The Top 10 Essentials for an Adventure Family's First Aid Kit

Sep 23, 2011
Outside Magazine

MonumentvalleyPhoto by Blair Beakley

When you’re traveling in the wilderness, a well-stocked med kit can mean the difference between a minor snafu and a major nightmare. This is true whether you’re adventuring alone or with a bevy of little rippers. Problem is, it’s easy to get blasé and not know what’s in your first aid kit, or not carry one at all. I couldn’t tell you what’s in the cache my husband packs for us, but I can tell you, from recent experience, what wasn’t in it: Dora the Explorer Band-aids. Whoops.  

My complacency doesn’t make much sense, given I’m the bigger worrier in the marriage. But maybe that’s why I’m the bigger worrier. Who said ignorance is bliss? Whatever—after a long, awesome summer of romping around the wilds with kids, I’m officially over pushing my luck, so I checked in with a couple of wilderness safety experts to find out the absolute must-have basics for backcountry adventures with kiddos.  

Fortunately I knew who to call. Neil McDonald, 38, has spent gobs of time leading wilderness canoe trips for kids out of 100-year-old Camp Temagami in northern Ontario. He did a stint as a medic in the Canadian Army and now works as a professionally trained paramedic in Winnipeg and teaches Wilderness First Responder (WFR) courses in his spare time. And because he’s father to two young kids (and, full disclosure, happens to be my cousin), I knew he’d be able to relate to the particular nerve-wracking joy of going into the backcountry with little ones.  

Within the first two minutes of our conversation, my despair for all that I don’t know mounting by the millisecond, I was ready to dispatch myself to WFR school, STAT. But Neil is nothing if not prudent, and he reassured me (in so many words) that even though I might not know what the heck a pocket mask is used for or how to administer an EpiPen, with a little advance planning and first-aid smarts, it is possible to take the kids into remote places without being negligent.  

Neil suggests starting with a standard wilderness first aid kit, from a company like Adventure Medical Kits or Lifeline, which typically comes stocked with wound-cleaning tools, a SAM splint for broken bones, and other backcountry basics. Then supplement with child-specific meds and equipment (see below). It’s possible to build your own kit from scratch, but it can be time consuming and spendy to source products from various different stores, and the commercial kits come with good storage cases. The one downside to using a pre-packaged kit is that it’s easy to get lazy and forget what’s inside or not know how to use it in the first place—hopefully, a moot issue if you’re tailoring yours for kids. As always quantities will vary depending on your group size and length of trip.    

Now add:  

____  Kids Band-Aids: Double the number you think you might need and, whatever you do, don’t settle for boring beige. Says Neil, “if you put a Dora on a four-year-old, it almost always goes better.” Keep a stash accessible in your daypack so you don’t have to go burrowing when Jr. skins his knee.

 ___ Feel-good placebo: Flintstone vitamins, homeopathic Rescue Remedy for kids, or their favorite lovey—anything familiar that comforts them at home will help ease the emotional trauma of minor scrapes, bang-ups, and bruises on the go. “You need a karmic repair kit more than anything,” says Whitney Bacon, a WFR and former Outward Bound instructor and father to two young river boys. “Making them feel comfortable and putting their fears to rest is huge.”  

___  Tweezer, needle, and magnifying glass: for extracting splinters, cactus spines, etc  

___  Pediatric dose of acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) and ibuprofen (e.g., Advil, Motrin) for fevers and pain relief, plus a thermometer. Read the labels before you go to know your doses, and if you’re using liquids, make sure you bring the plunger to go with it. The Mayo Clinic recommends digital thermometers over the old glass mercury sticks for use under in the mouth (most accurate) or armpit.  

___ Pepto Bismol chewable tablets. This is your best bet for treating diarrhea in kids under 12 (imodium is too powerful for little tummies). But because Pepto Bismol contains trace amounts of aspirin, don’t use it if your kid also has a fever, as aspirin has been linked to the potentially-fatal Reyes Syndrome.

  ____ Epinephrine auto-injector (e.g., EpiPen). An absolute must if you know your kids suffer from anaphylaxis, or allergic, reactions, or have reason to suspect they might. Talk to your doctor for an Rx; in some states, EpiPens are sold over the counter. "I stop short of saying that absolutely everyone should bring multiple EpiPens all the time," says Neil, who used to bring multiple doses when guiding multiday canoe trips in Temagami, “but you need to be really careful of anaphylaxis in the backcountry because the reactions happen so quickly.”  

____ Antihistamine: If your kids aren’t allergic or haven’t shown signs (a mild rash from eating strawberries is enough for Neil to bring an Epi, just in case) of anaphylaxis, you’ll still want to bring an antihistamine like Benadryl for kids, which is good for treating allergic reactions across the board. 

  ___Prescription medicine: Bring two stocks of any daily meds your child is taking, in case one falls in a lake or gets knocked over on the ground. And know your drugs and their potential, unintended side effects. “It’s still kind of controversial,” says Neil, “but kids on Ritalin may be more susceptible to heat illness.”  

 ____ Emergency communication: “Because you have a lower risk tolerance on family trips, it’s a good idea to have some way to contact help,” say Neil. Your choices will depend on where you’re going: If you’re in 911 range, a cell phone should do the trick; farther afield, in SAR territory, a Spot emergency Beacon is generally as reliable as a satellite phone and offers the benefit of a graduated response, meaning you can send OK messages to let folks at home know all’s well, you can request assistance when the situation is not life-threatening, and you can place an emergency call when you need help right away. EPIRBs, or emergency beacons, are all-or-nothing; once you set it off, help is on the way whether you really need it or not. As with all backcountry tech, use wisely and only as a last resort, less you piss off the local SAR, or worse, endanger them.  

____ Education: It’s one thing to have a well-stocked first-aid kit and another to know how to use it when you’re in a bind and help’s far at hand. If you take your kids into remote places on a regular basis for extended adventures, it’s smart to get schooled by professionals. Wilderness Medical Associates runs entry-level wilderness first aid courses (designed for people just out for the day), four-day advanced wilderness first aid courses, and seven-day Wilderness First Responder courses at locations around the country and world. 

Finally, remember that “preparation beats treatment every time,” says Neil, who notes that kids are generally more stressed in new places and foreign situations. “If they have an underlying issue, whether it’s behavioral or medical, it’s more likely to flare up in the backcountry. The cumulative effects of stressors can push kids back in their ability to cope.” Does this mean you shouldn’t go? Nope. Just be aware, and don’t hesitate to check with your doctor about specific concerns you might have before you head out. Be familiar with your route, carry maps and emergency contact info, and know your egresses should you need to get out in a hurry. Once you’ve covered these bases, you can go into the backcountry with a clear mind and focus on what matters most: having fun with your family.

—Katie Arnold

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