Modern Outdoorsman: Trail First-Aid

Trail First-Aid

GPS? Check. Camera? Check. Snacks? Check. First-aid kit? Hmmmmm. Out on the trail one of the most overlooked pieces of gear (and knowledge how to us it) is a good first-aid kit. Whether you’re out for a weekend hike to your favorite swimming hole or a multiday stretch of backpacking, having the right tools can keep you safe. After a few run ins with bee sting allergies, walking out of a canyoneering route on a sprained ankle, and helping with a search and rescue operation, we are never without a good kit. No matter what your level of experience, the best advice we can give is first, to get familiar with your kit, and second, get some training. Whether you take a rudimentary Red-Cross first-aid course, or go for your Wilderness First Responder certification, you’ll be able to put that little Adventure kit to good use.

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From everyday carry in the car and to the office, to global travel, picking the right first aid kit will keep you prepared in case of emergency, but also save you some weight cutting out the non-essentials. For everything from trail blisters to dealing with some nasty foreign food poisoning, we choose Adventure Medical Kits. Their Ultralight & Watertight line up features just about everything you need to for small encounters on the trail. the Ultralight .5 ($17) is in our pack for everything from the work commute to mountain biking. For longer adventure travel when we’ll be based out of the car or a larger pack, the Smart Travel ($50) is our favorite, and was a godsend after a run in with some bad fish in Thailand last year.

Editor’s Note: While we stand behind these tips and tricks, nothing is a substitute for proper training. If you can get into a weekend first-aid course before hitting the trail we recommend you do so.


Blisters are one of the most common injuries on the trail, and are a result of a combination of friction and moisture – especially in confined spaces like on your feet. The irritated skin starts to pull away from the softer tissue beneath it, and often fills with fluid. To stay out on the trail, there are a few simple steps to take. First, wash and dry the area thoroughly; we find it easy to use a little alcohol swab. This will get any grime from your boots and socks off of it. Then, prepare a needle or safety pin by sterilizing it. Again, a little rubbing alcohol is helpful, or you can use the flame from a match or lighter. Poke a small hole in the side of the blister, moving sideways (parallel to the skin) rather than directly down. Allow the blister to drain. You can gently apply a little pressure to help it along if it is stubborn, but avoid poking any more holes or tearing the skin. Once it’s drained and dry, wipe a little antibiotic ointment or petroleum jelly over the hole to keep infection out. You can follow that up with a moleskin donut ($6) to protect against new friction. A change of socks is probably also in order for good measure.

Bug Bites

Bug Bite
An ounce of prevention is always in order when it comes to bugs, especially when it comes to anything that bites or stings. On the trail DEET ($10) for your skin, and Permethrin treated clothing are your friends. If you do get a few annoying mosquito bites though, consider throwing a little tube of After Bite ($4) in your first-aid kit. Its simple baking soda and tea tree oil formula takes the itch and sting away almost instantly. We’ve used it effectively for mosquito bites and bee stings. For ticks though, the key is getting them off you as soon as possible. The trick however, is to remove the tick with popping it or removing the head. It can be done carefully with a pair of tweezers, but we like the Tick Twister ($5) tool – it is especially nice to have when we’re out on the trail with a few dogs who seem to attract every single bug in the forest. Simply slide the tool so the prongs are around the tick, and as tight against the skin as comfortable, and then spin it a few times. The tick will pop right out.


Wound Cleaning
Between sharp tools, loads of heavy gear, and the general environment, it’s a good bet that someone you’re with will get some kind of minor cut or scrape. The first order of business is to make sure you manage the bleeding. On a small cut or scrape this is easy – simply apply some pressure directly with some gauze. Ask your friend to do this on their own injury until you can put a pair of latex or nitrile gloves on to protect yourself from their blood. Once bleeding is stopped, it is time to think about preventing infection, and getting things closed up. Having a syringe with large gauge tip is very helpful here, as you can use purified water to irrigate the wound. This will help to push out any dirt or grime that cas gotten in and under the skin. If you see any larger, stubborn debris, you can use a pair of tweezers to pull them out. Follow that up with a few more rounds of purified water. After that, rub some antibiotic ointment on it and assess if it needs to be closed or covered. A deeper cut may require wound closure strips to help keep the skin closed together. From there, you can cover it with a bandage or gauze and medical tape. If you’ll be out on the trail for any length of time, it is important to recheck the injury daily, as a serious infection is grounds to cancel your trip and seek medical attention immediately.


If you’re spending any amount of time near fire, handling hot food, or boiling water on your backpacking stove, burns are a likely occurence. The first step in treating minor burns is to get away from the heat source (this part seems like a no-brainer), and cool the affected area down. Residual heat can affect deeper tissue for a few minutes, so getting cold water on the area is very important. Afterwards, a burn gel – often an aloe and lidocaine mixture – or antibiotic ointment will help. If the affected area will be under clothing or come in contact with anything that could further irritate it, a light dressing of gauze can help reduce discomfort. If a burn is in a sensitive area (face, armpit, groin, etc.), is deep enough to expose deep layers of skin or soft tissue, or completely covers the circumference of an extremity, it is time to evacuate and seek medical attention.