First aid doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the tactical sphere. It’s easy to see why; it’s not fun the way guns are. It doesn’t look cool like a new plate carrier or optic. It’s certainly not going to do anything for your stage time at a match or training course.
All that notwithstanding, first aid is arguably one of the most important skills you can have when it comes to emergency and tactical readiness. We tend to talk a lot about the importance of carrying a firearm for self-defense, but statistically, you’re much more likely to need a tourniquet at some point than a pistol.
A well-stocked Individual First Aid Kit, combined with proper training, can prepare you to handle a wide range of traumatic injuries, whether from a gunshot wound or a car accident. For training, we recommend finding an in-person hands-on course in your area. When it comes to stocking your first aid kit with equipment, though, we’ve got you covered.
As a disclaimer, nothing in this article is intended as medical advice. No piece of equipment is an acceptable substitute for proper training, and the vast majority of first aid equipment should not be used by anyone not trained and certified in its use.
Building an IFAK: Tourniquets
A good tourniquet is the foundation of an individual first aid kit. Any time you’re handling a firearm with live ammunition, we’d heavily recommend you have a tourniquet nearby. This is especially true at a public range; while you might follow the four rules of gun safety, that doesn’t mean everyone will.
Tourniquets are a stopgap measure; they help restrict the flow of blood in order to buy time to get the injured party to proper medical care, and they do that very well. A properly-staged tourniquet should be easy to use with one or both hands, either on another individual or on yourself.
We wholeheartedly recommend the CAT tourniquet. It’s the most widely recommended by medical professionals and the most commonly used by the military. While it’s not the smallest tourniquet on the market, it’s not difficult to fit into a pocket either, and its ubiquity has created a large aftermarket for carry solutions. There are even kits designed to fit a CAT tourniquet on your ankle.
Most importantly, it’s very easy to learn to use. Hands-on training is always the best, but as an interim measure, there are plenty of good instructional videos available online.
Even in situations where carrying a full IFAK would be impractical, a tourniquet can be the difference between life and death. Whatever the activity, if you’re bringing a gun, at the bare minimum, bring a tourniquet.
Building an IFAK: Gauze and Wound Dressings
It’s hard to overstate the usefulness of tourniquets, but they do have their limitations. The biggest one is that they only work if the wound is on a limb; damage to the head or torso requires a completely different method of treatment.
Tourniquets also don’t do much to treat intermediate wounds; their purpose is to control severe or potentially fatal bleeding long enough to get to healthcare. Not all wounds are severe enough to need a tourniquet, even if they do still require immediate medical attention.
For these reasons, a good IFAK ought to include an Emergency Trauma Dressing, as well as at least one or two types of gauze.
The Emergency Trauma Dressing, often shortened to ETD, is used to apply direct pressure to a wound to staunch bleeding. They’re extremely simple to apply and do a good job at controlling bleeding that is not severe enough to necessitate a tourniquet. An ETD can also be used to fashion a sling or secure a splint, making it a versatile addition to an IFAK.
Gauze is primarily self-explanatory; even if you’ve never used it before, you’ve probably seen it used, either on TV or in person. There is a wide range of applications for it, from wound packing—which should only be done by professionals—to simple wrapping to prevent contamination.
For basic wound wrapping and bandaging, regular sterile gauze is sufficient. For injuries with severe bleeding, you’ll want to have hemostatic gauze handy.
Hemostatic gauze is gauze that has been impregnated with a chemical agent that promotes blood clotting to reduce or stop the flow of blood much faster than physical pressure is capable of. While direct hemostatic agents like powders can be risky, hemostatic gauze is generally considered to be safe to use on external wounds such as lacerations.
For an IFAK, you’ll want to specifically look for hemostatic gauze that is Z-folded, as this method of folding makes it much faster and easier to deploy. It’s important to remember that hemostatic agents, unlike regular gauze, have a shelf life and will expire eventually.
Building an IFAK: Shields and Seals
Tourniquets and gauze can go a long way toward treating external injuries, but certain types of wounds require more specialized gear. This brings us to our next set of recommended supplies: chest seals and eye shields.
A chest seal is a type of wound dressing designed specifically to address a sucking chest wound. It’s an adhesive seal, meaning you only need to peel off the backing and stick it to the injured party’s chest or back; no additional gauze or dressing is required to hold it in place.
The seal will allow air to be vented from the wound, but not sucked in, preventing or alleviating a buildup of pressure inside the chest cavity called a pneumothorax. This type of dressing can be essential for treating a gunshot to the chest, and as such belongs in any IFAK.
Eye shields treat a less life-threatening injury; they essentially act as a dressing to be used following any penetrative trauma to the eye. This protects the eye from further damage while professional medical attention is sought.
Even when wearing appropriate ballistic glasses, eye damage is possible from spalling from steel targets, bullet fragmentation or ricochet, or a catastrophic malfunction like an out-of-battery detonation. As such, an eye shield is an especially important part of an IFAK that will spend some of its time at the range or training courses.
We recommend making sure any eye shield you add to your kit comes with a garter; this pads the edge of the shield to make it less uncomfortable on the eye.
