Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Emergency Kit

Thoughts and Experiences Concerning the Least-Used Portion of My Pack

When I was working for UCLA, at one of our outdoor program meetings the question came up: "What part of the program first aid kits do you use most often?"

The surprisingly correct answer came back: "The zipper!" (To open the kit, of course.)

The outdoor program kits were 3-pound bricks. Some of the students in the program carried naught but tape and Tylenol when on personal trips, others built their own kits based on the bricks they used through work. And a small but impressive few had experiences outside of work to guide them toward good choices in what they brought.

I carry a 'ten essentials' kit on my own trips like most folks do. Good for first aid, gear repair, and unexpected nights out, I've tuned this kit down to what I consider a minimum unless I want to accept a LOT more risk or discomfort. I have used all of it at one time or another (or, in the single case of the Epi Pen, very desperately wanted it before adding it to the kit). In addition, I've actually used the kit for a number of big nights and incidents, so I have a pretty good amount of faith in it, although no setup is perfect.

One thing I wished for at UCLA was the time to describe my own emergency kit and the motivations behind each item. But, there were so many things to teach, and so little time. And after all, the program 'bricks' were always with them. So hopefully, this will go some of the way toward completing that wish.

Here are the contents in no particular order, totaling 22 oz, with my comments after each item:

  • 1 Roll Cloth Athletic Tape
    (For protecting blisters, securing bandages and dressings, securing splints, repairing gear temporarily, and a hundred other uses.)
  • 1 Lightweight Stuff Sack
  • (For carrying everything)
  • 20 Sheets Paper and 2 Pencils
    (For writing notes and documentation, or for starting fires for warmth, or for writing notes or playing games when bored and/or stressed on a bivy...)
  • 1 Pair EMT ShearsTape
    (Cuts through clothing, rope, boots, and foam pads to shape for padding, splints, or insulation)
  • 25' Thin Cord
    (For gear repair, hanging the space blanket as shelter, or securing well-padded branches, poles, or pads as bone splints)
  • 2 Pairs Mini Hand Warmers
    (As much as these are quite heavy, I can't seem to give them up from this kit. They are so nice on an unexpected night out, as well as for a sick person who can't maintain their temperature comfortably. I'd definitely bring these over the 400 calories of food that the equivalent weight would allow.)
  • 1 Pair Uncle Bills Tweezers
    (Strangely, I have rarely had to use these. They work okay.)
  • 2 pairs nitrile gloves
    (One pair always breaks with an hour or so of use. And, as much as I used to believe that I would just 'jump in and do what needs doing' without gloves if I needed to, I've discovered that there are a lot of gross things in this world and that gloves are pretty darn nice sometimes.)
  • 5 3x3" Gauze Pads
    (For small/medium wound covering.
    Anything bigger and I use a T-shirt, preferably a boiled t-shirt or bandana. I also prefer non-stick gauze pads.)
  • 3 Large Patch Band-Aids
    (These keep dirt and water out better than a taped-on gauze pad)
  • 8 Butterfly Bandages
    (For closing deep cuts - used with caution. I often pack cuts I'm worried about open and evac rather than trapping my bad backcountry cleaning job under a few layers of tightly-pressed-together skin)
  • 10 Band-Aids, various sizes/shapes
    (Small cuts are all fun and games until you drip blood in the group food)
  • 2 Lighters
    (Fire is the most blessed thing I can create during a forced night out or emergency.)
  • 1 bottle Iodine tablets (enough for about 24 liters)
    (Someone with me always uses this when unexpectedly needing water, and sometimes that person is me. I can't explain it, but it gets used a LOT.)
  • 20 500mg Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
    (Great for fevers, headaches, etc)
  • 20 200mg Ibuprofen (Advil)
    (Helpful in larger quantities to reduce inflammation somewhat, also good as an alternative to Tylenol and other painkillers)
  • 20 220mg Naproxen Sodium
    (On longer trips with lots of people, sometimes different pains need a variety of solutions.)
  • 10 25mg Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
    (For allergic reactions, also great as a sleeping aid)
  • 1 Epi Pen, two dose
    (I poo-pooed allergic reactions until about a swarm of bees almost killed me. Thanks to quick work from my friends, I lived even without an Epi Pen handy, but now I carry one, and not just for myself.)
  • 4 Benadryl-brand 25mg Quick-Dissolve Strips
    (Rumored to someday obsolesce the Epi-Pen. I'll believe it when I see it. However, these do work well as I used them on a fellow with a nasty case of hives and wheezing.)
  • 4 Pepto Bismol tablets
    (Diarrhea = dehydration. Better, IMHO, than carrying rehydration salts which lead to vomiting since they're gross.)
  • 6 Tylenol C4 (500mg Acetaminophen, 5mg Hydrocodone)
    (For pain management. The only thing more stressful than dealing with a trauma-based emergency is having your broken friend screaming incessantly throughout the whole ordeal.)
  • 4 packets Antibiotic Ointment
    (For multi-day wound disinfectant, when used with lots of irrigation. Also useful to moisturize a dry nose that repeatedly cracks and bleeds, on blisters under band-aids, and can be used in lieu of chapstick when desperate.)
  • 5 Alcohol Swabs
    (Nothing works better for initial small infections on road rash, though these hurt a lot when used.)
  • 2 Safety Pins
    (Useful for pinning slings, or a T-shirt to improvise a sling, etc, etc.)
  • 1 Lightweight compass
    (I am always surprised how many people I go out with forget a compass and end up wanting one later. And sometimes that person is me...)
  • 1 Fox 40 Pea-less Whistle
    (The orange one - it's LOUD!)
  • 1 Adventure Medical Heat Reflecting 2-person Blanket
    (Hands down the best 'space blanket' made. It doesn't delaminate when stored for a long time, it is somewhat less crinkly than other brands, it doesn't melt catastrophically when blown embers from a bivy fire land on it, it's orange on one side and silver on the other and thus very visible, and repacks relatively small for the hike out or re-use. And it does its job pretty well. I've used them on everything from bivies to ad-hoc rain gear to folks with hypothermia, etc.)
Of course, I also always carry a headlamp so I can work and move in the dark. I suppose it belongs on the official list above, but the times are rare where it's not part of my pack anyway.

