As a Registered Nurse and Paramedic, I’ve worked my fair share of emergencies in my line of work.  I want to show you some truly life-saving items that I bet your first aid kit doesn’t have, as well as what I consider to be essential components of any good travel first aid kit.

As a healthcare provider, education is a big part of what I do.  So naturally, I must start with a little education.  Just a tiny bit I promise.

Unfortunately, the world we live in has become a violent one. With school shootings and terrorist attacks almost weekly it pays to be prepared. This DIY kit along with a little education will prepare you to make a difference when it’s most needed. 

Disclaimer: Some of these products if used incorrectly could be dangerous. Make sure you follow all instructions that are included with the device. It’s up to you to understand your state laws regarding Good Summaritan rules and providing medical care as a bystander.

Pathophysiology of Trauma

We’re going to talk about Pathophysiology for a minute. I promise it will be brief.

Pathophysiology is the study of how disease or injury affects the body. Here’s a scenario to help put things into perspective.

You are involved in a rollover accident. It was a glorious warm day so the windows were down. After the accident you notice your passenger has a severely injured arm that was likely crushed when the car rolled over.

So back to the pathophysiology. What are we worried about in terms of a severely injured arm? How might this busted up arm affect the overall body health?

  • Are we worried about the dirty wounds and infection? Well eventually but certainly not our first concern. That isn’t going to kill anyone in the next hour.
  • Are we worried about a broken bone? I suppose, but a broken bone isn’t going to kill you either.
  • How about bleeding? Can bleeding kill you?

What actually kills a person?

In general, shock is what kills someone. Whether it be trauma, heart attack, or diabetes, shock is what gets you. Our body needs a balance of oxygen in and waste out. This is primarily accomplished by our blood which provides the transport of this much needed process

So what is shock?

Shock is the lack of oxygen supply to your organs.


So with this arm injury could we develop shock?

Severe bleeding can deplete our supply of circulating blood to the point that the body cannot deliver oxygen, causing shock.

This can be deadly but more importantly, it’s often preventable. That’s right, you can save this persons life with the proper application of a tournequet. What’s that worth to you? I’ve been lucky enough to save lives and let me tell you it’s a very powerful moment.

We discussed a problem of how oxygenated blood is lost through bleeding, leading to shock and eventually death. Now let’s talk about another problem that has to do with the ability of the body to oxygenate blood. If our organs need oxygen, and our blood carries the oxygen, what puts the oxygen in the blood?

That’s right, our respiratory system. The act of breathing in and out, ventilation, is what fuels our blood and gets rid of waste. Without ventilation we will die.


Let’s take the same car accident scenario from above. Now however, instead of the arm being injured, you have an unresponsive passenger. They likely hit their head and were knocked unconscious.

Is this person at risk for a ventilation/breathing problem? You bet they are.

When someone is knocked unresponsive from an injury they aren’t just sleeping. The normal mechanisms that keep you breathing while sleeping are likely not working when you get knocked out as the result of an accident. Consequently, a primary cause of death from an injury like this, is airway obstruction.

Any guess as to what’s causing that airway obstruction?

Yup that’s right, it’s your tongue. When someone is knocked out like that, the brain isn’t working right and lets the muscle tone of the tongue and airway relax too much. This can lead to the tongue blocking the airway.

And what does that do? You guessed it, shock. The oxygen that the cells need can’t make it to the blood, therefore starving your cells of oxygen.

By providing this person with a simple airway device you can prevent this obstruction and an unnecessary death.

Enough pathophysiology, I think you get the idea.

Now we will quickly go through 4 products and how to use them.  These 4 simple items really do have the potential to save a life before help can arrive.  The best part is they are small and light weight.

Hemostatic Gauze

Hemostatic gauze contains additives that help the blood clot. The trick with this gauze is that you need to get it in direct contact with the bleeding vessel. This is accomplished by packing the wound. You can’t just simply place these dressings over the top and call it good. The packing is the key, and while it will hurt, it’s necessary for the dressings to work. The following video shows proper packing technique.

