Whether you are on holiday or backpacking for long-term travel, a well-packed travel first aid kit can make all the difference to your ability to ride out various minor injuries and ailments. Did you know that before we went travelling full-time, Tom was a practicing nurse for ten years? Nobody knows more about the best first aid kit supplies than a nurse. Therefore, this post contains a wealth of knowledge about how to put together the best custom first aid kits for whatever kind of trip you plan to take.
‼IMPORTANT‼: This article is not intended as medical advice. You should always talk to your doctor or pharmacist for travel advice or regarding the use of any medication. Especially if you are pregnant or taking prescription medication. Take sensible care of your health.
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What’s the right size for a travel first aid kit?
There is no straightforward answer to this. If you are packing for a road trip, then a vehicle first aid kit can be a lot bigger than say a hiking first aid kit. Under most circumstances, your travel medical kit should be as small and as light as you can get it. You also need to ensure that you have what you will actually need.
The things needed in a first aid kit depends on a number of factors. Your individual medical needs should come first and foremost – if you know you have allergies or are taking prescription medication then these are the most important items in your medical kit contents. The rest of your first aid stuff really depends on the length of your trip, where you are going (which countries, and what kind of areas), what activities you are planning to do, and how far away you will be from medical attention if needed.
We travel with a fairly minimalist first aid kit, but nevertheless we carry all the medical kit supplies that cover most eventualities. Neither of us takes any prescription medication so we take a small blister pack of each type of over-the-counter first aid medical supplies. We usually travel in places where we could access a doctor within a day or so, if needed. We have done rafting, abseiling, ziplining, canoeing and ALL kinds of nature trips. Without needing anything more than our small first aid kit. Maybe we were lucky!
Should I buy a ready-packed travel first aid kit?
Of course, you can. But you are not likely to find a ready-packed comprehensive first aid kit that contains all of the items listed here, even just the essential ones. More likely what you will find is lots of first aid kit manufacturers trying to sell you a “complete first aid kit”, containing loads of pieces. I would estimate that 80-90 of these pieces are various sizes of bandage and gauze. Most are probably not really necessary for your travels.
What we have done in the past, is bought a small and basic ready-made travel first aid kit as a starting pack, and added in the items we want to use.
If you are wondering where can I buy a first aid kit, then you can find starter first aid kits for sale on Amazon. Alternatively, your local pharmacy or drugstore will have them, and some supermarkets also sell them.
This is a great example of a small first aid pack that would have some simple first aid kit contents for you to add to.
Where to buy first aid supplies?
You can source your first aid kit refills from a variety of places. It should go without saying that any of your prescription medication included in your first aid pack should be obtained from a doctor.
Over the counter medication can be bought from a pharmacy. If you do decide to buy medication online, make sure you are buying from a reputable supplier.
Amazon do a great line in first aid kits and supplies, many of which we have linked to in this article to help you in your purchases.
What if I forget or run out of something?
When on the road, first aid refills can be bought along the way. We have yet to travel to a single country where we couldn’t get anything we needed. If buying medication over the counter in developing countries, be sure to check the contents to make sure that blister packs are intact and the medication is the same brand as the box, and not past its expiry date.
If you set out and realise there is something you need that you haven’t packed, don’t panic. Emergency first aid kit products can be picked up in most countries. We once found ourselves stuck without wound dressings in a seaside village in Vietnam, on a Sunday when the local pharmacy was closed. We asked our hotel manager if he could direct us to an open pharmacy, and he was kind enough to drive in his car to the nearest open pharmacy and bring us back what we needed. Just ask a local – they can usually direct you to the nearest place to help find your first aid kit needs.
Travel First aid Kit Checklist
Although every traveller and trip will be different, every travel first aid kit should contain some basic items covering many common situations. Here is our recommended travel first aid kit contents list, in no particular order of priority. Brand names will vary per country however we have tried to keep the list as generic as possible. The first section is our recommendation for a basic first aid contents list, and at the end we have covered the more optional stuff in a first aid kit.
Basic first aid kit supplies
This section contains our recommendations of items that should be on most, if not every, first aid kit supplies list.
1. Painkillers/fever reducers
Ibuprofen acts as an anti-inflammatory whilst paracetamol will help to bring down a fever. Both are also effective as painkillers. We usually carry a small blister pack of each in our kit as they are some of our most basic first aid kit necessities. We got badly sunburned whilst snorkelling in Panama last year (stupid, rookie traveller error!) and the ibuprofen really helped calm the skin inflammation.
2. Anti-allergy medication
I usually end up needing an anti-histamine at some point, once the mosquitos discover my blood. Pollen, dust and other allergens may also cause reactions and anti-allergy medication can seriously reduce discomfort on your travels. If you suffer at all from any of these, then anti-allergy pills and perhaps a topical cream should be some of the most important stuff in a first aid kit.
