This story is excerpted from Task & Purpose.
First aid kits save lives, but what are the chances you have an adequate first aid kit nearby at any given time? No, those big-box store kits don’t count, especially since most of them are simplistic “boo-boo kits” designed to handle cut fingers, scraped knees, and maybe a first-degree burn or two. Few pre-made first aid kits pack the necessary supplies to deal with a truly life-threatening emergency, and those that do often suffer from significant shortcomings, such as high price tags, limited supplies, or both. In such cases, your best bet is to build your own first aid kit to create a much more capable tool than virtually anything you can snag off the shelf.
Most high-end factory-built first aid kits provide plenty of supplies capable of handling a vast array of medical emergencies, yet the chances of finding one that matches your particular needs and unique skill sets are worse than a second lieutenant actually shooting an azimuth in under five minutes. On the flip side, a custom-built first aid kit will provide you with everything you need and nothing you don’t. In shaving away excess supplies, you will find yourself saving weight and saving cash while maximizing your ability to provide efficient, effective emergency care.
You may never be Doc Roe or Renee Lemaire, but keeping a first aid kit handy could be one of the best decisions of your life. Here is how to properly build a first aid kit of your own.
Doing it right with a first aid kit
Time You’re Going to Need: About half an hour to lay the groundwork and another half hour to pack and stage the kit
What is a first aid kit?
If you don’t know what a first aid kit is, then you’ve been living under a rock since before the dinosaurs went extinct. It’s time to get with the program and catch up with the rest of humanity (or at least up until 1888). All joking aside, there seems to be some actual confusion today as to what constitutes an actual first aid kit.
For starters, a first aid kit is NOT a boo-boo kit (i.e., a box of Band-Aids accompanied by a little gauze, some tape, a few alcohol wipes, and some antibiotic cream thrown in like add-ons to a value meal). As the name implies, a first aid kit provides everything an on-site first responder might need to provide emergency medical care until more advanced care providers arrive. A proper first aid kit is tailored to treat specific injuries and illnesses commonly found in certain environments, meaning that proper first aid kits will vary from place to place. This explains why a military IFAK can be so dramatically different from an OSHA-compliant kit found in businesses across America.
What you’re going to need to build a first aid kit
Everyone has different gear in their kit. Make sure you have the best tools of the trade on hand for this specific task. Don’t worry, we’ve made a list.
- Pen or pencil
- Clear mind
- Case/storage container
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Topical treatments and cleansers
- Wound dressings and closures
- Trauma care equipment
- Tools and support equipment
- Specialty equipment
Before you sit down or head off into the field, it’s best if you organize your workspace or bag ahead of time. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, or so the saying goes, and we’re big believers of that mantra. Set everything up and then proceed, you’ll save yourself a headache of rummaging around your tools or having to hike all the way back out of the woods just because you forgot your knife.
The first aid kit brief
Gear up, corpsman! Here’s how to build a proper first aid kit.
Before you even consider building a first aid kit of your own, get some training. Sure, you could build a first aid kit without any training, but the advantages over a premade kit from a big box store are very limited. Sure, you might eliminate a few extra Band-Aids, saving you fractions of an ounce in the process, but any extra supplies or equipment you buy will do little more than add weight to your kit.
If you have not already done so, get (at least) a basic first aid certification, then come back.
How much is too much?
Before building a first aid kit, take some time to figure out just how many kits you need. For most people, two kits will be the bare minimum: one at home and one in the car. If you have a home, two cars, an EDC backpack, and a cabin in the woods, you will need four or five kits rather than two. Every individual’s needs will vary, so determine your own needs before you start this project. If you only need one kit, don’t sweat it. If you need 10 first aid kits, then more power to you. Of course, we recommend building one kit first and then building the rest once you know what you’re doing.
