by Alex Marx
So you’ve got your socks, your passport, a good pair of broken-in hiking boots…
It might be the most underrated travel essential of all time, but a well packed Travel First Aid Kit can keep you from cutting your trip short and save you the hassle of navigating a foreign healthcare system in a language not your own.
A traveler’s first aid kit should be a bit different than your average, everyday, under-the-sink kit. You’re probably going to be carrying this thing around from place to place and heading through airport security and customs at least twice. If you opt for any herbal remedies, a few of which I’ve outlined here, be sure to label them and carry only small amounts in closed containers. It’s also always a good idea to check ahead with the rules about the amounts of plants, food products, and liquids you can carry through any international airport, as these guidelines are not standard between countries.
My personal experience backpacking and road tripping has taught me what I reach for most in my kit (and what I’m always loaning out and sharing around). After experience, its my First Responder training and my time spent studying basic herbalism that most inform what I pack. Your First Aid Kit may look very different depending on where you’re going and what you’re going to be doing when you get there. As with everything, do your own research, be prepared, and be proactive when it comes to your own safety and the safety of anyone who will be adventuring with you.
What’s Already in the Travel First Aid Kit:
You can pick up some great First Aid kits at your local camping supply store for under $30. Any drug store is generally going to have one or two options as well, but if you’re not fluent in the predominant language of the country you’ll be visiting, don’t rely on your ability to buy a kit once abroad because you might not be able to identify everything during an emergency situation. The best time to get acquainted with your kit is while you’re still at home and you’ll also be able to stock up on refills and decide what you want to use to supplement your kit. Make a mental note of anything that has an expiration date and take an inventory before each new trip, since there might be some things you need to replace or add this time around.
If backpacking or camping is a component of your upcoming travel, be sure to stick with a First Aid Kit that weighs in under 2 pounds (unless you’re taking any braces or a lot of tinctures, you should probably be well under that limit). For treks where you’ll be spending longer than 3 days outside of city limits, consider taking a course in wilderness medicine before you leave. In the States, NOLS offers several high-quality classes in wilderness First Aid, depending on the level of proficiency you want to get into—they even have some offerings for on-location training so you can combine the certification with travel time.
The average first aid kit of any size is going to have some basics: tweezers, bandaids, some ointment and gloves. These are all well and good, and lightweight, too, but here are some extras that are especially useful to those of us on the road.
What You Should Add to a Travel First Aid Kit
1. Hydrogel Bandages
These are fantastic for any First Aid Kit, at home or abroad, but bandages like the ones made by AquaHeal can be especially handy when you’re traveling. The great thing about hydrogel bandages is that they keep the wound moist and really stay put in tough places, so if you’re not slowing down any time soon and you know you’re the type of person who needs to keep it low maintenance while traveling, these are an absolute lifesaver, quite literally.
2. Blister Cushions
It may seem minor—but a blister can wreck a good trip when your number one form of transportation is by foot. Suddenly, you’ll be slowing down and less willing to walk the extra ten blocks. Not taking care of blisters is also a great way to turn a tiny, minor complaint into something requiring much more serious medical attention if it gets infected, so stash away some blister cushions to keep the spring in your step and be sure you’re not scrimping on clean socks.
3. A roll of gauze and medical tape
Sure, it’s awesome when it happens in an Indiana Jones movie, but you really don’t want to be in a position to try to stop bleeding with the torn up edge of a sweaty t-shirt. Just keep some clean gauze tucked away and on hand and spare everyone the drama. If your kit doesn’t have these things, I strongly recommend that you get them—especially if you’re going to be traveling outside of major city centers or anywhere without an easily accessible hospital.
Medical tape is also one of those super easy, light-weight conveniences that will come in handy loads of times before you ever need to use it for its intended purpose—patching a pair of worn out flip flops or helping with a little interior decorating around the hostel? a rousing game of Edward Winehands?
4. Antiseptic Spray
Whether its hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, or one of the fancier travel-size spray can formulas you can find at REI—it doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as its antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal. While all kits will have antiseptic wipes included, its awesome to have a spray when you want to cut down on trash and it’s quick and easy to spritz any area.
