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Expedition Medical Kit: The essential checklist [Free Download]

Expedition Medical Kit

One of the most common questions we’re asked as expedition medics is “What do I put in my medical kit?”

The answer does of course depend on your destination and environment, the purpose of your expedition, your own skill set, your experience, and personal preference. In fact, if you asked every doctor involved in remote medicine, they’d likely give you differing answers. So, bearing this in mind, we’ve produced an Expedition Medical Kit list to treat common ailments, courtesy of World Extreme Medicine co-founder and experienced expedition medic, Dr Sean Hudson MBE.

>>> DOWNLOAD: Organise your kit with our free Expedition Essentials Medical Kit Checklist.

What do I put in my medical kit?

These items will cover the most common conditions, so make a strong start to your ‘essentials’ list.

Medical kit essentials

  • Roll of zinc oxide tape: covering blisters, taping injuries and dressings
  • Ibuprofen: simple analgesia, especially useful for musculoskeletal injuries
  • Imodium: to control symptoms of gastroenteritis when participating in essential activities
  • Tincture of iodine: used to purify water and antiseptic for wounds
  • Gauze dressing: simple dressings
  • Compeed or similar dressing: adds padding to nasty blisters

Plus, don’t forget the non-medical basics:

  • Paper and pen/pencil (old fashioned and reliable!)
  • Gloves
  • Mobile cellular or satellite phone

Environmental and destination-specific kit

The remaining contents of your expedition medical kit depend on your own experience and how remote you will be in terms of seeking help. If it’s easy to obtain extra medical attention, then you can afford to take less. If you’re in a remote area with a small or poorly equipped hospital, you should take more and plan to deal with potential accidents and illness without outside help. Even when very remote, however, you should always have some form of communication if the need arises for a medevac.

Once you have your basic kit, you can break the expedition medical kit down as follows:

  • Analgesia: Analgesia is going to differ relative to your country of origin, although essentials are: Morphine, IM Voltarol, Rectal Voltarol, Co-codamol, Paracetamol.
  • Fracture Management: There are a variety of ways of immobilising a fracture, the simplest being ingenuity (essential when working with limited and rudimentary equipment), zinc oxide tape or clingfilm. Otherwise, Sam Splints are very versatile, and a Kendrick Traction Device is lightweight and fantastic for lower limb fractures.
  • Antibiotics: You want antibiotics to cover as wide a variety of infections as possible, from dental abscess to travellers’ diarrhoea. We advise Co-Amoxiclav, Ciprofloxacin, Metronidazole, and Flucloxacillin. Just remember to always be aware of sensitivities to antibiotics.
  • Lotions and potions: Irritating skin conditions are common on expeditions, especially in tropical regions. Consider taking an antifungal, an antihistamine, a steroid, an antibiotic, Clotrimazole, Anthisan, 1% Hydrocortisone, Fucidin and an antiseptic spray or liquid.
  • Dressings and Wound Closure: Simple dressings impregnated with betadine are useful, together with some dry dressings and crepe bandages. Wounds can be closed with steristrips, sutures, staples or even superglue. Training is essential here, which is why leaving plenty of time to prep is so important.
  • Medical Emergencies: I always carry a Salbutamol Inhaler, and treatment for anaphylaxis, such as Adrenaline, Piriton and Hydrocortisone.
  • IV Access and fluids: IV Fluids, Giving Sets and Venflons, plus an assortment of syringes and needles.
  • Specialist Equipment (environment-dependent): Extra equipment is often needed for different environments. For example:
    • Altitude Expeditions are most likely to see AMS, HACE and HAPE, so the correct training and medication to look after these conditions is imperative. Dexamethasone, Nifedipine, Acetazolamide, Oxygen and a Hyperbaric Chamber are often used, including other medications that have been trialled with some success.
    • Polar environments may need portable devices for rewarming hypothermic patients – e.g. the HEATPAC is light and easy to use.
    • Lightweight stretchers are useful, you can even improvise using rope, but ski stretchers are invaluable when backcountry skiing.

Where do I start when organising an expedition medical kit?

Organising an expedition medical kit should never be a rush, so start by leaving plenty of time. This is important because it’s easily overlooked, and assembly of a full kit can require a fair degree of effort to get right – not simply through assessing and obtaining what you do need, but what you don’t.

Inevitably you’ll need to make compromises; you need enough equipment to deal with the most common medical problems that are likely to occur but not so much that you’re weighed down with kit you won’t use. Environment and destination will play a part here, so your medical skills and correct assessment of the risk factors are crucial.

Remember you’ll be carrying your medical kit everywhere. Pack, reassess what you’ve packed and then re-pack the essentials, and do so in a small lightweight bag.

Essentially: Take the minimum kit necessary to deal with the broadest array of anticipated environmental risks and common health issues.

What are the most common ailments and injuries I’m likely to encounter?

Common injuries to virtually every expedition include blisters, minor wounds and small burns, all of which should heal correctly if cleaned and dressed correctly.

The most common ailments range from aches and pains and bowel disturbances to insect bites and sunburn. These usually get better over time, although common drugs and ointments can provide relief.

What else do I need to think about?

In addition to putting together your expedition medical kit supplies, you should also check the Foreign Office travel advice website or contact the embassy of the country you’re travelling to. They’ll advise you on current inoculation and international certification requirements for travellers in and out of the destination country. Last thing you need is any nasty surprises!

Also, here’s a potentially life-saving tip that shouldn’t be ignored:

Once your kit is ready, split the medical supplies across several expedition team members – this will minimise the risk of losing everything in one go. (In extreme environments, loss of equipment is far more likely than usual, so don’t tempt fate!)

You should also think about the types of kit you’ll need to prepare:

  • Field first aid kit: A basic kit containing first aid equipment for a small group of people who will be away from base camp for a day.
  • Mobile camp kit: This kit should contain supplies for a small group (approx. 6 people) who will be away from base camp for a few days.
  • Base camp kit: This is the main medical kit for the expedition. You will also use this kit to replenish the other kits and hold a reserve stock of any medicines required for individual team members.
  • Accident kit: This will be a pre-packed emergency kit (and part of the Base camp kit) to be used specifically in case of a serious accident. It should be always kept on top of the base camp kit so that it’s quickly and easily accessible. It goes without saying that it will also need to be portable!

Packing your expedition medical kit

Finally, when packing your equipment, ensure all your medical kit is protected in clear, resealable polythene bags or plastic boxes so everything is protected from water, dirt, and damage. Don’t forget to clearly label each of the contents in your kit – they’ll need to be found easily under strenuous conditions, like bad weather and poor light.

As you can see there is no ‘easy answer’ to this question. You may choose to take a 25kg rucksack full of equipment, or it may fit into a camera case. So, start by looking at the common conditions, endemic diseases, common injuries and logistical & medical support on hand – and adapt your medical kit to suit.

Other expedition medicine blogs that may be of interest, include: