The Best First Aid Kit Review
Which first aid kit is the best choice for the outdoor enthusiast? We put to the test five of the top rated models available on the market today. We carried them on alpine routes, multi-day river trips, commercial guiding expeditions, and backpacking and road trips into the mountains and rivers of California, Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada. We evaluated them based on the following criteria: quality and usefulness of the components, durability and design of the bag, versatility, weight and size. Ultimately, proper training in wilderness medicine is what results in both the best utilization of the materials and good decision making during a wilderness emergency. Read on to see which kit you should pick up before your next outdoor adventure.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall First Aid Kit
REI Backpacker Extended
Best Bang for the Buck
Lifeline Trail Light Dayhiker
Top Pick for Day Hiking and Lightweight Adventures
Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .5
Analysis and Test Results
Ideally, a first aid kit is something that never gets used. In reality, a backcountry user will inevitably encounter a variety of instances that require the use of these supplies. Day hikers who are close to their cars and healthcare facilities can get by with a smaller model for blister treatments and small cuts and scrapes, whereas an overnight traveler hiking far from a trailhead requires a larger assortment of tools to treat the various injuries and illnesses that might occur. There is a wide range in size, shape and usefulness when it comes to this product. The biggest factors in deciding which one to buy are the remoteness of your location, the length of your trip, and the size of your group. Basically, the longer the trip and/or the larger the group, the bigger your first aid kit will need to be.
The value of a kit is in the layout, durability and construction of the bag. You'll need to resupply your bag any time it gets used, so selecting one with a durable design is a key consideration.
If you're planning on building a kit from scratch, or want to be sure that the next model you buy contains all the essential supplies, check out our comprehensive Buying Advice Guide. It includes the details for the basic elements that we like to carry into the backcountry, as well as suggestions for emergency supplies to be kept in your car or home.
Types of First Aid Kits
We've broken down the different types of kits into five main categories:
Expedition models don't skimp on the amount of tools or quantity of medications. Weight and size are not the main factor in deciding what to stock in them. These models will live at base camp or serve a larger group's needs, say on a multi-day rafting trip or into a remote area in the mountains. Expedition models are essentially remote medical stations for situations where access to medical facilities is limited. They have the same products as basic overnight kits, but with larger quantities and specialized components. If you're building an expedition kit, you'll want to include some prescription medications, such as altitude medications, antibiotics, and pain management medications, which can make a huge difference in a remote wilderness emergency. In order to obtain these products, you'll need to discuss the situation with a medical doctor, as no company sells expedition models that contain prescription medications. In our review, the Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Fundamentals is the only model that comes close to meeting the needs of an expedition.
These models serve the needs of a small group that is far enough from the trailhead that they need to be a little more self-sufficient. These types include basic over the counter medications, wound care supplies, blister treatments, and a roll of tape for ankle injuries. Overnight models may also include splinting material, such as a SAM Splint, elastic ACE wraps and triangle bandages. Our Editors' Choice winner, the REI Backpacker Extended, falls into this category.
Day Use Models
These are lightweight options that are most appropriate for day hikes and mountain bike trips that take place a short distance from the car. These are minimalist kits that are carried in case of minor problems that occur on the trail, with the idea that if something major happened, advanced medical care is not far away. These kits are not designed to deal with any trauma or medical problems, but can treat common cuts, blisters, scrapes and burns. There should also be a roll of tape for injured ankles and some common over the counter medications to deal with headaches and pain relief. Examples of kits in this category that we reviewed are the award winning Top Pick for Day Hiking and Lightweight Adventures, the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .5 and our Best Buy winner, the Lifeline Trail Light Dayhiker.
Many people do (and more should) carry a large first aid kit in their car. These models are not constrained by bulky items or weight. They are great for trailhead first aid, as well as for car camping. They can be used for all kinds of first aid opportunities, such as climbing areas or skateboard parks that are near to a parking lot. Car-based models include items that you may not typically carry on a backpacking trip, like chemical ice packs to help reduce swelling or glow sticks for nighttime visibility on a road.
