An easy way to organize your first aid supplies so it'll be easy to find what you need when the time arises, and a list of what's in ours.

Organizing the First Aid Supplies

If you dump all your first aid supplies into a big bin or locker, it can be next to impossible to find what you need, particularly if it’s an emergency or you’re just feeling rotten.

The best system I’ve discovered is to sort items by the type of problem they’re used for, pack each group into a Ziploc bag and then pack the Ziplocs into a locker, dry bag or bin. The nice thing about this is that when a problem occurs, you can just grab one bag and have everything you need to deal with it.

On Que Tal, we had a top-opening locker that was the perfect size for commonly used first aid supplies (minor cuts, colds, upset stomach and so on) and stored what we referred to as our “major medical” supplies (splint, Ace bandage, prescription pain killers, antibiotics, sutures, etc.) in a large dry bag in a less accessible locker (read more about dry bags here).

Since we’ll be coastal cruising aboard Barefoot Gal — and in places where there is good access to medical help — we won’t have nearly as comprehensive an inventory of medical supplies as we did for cruising remote areas of the Sea of Cortez and Central America. But my basic organization will be similar.

DISCLAIMER:  I am not a doctor nor a medical professional — check with yours if you have any questions about what you should have aboard. Your first aid kit is your responsibility, as is knowing how to use what’s in it.

Below, I’ve listed my “category bags” and summarized what in is each. But please — don’t take this as an indication of what you should have in your first aid kit. Instead, think of things that you are likely to encounter where you’ll be boating, any typical problems suffered by those on board and how far help will be in deciding what you should have. I’m putting our list here just to get everyone thinking — maybe something we have will remind you of something you should have.

You’ll notice that some items don’t really “go” in the bag they’re listed in, but they don’t really go anywhere else either. Such is my system!

Allergies: Epi-pen, steroids, Benedryl, bug bite medicine, cortisone cream

Cuts: Band-Aids, gauze pads, tape, triple antibiotic ointment, butterfly bandages, antiseptic hand wipes (we take these on hikes where we might have to clean something out with limited water), needles (for splinters or blisters), moleskin and New Skin for blisters, tincture of benzoin (learn how to use this to keep Band-Aids on better), rubbing alcohol

Cold meds: Decongestants, cough syrup, sinus meds . . . whatever works best for those on board

OTC pain meds: Ibuprofen, Tylenol, etc. — again, what works best for you. It’s a good idea to keep some aspirin on hand in case of a suspected heart attack.

Sprains/breaks: Prescription strength pain meds, SAM splint, ace bandage (note: forget about those little clips on the ace bandage; secure it with a safety pin or piece of tape (another great use for duct tape). If you aren’t familiar with a SAM splint, it’s a field splint designed to be cut with regular scissors, etc. I had the unfortunate “privilege” of using one for almost a week when I broke my wrist while rafting through the Grand Canyon; I can attest to how well it works (it was more comfortable than the one I got at the doctor’s office when we got off the river). The 36″ length can be used for almost any break or sprain; buy one on Amazon (note: other brands that look similar don’t always stay as rigid; I get the true SAM splints). If you have a freezer, you can make your own gel ice pack; keep an extra ace bandage on hand to hold it on.

Dental: Toothache pain reliever (we use Anbesol; there are lots of brands) and a temporary filling kit.

Rehydration drinks: Either the commercial packets or the ingredients to make your own. Dehydration is always a possibility, either from illness or heat. Read more about rehydration drinks including what you’ll need to make your own.

Gut: OTC meds for diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, gas, urinary tract infections and yeast infections.

Antibiotics: We carry three days’ worth of a couple antibiotics prescribed by our doctor and only use it after consultation with him or another medical professional. Basically, it’s enough to begin treatment while en route to professional care.

Paz (our dog): antibiotic; liquid Benedryl (for allergic reactions); liquid Dramimine (seasickness); steroids (severe allergic reactions); dropper for liquid meds — if you have a pet aboard, check with your vet for a list of suggested meds and doses (some meds cannot be tolerated by certain breeds)

Other stuff we have but not in the first aid kit:

  • seasickness meds (meclizine works best for me)
  • swimming ear drops (we use half rubbing alcohol and half hydrogen peroxide in a dropper bottle)
  • antifungal for athlete’s foot
  • Gold Bond powder for chafing
  • eyeglass repair kit
While I try to always keep things put away properly and note on the provisioning list if we’re low on something, I go through the whole box a couple of times a year to make sure everything is still good — check expiration dates and make sure tape still has plenty of “stick” — and nothing is missing (yes, sometimes we forget to put something on the “to buy” list). In particular, I check it over before we leave a good-sized city for remote places.

