First Aid Survival Kit for Paddlers
The 1st aid/survival kit I carry on most trips is a result our experiences plus years of observation of other’s equipment and trial and error.
A couple of key guidelines in selecting the contents of such a kit are:
1. The kit must be light and compact.
If the kit is large and/or heavy, you’re unlikely to carry it. This is particularly true if you are paddling somewhere with difficult portages and dangerous water. Just the place you are most likely to need it.
2. The kit must be durable and waterproof.
If the kit is going into your boat, it’s going to get bounced around and wet.
3. The kit must be secured to your boat. If it’s loose, you’ll lose it.
4. Each component of the kit should serve more than one purpose, if possible.
5. Each item should be usable under extreme conditions, particularly when you are wet and cold.
6. With the exception of remote / third world countries your components should be chosen for conditions in which rescue will occur in less than 72 hours.
Basic 1st aid/survival kit components
I use a 1 liter plastic, wide mouth bottle (Nalgene). If the bottle doesn’t have a loop attaching the lid, an option is to wrap the bottle with parachute cord, then duct tape. The cord and tape are then available as additional emergency supplies. The bottles are nearly indestructible, waterproof, light, and can be used to purify or carry water.
2. Gloves, latex or nitrile–protect yourself from infection from other’s body fluids.
The gloves can also be used to hold water and, with a small hole in one finger, used to irrigate wounds. If you do have body fluid-contaminated materials after the emergency, invert one of the gloves and use it to carry the contaminated materials.
3. Pocket mask
River runners are more likely than most to have to perform and to have success with artificial respiration and CPR. Have a safety barrier available.
Hypothermia is a constant threat to river runners and is one of nature’s most frequent killers. When it becomes necessary to build a fire, you are usually already cold, wet and tired. Those “waterproof” matches you’ve been carrying will be nearly impossible to use.
The best emergency fire starters I have found are emergency road flares. Most large chain supermarket stores with outdoor departments carry a camper’s flare with a 5 minute burn time. I have submerged one in water for an hour and it still lit quickly and easily. I cut the Wal-Mart version in half, re-seal and wax them. They will start a fire in almost any conditions and require almost no manual dexterity (important when you’re hypothermic). Plus, you CAN use them to signal rescuers.
5. Space blanket
They are not durable but work well to keep in warmth, ward off chill, and provide shelter from wind and rain. They are light, compact, and cheap. Also, spread out on the ground they are highly visible to search aircraft.
A small, stainless pocket knife serves lots of purposes. I keep mine razor sharp to be able to cut away clothing easily. It’s ok if it dulls easily; you’re not chopping down trees with it.
Emergencies and darkness seem to go together. A small, cheap light can be handy for an unplanned overnight stay. Plus, it may help searchers find you.
8. Water purification tablets
Water and warmth are your highest priorities in a survival situation. A small bottle of these tablets make lots of drinkable (if not terribly tasty) water. Also, the cotton ball in the top of the bottle, when smeared with Neosporin, makes a good fire starter.
9. Wound care supplies. Adhesive bandages (Band-Aids)
A small supply of adhesive bandages can be handy to keep wounds clean.
10. Butterfly closures.
These extra-sticky bits of tape are great for keeping larger cuts closed.
11.Gauze pads (2X2 or larger)
These are good for larger injuries when attached with cloth adhesive tape or duct tape. They are also useful for cleaning wounds or just drying your fingers.
11. Adhesive tape
A small or partial roll of 1 ½ or 2 inch wide white cloth adhesive tape is handy for helping protect larger wounds. It is also a slightly better choice for attaching splints to broken limbs.
Neosporin–is great for helping control infection. It’s also ok for lubing drysuit zippers and, when worked into the cotton ball from the water purification tablet bottle, makes an excellent fire starter.
Hydrocortisone cream–works well on irritated skin and insect bites.
Anti-diarrheal tablets–are not usually considered emergency supplies….until you need one on the river.
Benadryl (antihistamine)–can be used to ease the pain from bug bites (like fire ants) and reduce allergic reactions.
Ibuprofen–or any over-the-counter anti-inflammatory can help reduce swelling and pain from anything from headaches or sore muscles to broken bones.
Asthma pumps, epipens or other personal medication
13. Glucose gel, candy
Primarily for diabetic emergencies but might just be handy for a quick energy boost, too.
Some other handy items:
14. Duct tape
I keep a couple of feet of duct tape wrapped around the center of my kayak paddle. If you choose to wrap the liter bottle in parachute cord, the outer layer of duct tape is also a supply.
If available, use the newer, brightly-colored tape. Duct tape is handy for splinting paddles, patching boats, and can even be used for short-term splints. Be careful, taping around an injured and swelling limb can interfere with circulation.
15. Parachute cord
The cord you’ve wrapped around the kit can serve lots of uses. It can be used to set snares or as a fishing line. A normal human being can function effectively for about a week without food and the average American can go a LOT longer.
Use real parachute cord. It has about a 440 pound break strength and has 7 inner strings, each of which can be pulled out if you do need string.
The flare is easily the best bet for starting fires. The matches are a backup and might be handy to quickly sterilize the point of the knife before digging out a splinter.
17. Fresnel lens
The Fresnel lens is a credit card sized pocket magnifier. Besides making it easier to see small injuries like insect stings (particularly for those of us who need reading glasses), you can supposedly start a fire with one. I wouldn’t count on that but for the size, price, and weight; it is worth having one in the kit.
18. Paper and pencil (stub)
A small piece of paper and a pencil stub can be useful for taking (or leaving) notes. For people who have some medical training, a SOAP note sheet from Wilderness Medical Associates provides some good reminders of what to pay attention to during a medical emergency.
The kit described above is by no means the only possible combination of components or necessarily the best. It does meet the criteria described at the beginning of the article and I have field-tested every component. However, do NOT take my word for it. Please build, test, and carry your own.