Once you’ve determined just how many first aid kits you want to build and which one you plan to build first, take some time to roughly sketch out your kit’s loadout. Take some time to think through emergency and logistical factors that will affect what you carry in your kit. Consider the following:
- Habits and patterns – Write down a list of places you visit and the various activities that occur at each location, including your home. For each item on your list, write down any medical emergencies you can imagine might occur at, during, or en route to each one. As a baseline, focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly activities and locations. Ask yourself:
- Do I spend my days staring at a computer monitor or directing traffic on a flight line?
- Do my weekends usually consist of camping and Tough Mudders or soccer games and birthday parties?
- Do I take a monthly road trip to visit friends or family?
- Do I go to professional sporting events two or three times a year?
- Medical conditions – Some people have very specific medical concerns, such as diabetes or allergic reactions. Make sure to include the appropriate medications and associated supplies in your considerations.
- First aid skill sets and limitations – While you may not be able to treat every medical emergency, understanding your strengths and limitations will make creating your supply list that much more straightforward. To avoid buying supplies you don’t need, ask yourself:
- What level of care can I safely (and legally) provide for others or myself?
- Am I mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared to provide first aid?
- What skills have I practiced that I know I can perform under stress/during an adrenaline dump?
- What level of first aid am I prepared to provide for a loved one?
- What first aid can I perform on myself if I only have one hand/arm available?
- Environment – Every region of the country has its own unique hazards, and your job is to identify those hazards ahead of time. Ask yourself:
- What is the general climate in my area?
- What are the local weather patterns, temperature norms, and potential weather emergencies (blizzards, hurricanes, etc.)?
- What kinds of wild animals live in my vicinity? Are they aggressive, poisonous, or potentially diseased (rabies, etc.)?
- Kit storage – Where you plan to store your first aid kit will significantly impact what and how many supplies will fit inside your kit. A first aid kit designed to fit inside the glove box of your daily driver may lack space for bulkier items, such as reusable splints or CPR masks. On the other hand, if you plan to store your kit in the trunk or on the backside of the headrest, space may be less of a concern, potentially increasing your kit’s physical footprint and carrying capacity.
- Potential allies (optional) – Wisdom dictates that a good first aid kit should be accessible to and usable by any individual likely to use it. As such, take stock of those with whom you regularly interact. This can range from a prepared citizen to an off-duty nurse or EMT. Even if you don’t know what a chest seal is or how to use it, having one handy on the shooting range could be a lifesaving investment in yourself or others. So, ask yourself:
- Do my family members, friends, or coworkers have first aid training? If so, how much training?
- Are nearby strangers likely to have first aid training? If so, what skills are they likely to have?
In light of your newfound knowledge about yourself, your environment, and your storage constraints, you have all you need to develop a rough idea of what your first aid kit will contain. Using everything you’ve learned, write a list of first aid supplies, broken down into two sections: “Critical” and “Nice to Have.” For example, supplies such as an epinephrine autoinjector (i.e., an EpiPen) or CPR mask may be non-negotiables in certain instances, while a reusable splint and extra Band-Aids may not be valuable enough to keep if storage space is limited.
If you need a list of first aid supplies to get your started, take a look at our buying guide for pre-stocked first aid kits.
Gather your gear
This is where the fun begins (if you like spending money, that is). Using your newly-created supply list, order everything on your “Critical” list and nothing else. You can fill in extra space with supplies on the “Nice to Have” list later.
If you need specific supplies or equipment but have limited space, DO NOT compromise on quality. When it comes to buying lifesaving equipment that relies on strength or durability to do its duty, such as tourniquets, avoid buying cheap knockoffs or counterfeit goods. Historically, e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay have had a spotty record vetting vendors selling medical supplies. Instead, you should consider buying from a dedicated first-aid supplier or first-responder store. While you might save a few bucks on the front end, you or someone else could end up losing their life due to equipment failure. Instead, track down the product’s manufacturer or a reputable third-party retailer and purchase it from them…
Read the rest of the story, including an FAQ, over at Task & Purpose.