While it isn't as important for a home-based model to be self-contained (you might have a variety of supplies strewn about your house or apartment), it is a good idea to keep them all in one area for quick and easy access. A home-based model is not limited by weight, therefore you can keep larger amounts of your commonly used items, like band aids, full-sized tubes of antibiotic ointment and hydrocortisone cream, or bottles of pain and fever relief medication. This kit should also have a thermometer, and a list of emergency contact numbers such as poison control and family members' doctors. While none of the models that we tested were specifically designed for home use, your overnight or expedition model can double as a home-based kit when not in use on the trail. Just be sure to double check all your supplies before heading out on your next adventure.
Be sure to check out our Buying Advice Guide for a list of what products we like to see in each of the above types of kits.
Criteria for Evaluation
Quality of Components
This is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a first aid kit. It's frustrating to pull a component from your bag and it doesn't do the job you need it to because the manufacturer tried to save on costs. The component quality of the different models that we tested ranged dramatically. Some had solid trauma shears similar to those a paramedic carries on an ambulance and others had small scissors made of cheap plastic that bent when we tried try to cut anything with them.
Other items that had a wide range of quality were the rolls of tape, triangle bandages, tweezers and CPR masks. Overall, the REI and Adventure Medical Kits models had the highest quality components.
Usefulness of Components
Each model was scored on how useful the components were in a wilderness medicine situation. Here again, the REI Backpacker Extended led the pack with useful items, like an irrigation syringe and fine point tweezers, and not a lot of extra items that didn't serve much purpose.
Durability and Design of Bag
It's important to consider the durability and design of the bag that you are buying, because this is the one component that will be with you for the lifetime of the kit. Individual components need to be replaced either from use or because they expire (such as in the case of medications). The bag itself also reflects the types of trips you take. A weight conscious alpinist needs a simple construction that is made of silicone impregnated nylon, like the AMK Ultralight/Watertight .5, rather than a beefy Cordura nylon like an expedition model may have. We were most impressed with the effort put into making the Ultralight/Watertight's bag weather resistant and protecting the kit's components with a reversed watertight zipper and taped seams.
We also took into account how the bag organized the components - some bags, like the REI Backpacker Extended and AMK Mountain Series Fundamentals, have creative labeling systems and clear pockets that allow you to quickly find what you are looking for.
Versatility For Multiple Environments and Group Size
This category took into account how large of a group the different kits could service and the range of activities they were good for. A kit lost points if it was too heavy and did not have the added benefit of being able to service more people in a remote environment. The most versatile models are those with the highest quality components and good weight-to-usefulness ratio. Again, the REI Backpacker Extended had the highest rating as it struck the right balance of weight vs tools that were useful to a wilderness user.
First aid kits are like digital cameras. You may have a DSLR with multiple lenses, but when you see that bobcat on the trail and your camera gear is buried in your pack, the thing that often captures the photo is your smartphone because it's always in your pocket. There's no point in having a large kit that you then leave at home for shorter trips because you don't have space or it's too heavy. The best kit is the one you have with you.
Weight and Size
We measured the weight of both the full and empty bag, and ranked the different models accordingly. The Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Fundamental ranked lowest in this category — the empty bag weight was more than some other models fully loaded. On the other hand, their Ultralight/Watertight .5 kit ranked highest, as the empty bag weighs a scant .3 oz. This metric is a key consideration in cases where every ounce and cubic inch matters, such as alpine climbing and lightweight backpacking. If you're mostly on a river or car camping, then a heavier or bulkier model will work just fine.
Whether you are a backcountry enthusiast or simply love to go on day hikes, at some point in your outdoor adventures you may find a need for first aide. Obviously, we hope this never occurs to you, but being prepared for unfortunate cases of injury should be a top priority for everyone. Ranging in size and content, not all kits in this review are alike. We hope that our evaluations have helped to point out what type of kit you need. Check out our Buying Advice article for more details on the different type of kits available.
About the Author
Viren Perumal was born in Thailand and grew up in the Southeastern US where he learned to climb and whitewater kayak. Since 1999, he's worked as a professional in almost every aspect of the outdoor industry: raft guide, wilderness therapist, ski patroller, search and rescue, ambulance crew, outdoor educator, outdoor retail specialist, biology researcher, and climbing guide. He currently teaches wilderness medicine for the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS, works as a rock and alpine guide for Sierra Mountain Guides, and teaches rock climbing instructor courses for the American Mountain Guides Association.
— Viren Perumal
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