Outdoor Survival: First-Aid Kits

I was asked what's in my first-aid kit. Since I don't remember, and I'm too lazy to dig it out, I'll give you some general rules about first-aid kits that will be more useful than an item-by-item rundown.

Don't think about a first-aid kit as a fixed and immutable object. The kit should expand and contract, depending on where you're going, what you're likely to encounter, and how long will it take to get to a doctor, or have a doctor get to you. I have two first-aid kits, one for hunts, which are in close proximity to civilization, and the other for places like Alaska, where you may be left to your own devices if something happens. This saves me the trouble of re-building a single first-aid kit over and over. Whatever you take, it should be small enough that you can keep it with you. My small kit is a little bigger than a fist and fits in a fanny pack with no trouble. The larger one is the size of maybe two fists. Package it in something waterproof, like a Ziplock bag, or better, the rollup Velcro-seal plastic bags sold in camping-supply stores.

Don't assume that one of your friends will have a first-aid kit, or that the outfitter will, or that the camp manager will. Bring the damned thing. I've carried a spare rifle scope on every hunt for 40 years, and only used it once when I loaned it to someone else, whose hunt it absolutely saved. Same principle. You may not need the kit for years and years, but when you do you'll need it bad.

In addition to a first-aid kit, you also need some basic medical knowledge. The best source of this is a book called "Wilderness Medicine" by Dr. William Forgey. It is now in its 6th edition, and you should read it before you go. If something happens you won't have time to go into the index and look up "Femoral artery, severing of."

In addition to the first-aid kit, take along a big Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. It has four tools that you'll find indispensable: a scissors, a tweezers, a magnifying glass and, if you have to perform an emergency amputation, the saw blade works well on bone.

Once a year, or before each hunt, go through the kit and throw out anything that's become useless, like moleskin that's dried up, or tubes that are almost empty.

Ninety percent of what you'll have to deal with is cuts and burns. For that, two tubes of Neosporin or Bacitracin, and an assortment of Band-Aids will do nicely. As for the rest, plan. If you're hunting in bitter cold, lip balm is worth adding. If you're going to tsetse fly country in Africa, antihistamines are a must in case you're allergic to the bites of the little bastards.

If you're the one with the kit, you may be called upon to play doctor. This can present problems if you are, as I am, both unsympathetic and squeamish. My solution is to throw the kit to whoever is in trouble and say "Here, help yourself," or "God, that was a dumb thing you did," or "You'll probably bleed out in less than five minutes. Is there anything you want me to tell your family?" If you're the compassionate and helpful type, bring a pair of surgical rubber gloves. You don't know where your friends have been.

I would be remiss in writing this if I didn't mention the first-aid kit carried by Bob Brister. Among his other idiosyncrasies, Uncle Robert was a hypochondriac of the first magnitude, and packed an oversize toilet kit filled with remedies for everything, including ailments that few doctors know about. The weight of that leather medicine cabinet would bring a pack mule to its knees, and to use it, you needed a volume of the Physician's Desk Reference. But if you were on a hunt with Uncle Robert and came down with yaws, or Huntington's chorea, or corruption of the bowels, or the leaping fantods, he could cure what ailed you.