You'll also notice that a few common things are missing, so I'll talk about those too.

ACE Bandage - I go back and forth between carrying an elastic bandage (an ACE-type bandage) - but it is heavy and bulky and the elastic decomposes over time, rendering it less useful. Between tape and spiral-cutting a t-shirt, most things which might be best solved with an ACE can at least be patched up with alternatives.

Gauze Roll - The same goes for sterile gauze rolls. However, I debate them as well because they are great for easy pressure bandages - and a pressure bandage situation is one where 'easy' can be really, really nice.

No SAM Splint - the few times I've used one on a real broken bone I've sometimes actually wished I just cut up my foam pad instead and used it with my pack stays. And a single SAM splint doesn't splint legs. And there's just no comfortable way to splint broken foot phalanges with one. In other words, I found lots of limitations, and stopped carrying one.

No Duct Tape - too many people are allergic to the tape glue on their skin. Athletic tape does a great job, even if it's not quite as slippery for great blister patching.

Although this is what I carry for personal trips, my experience with San Bernardino County Search and Rescue also introduced me to the concept of a 24-hour pack, which is more designed for heavy outdoor work, and a more comfortable night out. It's a great list if you're really into survival out there - including plastic bags to evaporate water from tree branches in the desert.

For that type of stuff, or when I'm working outdoors rather than on a personal trip, I also add an ACE, sterile gauze roll, a SAM splint, a CPR face shield, a second set of shears, another set of gloves, and honey packets (to bump up blood sugar fast).

In the winter, or in a cold or wet canyon, I will also carry Esbit tablets and a titanium mug or another type of really small compact stove and pot set.

And there you have it. All of that is my opinion and nothing but.

Of course, having some sense and a clear head is better than any materials that might be lying around. I often find myself using more from outside of my kit than inside - pieces of my foam pad, my trekking poles, my sleeping bag, heck, even liner socks make great pressure bandages (over sterile materials) for arms and fingers.

So I hope this helps you make your choices without having to go through all of my mistakes or experiences. Be safe out there...

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