs .4 ounces, so you can throw that away and put the contents of the kit and some of your own additional items in a zip lock that weighs almost nothing. A couple of extra sterile gauze pads, such as the common 2” x 3” size are a good addition. Butterfly bandages are a must. Pick a couple of sizes. Add a few cotton swabs, and remember that the style with hollow tubes are the lightest. A partial role of the small, surgical tape is light and can bandage large wounds. Extra moleskin, or a similar product, is necessary for many hikers. Wide athletic tape can be applied before you start hiking to keep blisters from forming. If you switch from the needle in most first aid kits to a few small safety pins, you’ll have some additional repair items without adding any weight. Since the points of the safety pins are tucked away, you avoid the possibility of the needle poking a hole in you or your equipment. Triple antibiotic ointment packets are good to add. They can help a wound heal, and they can greatly reduce the discomfort of jock itch.

It’s difficult to say what an ultralight first aid kit should weigh because some of your first aid items are also normal pieces of gear. Some of these can include: aspirin, ibuprofen, antacids, anti-diarrhea tablets, sunscreen, lip protection, biodegradable soap, knife, toothpaste (a mild antiseptic), matches, benadryl or benadryl tablets, water purification gear, and insect repellent. Your extra cord, tooth floss, and duct tape can be first aid items or used for repairs. Your cleanest clothing or large ziplock can be used to stop bleeding. Even your hat can be thought of as a piece of first aid gear that keeps you from getting sunburned. Your signal mirror and whistle are emergency items that can help you avoid the need for your first aid kit. Your paper and pen can be used to leave emergency notes on your physical condition and changed plans such as a new exit route.

You can improvise a lot of first aid equipment. To make a cold pack, use water and a bandana or towel. If you need heat, you have your cooking gear.

Your best first aid equipment, planning and knowledge, are better than ultralight. They’re weightless. Effectively planning how to stay warm and dry avoids the common wilderness emergency of hypothermia. Knowing emergency exit routes can be helpful. Knowing how to apply a tourniquet or slow blood flow by applying pressure to the correct points is invaluable. Keep in mind that handling your stove and hot water are times you need to be alert, especially when you’re tired. On unsteady ground, plan how you might fall to your hands and knees to avoid an ankle sprain. Simply making sure your hands are washed with water and a little biodegradable soap, especially after defecation, will help you avoid some of the most common physical ailments that backpackers encounter. Training hikes will help you avoid many aches and pains.

Carry a first aid kit that fits your style, skill level, and the conditions you’ll encounter. With just a little planning, you can reduce the weight of your first aid kit and make it more effective.