Your guide to the ultimate first aid kit

By Cat McLean


A million and one things can go wrong on a hike, even if you’re just going out for the day. If you’re not prepared with a good first aid kit, the most minor injuries can become life-threatening. Even a blister can turn into cellulitis in no time. 

But even if it’s not a life or death situation, any illness or injury on the trails will impact the enjoyment factor. When you pick up a parasite that makes you explode from both ends, clambering up boulders is way down on the list of fun things to do. Not that I’m speaking from experience at all… 

Injuries can happen anytime in the wild. Call me a pessimist, but the best way to stop a mishap from becoming a catastrophe is to make sure you’re prepared for the worst. That means you should never go on a hike without a well-stocked first aid kit. 

So, what should you pack? Based on my experience as a wilderness junkie, this is what you need to bring with you on any trek. 

The essentials

No matter where or for how long you’re hiking, you won’t regret packing these must-haves: 

  • Adhesive bandages (or blister kit and hiker’s wool)
  • Compression bandage
  • 3 x butterfly bandages 
  • Irrigation syringe 
  • Gauze, non-stick pads and tape (to secure them)
  • Antibacterial ointment 
  • Antiseptic wipes 
  • Ibuprofen and paracetamol
  • Antidiarrheal pills 
  • Eye drops 
  • Tweezers 
  • Latex gloves 
  • Hand sanitiser 
  • Water treatment tablets 
  • SPF 50+ UVA/UVB broad-spectrum sunscreen 
  • Lip balm 
  • Bug repellent 

Snake bites

If you’re in snake territory, don’t forget to throw in three elasticated compression bandages—and learn how to use them.

The comprehensive kit 

For overnight trips and extended expeditions, you’ll need more supplies. The longer you hike, the more risk you have of hurting yourself. And that risk doubles when the sun goes down. Don’t be like my friend who slid down a ravine at 4am on the way to nature’s bathroom. Luckily, we had lots of bandages and ibuprofen! 

For any hike that’s longer than a day, you’ll need everything listed above plus: 

  • Rolled gauze 
  • Additional roller bandages (lightweight cotton, crepe or elasticised crepe)
  • Cleansing pads 
  • Blood-stopping gauze 
  • Liquid bandages 
  • Triangular bandage (for slings) 
  • Splints (if you don’t have one, you can always resort to a piece of wood) 
  • Rehydration tablets (an essential for some!)
  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics
  • Multitool/Swiss Army Knife/pocket knife 
  • Thermometer 
  • Blunt tipped scissors 
  • Sewing needle (for splinters)
  • CPR mask 
  • Duct tape 
  • Pen and notebook (to write notes about vitals or progress) 
  • Headlamp 

The most common injuries on a trek are things like blisters, deep cuts, dehydration, heat stroke, broken bones, sprained ankles, rashes and allergic reactions. If you’ve packed everything above, you’ll be able to handle most of these until you can get medical attention (if necessary). 

Don’t forget your emergency beacon 

I was once staying across the road from Hanging Rock, one of the most popular day hikes in Victoria. When I was there, a guy slipped off a ledge and shattered his femur into about ten pieces. Unfortunately, the guy landed in a spot where nobody saw him for hours. By the time the rescue helicopter came, he’d been there all day. If he had had an emergency beacon, someone might have got to him a lot faster. 

The environmental extras 

There are also a few extra things you’ll need to consider, depending on the type of environment you’ll be hiking in. 

Tropical areas

If you’re doing a jungle trek in a place with malaria or other mosquito-borne diseases, make sure you have antimalaria pills and tropical-strength, DEET-based insect repellent. Also, consider bringing a powdered antiseptic and antibiotic for treating wounds in tropical environments.

Cold climates

Don’t forget a heat-reflecting emergency blanket. One of my mates runs alpine treks. Once on a cold night in late autumn, he came across a guy who’d set out overnight without a proper sleeping bag. He was already showing signs of hypothermia. It was lucky my friend had a foil blanket for him—or he probably wouldn’t have survived the night. 

High altitudes

Are you going 3000 (or more) metres above sea level? Make sure you’ve got some medicine to get you through any altitude sickness. Ibuprofen and paracetamol will help with the headaches. You might also want to think about bringing acetazolamide and anti-nausea pills. 

How to pack and carry your first aid gear 

This might seem like a lot of stuff to carry on top of your tent, sleeping bag, and everything else. But keeping healthy and alive should obviously be your number one priority—so never skimp on first aid supplies. It’s better safe than sorry (or dead), don’t you think? 

Of course, a big part of being prepared for anything is keeping your vital supplies safe and accessible, which is why first aid dry sacks are the smart option. The best ones are: 

  • Attachable: Look for a first aid dry sack that has a side-release buckle or D-ring so you can hook it onto the outside of your pack for quick access (and to save space). 
  • Brightly coloured and clearly labelled: You never know who might need to find your first aid kit in an emergency. Choose a red dry sack with a white cross on the side. Everyone will know that they’ll be able to find medical supplies inside it. 
  • Accessible: Get a first aid dry sack with a clear window on the side so you can see and access whatever supplies you need at a moment’s notice. 
  • Waterproof: Your first-aid supplies are useless if they get soggy. Make sure your first aid dry sack is durable and 100% waterproof, with taped seams. 
  • Abrasion-resistant: Get a first aid dry sack made from durable nylon so your supplies don’t get damaged along the way. 

What size first aid dry sack to bring

For all your day hiking essentials, a 1L dry sack should be perfect for one or two people. If you strap it to the outside of your daypack, you’ll still have plenty of room for snacks and extra water.   

If you’re preparing for an overnight trek, you’ll need a few extra supplies. A 3L dry sack is best for you. 

For treks or expeditions that go for more than a couple of days, you’ll need a 5L sack decked out with all the beacons and whistles. 

We’ve all heard horror stories about people who stray off the trail, get lost, sprain their ankle, dehydrate, and then have to get helicoptered out after a few days of living off berries and creek water. If they survive, that is. 

Nine times out of ten, these disasters can be avoided with a well-stocked medical kit stored in a waterproof, durable and highly-visible first aid dry sack. 

In other words—don’t be one of those people who gets lost on a track with nothing but a sombrero and a pair of Vans.