Tackling the Hunter’s First Aid Kit

November 6, 2019 | Tips & Tricks

Carrying a proper medical kit—and knowing how to use it—can mean the difference between your best day and your worst day in the field.

We’ve all been out with friends and had someone come away with a minor injury. Maybe it’s a sprained ankle, a cut finger or a skinned knee. A little injury where you simply brush the dirt away, shake yourself off and continue on down the trail. But what happens if the injury exceeds “minor” status? Do you know what to do if a gun misfires and suddenly someone has a gunshot wound? Or your hunting buddy falls from the tree stand and suddenly has a compound fracture? It’s oh-so-easy to get caught up in planning and executing a successful hunt, but what happens when something goes wrong?

One of the most important pieces of gear for anyone who steps foot off the pavement, a solid first-aid kit is especially important for hunters. Whether you are heading into the backcountry for a multi-day hunt or simply hitting your favorite trails for the day while setting trail cams, a first aid kit should always be in your backpack. Don’t think of the kit as a fixed item—the contents within your first-aid kit should change per trip… you’re going to want a beefier assortment for 11-day Dall sheep hunt in the Alaska backcountry than you will for a simple morning in the tree stand five miles from home. You may choose to go with an ultralight kit to save weight and space or a broader selection if you are in hunting camp. Never assume the outfitter, your hunting buddy or someone else along the trail will have a medical kit: always be ready to take care of yourself.

Hunter packing pack with hunting gear and medical kit in cabin.

Carrying a well-stocked first aid kit, however, doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it. Consider taking a CPR / Wilderness First Aid course; the course typically runs over two eight-hour days and can be found in most communities for less than $250. It’s a small investment for the knowledge you’ll gain of how to respond correctly when things go wrong, and in the heat of the moment the ability to be certain of your treatment decisions and keep a level head is crucial—whether it’s yourself or a fellow hunter that’s injured. The book Wilderness Medicine: Beyond First Aid by Dr. William Forgey is an excellent primer for home study. Having the kit is one part, but having the knowledge of how to use the kit is most important.

So, first gain the working knowledge and then assemble your kit.

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Seasoned hunting industry photographer and onX Hunt pro staff Steven Drake notes, “I always take a mini first aid/what-if kit with me every time I go into the mountains. It’s been slimmed down and refined over the years; it’s always a balance of space, weight and practicality.” Among other things, he notes he’ll never leave home without a SOL emergency bivy and a QuikClot Advanced Clotting Sponge.

Basic first aid kit for hunters, from onX Hunt.

Items you should consider carrying in your kit include:

The Basic Kit

Adventure Medical Kits makes a series of very solid first aid kits, from one-person single-day kits all the way up to expedition-grade. It’s a good idea to keep a “mini-kit” within your larger kit, so you can grab the basics if you’re going on a quick scout away from base camp. This smaller kit holds the basics for dressing small wounds and minimal medications on hand for cuts, scrapes, blisters and the lot, while remaining portable enough to slot easily into a pocket or daypack. Consider including gauze sponges, band-aids, butterfly bandages, prep pads, moleskin, tweezers, allergy ointment, antibiotic cream, ibuprofen, nitrile gloves, duct tape, Sam splint, AfterBite, towelettes, a Sharpie marker (wrap the duct tape around it), a space blanket and medical tape in the mini-kit.

Tim Burnett of SOLO HNTR (and onX Ambassador) adds something else to his basic kit. “Wet Ones singles are a must-have,” he notes. “I like the citrus.”

Wound Management

Celox, QuikClot or another hemostatic agent should always be in your kit, ready to stop bleeding quickly until proper medical care can be found. If you are trained and confident in giving sutures, pack along a suture kit; if not, Steri-Strips or butterfly bandages are important to bring along. Super Glue can also help seal a wound until proper medical care can be attained. Consider receiving training on how to use a chest seal (an occlusive dressing used when an open chest wound occurs). Train how to use the seal—sucking chest wounds are extremely dangerous and need to be treated appropriately.

Another item to consider is a pressure dressing—a non-adherent bandage covered by an absorbent layer and then a stretchable adhesive. Pressure bandages (a stretchable adhesive) are designed to hold the bandage and absorbent layer close to the wound while applying pressure; helping to stop bleeding and allow clotting to begin.

Bandaging materials in a first-aid kit for hunters, from onX Hunt.

