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How to Make a Travel First Aid Kit

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Whilst on the road I’m constantly amazed at how few backpackers carry a first aid kit. Maybe it’s simply overlooked, maybe it’s not deemed necessary and sacrificed during the quest to attain a lighter backpack, or maybe it’s dismissed on a cost basis alone. I don’t know the exact reason, but what I do know is that a first aid kit can be worth its weight in gold - at worst it can provide piece of mind and at best could even avert a trip ruining calamity.

What follows below is a quick guide to knocking up your own tailor made DIY backpacking first aid kit – it’s small, light, cheap and, most importantly, for its size it’s bloody effective.

Of course, it is just that: a baseline first aid kit, not an operating theatre. You could add more to it to cover more eventualities, but where do you draw the line? Anyway, here’s the lowdown on the cheap first aid kit for backpackers:


2 x 10cm squared sealed sheets of padded, sterile gauze - Can be cut to size and used for cuts and scrapes too big for plasters. Nb. To avoid unwanted contamination of unused piece simply seal them back up in a small Ziploc bag.

A small roll of hideously sticky, 3-4cm wide fabric medical tape - Can be used with the gauze to make larger plasters, or to secure a larger field dressing made from a T-shirt or such like. If medical tape costs a few cents too many, good ol’ duct tape is another option – but remember it isn’t quite as sticky and loses its tack on material much quicker.

A couple of 10cmx20cm ‘cut-your-own’ style strips of plastersThese save the need for a large assortment of different size plasters.

One strip each of Tylenol, Paracetamol, and IbuprofenAmong other things Tylenol can reduce fever and stop you feeling so shitty, and the others are great for hangovers!

Small tube of hydrocortisone cream - Essential for bites and stings.

Small tube of antiseptic creamIdeal pre-treatment of cuts and scrapes

Antiseptic wipes - virtually no weight at all and another ideal pre-treatment. Failing that, clean bottled water can be used also.

Safety pins - Superb for hooking out splinters (remember: if need be, before you go digging about in your body with one it can always be sterilised over a flame/in boiling water first). Can also be used to fasten makeshift slings/bandages, or just to blend in on any foreign punk scene!

A sealed and sterile drip needle, syringe, and a couple of extra needles - If things are bad enough to need these you will probably already have medical attention, but at least you won’t have to worry about the hygiene of existing supplies if in a developing country. These items should be kept together with a certificate stating the issuing doc’s name and contact details in case of border/airport searches. My doc was kind enough to give me these, along with the covering letter; it may be worth asking yours for the same.

Set of non-latex barrier gloves - They weigh virtually nothing and may make you more inclined to help others in difficulty, or indeed others to help you. Also, if travel buddies tire of your shadow puppets and ghost stories, then these gloves open the doors to a whole new world of low cost entertainment!

Tiger balm – A little beauty most worthy of inclusion. Not only is it a great way to soothe those muscle strains gained from canopy swings and waterfall jumps, but during evening time it’s also perfect when smeared on your feet and ankles to deter them darn mozzies!


(i) Assuming you already carry a penknife, I have excluded scissors from the list.

(ii) If you want to go really cheap on this, it can’t harm to explain your travel plans to the doctor/ hospital staff as they may even be willing to contribute some of the contents free of charge. It never hurts to ask – what’s the worst they can say?

(iii) As mentioned already, you could add to this baseline budget first aid kit until the cows come home – but these cheap and rudimentary first aid items should suffice to cover everyday mishaps such as cuts, bites, bumps, strains and stings…and hangovers.

(iv) Remember to improvise – just because something isn’t in the first aid kit it doesn’t mean that you can’t deal with the problem. Eyewash=bottled water, tubular bandage=sock with end cut off, splint=stick, tourniquet=belt, sling=sarong/towel, bandage=sarong/t-shirt, field dressing=sarong/clothing, sarong=erm…towel/blanket.



Ok, now that you have the contents of your first aid kit you’re going to need something to put them in. We need cheap, waterproof, durable and light. We need Tuppaware! You know the drill here: Wal-Mart, Tescos or wherever. But what box? With so many on offer here are some pointers to help you make the right choice: -

Pick a box only just big enough to house all your first aid kit contents – if it’s too big, not only will your stuff rattle around in it (possibly damaging it/breaking seals etc) but over time you may be also tempted to stash other stuff in there too, and before you know it you will be in need of a plaster but first have to fish through Guatemalan embroidered hankies, Thai wristbands and all sorts of other sh*t before you can go about the serious business of stopping the leak.

Pick a clear box – Then you can immediately see where everything is in the box before you have even opened it and other folks – such as border guards or airport officials – can too. It may mean the difference between a cursory glance and you having to fish everything out (and risk exposing the contents to potential contamination) during a search.

Pick a box that well suited to the size and shape of your particular rucksack/daysack and also your particular needs - it’s all about space saving as well as weight reduction. Personally, I would go for a shallow and wide box for both easy access of the contents and ease of stowing.


Taking the above into account you should easily end up with an effective first aid kit that takes up less space than a couple of packs of cigarettes and costs well under 10 bucks (You could even do it for free!) So, before buying a ridiculously overpriced commercial traveller’s first aid kit from a firm cashing in on that big trip anxiety, why don’t you give it a go yourself?


Remember though, it’s dinky small for a reason: so you can transfer it from your rucksack to your daypack when your out and about. Its no use having a kick-ass first aid kit if you have a scrape whilst out doing adventurous things and the kick-ass first aid kit is back in the hostel sitting on your bed!

Whilst on the subject of First Aid its worth mentioning the one thing you can take on your travels that takes up no space and weighs nothing. Knowledge. Although I hope that you won’t, it’s entirely that possible you may encounter more hazardous situations on the road than you did at home. So why not consider taking a day or two out and enrolling on a first aid course to learn some basic skills? After all, you could be the one that makes a big difference.

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