How to build your own top-notch first aid kit
Ditch one-size-fits-all first aid kits and build one tailored to meet your needs in every environment.
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First aid kits save lives, but what are the chances you have an adequate first aid kit nearby at any given time? No, those big-box store kits don’t count, especially since most of them are simplistic “boo-boo kits” designed to handle cut fingers, scraped knees, and maybe a first-degree burn or two. Few pre-made first aid kits pack the necessary supplies to deal with a truly life-threatening emergency, and those that do often suffer from significant shortcomings, such as high price tags, limited supplies, or both. In such cases, your best bet is to build your own first aid kit to create a much more capable tool than virtually anything you can snag off the shelf.
Most high-end factory-built first aid kits provide plenty of supplies capable of handling a vast array of medical emergencies, yet the chances of finding one that matches your particular needs and unique skill sets are worse than a second lieutenant actually shooting an azimuth in under five minutes. On the flip side, a custom-built first aid kit will provide you with everything you need and nothing you don’t. In shaving away excess supplies, you will find yourself saving weight and saving cash while maximizing your ability to provide efficient, effective emergency care.
You may never be Doc Roe or Renee Lemaire, but keeping a first aid kit handy could be one of the best decisions of your life. Here is how to properly build a first aid kit of your own.
Doing it right with a first aid kit
Time You’re Going to Need: About half an hour to lay the groundwork and another half hour to pack and stage the kit
What is a first aid kit?
If you don’t know what a first aid kit is, then you’ve been living under a rock since before the dinosaurs went extinct. It’s time to get with the program and catch up with the rest of humanity (or at least up until 1888). All joking aside, there seems to be some actual confusion today as to what constitutes an actual first aid kit.
For starters, a first aid kit is NOT a boo-boo kit (i.e., a box of Band-Aids accompanied by a little gauze, some tape, a few alcohol wipes, and some antibiotic cream thrown in like add-ons to a value meal). As the name implies, a first aid kit provides everything an on-site first responder might need to provide emergency medical care until more advanced care providers arrive. A proper first aid kit is tailored to treat specific injuries and illnesses commonly found in certain environments, meaning that proper first aid kits will vary from place to place. This explains why a military IFAK can be so dramatically different from an OSHA-compliant kit found in businesses across America.
What you’re going to need to build a first aid kit
Everyone has different gear in their kit. Make sure you have the best tools of the trade on hand for this specific task. Don’t worry, we’ve made a list.
- Pen or pencil
- Clear mind
- Case/storage container
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Topical treatments and cleansers
- Wound dressings and closures
- Trauma care equipment
- Tools and support equipment
- Specialty equipment
Before you sit down or head off into the field, it’s best if you organize your workspace or bag ahead of time. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, or so the saying goes, and we’re big believers of that mantra. Set everything up and then proceed, you’ll save yourself a headache of rummaging around your tools or having to hike all the way back out of the woods just because you forgot your knife.
The first aid kit brief
Gear up, corpsman! Here’s how to build a proper first aid kit.
Before you even consider building a first aid kit of your own, get some training. Sure, you could build a first aid kit without any training, but the advantages over a premade kit from a big box store are very limited. Sure, you might eliminate a few extra Band-Aids, saving you fractions of an ounce in the process, but any extra supplies or equipment you buy will do little more than add weight to your kit.
If you have not already done so, get (at least) a basic first aid certification, then come back.
How much is too much?
Before building a first aid kit, take some time to figure out just how many kits you need. For most people, two kits will be the bare minimum: one at home and one in the car. If you have a home, two cars, an EDC backpack, and a cabin in the woods, you will need four or five kits rather than two. Every individual’s needs will vary, so determine your own needs before you start this project. If you only need one kit, don’t sweat it. If you need 10 first aid kits, then more power to you. Of course, we recommend building one kit first and then building the rest once you know what you’re doing.
Once you’ve determined just how many first aid kits you want to build and which one you plan to build first, take some time to roughly sketch out your kit’s loadout. Take some time to think through emergency and logistical factors that will affect what you carry in your kit. Consider the following:
- Habits and patterns – Write down a list of places you visit and the various activities that occur at each location, including your home. For each item on your list, write down any medical emergencies you can imagine might occur at, during, or en route to each one. As a baseline, focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly activities and locations. Ask yourself:
- Do I spend my days staring at a computer monitor or directing traffic on a flight line?
