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This is the first in a series of articles focused on items that we believe are absolute essentials for our overland rig. Up first in the queue is an item that may be easily overlooked when outfitting a vehicle for overland travel, but it is actually at the top of our priority list; the First-Aid Kit.

First-aid kits come in many different shapes and sizes, ranging in prices from as little as 5 bucks, to $300 and upwards. It can be overwhelming when trying to make a selection from the plethora of options available. Kits can contain anywhere from a few bandages and mild wound treatments, to full-blown field surgical kits. Fortunately, several manufacturers have recognized this dilemma and developed pre-assembled kits for various activities types, trip durations, and group numbers.

Minimum Requirements

If you like to customize your own kit and possibly save a few bucks by trimming the fat on what you don’t need, there are some basic checklists to build from such as this one from the Red Cross which is suggested for a family of four:

  • 2 absorbent compress dressings (5 x 9 inches)
  • 25 adhesive bandages (assorted sizes)
  • 1 adhesive cloth tape (10 yards x 1 inch)
  • 5 antibiotic ointment packets (approximately 1 gram)
  • 5 antiseptic wipe packets
  • 2 packets of aspirin (81 mg each)
  • 1 blanket (space blanket)
  • 1 breathing barrier (with one-way valve)
  • 1 instant cold compress
  • 2 pair of nonlatex gloves (size: large)
  • 2 hydrocortisone ointment packets (approximately 1 gram each)
  • Scissors
  • 1 roller bandage (3 inches wide)
  • 1 roller bandage (4 inches wide)
  • 5 sterile gauze pads (3 x 3 inches)
  • 5 sterile gauze pads (4 x 4 inches)
  • Oral thermometer (non-mercury/nonglass)
  • 2 triangular bandages
  • Tweezers
  • First aid instruction booklet

REI has a handy PDF checklist which lists the bare minimum kit contents then continues with further suggestions that can be tailored to your activity as needed:

REI First-Aid Checklist

Kit Selection

You will need to assess your anticipated risks before selecting or building a kit since it will affect your contents. Since this article is primarily written for vehicle dependent adventurers, the size and weight of a kit will most likely not be a limiting factor in your selection. However, if you intend to venture away from your vehicle to hike, backpack, or fish a stream then you should consider how these extra activities might affect your final selection. (You may even consider purchasing two kits; one for the vehicle and another lightweight kit to carry.)

The level of detail and item quantity in your final kit selection should be weighed against several factors:

  1. TRAINING: What level of first-aid training do you have?
  2. GROUP SIZE: On average, how many persons will be in your group?
  3. DURATION: In a worst case situation, how long could you possibly need to provide care to yourself or another individual?

Each of these factors could vary greatly depending on your activities, risk level, and geographical location. For example; 1) If you don’t have the training, or have no intentions of receiving training on how to stitch a wound… then you probably shouldn’t by the full-on field trauma kit. 2) If you typically travel solo but occasionally travel with the kids, then (obviously) consider a larger kit. And, 3) If you’re weekend warrior living on the east coast who may only be 1 to 2 hours from professional care at any given time, then lower quantities may be just fine for you. However, if you live in the southwest and are regularly 4 or more hours away from help then a more exhaustive kit may suit you best. These examples are just food for thought; though I suggest buying a kit a bit larger than you anticipate needing.

Sources

Two companies that have a great reputation for assembling quality kits are Chinook Medical Group and Adventure Medical Kits. I list these two companies because they have a history of providing quality, well developed kits. (You’ll appreciate the quality components after your kit endures a couple of summers worth of 100°+ temps inside your vehicle and the bandages still stick.)

Here are a few suggestions on quality kits that should meet the needs of most overlanders:

Chinook Home and Vehicle

Chinook Home and Vehicle Kit
Chinook AdventurerChinook Adventurer Kit

Sportsman
Adventure Medical Kit – Sportsman

Mountain Series
Adventure Medical Kit – Mountain Series Weekender

First Aid Training 

So you went all out and bought the biggest, baddest, and highest quality kit you could afford. Your rig throws a belt. You’re neck deep in the engine bay getting ready to install your shiny backup belt (which you’re so proud you packed in your kit). It’s been a while since the alternator has been loose so the tension adjustment bolts are a bit snug. You give it all you’ve got with that crescent wrench and… slip, lacerating your hand on the fan blade. Now, what do you do?
You’ve never cleaned and dressed a substantial wound before. Do you think you could patch yourself up? What if this is day one of a week long overland trip? Do you think you’ll cancel the whole trip due to a moderate laceration? Let’s say you patch the cut up with all the cool supplies from the fancy kit. 3 days go by. The wound is festered and you have a fever. You’re 5 hours from the nearest hospital and now a simple wound has potentially turned into a bigger issue. What is the most likely cause of the infection? Probably improper application of first-aid due to lack of training.
This is just an example of what could happen if you don’t educate yourself on using the tool you invested your hard earned money into, which was intended to help prevent a major medical issue. My illustration isn’t an attempt to scare you, but to help you visualize the potential issues that can arise from improper use of your most important tool. Please get the proper training before you’re put in a situation where you need to provide advanced first-aid to yourself or family member. You never know, it just might save someone’s life.