Building an IFAK: General Purpose Equipment
There are certain tools you ought to have in your IFAK regardless of what injury you aim to treat. First and foremost among them are nitrile gloves. These gloves are thin enough not to impede your dexterity, but offer a waterproof barrier to protect you from contact with any bodily fluids.
This is important when providing first aid to another person, as basic personal protective equipment like gloves can prevent the transmission of a vast range of diseases, ranging from trivial to potentially life-threatening. Some older kits may feature latex gloves; since latex allergies are not terribly uncommon, it’s generally recommended to upgrade to nitrile.
Duct tape or surgical tape is next on the list. Which one you choose is largely a matter of personal preference; many military kits include a small roll of duct tape, while civilian medical kits tend to be more likely to stock surgical tape.
Regardless, it’s important to have some form of tape available to fix dressings in place, among other tasks.
One of the more commonly overlooked tools in an IFAK is trauma shears. These can be relatively large compared to the other tools and supplies in an individual first aid kit and are one of the few things that are rigid and inflexible. For that reason, they often get left behind—but they shouldn’t.
Trauma shears are an important tool to have available in the event of a medical emergency. They can be used to cut clothing away to allow access to a wound without having the move the injured person’s body. If a head injury or broken bone is suspected, any additional movement could worsen the issue, so being able to cut away clothing to access the wound is imperative.
Trauma shears can also be used in a pinch to cut away a jammed seatbelt after a car accident or slice through a rifle sling to get it out of the way.
Some users feel a knife can be used in this capacity and opt to leave trauma shears out of their kit. While a knife can accomplish the tasks listed above, the exposed edge and sharp point present a massively increased risk of causing additional harm, while the contained cutting edges and rounded ends of the shears present almost no risk.
If you absolutely must keep the size and weight of your kit to a bare minimum, a sharp rescue hook is the best option after proper trauma shears. It is unwise to rely on a pocket or fixed-blade knife as a part of your medical supplies.
Lastly, we recommend adding a permanent marker to your IFAK. This is especially important if you also carry any form of tourniquet; the moment a tourniquet is applied, there is only a limited amount of time left before tissue damage becomes likely.
For that reason, immediately after applying a tourniquet, the time of application should be written on it. This ensures that medical personnel treating the injured party after the tourniquet is applied know exactly how much time they have to stabilize the wound and remove the tourniquet.
Building an IFAK: Things NOT to have (TRAINING REQUIRED)
There are certain tools that, while often found among military or first responder kits, have no place in an IFAK unless the user has advanced medical training, at which point they can decide for themselves what equipment would best enable them to provide trauma care.
Nasopharyngeal Airways fall under this category. They’re a staple of military medical equipment, and commonly found in kits such as the SIRK. However, most civilians are not trained to use them, and they can be dangerous if used without proper medical knowledge. Your average first aid or Stop The Bleed course won’t cover the technique used to apply them or the situations in which they are necessary. For that reason, they are best avoided.
Decompression needles are another good example of common military equipment that has no place in untrained hands. These devices are used to treat a tension pneumothorax by creating an opening to release the buildup of pressure. This process, obviously, involves using the needle to penetrate the injured party’s chest to create that opening.
Any form of invasive treatment is best left to medical professionals. Poking a hole in a person is not something to be taken lightly and should not be done by anyone without considerable training.
This leads us to our next piece of equipment: anything with a cutting edge. Whether it’s a scalpel, needle, surgical implement, or plain pocket knife, it has no place in your kit unless you are a medical professional.
In some cases, users justify including these sorts of supplies in their kit by assuming that in the event of an emergency, there may be someone else around who is qualified to use them, and therefore carry them in order to be able to provide them to that hypothetical person.
It’s an honorable goal, but the statistics just don’t work out. The odds that you’ll be in close proximity to a severe injury, have your kit handy, and have a medical professional nearby who knows how to use that kit and needs those specific tools to provide treatment are vanishingly small.
Moreover, having tools or supplies you don’t know how to use in your kit creates needless clutter. Every item you add is one more item that must be dug through to find what you actually need, and in an emergency, every second counts. Stick to what you can use effectively and leave the field surgeon kits to field surgeons.
There’s always going to be one more tool you could add or one more bandage that might be handy. An IFAK can’t cover every scenario; the variables are just too many. What it can and should do is cover the widest range of possible injuries and provide the tools necessary to buy time while professional medical assistance is found, and that’s exactly what this kit is designed to do.
Still, it’s important to consider your individual circumstances as well. Think of this guide as a jumping-off point; from here, consider your own training, needs, and environment.
How long would it realistically take for you to reach medical assistance? Users in more remote locations may need to opt for a more comprehensive kit and training.
Similarly, consider your own medical needs. If you have an allergy you’re aware of, an EpiPen may be an important piece of equipment for you, while other users won’t need one at all.
If you don’t yet have any formal medical training, we heavily recommend a basic CPR certification, followed by a Stop The Bleed course. Each of these programs can be completed in a day and combined provide you with the basic know-how to provide life-saving emergency care for the most common medical emergencies.
In the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all option, but by sticking to the gear list and principles laid out above, you’ll be equipped with a good foundational IFAK for most likely scenarios.