- Do my weekends usually consist of camping and Tough Mudders or soccer games and birthday parties?
- Do I take a monthly road trip to visit friends or family?
- Do I go to professional sporting events two or three times a year?
- Medical conditions – Some people have very specific medical concerns, such as diabetes or allergic reactions. Make sure to include the appropriate medications and associated supplies in your considerations.
- First aid skill sets and limitations – While you may not be able to treat every medical emergency, understanding your strengths and limitations will make creating your supply list that much more straightforward. To avoid buying supplies you don’t need, ask yourself:
- What level of care can I safely (and legally) provide for others or myself?
- Am I mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared to provide first aid?
- What skills have I practiced that I know I can perform under stress/during an adrenaline dump?
- What level of first aid am I prepared to provide for a loved one?
- What first aid can I perform on myself if I only have one hand/arm available?
- Environment – Every region of the country has its own unique hazards, and your job is to identify those hazards ahead of time. Ask yourself:
- What is the general climate in my area?
- What are the local weather patterns, temperature norms, and potential weather emergencies (blizzards, hurricanes, etc.)?
- What kinds of wild animals live in my vicinity? Are they aggressive, poisonous, or potentially diseased (rabies, etc.)?
- Kit storage – Where you plan to store your first aid kit will significantly impact what and how many supplies will fit inside your kit. A first aid kit designed to fit inside the glove box of your daily driver may lack space for bulkier items, such as reusable splints or CPR masks. On the other hand, if you plan to store your kit in the trunk or on the backside of the headrest, space may be less of a concern, potentially increasing your kit’s physical footprint and carrying capacity.
- Potential allies (optional) – Wisdom dictates that a good first aid kit should be accessible to and usable by any individual likely to use it. As such, take stock of those with whom you regularly interact. This can range from a prepared citizen to an off-duty nurse or EMT. Even if you don’t know what a chest seal is or how to use it, having one handy on the shooting range could be a lifesaving investment in yourself or others. So, ask yourself:
- Do my family members, friends, or coworkers have first aid training? If so, how much training?
- Are nearby strangers likely to have first aid training? If so, what skills are they likely to have?
In light of your newfound knowledge about yourself, your environment, and your storage constraints, you have all you need to develop a rough idea of what your first aid kit will contain. Using everything you’ve learned, write a list of first aid supplies, broken down into two sections: “Critical” and “Nice to Have.” For example, supplies such as an epinephrine autoinjector (i.e., an EpiPen) or CPR mask may be non-negotiables in certain instances, while a reusable splint and extra Band-Aids may not be valuable enough to keep if storage space is limited.
If you need a list of first aid supplies to get your started, take a look at our buying guide for pre-stocked first aid kits.
Gather your gear
This is where the fun begins (if you like spending money, that is). Using your newly-created supply list, order everything on your “Critical” list and nothing else. You can fill in extra space with supplies on the “Nice to Have” list later.
If you need specific supplies or equipment but have limited space, DO NOT compromise on quality. When it comes to buying lifesaving equipment that relies on strength or durability to do its duty, such as tourniquets, avoid buying cheap knockoffs or counterfeit goods. Historically, e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay have had a spotty record vetting vendors selling medical supplies. Instead, you should consider buying from a dedicated first-aid supplier or first-responder store. While you might save a few bucks on the front end, you or someone else could end up losing their life due to equipment failure. Instead, track down the product’s manufacturer or a reputable third-party retailer and purchase it from them.
Here’s a list of first aid supplies to help get you started. While not comprehensive, this list (pulled from our first aid kits buying guide) should get you well on your way to where you need to be.