Any antiseptic spray of your choice is useful for shallow nicks or for cleaning your hands if there’s no hand soap readily available. I like to carry diluted tea tree oil because it’s a great alternative to alcohol-based spray and it also has a handful of additional uses. If you opt for tea tree, don’t forget to add clean, distilled water!
**Please note that antiseptic spray is NOT an adequate replacement for thoroughly cleaning a wound when you’re first bandaging and treating it. With anything deeper than a paper cut, or even a shallow scrape that might have dirt, sand, or something more dubious in it—please do not skip irrigating it thoroughly. Most medium-size First Aid Kits will contain a syringe for this exact purpose.
Additionally, remember that just about every handy spray you could pack is going to be extremely drying. There are some injuries, namely burns, where this will actually slow the healing process and could even cause further damage. If you’re not confident in your ability to distinguish between degrees of burns, please just put the spray away and use cold, clean water until you can see a trained medic.
5. Echinacea and Vitamin C
Whatever works for you at home when you’re starting to come down with a cold—pack it. And pack enough to share. If you’re traveling with kids, take extra.
I also really love Rescue Remedy for everything from emotional exhaustion to the beginnings of a head cold. Keep in mind the little things that make you comfortable when your body needs to fight off sickness and consider bringing a few bags of your favorite tea (or try out this tea made simply from ginger crystals and boiling water).
6. Aloe Vera
If you’re headed off to sunnier lands, you may have already thought to pack a bottle of aloe, but keep in mind that severe sun burns can quickly develop into more serious complications past that initial discomfort. If you do find yourself or someone in your party complaining of sunburns still hot to the touch, it’s important to take seriously that a day in the sun can raise body temperature and lead to heat stroke. Help your burns heal in between sunbathing sessions by slathering on the aloe at night and drinking plenty of water.
I love to mix aloe with lavender for its cooling effect and with some (fresh!) St. John’s Wort to help sooth the skin. A tincture of St. John’s Wort is also a fabulous thing to have on hand for longer trips if you’re prone to anxiety or mild depression. This plant-based supplement acts as a mood stabilizer when taken internally with water and when applied to the skin, it can can be useful to calm rashes and bug bites in addition to sun burns.
No shocker here—a headache can really ruin a day of sightseeing. Most headaches are caused by stress or dehydration, so double your water intake and consider popping an aspirin if the pain is hindering your ability to function. While there’s something to be said to avoiding pain relievers as a preventative measure in itself, it’s is often not the best time to ‘try and tough it out’ while you’re traveling. If you’re in a new place, you want to be on your game and fully awake and aware. If you choose a different pain reliever, make sure it’s non-drowsy to avoid compounding jet lag and losing a day (or three).
Aspirin is my go-to and its easy to find small doses to avoid taking too much. You can also crush it up in water to apply topically in a compress. As magical as it is, though, remember that aspirin is a blood thinner. Always communicate to a medical professional if you’ve been taking it and try to keep track of the dosage you’re taking.
8. Probiotics and anti-nausea pills
There are lots of options for non-refrigerated probiotic supplements (again—check those expiration dates!) and if you’re going to be eating adventurously, you might be glad you have a back-up plan. Travel can be extremely stressful for even the most seasoned wanderer, so don’t be too surprised if you have some stress-induced nausea even if you’re not feeling particularly out of your element.
Ginger candies can serve for everything from nausea to mild altitude sickness and ginger is also high in vitamins to help bolster your immune system (this is an excellent opportunity to take another quick look at that tea I mentioned earlier). Peppermint chewing gum is also a great way to calm nerves and settle an upset stomach.
Outfitted with a Travel First Aid Kit and a few supplementary necessities, you’ll be ready to take care of the common ailments encountered while traveling. Doing your research and packing carefully will free up your mind to focus on more important things. Once you’ve packed your kit, you can confidently forge into the great wide world ready to experience all of the highs, and fight off any low, that may come with it.