3. Assortment of sticking plasters and small gauze bandages
If you are travelling with small people, then you will probably have these at the top of your travel first aid kit list! As a couple, we usually carry only a few sticking plasters of each size, plus a small roll of medical tape and a couple of small bandages in case of deeper wounds. Touch wood, we have never yet needed the bandages!
When buying ready made, even the most simple first aid kit includes many bandages of all sizes but in the expert view of Tom, many or big bandages are probably not needed for most travellers. If you need to treat a deep wound or a lot of blood, it will need specialist attention in any case. If you are planning a hiking or mountaineering trip into remote areas, you may want to pack a few extra bandages into your backcountry first aid kit given you may be further away from medical attention. See below our tips for your wilderness first aid kit list.
4. Wound disinfectant
An important staple of any good first aid kit. This can be some kind of antiseptic cream or wipes, or iodine also works well. Anything to clean a wound, especially before it is bandaged. Tom once had a cut on his foot when we were walking around the streets of Bangkok during Songkran. This is the new year celebration which involves a lot of water being sprayed around on the streets and over people, and the water gets pretty filthy from the pavement dirt. He cleaned it twice or more each day with iodine, as well as changing the dressing, and it healed as normal within a few days.
Recommended first aid kit contents, for pulling out splinters or for cleaning grit or sand from a wound.
6. Anti-diarrhoea and anti-nausea medication
Delhi belly, travellers tummy, Montezumas revenge… even the sturdiest travellers can suffer with the gastric problems that can accompany foreign travel. Usually, the body just needs some time to adjust to the new germs and bugs in a different environment. Nevertheless, being laid up in bed in close proximity to a toilet can ruin precious days of travel. Defence is therefore the best form of attack. Anti-diarrhoea medication should be among the most basic first aid kit contents when travelling.
Immodium is one of the most common and effective anti-diarrhoea medications. Coal tablets are also effective and can help to filter out the bugs causing food poisoning. Particularly if travelling to developing countries where the water may not be of drinkable quality, such medication should be on every backpacking first aid list.
Metoclopramid and ondansetron are both very effective remedies for nausea and vomiting.
I am sure you will be grateful that there are no stories we wish to share further on this topic!
7. Other essential travel health items
Insect repellent and sun cream, although not technically treating illness or injury, should be an essential part of your first aid kit requirements.
Both being very fair skinned, sun cream and aftersun lotion is something that is always among our emergency first aid kit essentials.
When we were travelling in Central America, we discovered you can buy aloe vera gel laced with lidocaine (a painkiller), which is the best thing we have found as a sun burn treatment. Normal aloe gel also works well, can be found in most countries and should always be in your first aid kit pack.
Make sure that you take a sufficient quantity of any medication you are currently taking as part of your personal first aid kit contents. Also make sure you pack a copy of your prescription, in case you need it at airport security or for more of your medication in your destination.
Whilst note technically one of the things you need in a first aid kit, travel insurance should be considered essential for everyone. EU citizens within the EU are usually covered however most other international travel requires some kind of additional insurance.
World Nomads do a very comprehensive cover for even the most adventurous of long term travellers. We have been using them since travelling full-time and can recommend them for transparent coverage, great value and customer service. You can even start your cover with them whilst you are already on the road!
Get an instant quote from World Nomads:
When travelling in certain countries, a vaccination certificate may be required as part of the border controls. Make sure you check this before you travel. Keep your certificate stored safely with your other travel documents.
Optional or circumstantial things to have in a first aid kit
These are things that you can carry if you wish. They may be considered essential depending on your individual circumstances.
8. Malaria pills
This will depend on where you are planning to travel. There are different types of anti-malarial pills available with different benefits and contraindications. Many people assume that malaria pills need to be included in any international travel first aid kit but the reality is that even in many developing countries, malaria is only found in remote areas.
You should consult with your doctor or local travel health clinic to check if you need malaria pills. They can also make sure any malaria prophylactics are the right ones for your health and your travel circumstances.
9. Broad-spectrum antibiotic
Something you should pack in your emergency medical kit contents if you plan to travel in remote areas away from medical help. It can be effective against a wide range of bacterial infections. Again, you should discuss this with your doctor as you will likely need a prescription in any case. (Also, you may need an alternative if you are allergic to antibiotics).
Some people can live without this however it is really effective against acid reflux. As an occasional sufferer, it has a real impact on what I can eat. When I use a treatment, it really helps reduce the symptoms.