- General-purpose supplies
- Nitrile exam gloves
- Alcohol wipes
- Antibiotic/antibiotic wipes
- Antiseptic/antiseptic wipes
- Burn cream
- Sting relief wipes
- Adhesive bandages
- Gauze rolls
- Triangular bandage
- Butterfly closures
- Sterile gauze pads
- Adhesive tape
- Cotton swabs
- Safety pins
- Splint materials (fingers and/or limbs)
- Cold pack
- Emergency blanket
- Glucose/sugar tablets
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin)
- Plastic bag
- First aid guide
- Advanced supplies
- CPR mask/face shield
- Compressed gauze
- Trauma pads
- Eye pads
- Permanent marker/pen
- Specialty supplies
- Decompression needle
- QuikClot gauze
- Chest seals
- Nasopharyngeal airway
Pick a pack
Custom-built first aid kits are highly specialized equipment that will conform to the specific needs of a given individual. As such, selecting a proper storage solution will vary from person to person. That said, certain principles apply to every good first aid kit.
- Above all, your first aid kit’s storage container should store all of your critical equipment without compromising any of your supplies’ ability to perform their function. In order to maintain medical integrity, your kit’s container should provide protection from the elements (especially water), high or excessively low temperatures, sunlight, corrosion, and other environmental factors that could degrade your equipment’s integrity. By extension, a quality storage container will also stay safe to use at all times (i.e., no rusty edges or hinges).
- Make sure your storage container does not cram everything too close together when you close it. While compactness and space efficiency certainly have their place, smooshing everything in like sardines in a can could decrease the shelf life of certain items by compromising their packaging.
- Look for a first aid kit container that both organizes your supplies and is easy to access and use. While custom labeling likely won’t be an option for you, make sure to select a container that includes plenty of slots, pockets, and pouches so you can easily find and access your equipment while under stress.
- Portability and ease of access are also critical considerations. A perfectly-stocked first aid kit won’t do much good when it’s at the base of the mountain lashed to your Jeep’s roll bar with zip ties and 100-mile-an-hour tape while you’re bleeding out at timberline. The same goes for a kit that requires a key and a 20-digit PIN to unlock it.
- Pay attention to where and how you plan to store your first aid kit. If keeping it on your Jeep’s roll bar really does make sense, find a storage solution that incorporates a hook-and-loop panel that turns a stationary kit into a rip-away option. If you have limited space in your EDC backpack, find a solution that is both space-efficient and lightweight.
Before making your purchase, don’t forget to determine how much space your first aid supplies will eat up. For many people, a six- by eight- by three-inch nylon pouch should be enough. These water-resistant pouches usually have good organization, include hook-and-loop tearaway panels, and are durable, lightweight, and user-friendly, like this rip-away Condor pouch. For others, a hard case does the job better. Containers like the IP67-rated Nanuk 903 can take quite a licking, are virtually impervious to water and the elements, and allow easy access to critical supplies.
NOTE: Do NOT remove any tags from your new storage solution until you can confirm that all of your essential supplies will fit inside.
Put it all together
Once you’ve gathered all your essential supplies (and literally no extras), it’s time to start assembling your kit. As you pack your kit’s storage container, carefully consider how to pack it just as you would a backpack for an extended excursion. By taking your time on the front end, you will save yourself pain (or worse) on the back end.
When backpacking, wisdom dictates positioning camp gear and other items that require infrequent access farther away from your pack’s access points. This, in turn, makes critical gear easier and quicker to access, saving you time on the trail. Packing your first aid kit effectively requires a similar mindset. Some first aid supplies, like tweezers and ibuprofen, rarely need speedy access, and as such, these supplies can be positioned in locations that may require a little more effort to access. Consequently, this frees up space in the quick-to-access locations for time-sensitive supplies and equipment, such as gloves, a CPR mask, or a chest seal.
Finish the job
Once you’ve packed your kit into an appropriate storage container, now is the time to stop and take stock. Ask yourself if all of your essential supplies fit inside. If not, then consider returning and replacing your storage solution with something larger or supplementing it with secondary solutions, such as this Eleven 10 tourniquet pouch. (If you plan to attach two identical kits together simply to increase your Band-Aid count, don’t. To avoid complicating your first-aid efforts, secondary storage should only be used for specialty equipment that requires extremely fast access and, even then, limits your add-ons to one item, two at the most.)
