10 Medical Essentials

You’ve heard of the 10 Essentials.  These are 10 things that all wilderness travelers should have when traveling in the outdoors.  The idea is that these items give you what you need in order to gather food, keep yourself warm, build fire, and obtain shelter.  As such, it is the bare minimum needed to be called “prepared.”  There is some debate as to what constitutes the 10 essentials, but the general consensus is

Today I’m going to talk about something in the same vein, but that is a bit different.  The 10 Medical Essentials are also the bare minimum of preparedness, but instead of preparing you to spend the night wherever you find yourself, these essentials will give you the ability to manage most medical situations.  Again, there will always be debate depending on who you talk to, but this is what I consider to be my essentials.

  1.  Non-latex exam gloves:  I prefer nitrile, as it hasn’t been found to cause allergies.  Avoid latex, because an anaphylactic reaction is REALLY not something you want to have to manage in the backcountry.  You should bring a good amount; stuff a ziplock back with a bulging handful.  Running out should not be a concern.  These are fairly cheap; you can buy a box of 100 for around $10 at Wal-Mart.  Additionally, they come in various sizes, so bring the size that fits you best.  Too tight, and you won’t be able to get them on your hand; too loose, and you won’t have the manual dexterity needed to perform small-detail jobs.gloves
  2. A breathing barrier:  I’d recommend a CPR pocket mask, as they provide the best protection against vomit, and because they can generally be hooked up to a BVM once you come in contact with the people sent to help you.  If you absolutely want to go cheap, you can get a pretty simple breathing barrier that is basically a cellophane sheet with a valve in the middle.  Pocket masks are a bit harder to get you hands on, but between $3 and $10 online will get you a good one.CPR mask
  3. Shears:  In the movies, when someone gets hurt, the protagonist always pulls out a machete-sized knife to cut anything needing to be cut.  While it looks great, it’s actually ridiculously hard to cut clothing and bandages with a knife.  Shears, while they are definitely less sexy, do a way better job.  And they’ll cut through anything.  As an added bonus, unless you try to get you fingers caught, you’re not as much at risk of cutting yourself.  You can get a basic pair for $4.  Or, you can be Super Medic and spend $70 on a Leatherman Raptor.  It’s up to you.shears
  4. Tape:  Tape is one of those tools that you can use for anything, and an added bonus is that if you have tape you can deal with a multitude of other-than-medical issues.  Need to secure a bandage? Tape!  You need to attach an extremity to a splint?  Tape!  Minor tent/jacket/sleeping bag/pack repairs?  Tape!  There are a lot of different types out there; I’d suggest 1-2″ wide fabric tape, which you can buy in a box of 6 x 10 yard long rolls for $10.tape
  5. 4 x 4 gauze:  This is the workhorse of your first aid kit.  4 x 4 gauze can be used to stop bleeding, build a bandage, pad a finger splint, fill the socket of a missing tooth, and any number other medical roles.  I’ve also used it in place of kleenex.  If you’re in a bind, its great fire starting material.  You should carry a lot of it, and you can get it dirt cheap; a package of 25-50 usually costs between $5 and $10.  Pro-Tip: you’ll notice I haven’t included band aids in this list.  You don’t need them!  It’s really easy to make your own band aid with a 4 x 4 and tape.  Simply fold or cut the gauze into the size and thickness that you need, and tape it down over the wound.  DIY bandaid.gauze
  6. ACE Bandage:  This is another highly versatile piece of equipment.  ACE bandage is a stretchy fabric bandage that typically comes rolled up.  You can use it to build a pressure bandage to stop bleeding, or to secure an injured limp to a splint.  They can be a bit pricier, but they’re worth it.  Plus, you can wash and reuse them.ace
  7. Writing materials:  I’m cheating a bit here, since you could argue that a pad of paper and a writing utensil are technically two items.  However, this is my list so we’ll go by my rules!  My memory isn’t bad, but there is no way I can keep up with the amount of information I have to hold onto during a typical patient encounter.  Remember, you’ll be taking vitals every 5-15 minutes, and keeping track of those vitals is important if you want to see how your patient is trending.  It’s always best to document in writing the results of your exam, your vital signs, and patient information so you can seamlessly pass the patient off to higher levels of care.  So, grab a small notebook and a writing utensil.  I’d suggest a pencil, as you can easily sharpen it in the field, and if it gets crushed you won’t have ink everywhere.notebook
  8. Space blanket:  They don’t look like much, but if used properly a space blanket can dramatically increase the heat retention.  This is important, as secondary injury from hypothermia is a major killer of trauma patients.  The trick is to put the reflective side of the space blanket next to bare skin.  You can get these very cheaply, for less than $5, and they’re about the size of a deck of cards.  As an added bonus, they make you look like a baked potato.space-blanket
  9. Light source and spare batteries:  Mountain rescue situations last a long time.  Inevitably, you will be stuck on the side of a mountain, waiting for your evacuation team to arrive, into the night.  For this reason, its good to always have a light source.  I’d suggest getting a LED headlight of some kind.  LED headlights used to be expensive, but you can get a very useful, very small headlight at Walmart now for less than $15.  You can also use the light to check pupils.SONY DSC
  10. Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) tablets:  This is the only medication I consider absolutely necessary.  Anaphylactic reactions are infrequent, but a disproportionate number of reactions occur in the mountains during outdoor recreation.  Diphenhydramine is a histamine blocker, which if administered quickly, can stop, slow down, or lessen an allergic reaction.  You can get an off-brand bottle of 25 mg Benadryl capsules for less than $5.  Just be sure to keep them away from water or in a waterproof container!Benadryl