Bandaging

While you should have some basic bandaging supplies in your mini-kit, pack a broader selection in your main kit. Gauze rolls, tape, pressure bandages, gauze pads, tegaderm and Co-Flex wrap provide an easy, effective way to wrap and re-wrap wounds. Throw in a bit of Leukotape (stick pieces to release paper so you don’t have to carry the entire roll) for blisters or joint immobilization.

A multi-tool or your hunting knife is handy for cutting tape or gauze as needed; pack along trauma shears if you have the space and weight allowance.

Medications

Medications: one of the most important—and ever-evolving—aspects of any medical kit. Know what you need for your own system; some people find certain medications more effective than others. While this list is highly individual, consider at least covering these categories:

- Benadryl tabs (or other antihistamine of your choice): Important to keep on hand for possible allergic reactions. It’s a good idea to pack an EpiPen® along as well.

- Benzocaine (Orajel or other): If you’ve ever had tooth problems in the woods, this requires no explanation.

- Consider packing along relevant cold and allergy medicines.

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- Water treatment tabs: Even if you hunt with a water filtration device, pack a few of these as a back-up. Should something happen to your filter, you can still have potable water.

- Ibuprofen: Headaches, backaches, body aches, fever… you name it.

- Electrolyte tabs: Most electrolyte tabs barely take up any space or weight and can be a day saver for hot, early-season hunting. Drop one in your water bottle and sip throughout the day, or refuel with one once you’ve reached evening camp.

Montana hunter and onX Ambassador Jana Waller carries a small, custom first-aid kit containing liquid stitches, a spare lighter and cough drops among other supplies. The surprise item, she notes, is baby aspirin. “It’s good to carry it in case someone in your party is having symptoms of a heart attack,” she notes. “Placed under the tongue (up to 350 mg), it’s quick-dissolving and a good preventative measure.”

Fit all your meds into their own, labeled baggie within your kit. Keep an eye on expiration dates and update as necessary.

A Note on Tourniquets

A tourniquet is an important part of a first-aid kit, but can be problematic in the hands of people who do not know how to use it. If you choose to carry a tourniquet, do your research, buy a quality one and learn how to use it properly.

Certainly pack along the materials for a pressure bandage: gauze 4x4s, gauze rolls and Ace bandages. Celox Blood Clotting Agent (available over-the-counter) can be dumped into the wound prior to applying a pressure wrap. In most cases if a well-administered pressure wrap won’t stop the bleeding, then it’s time to consider a tourniquet.

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Setter playing in leaves while upland hunting in Montana.

Dog Owners

Upland and waterfowl hunters should give thought to carrying a separate section in their medical kit for dogs. While the majority of the items in this kit can cross over, consider adding pediatric Benadryl, buffered aspirin, a thermometer and even a travel bottle of hydrogen peroxide for canine medical concerns.

Read our blogPreseason Preparation for Bird Dogs and Hunters for thoughts and tips from onX Ambassador Brandon Moss and Shawn Wayment, DVM, on preseason canine conditioning as well as emergency field care and preparation.

Organization

Keeping your kit organized is crucial. Many outdoorsmen like to keep items in each category in separate Ziplock baggies within a larger bag—often a dry bag, which can easily be clipped onto vehicles or packs. This modular system allows the user to easily find what they are looking for without digging through the entire kit. It’s also easier to mark what needs to be replaced upon the return home. Ease of use and consistent maintenance is key.

At the beginning of every trip, talk with your fellow hunters and ensure they know you have a kit and what’s in it. Some people may need fast access to particular medications and it’s important to know who has what gear and where it is. In areas where snakes or other poisonous creatures are a concern, talk realistically about steps to be taken if someone is bitten… it can be sobering, but it’s important to ensure no time is wasted if and when action is needed.

While it may seem obvious to bring a more complete first aid kit for trips further into the backcountry, many hunters find themselves doing just the opposite: carrying less to save ounces. In reality, the further away from medical help you find yourself, the more first-aid items you should be carrying.

This list is in no way intended to be a final or complete guide, or to serve as a replacement for any sort of formal medical advice. Use it as a starting point to review your own first aid practices in the field. If something were to happen, are you prepared? Do you have the training necessary to manage wounds in the field? Perhaps your own medical kit is about ten years out of date?

Above all: review, refresh and remain prepared.