Build your own backcountry medical and emergency kit with multi-purpose items
Words by Dani Young, Emergency Medicine RN, BSN
Disclosure: This is not medical advice and is not affiliated with a hospital.
When we wander out into the backcountry, we want to be prepared for any medical emergencies which may arise. We also don’t want to be weighted down with gear we won’t use, and we don’t want to spend money on frivolous medical kits that claim to “have it all.” As an ER nurse in a regional level 1 trauma hospital, I understand the needs of patients who have suffered accidents or injuries, and as an avid backcountry user, I prioritize an efficient and lightweight system. (I am a smaller gal, too, and winter gear is heavy enough!)
After caring for patients who come in from traumatic accidents, I’m constantly rethinking my gear and “med kit.” The list below is intended to serve as a starting point for a basic med kit and, at the very least, facilitate a conversation about what you are carrying in your pack for safety purposes. The information below is compiled based on my own preferences, the opinion of experts in the field and friends who are both medical professionals and avid backcountry users. Best of all, it fits in a small stuff sack. Check ‘er out!
Pictured above: Dani's DIY budget medical kit. Photo by Dani Young.
If duct tape and bungee cords had a baby, it’d be Voile straps. You can never have too many. I’m talkin’ like four or more straps, which can help build a splint, serve as a tourniquet on a bleeding extremity or fix splitboard equipment malfunctions. They are lightweight and have infinite uses, so carry multiple with you.
Broken binding? Voile strap to the rescue! Photo by Steph Nitsch.
- Zip ties — You never know when equipment might break or need help with a splint when Voile straps are too big or bulky.
- Trash bag — Could equal as a quick bivy that will keep a buddy dry. As a plus, it’s ultra lightweight!
- Duct tape wrapped around poles or water bottle — Good for equipment failures or to cover a blister/hot spot. Also makes for a quick fire starter.
- Lighter — To start your quick-starting duct tape fires.
- Liquid band aid (or super glue) — To quickly seal up open wounds.
MULTI TOOL WITH SCREWDRIVER
The MacGyver of tools. A beloved multi tool can fix loose bindings, cut medical tape / clothing / food, saw twigs for a fire, and so much more.
Your dedicated headlamp should not leave your backpack (unless you’re using it, obviously). Epic journeys happen...sometimes unintentionally. Maybe you just stayed out a little too long and need to light your path back to the car. But for serious emergencies that require an evacuation, you can alert EMS or a flight crew to your location if you and your partners have light.
- Benadryl — For allergic reactions; 25-50mg dose
- Tylenol — For fevers, pain reliever; 975mg maximum dose
- Ibuprofen — For pain reliever, 800mg maximum dose
PUFFY JACKET/EXTRA LAYERS
Hypothermia is the biggest concern if someone were to be left in the cold due to injury. Use your trash bag to create a waterproof layer between the snow and your buddy, then wrap them in extra layers to decrease the chances of hypothermia. Sitting on top of two packs can help partners from conductive heat loss. Emergency hand warmers are also lightweight and effective.
SNACKS ON TOP OF SNACKS
Hypoglycemia can be a real issue when we are exerting ourselves in the mountains. Pack extra candy for your ski day and think about items that have a dense calorie to weight ratio. (My favorite are date energy balls that you can make by mixing together whatever ingredients are in your kitchen cabinets. Recommended by my fellow splitter partner, Sophia.)
Pictured here: I also keep a small cut out from an old sleeping pad in my bag which can provide a barrier when sitting on cold snow and can be a splint, if needed.
This can be something fancy, but for the sake of cost, a tarp and ski poles will work in a pinch.
- For the pre-made version, Alpine Threadworks in Canada makes a lightweight rescue tarp and toboggan ($320 CAD) that will haul an injured snowboarder to safety.
- For a DIY version, Park City Powder Cats ski guide Allie Fredbo suggests rigging a makeshift toboggan by putting ski poles through each arm of a jacket to distribute weight correctly and voila!
Communication is key in the backcountry, and that becomes even more critical when an emergency is involved. Many backcountry adventures come with no cell service, so phones are not a reliable communication method. Check out Garmin inReach or 2-way radios, like BCA's Link Radios.
"When someone is broken in the backcountry, the best thing you can do is help evacuate them quickly and keep everyone calm."
Pictured above: Dani's medical kit condensed into a stuff sac. Included are 4 Voile straps, zip ties, trash bags, liquid band aid, hand warmers, multitool, dedicated headlamp, medicine, emergency snacks, extra puffy layer. Duct tape is wrapped separately on the ski pole. Rescue sled not included. Photo by Dani Young.
In a nutshell, when someone is broken in the backcountry, the best thing you can do is help evacuate them quickly and keep everyone calm. Get the injured person to the nearest hospital for evaluation. If it is an upper extremity issue, you can make a splint, try to make them as comfortable as possible and carry their pack out. However if it is leg or spine related, you might be making a sled or sitting for a while. These items should help you put thought into how you can create a medical kit that can best help you and your team in the backcountry!