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First Aid Kits: What you need and why

Written by Jessica on March 19, 2011

The great Center for Disease Control (CDC), has much more knowledge than I could amass in a lifetime on the topic of international first aid. Here’s why they say you need a first aid kit:

“The purpose of packing a travel health kit is to ensure travelers have supplies they need to—

- manage pre-existing medical conditions and treat any exacerbations of these conditions,
- prevent illness related to traveling, and
- take care of minor health problems as they occur. 1

Now that you know why you need a first aid kit, consider what type and quantity of supplies you will need. The list below is intended for people traveling long term and who have little or no access to medical care. If you’re backpacking through European cities, you could get away with substantially less. If you’re taking a 4x4 though the Darien gap, you’ll likely need everything in triplicate.

Here are few reminders, then we’ll get into the full lists:

Prescription drugs: If you are taking prescription drugs, bring the prescription with you. Bring extras. And make sure that they are packed in the original labeled bottle. Don’t carry a prescription for someone else.

Keep original packaging: If doesn’t matter if it’s aspirin, Sudafed or Viagra, keep the original box. The scientific names used for drugs are the same around the world and none of them are easy to remember or pronounce, especially when you are sick. It also helps you remember if the little white pills are laxatives or aspirin and conveniently shows the expiration date too.

Full-spectrum Antibiotic: Nothing does it like Cipro. Take the time before your trip to go see your doctor and get a general antibiotic prescription. It doesn’t cost much, but sure helps out when you feel like you’re dying and you’re three days from civilization.

Malaria test kit: If you’re going to a country with Malaria and will be more than a day from medical facilities, stop at a pharmacy and pick up a few malaria test kits. They are small and easy to use. To quote the Lonely Planet Guide for Southern Africa “If you have a fever in Africa, assume it is Malaria until a test proves otherwise”. The $3 test is the only way for you to quickly tell the flu from Malaria. Check out this article on Malaria for more information.

The List

These items you should already be carrying with you, depending on your destination. We don’t count them as first aid kit items, but they may still be needed to keep you happy and in good health.

First aid kit example for travel internationally

  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Insect bite itch cream
  • Lip balm
  • Water purification tablets
  • Extra contacts or eye glasses
  • Emergency contact card


  • Any prescription drugs you are taking
  • Anti-malarial drugs
  • Altitude medicine: Diamox
  • Average pain and headache medicine like acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Diarrhea Drugs: Immodium
  • Normal upset stomach drugs: mild laxative, antacid
  • Cold or congestion drugs (bring a variety): decongestant, cough suppressant/expectorant, throat lozenges
  • Antihistamine: tablets like Benadryl, extra ointment
  • Motion sickness tablets
  • Epinephrine auto-injector: EpiPen
  • Full spectrum antibiotic: Cipro - you’ll have to get a prescription, but it’s simple, usually cheap and worth it.
  • Sleep aids: Tylenol PM or another type. Whatever works for you.

Basic First Aid Supplies

  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Disposable gloves (2-3 pairs)
  • Variety of adhesive strips (bandaids)
  • Variety of sizes of sterile gauze pads
  • Rolled gauze
  • Tape (we take duct tape, it has so many uses)
  • Cotton swabs
  • Antiseptic / Anti-bacterial cream
  • Tweezers (get a decent pair)
  • Scissors (don’t be tempted to remove them from the kit for other purposes. These are first aid only!)
  • Digital thermometer
  • Saline eye drops
  • Moleskin or other blister prevention pads
  • Cold compress pack
  • Elastic bandage (ACE bandage)
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Malaria test kits
  • Mini-sewing kit
  • Basic first aid book

First aid kit for travelI know these seems like a giant list of stuff you’ll never use, but it really isn’t that much. All of this fit in a small First aid kit bag.

You can buy a kit at most pharmacies for less than $15 and then add the extra travel supplies you need. We found most of it around our house.

Most medications (especially related to malaria) are substantially cheaper outside the western world.

Keep in mind that most of these items can be restocked as you travel. You don’t need to take enough for your entire trip, just enough to get you to the next town or medical facility.

I encourage all readers to seek other medical sources in addition to this one. Every trip and every person has different needs.

Resources: CDC Website: Amanda D. Whatley, Deborah Nicolls Barbeau


Trisha Edgar
#1 Trisha Edgar 2013-01-07 18:45
I would add hydrogen peroxide and a betadine solution, especially if you are hiking and might get scrapes or scratches in humid environements.

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