11. Rehydration powders
These are usually powders that are mixed with water. They are great for rehydrating after a bout of travellers tummy, or if you have lost a lot of body fluids through sweating. Or even for a bad hangover! They rebalance the salts in the body, meaning they are more efficient at hydrating the body than water alone. A few individual sachets packed into your travel first aid kit can be invaluable to helping recovery after dehydration.
12. Water purifying tablets
We travel with a Steri-pen these days. It is an fast, safe and reusable way of purifying water using UV light to kill bacteria, which makes the water safe to drink.
For shorter trips or ad-hoc needs, water purifying tablets are another consideration for your travel first aid kit.
The ability to purify water is particularly important if you are planning to spend longer periods in remote areas, where access to clean water may not be guaranteed.
13. Tiger balm
I always carry a small pot of white tiger balm when travelling. It is good for headaches, stuffy noses and as a rub for aching muscles. In fact, so many backpackers swear by tiger balm for so many things, it is almost like a full first aid kit by itself!
14. Ice pack
This is definitely not one of the items needed in a first aid kit as essential. However, we have found it very useful against a number of ailments. We use ours on sunburned skin, insect bites, headaches and swelling after a bump or twisted ankle. Ours can be used as a warm pack as well. This makes it a more versatile and justifiable addition to our first aid supplies list.
15. Other items
Safety pins and scissors are useful parts of a homemade first aid kit, for cutting and pinning bandages. However, beware that they cannot usually be carried as hand luggage on a flight.
A thermometer can be useful for identifying fever.
Particularly in these times of the Zika virus, then condoms are advisable, in addition to your usual birth control.
Tips for different scenarios
Travel first aid kit for hiking
As a hiker, you are likely to suffer from more blisters and possibly insect bites than other travellers. Therefore, your travel first aid kit contains should contain plenty of antiseptic, plasters and gauze bandages.
If you decide to use blister plasters, then one of Tom’s top tips is only ever to use them on a blister that has not burst. During his time as a medic in the Swiss military, he ended up treating horrible foot wounds on rookie soldiers who had gone marching. They had used blister plasters on burst blisters, which stops the air getting to them and prevents the healing process. Moleskin is a better option as it allows the air to the wound.
Plenty of DEET-based repellents will help avoid bites, and bite treatments in case you do get bitten.
In case you get caught in a storm, make sure your hiking first aid supplies are packed in a zip-lock or dry bag. Anything waterproof that will protect your precious pills and bandages.
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Bear in mind that you not be able to find a first aid supply store if you are away from residential areas, therefore travel size first aid supplies are essential to keep your first aid kit weight down.
Travel first aid kit for sports
If you are travelling to run a marathon then similar to the above, you will need treatments for blisters and also consider things like ice/heat packs in case of sprains, strains or just muscular aches and pains. If you are planning on water sports like rafting then make sure your travel first aid kit contains extra bandages, medical tape and plasters in case of cuts and bruises. Similarly if you are planning to participate in any team contact sports like football, rugby or netball.
Even when travelling and trying to keep packweight light, remember that protective gear can mitigate the need for first aid supplies. Wear a helmet if you are cycling, or use knee/shin/elbow pads or a gumshield as you would at home for any sports that may require it.
Travel first aid kit for remote areas
If you are planning to backpack through areas with dangerous animals like snakes or scorpions then you may need a few more advanced first aid kit items such as a bite kit. Much of the advice here is the same as for hikers. It may be more difficult to find first aid kit refill supplies when you are in such remote areas. Again, try and find mini first aid kit supplies for your pack.
First aid kit for families
Although this is not our specific area of expertise, we have met some travelling families during our time on the road and picked up a few tips. If you are packing for a family, it may be that you have to compromise on packweight and size and pack a big first aid kit. You will likely need extra supplies of plasters and bandages, as well as ensuring that you have both adult and child versions of things like pain medication. A thermometer is recommended as kids can be more prone to fever.
Diaper rash can be exacerbated in hot countries so treatment cream is also advisable even if your little one doesn’t usually suffer with it.
Double down sunscreen, using one with a high SPF and make sure you have insect repellent with DEET levels suitable for the age of the child.
So this is the round-up of the best travel first aid kit packing tips, from Tom, TripGourmet and nurse. Your own travel first aid kit needs will depend on your personal and travel circumstances. However, we hope these pointers help you make your own first aid kit for whatever kind of trip you plan to take.
For more packing and pro-traveller tips, you may like our post about our Best Cameras for Travel Photography or our post about the Best Anti Theft Travel Bags and Accessories to keep your Travel Gear Safe.
IMPORTANT: (because we cannot emphasise this enough!) This article is not intended as medical advice. You should always talk to a doctor or pharmacist for travel advice or regarding the use of any medication. Especially if you are pregnant or taking prescription medication. Take sensible care of your health.