If your kit’s container is perfectly sized, then congratulations, you’re good to go. However, if your kit’s storage solution has extra room inside once fully stocked with the essentials, consider one of the following options:
- Return and replace the pouch or container with a smaller one,
- Change nothing, or
- Add in a few extra supplies from your “Nice to Have” list. If you take this route, be very careful to avoid overloading your kit with non-essentials.
If your kit’s container has tons of extra space, then we strongly recommend Option #1. If there is only a small amount of extra storage space, then we’d recommend sticking to Option #2. Only select Option #3 if you can do so without overstuffing your pouch or container.
Stow your stuff
Congrats, you’ve just built your own first aid kit! Now, where the heck are you going to keep the darn thing? Hopefully, you did your due diligence earlier and have a place picked out, but even if not, all is not lost.
When selecting a first aid kit storage location, make sure to find a place that allows quick and easy access to your kit. At the same time, choose a location that provides plenty of protection from the elements, impacts, chemical spills, and other potential threats to the kit’s medical integrity.
A specialist’s pro tips for building a first aid kit
If you’re building your own first aid kit, there’s a good chance you’re a born Boy Scout with a tendency to over-prepare — for everything. This means that there’s a high likelihood that you’ll end up cramming more stuff into your kit. We get that there’s some amazing equipment and supplies out there, but one of the major advantages of building your own first aid kit is shaving weight by eliminating nice but unnecessary supplies. As soon as you add a cool new item into your kit, such as a can of Dermoplast, you may find yourself with a much heavier kit than you ever planned or imagined. In some cases, such as with a home or car first aid kit, the extra weight may not be an issue, but if you want something a bit more mobile, then be on guard against letting handy yet nonessential items make it onto your “Critical” list.
Also, learn to identify which products to purchase and which to avoid. Adhesive bandages are a dime a dozen, and while some brands do perform better than others, don’t lose sleep over whether to buy Band-Aid or Curad bandages so long as you select something sterile. In most cases, this is the best approach. However, for more critical supplies, such as tourniquets and burn dressings, it’s best to do some research on both the product and the retailer before leaving your cash at the register. Too often, people have purchased a so-called “CAT tourniquet” only to discover later that the deal they scored only got them a cheap Chinese knockoff that will fail them when they need it most.
FAQs about first aid kits
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does building a first aid kit cost?
A. Determining the cost to build a first aid kit is like determining the cost to build a bridge, as the amount of variation can be staggering in light of the variety of possible first aid kits (and bridges). That said, building a general-purpose CONUS first aid kit should run you somewhere between $50 and $125, depending on your specific needs. That said, it is possible to build a budget trauma kit for under $25.
Q. Do first aid kits expire?
A. First aid kits do not expire. However, replacing supplies from time to time is a wise strategy. Over time, medications slowly lose their potency, and alcohol wipes, gel packets, and similar items eventually will dry out. Depending on the kit’s storage environment, bandages sheaths, dressing wrappers, and similar equipment packaging may break down, causing those supplies to lose their sterile integrity.
Q. Why do I need gloves in my first aid kit?
A. Gloves provide a barrier between you and the victim you are treating. Bodily fluids have a nasty habit of carrying potentially dangerous pathogens, and the last thing you need is to contract HIV, hepatitis, or some other life-altering disease just because you were a Good Samaritan. Gloves also have the advantage of preventing any dirt or pathogens on your own hands from entering the body of the individual you are treating.
Q. Does my first aid kit need a CPR mask?
A. If you or someone likely to use your first aid kit are CPR-certified, then yes. Otherwise, take some time to learn hands-only CPR, a lifesaving technique that does not require any formal training or certification.
Q. Should I get first aid certified?
A. Yes. Arm yourself with the knowledge you’ll need to save lives. Hit up the American Red Cross, American Heart Association, American Safety & Health Institute, or your local YMCA to schedule a first aid and/or CPR class right now.
Got questions, comment below & talk with T&P’s editors
For over 25 years, Brian Smyth has been neighbors with the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Army’s Ivy Division. He loves the challenge of crafting words and has written for The Drive, Car Bibles, and other publications. Nothing gets him going quite like the roar of dual Pratt & Whitneys overhead, the smell of cordite, and the stories of the Greatest Generation.