Whether you’re building libraries in Zambia or adventuring around Madrid, any trip warrants a first aid kit. While it’s hardly the sexiest of travel topics, having basic first aid items on hand can mean the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major catastrophe. Here’s how to build a travel first aid kit for maximum health and safety—no matter where you are in the world.
1. Prepare personal medications
If you have a preexisting condition, be sure to pack all medications in their original containers with the labels intact. Pack enough medication for the trip as well as some extra to cover unforeseen circumstances. The CDC recommends bringing along copies of any prescriptions as well as a note from the prescribing physician on letterhead stationery—ideally, translate these materials into the language of your destination. In certain countries, some medications are simply not allowed—contact the appropriate embassy or consulate to find out if this is an issue.
2. Consider your needs
Take stock of the length of the trip, the destination, and any planned activities. A remote trekker in the Himalayas will face a very different situation than a Berlin tourist, for example. The more remote or physical the trip, the more comprehensive a first aid kit should be (more on that later). Another big consideration is whether you’ll be traveling solo or going on a family trip, as kids are all but guaranteed to have accidents that may result in cuts or bruises (more on this later, as well)
3. Gather documents
In addition to medications and first aid supplies, a quality kit should include a contact card, proof of insurance coverage, and an immunization record (particularly if traveling in areas where infectious diseases are common) for every traveler. The contact card is meant to be used in case of a medical emergency and should include:
- The name and contact information for an emergency contact back home
- The name and contact info for your health care provider
- The address and phone number for wherever you’re staying
- The address and phone number for your country’s embassy or consulate
- The emergency contact phone number from your travel health insurance provider, if applicable
Additionally, people with preexisting conditions (such as diabetes or severe allergies) may want to wear an alert bracelet and carry a card in their wallet that explains the condition—ideally, the card will be written in the language of your destination.
4. Select a container(s)
Choose a hard, waterproof, and durable container for the first aid kit so as to ensure the items don’t get ruined in transit or bad weather. Choose a larger container for longer trips, and a smaller container for shorter trips. It’s also a good idea to pack a small first aid kit in a carry-on and a more comprehensive kit in checked baggage. Once you’ve unpacked at a destination, carry the small kit with you at all times and re-supply from the large kit if necessary.
5. Pack the basics
At a minimum, any first aid kit worth its salt should include the following:
- Antiseptic wipes
- Antibiotic ointment
- Gauze pads
- Medical tape
- Scissors (keep in mind that these will need to be packed in checked baggage)
- Painkillers/fever reducers (ibuprofen or acetaminophen)
- Ace bandages
- Digital thermometer
- Disposable, latex-free gloves
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer (make sure it’s less than 3.4 ounces if transporting it in carry-on luggage)
Other handy items include:
- Antihistamine medication
- Anti-motion sickness medication
- Antidiarrheal medication
- Mild laxative
- Cough suppressant/expectorant
- Cough drops
- Moleskin for blisters
- Lubricating eye drops (again, remember the 3.4-ounce rule for liquid carry-ons)
- Aloe gel for sunburns (ditto the 3.4-ounce rule)
6. Up the ante where applicable
Remember when you took stock of the trip’s specifics (#2)? Now it’s time to apply that information to your first aid packing list. Anyone traveling to the tropics, for example, should be sure to consider insect bite precautions (such as bed nets) and pack anti-malarial medications. If traveling in a remote area, consider bringing water purification tablets and electrolyte replacements. Spending time in high-altitude areas might warrant packing medication to combat high-altitude sickness. If traveling in a developing country, it’s a good idea to pack oral rehydration salts and medications to treat food poisoning, giardia, and/or amoebic dysentery.
Consult a medical professional to develop the ideal packing list for your needs and destination.
Finally, if traveling with children, consider packing kid-friendly first aid items such as Band-aids featuring popular cartoon characters, kid-sized bandages, a couple of disposable instant cold packs, and a tooth preservation kit. Since children will be exposed to new foods and objects while traveling, read up on how to administer first aid in the event of choking. The ability to respond quickly to any hurts a child experiences may have the added bonus of preventing tantrums on vacation.
A few notes on packing choices
Whenever possible, choose tablets instead of liquids, gels, or creams. If that’s not possible, be sure to adhere to the 3.4-ounces-or-less rule for carry-ons in order to breeze through security.
To save space in baggage, opt for sachets and flat-packed tablets in lieu of bottles and tubes. Also look for travel or sample-size packaging whenever possible (your doctor may be able to help out).
No matter where in the world you’re traveling, it’s worth taking the time to build a quality first aid kit that’s tailored to your destination and activities. In an ideal scenario, the kit will remain untouched during the entire vacation. But in the unfortunate event that you or a companion needs first aid? It is really, really nice (and potentially life-saving) to have proper supplies on hand.