If I were really organized, I’d have a list in each bag with what’s supposed to be in it, which would make it much easier when I go to check it. I keep saying I’m going to do this, but haven’t.

DISCLAIMER: If you’re heading offshore or anywhere that medical help would be more than a day away, you need a far more extensive first aid kit. Those are way beyond the scope of this post, and I am not about to suggest what all should be in one.

An easy way to organize your first aid supplies so it'll be easy to find what you need when the time arises, and a list of what's in ours.

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  • sharon
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    We do similar, just use plastic boxes. and have a label on the top of each. But they are in a similar order. This way I can put any expiry dates after the content, so I know when to dig something out of the box..

  • Relinda
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    What we have done is to place a red cross on the door of the cabinet we keep our kit in. This way in an emergency you can easily tell where the kits are.
    We are also carrying a stretcher. The last surgery I had they used this to move me and since you pay for it we decided to keep it.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

      Like the red cross idea — particularly good if you have guests on board. And agree on the stretcher — if you have it and have room for it, why not?

      • Rob on Avant
        Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

        If you want a boat handy stretcher, look at the ‘skedco’ stretcher. While they cost a bomb new, they can often be found on ebay for $100-150. Combined with an ‘oregon spine splint’ they ofer a complete emergency kit. Unlike regular stretchers, they are designed to be used short handed (dragged or carried) and can be rigged for lifting.

  • Rob on Avant
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    We do a similar setup, but break the kit into a ‘boo boo’ and an ‘OMG’ kit, each in a carry bag capable of shoulder carry so we can go to another boat or go ashore with everything contained. Being zip locked, supplies will stay dry, so the bags are nothing special. Each bag has a flashlight, headlamp, EMT shears, gloves, hand wipes and CPR mask in a ziplock on top.

    We have added a few unusual items:

    Chemical heating pads, space blankets and space blanket bags/bivy bags and toe warmers (small chemical heating pads that have an adhesive strip, designed to be stuck in shoes to keep your feet warm). By sticking the toe warmers to a victim of hypothermia or a victim that looks like they will go into shock (stick 1/2 dozen on the torso front, and another 1/2 dozen on the back), and them wrapping them tightly in the space blanket, you can rewarm them or keep them warm without fuss. Special heating blankets are available, but we are too cheap to spring for those ;). Chemical heating pads for sprains, etc can also be used and we have some of those as well, but the toe warmers are very ‘granular’ so we can add heat as required, and could add them around the torso leaving space around any injury we need access too.

    Eyewash bottle, as you often see in workplaces like garages, etc.

    Burn kit for burns.

    Tip: if you want a great base kit to build on for voyaging, look for an m-17 mil spec first aid kit on amazon. Very comprehensive, under $200.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

      Good ideas — I really need to get a burn kit in ours, and also get a few of those chemical heat pads. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Chris&Janet
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    Another thing to consider is quite a few of these things don’t tolerate heat very well. Their potencies can be reduced. They can separate. Some can become harmful to downright toxic. While it is important to have them easy to hand, we have found storing ours well away from the hull and down low has worked best. Cruising from a Florida home base now, we have started replacing heat sensitive items at the end of each summer regardless of expiration dates, especially the antibiotics. Nothing medicinal should be stored over 86 deg F and the common specification is between 68-77 deg F though 59-86 deg F is deemed “OK.”

  • Jennifer Dormann Moore
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    Great resources! We’ll have a dog on board. Is the liquid dramamine OTC or something you got from the vet? Thanks for sharing

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

      OTC — sometimes found in pharmacy, sometimes in with baby stuff. It’s for kids! Check with vet on the dose for your breed and size.

      • Chris
        Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

        Make sure it is alcohol free!

  • cyndy
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    as much as we hate considering it, as we get older we need to consider having an AED aboard. No matter how close we are to shore, 15 minutes is too long. Bring them back, give them 325mg of aspirin and get help as fast as possible.
    Of note, compound tincture of benzoin is not the same as benzoin tincture. You want the yellow sticky stuff. It also works great on a nasty blister. It’s gonna sting like murder at first but it protects better than a bandaid. Don’t put it on a cut, only blisters.
    I also keep dental floss in my kit to get a ring off of a quickly swelling finger.
    I use the orange cheap dry boxes (relatively cheap anyway) from Home Depot, that way if I am helping someone else on another boat and it gets dropped in the water, just grab and keep going.