The Tourniquet

Tourniquets have been used since Alexander the Great’s military campaigns in the fourth century BC. Today tourniquets are a staple in the military, police force, and fire/ems. Next time you see a police officer, take a look at their equipment belt and most likely you will see a tourniquet. Today the use of tourniquets has become the norm for uncontrolled bleeding. Tourniquets are only used for extremity bleeding and unfortunately can’t help if you have bleeding to your head, chest, abdomen, or pelvic regions.

Back to our arm injury, if you can’t get the bleeding to stop by applying direct pressure with your hand over the wound, then it’s time for a tourniquet. If you have really heavy bleeding with spurting blood, a tourniquet would be my first choice.

Here is a video showing proper application of a tourniquet.

The style of the tourniquet shown in the video is what I also use and recommend. There are less expensive options but I don’t feel they work as well.

Israeli Bandage

The Israeili bandage is a great tool with many uses. The bandage is an elastic dressing similar to an ace wrap that has an integrated clip to keep things secure. It can provide a fair amount of direct pressure but is not a substitute for a tourniquet.

It’s very important to reverse the direction of the wrap through the clip as is demonstrated in the video. I’ve seen a lot of videos and people use these bandages incorrectly. The Israeli bandage comes bundled in this tourniquet kit that I would recommend.

Nasal Airway

Remember the scenario of the unresponsive passenger in that car that rolled? We said they were unconscious and were concerned about a respiratory problem due to an airway obstruction from their tongue. Well here is a quick intervention that can prevent an airway obstruction.

These nasal airways are basically a flexible straw that you insert through the nose. They pass behind the back of the tongue and prevent the tongue from blocking off the airway. Be sure to lubricate the nasal airway with the enclosed lube.

Save a Life

With these 4 items you can now help treat traumatic emergencies that are likely to kill a person before an ambulance or other help will arrive. You may have only minutes to treat these injuries before a life is lost.

But what about all the other stuff in a first aid kit?

Here’s a picture of a typical first aid kit that many people carry. This will literally do you no good for any of the scenarios we’ve been talking about.

But having some simple bandages to manage smaller injuries and cuts is still a good idea.  These pre-made kits are well put together for this purpose and I would recommend one of the kits linked below IN ADDITION to the 4 items I just described.

International Travel First Aid Kit

Now let’s talk about some travel specific items that I recommend for international travel or any travel for that matter.

Prescription Medications

Be sure to take your regular prescription meds including any “as needed” medication like Nitro, inhalers or Epinephrine.  Travel exposes you to a whole new set of allergens so just because you don’t need them back home doesn’t mean they won’t come in handy on a vacation.

If you have any prescriptions for controlled substances, like pain medication, it’s a good idea to bring a copy of your prescription or a note from a doctor.   

Be sure to pack your prescriptions in your carry-on should your luggage get lost.  Better yet read up on my Packing Tips and ditch the check-on bag altogether.

Consider Special Medications For Trip

Be sure to read our International Planning Guide as it outlines how to find out what immunizations or other medications, such as anti-malarial or altitude sickness treatment may be recommended.

Once you have that information specific to where you are traveling it’s time to talk with your physician or even better, a travel medicine clinic which specializes in this field of medicine.

Regardless of where you are going, the following I would consider essential for any vacation.

Antibiotics For Travel

Talk with your physician about getting a prescription should you come down with a severe stomach/diarrhea illness.  These can help get you back on your feet quickly.

I also find that talking with pharmacies within the country is a great resource as well since they know which antibiotics work the best for that area.  

travel Medicine Kit

Antidiarrheal – Bismuth Subsalicylate(Pepto-Bismol)

  • We buy the pill version and often take a couple daily even if we aren’t having symptoms.  One of the active ingredients can actually prevent an episode should you ingest something bad.
  • If you are taking them daily just remember they can cause constipation so take a break from them for a few days if needed.

AntihistamineBenadryl or other seasonal allergy medication

  • These are great for any sort of allergic reaction due to bites/stings or seasonal allergies.  Benadryl is also a great sleep aid.

Motion SicknessDramamine

  • From airplanes to boats, Dramamine is a popular choice to combat motion sickness.  