Here are some excellent organizations that provide first-aid training:

Red Cross First-Aid & CPR Class
NOLS Wilderness Medical Institute
REI Wilderness Medicine Classes

If you’re like me, finding time to go take a class can be tough. Fortunately, there’s the YouTube option which is better than nothing. (Though I highly recommend taking an actual hands-on course where you can practice the fundamentals.)

If you’re going the YouTube route for training or refreshing, then here is a channel I found to be very educational while not being too boring as most first-aid videos tend to be!

MedWild YouTube Channel

Medicine Kit

Acid reflux isn’t life-threatening, but it can end an enjoyable weekend if you don’t have any treatment available. The same goes for headaches, pulled muscles, cramps, diarrhea, sunburn, poison ivy, etc.
Most first-aid kits come already stocked with samples of various OTC medicine which is a good starting point. But let’s face it, digging through 30 some-odd packets of first aid supplies, ointments, and small-print pill packs at 1:00 AM is no small task when you have blurred vision from a headache that feels as if a West Virginia coal miner is stuck in your head and going to town with his jackhammer.
Instead, something you might consider creating is a dedicated overland medicine kit that has small quantities of medication for these potential medical annoyances. Having this already prepped and staged in your kit will keep you from having to rummage through the medicine cabinet before every trip. These always-ready “go-boxes” are especially handy when you are dealing with the challenge of packing for multiple family members.
Important note: In regards to family members, make sure you bring the proper medication for children since the dosages can vary greatly from the adult versions.

Prescriptions should rank even higher on your list for obvious reasons. These might be tough to keep stocked and up-to-date in your “go-box” so you will need to develop a system to ensure you remember them before you cruise into your campsite after driving 5 hours and realize they’re back home on the shelf. A detailed, categorized checklist for your overall overland kit can help prevent the forgetfulness that comes when you’re rushing to get packed on a Friday evening after work. Also, consider upping your quantities of on-hand prescriptions. If you’re broke down it may be 24 to 48 hours before help arrives and you might need that extra blood pressure medicine!

Snake Bite Kit

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Believe it or not, it’s my opinion that you simply pass on the snake bite kit. The short explanation is that more damage is done to a bite victim when someone attempts to suction, cut, electrically shock, and/or isolate the bite area. Take a look at this review on the product above if you’re up for a very long, detailed read about snake bites and venom effects on the human body. The review author is a herpetologist, specializing in venomous snakes and a wilderness medicine practitioner with experience treating many snakebite patients in West and East Africa. He is on a mission to keep people from harming themselves as is evident in his article.

The short story is that the best immediate treatment for a snake-bite victim is to remain calm and get to a hospital with antivenom. Keeping the heart rate down for the victim will slow the affects of the venom. Attempting to manipulate the bite area will only increase the speed at which the venom enters the bloodstream. Here is an excellent video on the subject that may surprise you on the newest treatment methodology:

Side note: It is advised to call your Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222 from any phone in the US) to confirm where the proper antivenom is located for the type of snake bite received. It is very possible you could be headed to the wrong urgent care facility if you don’t check with Poison Control first!

Final Thoughts

A few more items you might consider for your kit:

  • First-Aid Quick Reference Guide – Because even the trained can forget.
  • EpiPen – You can get a prescription for an EpiPen from your family doctor even if you’re unaware of any serious allergies. (According to national food allergy guidelines, epinephrine is the only recommended first-line treatment for anaphylaxis. Not antihistamines, which do not relieve shortness of breath, wheezing, gastrointestinal symptoms or shock. Therefore, antihistamines should not be a substitute for epinephrine.)
  • Mylar Blanket – For aiding in treating shock and hypothermia.
  • Cold Packs – Most first-aid kits don’t include the instant cold packs for treating blunt force trauma or sprains.
  • Emergency Communication Method – Cell signal most likely will not be available if you are deep in the wilderness. Consider backup methods such as a Ham radio or satellite based units like the DeLorme inReach.

If you don’t have a First-Aid Kit yet, then I hope this article helps point you in the right direction. If you do have a kit, then maybe it’s time to crack it open and take inventory while you re-familiarize yourself with what you have available. Just knowing what you have and where it’s located in the kit can speed up the treatment process in an emergency situation.

In summary; Get trained, get a kit, and be prepared! You or someone you love may depend on it one day.