  • Skylar Walker
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    Sounds great, I would add anti-flea meds for our cats and some matches with which to sterilize those needles.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

      I guess I’d lumped the flea/heartworm meds for our dog with our “routine prescriptions” and I use alcohol to sterilize needles. A bit of hand sanitizer can be used on a needle in a pinch, too — alcohol is the active ingredient in it.

    • Skylar Walker
      Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

      Good points and would save room and save being careful with the matches!

    • Skylar Walker
      Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

      p.s. thank you SO much for all your great tips and advice! You have developed a fabulous resource for those of us who live aboard.

  • Chris
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    With benzoin, you may want to do a tiny skin test first. A significant percentage of folks will discover they lose a lot skin tissue. It can be particularly bad when combined with Mastisol, a common surgical technique.

  • Peggy
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    We found the tops of white cotton socks very useful for securing bandages on elbows and feet. We also used one this winter when I sprained my ankle. Put the sock top on, then wrapped my ankle with duct tape and used a boat hook as an emergency crutch.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

      Great idea that I’ve never heard of before. Thanks for sharing it!

  • S.v. Silverheels III
    Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

    Steri-strips, with practice they can be better than sutures, plus not everyone knows how to do stitches. And with a serious allergic reaction, the liquid Benadryl works faster.

    • Rob on Avant
      Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

      Crazy glue is a good alternative/adjunct to steri strips and sutures. Get the packaging that has little tubes that need puncturing to use, the other dispensers dry out in storage.

  • Susie H
    Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

    We keep two First Aid kits on board – one small one for minor cuts, burns and so forth that can be quickly accessed even with by the victim and a second larger one with everything needed for major incidents that can be carried on deck if necessary.
    We also make the distinction between First Aid ie emergency and “Every Day” medicines like pain killers, anti-histamines, muscle rubs, cough syrup etc – the latter have their own cabinet elsewhere whilst a few temperature sensitive items live in the fridge. Sterile syringes (for use ashore in remote medical facilities) and emergency dental kits are also on board but not in the First Aid box. Finally like Silverheels III we prefer to use steri-strips rather than sutures for deeper wounds.

  • Susie Burall
    Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

    I have a piece of kit called Aspivenin – expensive – for removing stings and easing pain from mozzie bites. I have 5 of these in cars, boat, homes! Aspivenin works really well because David and I are allergic to wasps and bees. There is a cheaper one in the UK which has good reviews but I haven’t tried it – Bens Insect Poison Extract.
    I have used Steri Strips and they work really well.

  • Jody - Where The Coconuts Grow
    Posted at 11 July 2014 Reply

    We use ziplocks, also separated into categories, for both our Med Kit and Ditch Bag. It really helps when you’re trying to find something in a hurry. Our med kit consists of these ziplocks marked with a sharpie, then placed into locking Tupperware containers to keep it all together. I used the sharpie again on the Tupperware lid to indicate which categories are in each box. Check out our post here for some pics and more ideas of what to include in a Med Kit or Ditch Bag:

  • Margaret K
    Posted at 15 July 2014 Reply

    If you are carrying items for repairing wounds that require some kind of suturing, your kit should include an irrigation syringe also. Suturing closed a dirty wound is not a good idea. And practice with it in advance – it’s quite hard to thoroughly clean a deep wound if you aren’t experienced. The course I took used a pig’s foot from the market as a practice piece for irrigating.

  • Anna
    Posted at 17 July 2014 Reply

    Just got my first aid kit organized from Aid-Kits

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 08 August 2016 Reply

    IF you ever get the chance to see Jeffrey Siegel and Karen Siegel speak on emergency medicine you should leap at the chance. Jeff and Karen are best known as the founders of ActiveCaptain. They are also both long-term EMTs and have a great talk on first aid. They offer a great way to organize your supplies. They’ll be speaking at the Hampton Snowbird Rendezvous in October. Come join us – you won’t be sorry.

  • Julia Weeks
    Posted at 28 September 2017 Reply

    I listened to your podcast on this a few weeks ago when I was updating our medical kit. It was very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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