And there you go!  These are my 10 Medical Essentials.  You can fit them all in a fairly small pouch or bag, and you should be able to get everything for less than $60.  Don’t leave home without them!



9 thoughts on “10 Medical Essentials

  1. Robert Huber

    Great list. Pretty much my kit but I leave out the pen and pad. Would probably punch it in my phone if it was really necessary, which is with me anyhow.

    Glad to to see this blog back in action. I forgot I had even subscribed and was excited to see your email a few weeks ago.

    Keep it up!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! It’s great to hear from you.

      I, too, use my phone as my portable brain extender. NOLS even has a great SOAP note app that you can download. My only caution would be that my phone seems to run out of juice faster and faster each day, and I’d have no way of recharging it. But hey, if you can make it work, awesome!

  2. Douglas Mackay

    Good list Ethan. As a WFR and EMT, I also carry a couple triangular bandages with me when I head into the backountry. Very handy items for a multitude of issues.

    1. That’s a good thought! The only reason why triangular bandages didn’t make the top 10 (they were considered) was that I figured I could easily produce them from a garment. But they are indeed very handy, for everything from bleeding control, to slings, to producing stretchers. Thanks for contributing!

  3. Joe Wylie

    Tape? I use Gorilla Tape.
    Ace bandage? I use reverseable Sport Wrap (self adhering)
    Waterproof pad and Spacepen refill (painted day glo pink)
    For stings I use tooth power (3 parts baking SODA 1 part salt)
    For water? I use Potassium Permanganate.
    I expect that my cellphone will not function in the field. If it does it’s a plus. I do carry it powered off with a back up charge (the bigger the better)
    I cut the long sides from a disposable turkey pan. 12″X12″=cup. 12″X16″=windscreen
    As Buck Tilden said in the video “Prepared to Survive”.. . The best survival kit is what you carry between your ears (OK it’s not a quote)
    For shelter check out the Tom Brown survival shelter on YouTube.

    1. Items you can use for multiple uses (for example, gorilla tape instead of medical tape) are always a plus. I also appreciate Tilden’s turn of phrase! Thanks for contributing!

  4. Number 10 is phrased all wrong ! I am absolutely sure you know that anti-histamines do not stop fulminant Anaphlaxis! “Can stop” Benadryl takes 45 minutes to work. Fatal anaphylaxis frequently kills in less than 30. Regards @recmedicpaul

    1. May not have been the best way to phrase that, but my point was that if given promptly after exposure to an allergen, full-on anaphylaxis can be avoided. Now, if the patient is already presenting with anaphylaxis, you’re absolutely correct that Benadryl is not the medication of choice.

  5. I really don’t know what to take away on your list but I always have a 1/3 of roll of Saran wrap with me. For all kind of wounds, can double as tape, you can twist it to make a string or wrap your cell phone in to make water prof. And many more things.

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