First Aid Kit “Must-Haves” & Knowing When Injuries Need REAL Medical Attention

Hiking, camping, fishing, paddle boarding, kayaking – the list of outdoor activities could go on. And since the days are long enough, many of us do more than one of these a day sometimes. You know what that means, right? Many more opportunities for injuries while we’re out having all that fun.

A fall, a cut, and a scrape or two are statistically unavoidable if you’re doing lots of outdoor activities all summer. They’re pretty minor most of the time, but we’re in Alaska, so it’s always a good idea to have a first aid kit with the essential “must-haves” just in case.

Photo of injured hiker receiving first aid

Here is a list of items that make up a well-stocked, basic first aid kit.  If you keep this kit handy in your home, car, boat, etc., you’ll be well-prepared for many of the most common emergencies you’d encounter until you can get to a medical facility or help can get to you.

  • Adhesive bandages (ex. brand name: Band-Aid)
  • Sterile dressings for various types of scrapes or non-serious cuts*
  • Adhesive (sticky) tape or compression wrap that sticks to itself
  • ACE™-type wrap bandages for sprains or to wrap around splints
  • Ibuprofen (brand name: Advil) or acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) for mild pain, swelling or fever
  • Pepto Bismol or Imodium for upset stomach or diarrhea
  • An antihistamine like diphenhydramine (brand name: Benadryl) for allergies/allergic reactions
  • Hydrocortisone 1% cream for skin irritation
  • Triple antibiotic cream or ointment
  • Burn cream or 100% Aloe vera for burns
  • Anesthetic spray or lotion for insect stings/bites
  • Pointed tweezers/safety pins to remove splinters or ticks & alcohol (wipes) to clean them
  • Scissors
  • Nitrile gloves (to avoid latex allergy)

Notice that alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are not on the list other than something with which to sterilize the tweezers. Using hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol to clean wounds can harm the tissue and delay healing. For cuts, it’s best to rinse thoroughly with cool water and after wiping the tweezers with alcohol, use them to remove as much debris as you can.

*As a side note, in every first aid kit this writer’s spouse has ever put together, one will always find Maxi pads (highest absorbency women’s sanitary pads) for severe cuts and tampons for puncture wounds. The belief has always been that since they are made explicitly for high absorbency, they make the most sense for severe lacerations. (Gauze doesn’t even come close.) Having seen one of those items used in a real-world setting, I can personally recommend adding them to your essential first aid kit supply list.

When does an injury require medical attention?

If you aren’t sure whether or not to go to the ER, calling your primary care provider is always a good first option. They will undoubtedly be able to discuss your symptoms and advise whether or not what you’re experiencing is an emergency.

If it’s after hours and you’re a SEARHC patient, you can call the SEARHC free Nurse Advice Line toll-free at 1.800.613.0560. The medical service representatives and registered triage nurses who monitor that line can help. They can answer your questions, help contact your provider or connect you with emergency services.

When is it severe enough for the ER?

According to NBC News Medical Correspondent, Dr. John Torres, there are a few stand-out signs when it comes to cuts that indicate you should go to the Emergency Room.

  • The cut is large and gaping (wide open).
  • You can’t move the extremity (arm, leg, finger, etc.) normally.
  • There is numbness.

For other types of injuries, such as head injuries, neck injuries, and anything to do with bones, tendons, or muscles, there are many more things to consider.

Importantly, head and neck injuries are sneaky as they can be invisible but lead to serious problems ranging from mild to severe. It may be “better to be safe than sorry” and seek emergency medical attention with either type of injury.

For musculoskeletal injuries (bone, tendon, muscle), look for problems bearing weight, constant pain, swelling and bruising, a significant bump in the area of the injury or if there is an open wound at the site of the injury, emergency care is also probably warranted.

Additionally, SEARHC has a top-notch orthopedic team, including a board-certified orthopedic surgeon available to treat musculoskeletal injuries and if needed, a vast array of rehabilitation services to help patients get everything back in working order as soon as possible.

As always, the takeaways are 1) to be prepared with whatever you might need to perform basic first aid on yourself or someone with you, and 2) have an idea of the criteria for an injury that requires medical attention at a level higher than your first aid kit.

Once you have the gear and the knowledge you need, get out there, and have fun!


The information presented here was reviewed by Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon, David Brown, MD (May 2019) 

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