Pain Relief – Ibuprofen and Tylenol

  • Ibuprofen is a great anti-inflammatory medicine for those aches and pains.  Tylenol is also effective for those aches and pains but adds fever reducing to the list as well.

Antibacterial Cream – Neosporin 

  • Antibiotic creams are great for those little bumps, scrapes, and cuts that come with travel.  This will help to ensure that little cut doesn’t get infected.  Essential if you have kids traveling with you.

The above medications are a good place to start.  Taking a couple of the Pepto-Bismol can really help curb food-borne illness but they can cause constipation so staying hydrated is really important.

So now I’ve talked about basically 3 different kits, the life saving items, the normal bumps/scrapes kit, and the travel specific items.

Below are my specific recommendations for the life-saving items.  

Building a DIY Travel First Aid Kit

This kit would be a good place to start for a cuts and scrapes kit.  It comes with a really nice case that you can also purchase separately below.

There are certainly some items I would take out but it’s a good start.

Now that you have your basic kit figured out all that’s left is to add these 4 additional items.

travel first aid kit

I’m going to start with a pre-made kit that is a good deal and has everything that we’ve talked about. My only complaint is that I don’t like the tourniquet it uses. For a budget option, this is a really good place to start. It’s only $49.95 at Amazon.

If you are going to build your own kit, here’s what I recommend,

travel first aid kit

This package has your tourniquet, Israeli bandage, and trauma shears, $24.95 at Amazon.

travel first aid kit

Here is a great package that has your hemostatic gauze plus a few additional items, $19.99 at Amazon

travel first aid kit

Here is the nasal airway and packet of lube, $7.73 at Amazon

travel first aid kit

I prefer to use gallon zip-lock bags instead of a dedicated bag, especially when space is a concern. The nice thing about the Zip-lock is you can change the shape of the bag. When I put my kit in my luggage for travel I prefer that it rest flat. When my kit is in my backpack biking I prefer a more burrito shape. That’s the beauty of the zip-lock bag.

This bag pictured would be a nice option to have in your car, $16.99 on Amazon.

Travel First Aid Kit

This may seem like a lot of gear but remember you don’t always have to take it all.  When I’m going for a hike or a mountain bike ride I’ll only take those 4 life-saving pieces.  The band-aids can wait till I get home.

When walking the streets in Peru for the day, I only take the life-saving items.  The Neosporin and antidiarrheals can wait till I get back.

For travel I always prefer the zip-lock bags.  Anything else just adds weight and bulk

Get the Training

While I threw in a few videos on how to use these devices I would still recommend taking more formalized training.

First Aid and CPR

  • At a minimum, I recommend starting with a basic First Aid and CPR class. These are 4-6 hour courses often taught free through your local fire department.
  • Click here to find a class near your
  • From there you can enroll in an Emergency Medical Responder(EMR) course. These are anywhere from 12-20 hours long.
  • The next step up is a pretty big one in terms of time commitment and cost. I recommend the Wilderness EMT course for people that want the training but are not interested in working for an ambulance service. The Wilderness EMT course is not accepted for Ambulance work but I recommend it over the traditional EMT course. I find the Wilderness version equips you better as it doesn’t rely on having an ambulance worth of equipment with you.

Emergency Medical Responder (EMR)

  • From there you can enroll in an Emergency Medical Responder(EMR) course. These are anywhere from 12-20 hours long.
  • I would call your local fire department to see about classes near you

Wilderness EMT Course

  • The next step up is a pretty big one in terms of time commitment and cost.
  • I recommend the Wilderness EMT course for people that want the training but are not interested in working for an ambulance service.
  • The Wilderness EMT course is not accepted for Ambulance work but I recommend it over the traditional EMT course. I find the Wilderness version equips you better as it doesn’t rely on having an ambulance worth of equipment with you.

In Summary

We really just scratched the surface on first aid kits and medical treatment. If you or a loved one has specific medical problems such as diabetes or severe allergic reactions there are additional items I would recommend. Feel free to email me if you have questions.

Well I hope you found this article useful, as always safe travels!


How To Build A Professional Travel First Aid Kit