Five Potentially Lifesaving Items to Add to Any First Aid Kit
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Five Potentially Lifesaving Items to Add to Any First Aid Kit

Nov 23, 2023

A standard first aid kit is essential among emergency preparation gear, but we’ve found in testing that even the best basic kits usually lack supplies for suspected serious injuries, CPR, and overdoses.

A few key add-ons can help a standard premade kit become a potential lifesaver while waiting for paramedics to arrive. To identify the most important gear and pinpoint some specific items that have proven successful in the field, we spoke with EMTs, a lifeguard, a park ranger, and a professor of emergency medicine.

This list is not exhaustive, and simply purchasing any of these items can create a false sense of security. Read their instructions, watch instructional videos, and consider taking a first aid class through your local American Red Cross. Your local YMCA might also offer them. As Lisa Hendy, a district ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, told us, "A first aid kit is only as good as the ability and knowledge to use it."

Our emergency preparedness guide recommends two great general-use first aid kits: the First Aid Only 298 Piece All-Purpose First Aid Kit and the Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Backpacker Kit. Both come with a wide selection of gear for treating minor cuts, burns, and scrapes (bandages, wipes, ointments, and painkillers), as well as some items for handling more-serious injuries (a trauma pad, gauze, and some dressing pads).

A long-running Wirecutter favorite, this inexpensive set provides a plentiful collection of first aid essentials that everyone should keep handy.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $21.

This compact yet well-stocked kit has the best layout of any we tested, so you can easily access supplies you need while on the go.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $38.

We compiled a list of additional considerations after speaking with folks who use or teach first aid as part of their everyday lives. Jason Perez and Wesley Long are active emergency medical technicians, cohost a podcast called DisasterClass, and own an emergency preparedness and education company called Instinct Ready, which sells go bags and first aid kits. (Wirecutter has not reviewed their kits, and our interviews focused on their EMT experiences.)

We spoke with Lisa Hendy, a canyon district ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, where she oversees all of the park's backcountry rangers and river patrol (she was formerly the first woman chief ranger of the Great Smoky Mountains). We interviewed Tom Gill, a lifeguard with 30 years of experience and vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association. We also spoke with Dr. Matthew Levy, deputy director of operational medicine and EMS and associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

These disposable plastic barriers protect against communicable diseases during rescue breathing—and help break barriers when it comes to administering CPR on strangers.

Chest compressions are the most important aspect of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and when many heart health associations learned that rescue breathing (commonly known as mouth-to-mouth) is often a barrier to treatment with CPR, public service campaigns began to focus on hands-only CPR. As Perez put it, "People were like, ‘I don't want to put my mouth on somebody, a stranger.’"

But in some cases, rescue breathing still serves an important function by delivering oxygen into a person's lungs during CPR. It's particularly important when one is performing CPR on children, people with chronic lung disease or acute asthma, and people being rescued from drowning or an overdose.

A single-use CPR mask can help. A thin plastic barrier and raised plastic center allows airflow to pass through, reducing the risk of communicable disease and helping to eliminate a delayed start to CPR with rescue breathing before help arrives.

Single-use CPR masks are inexpensive, often come in multipacks, and save lives. Not only should one be in every first aid kit, but we highly recommend keeping one in a purse or backpack at all times.

With the opioid epidemic still devastating communities, you simply never know when you might encounter someone experiencing an overdose.

Naloxone—aka Narcan—is an opioid antagonist that reverses the effects of opioids and comes in an easy-to-administer nasal spray. In March 2023 the FDA approved Narcan for over-the-counter use, and it's available for purchase at pharmacies in all fifty states—but not all pharmacies carry it and state laws (PDF) still vary.

Like any medication, Narcan has an expiration date stamped on it, but research shows that the drug might still be beneficial past the date marked. The American Red Cross offers virtual training programs on how to administer Narcan, and in some states, local training courses will distribute Narcan free after completing a training session. Search online for "naloxone training near me" to see if this is available in your area.

Printed graphics on strong elastic change shape as the dressing stretches, making it easy to determine when you’ve applied the right amount of pressure to help stop bleeding.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $13.

When applied properly, tourniquets reduce the amount of blood loss caused by a traumatic injury until help arrives. Tourniquets fell out of favor for a time due to fears that they can cause nerve damage. Hendy recalled them being considered taboo when she took her first EMT course in the 1990s, but battlefield experiences in the Iraq War changed conventional wisdom and returned tourniquets to the foreground as a commonly used lifesaving tool. (Levy refers to this type of warfare trickle-down effect as a "military to civilian knowledge transfer.")

Several of the experts we spoke to like the SWAT-T Tourniquet for its ease of use. The latex-free elastic bandage lets you know the right amount of pressure to put on a limb with a clever visual device: When the diamonds on the bandage become squares, you’ve hit the pressure sweet spot. This visual cue makes it possible for someone with little or no training to still use the tourniquet effectively. You can also use it on yourself if you’re alone and sustain an injury that still allows the use of at least one hand and your mouth.

A blood clotting agent infused in the fabric helps stop bleeding, but don't rely on the gauze alone—be sure to apply appropriate pressure.

A tourniquet is not the right choice to help stop excessive bleeding in several areas of the body: the neck, obviously, and places like the shoulder and armpit. Gauze or gauze material containing an agent that speeds up the body's natural blood-clotting abilities can help stem blood flow from serious injuries. Several of our experts mentioned the brand QuikClot, and Levy said that it's well studied. But you can't simply place hemostatic gauze on top of the injury and expect it to work.

"What stops bleeding is really pressure—holding and maintaining pressure," Levy said. You also need to pack the gauze inside the wound, ideally while wearing protective gloves. This PDF breaks down the basics of how to use hemostatic gauze; we strongly encourage taking a Stop the Bleed class in your area to feel more comfortable should you ever have to use this tool.

Lightweight, reusable, and available in many sizes, this foam and aluminum splint comes with clear instructions printed directly on it.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $14.

As EMT workers, Long and Perez always had access to Sam Splints in their emergency kits. They’re available in several sizes, from smaller ones meant for fingers all the way up to 36-inch-long models (that are also available in an XL size for wider limbs). This malleable foam and aluminum model easily forms to the curves of a limb or finger and has instructions for use clearly printed on it.

When a Sam Splint is applied, bones are still visible through X-rays so it doesn't have to come off until a doctor knows exactly what kind of injury they’re looking at. Sam Splints are designed to be reused after removal—just be sure to wash it thoroughly. Their website offers several training videos for different scenarios.

This article was edited by Harry Sawyers.

Matthew Jason Levy, deputy director of operational medicine and associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, phone interview, December 8, 2022

Jason Perez, vice president at Instinct Ready, phone interview, August 8, 2022

Wesley Long, president at Instinct Ready, phone interview, August 8, 2022

Tom Gill, vice president at United States Lifesaving Association, phone interview, March 15, 2022

Lisa Hendy, canyon district ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, phone interview, March 5, 2022

Joshua Lyon

Lead Editor

Joshua Lyon is the supervising editor of emergency-preparation and home-improvement topics at Wirecutter. He has written and edited for numerous outlets, including Country Living, Modern Farmer, The New York Times, V and VMAN, Marie Claire, Jane, and Food Network Magazine. He's also a Lambda Literary Award–nominated author and ghostwriter. Learn more at jklyon.com.

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