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Faculty member offers suggestions for first-aid kits for outdoors adventurers

Whether you’re biking the Virginia Creeper Trail, hiking to Waterrock Knob or paddling the Tuckaseigee River this summer, don’t forget to pack a first-aid kit, along with that water bottle and sunscreen.

It’s easy to assemble – or purchase – a first-aid kit and can make the difference in whether a good day outside goes bad, said Ben Tholkes, an associate professor in Western Carolina University’s Parks and Recreation Management Program and a long-time seasonal employee of the National Park Service and National Ski Patrol.

“In the outdoors, you need to be prepared for the unexpected,” said Tholkes, who teaches an American Red Cross-certified wilderness first-aid course and a National Ski Patrol-certified outdoor emergency care course at WCU. “A first-aid kit is always listed in any outdoor person’s list of 10 essentials to take on an outdoor activity.”

There are many options for getting a first-aid kit, said Tholkes, a WCU faculty member for 27 years. One is to make your own with a zip-lock bag, which allows you to quickly see what is in it and where the items are, or purchase a red, empty first-aid bag at any outdoor specialty store that carries them and fill them with essential items from your local drug store. You can also purchase pre-packaged kits from the Red Cross or outdoor specialty stores.

Ben Tholkes

To make a personal first-aid kit for a day hike, include items such as adhesive bandages, sterile gauze pads (size 4x4 inches and a few 5x9 inches, for large bleeding wounds), adhesive tape, mole skin (for blisters), hand soap or alcohol-based sanitizing gel, wound gel antibiotic, scissors, gloves, CPR breathing barrier (mask) and tweezers. And don’t forget items that are personal to you, such as allergy medicine, aspirin, diabetic supplies, etc.

“Adhesive bandages and gauze are the two most important things you can take if you just need to do something about bleeding from cuts and scrapes,” Tholkes said. “Gloves, gauze and a little bandaging take care of most things like that.”

Optional items include a space blanket for warmth, splint (handy in the backcountry), cold compress, denture adhesive (in case you knock out a tooth), thermometer, antihistamines and alcohol or another antiseptic for cleaning a wound.

One size does not always fit all when it comes to first-aid kits, Tholkes said. A large kit, which should support a group of 12 or more, simply means having more of the items from your small kit. “If I’m going out for a simple day hike, I just take a small kit. If I’m working Park Service on an evening, I take the big one, which has more things in it that I can then use if I need it, not just for me, but for someone else,” he said. “It depends on if you’re responsible for yourself, others with you and how big a group you’re with. I take the big kit on extended trips and activities that we do. I like the small ones because you can keep it in your car or put it in your backpack.”

Just as important as building a proper first-aid kit is making sure it stays that way, Tholkes said. “Always make sure things that are used get replaced. Treat your first-aid kit like other camping gear. Make sure all the pieces are there when you put it away after a trip,” he said.

If you’re wondering where snake-bite kits fit into a first-aid kit, they don’t, because they never worked very well, Tholkes said. “What I’m teaching my students is don’t kill the snake. It’s not the snake’s fault,” Tholkes said. “If you get bitten by a snake, don’t make any cuts, don’t put ice on it, don’t put on any kind of tourniquet or constrictive band, don’t panic. Mostly, just weigh your options. Ask yourself, ‘how do we get out of here as safely and as quickly as we can?’ A snake may not inject venom. If it has eaten recently or it doesn’t consider you a food source, it might just be a dry bite.”

Having an injury-free day in the outdoors has a lot to do with prevention, Tholkes said. “If there’s a snake on the trail, leave it alone. Don’t eat anything you find in the outdoors if you’re not sure what it is and don’t touch unknown plants,” he said.

To learn more about outdoor first-aid, Tholkes suggests visiting the American Red Cross website at, Landmark Learning at and Jackson County Parks and Recreation at, or enrolling in a parks and recreation management course at WCU.

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