Chances are, most of the time that you ride you will never need anything but water and nutrition. Being prepared with an emergency kit, however, could help you give the ol’ middle finger to Murphy and his “Law” if disaster strikes. Different than a first aid kit, an emergency kit has more than just a few bandages and tape.
There are two kinds emergency kits that you need: one to keep on you when you ride, and one to keep in your car.
What to Take on Every Ride
Rides may vary in length, intensity, technical features, and level of remoteness. Your “average” ride should dictate what you keep on you, and if you go far, you should have more than what you’d take on a lunch ride. Carrying a hydration pack or bike bag obviously allows you to carry everything you may need if you accidentally take a tumble in the tumbleweeds. First aid supplies are important, but you should also keep a few items in case of a bike mechanical breakdown. Taking a few basic things will increase your chances of egressing to safety.
Items to Keep in Your Pack
- Tweezers–great for cacti or bee stings
- Band Aids–for blisters, small cuts, and holding larger pieces of flesh together
- Sterile 4×4 Gauze or Kerlix–great for larger wounds, scrapes
- Ibuprofen or Tylenol–to reduce pain until you can seek definitive care
- Duck Tape or Medical tape–to secure bandages, splints, and fixin’ stuff
- Benadryl/Diphenhydramine–for severe allergy attacks, or as adjunct treatment for anaphylaxis
- Epipen*–if you suffer from anaphylactic reactions
- Triple antibiotic ointments
- Water purification tablets–for longer rides where you may run out of H20
- Zip ties–for splints, temporary sutures, and everything in between
- Emergency Contact information–critical if you are unconscious
- Save-your-life card–many states sell inexpensive cards to pay for rescue
- Mylar Emergency Blanket–when riding in colder, wet conditions
- Whistle–to signal for help if you become lost or incapacitated
- Extra batteries–keep an extra battery in your pack for your cell phone and Go Pro
- Derailleur Hanger–they all eventually break, and it’s probably the most inconvenient time on a ride
- Small multitool with a chaintool–for trailside repairs
- Chainlink and Tool–to repair a broken chain on the trail
- Bandana–to wipe up messes, clean, and improvise as a sling
- Emergency sugar–buy a gel shot and don’t touch it unless you absolutely have to
- Money–in the event you need to pay an unfamiliar rider for gear, pay for a cab, make a phone call, or buy emergency snacks when you bonk
This season I have had to use several items listed above, both for medical emergencies and mechanical breakdowns. It is not a question of if, but when.
Items to Keep In Your Car
Ideally, you should have a pretty stocked first aid/emergency kit in your car in the event that anything should happen to you, whether it is related to biking or not. Consider that sometimes riders barely make it to their vehicle after sustaining a serious injury. Also, riders may be stranded due to injury, weather, or mechanical breakdown from seeking immediate professional medical attention in remote places. It is a good idea to keep things in your vehicle in case help is not imminent.
- Everything you keep in your bike first aid kit
- Kerlix–a wrapable bandage for almost any major wound
- ACE bandage–for sprains or holding ice packs in place
- Coban–like an ACE bandage, but sticks to itself. Great for bandages, splints
- 4×4 bandages–these are great for larger wounds, punctures, etc.
- Medical Tape–to hold bandages
- Sling–for shoulder dislocations, AC tears, clavicle fractures, etc.
- SAM splint–for fractures and severe sprains en-route to the ER
- Aluminum foam finger splints–small ones pre-cut and formed for finger fractures
- Water–for dehydration, and cleaning wounds. Store in a BPA-free container.
- Alcohol pads–great for quickly cleaning small wounds, removing adhesives, etc.
- Betadine or chlorhexadine–the preferred solutions for sterilizing wounds after irrigated with water
- Rubber gloves–if you have to work on wounds, particularly on riders you may not know and want to avoid bloodborne pathogens
- Ice packs–purchase chemical packs that you break and become cold in minutes
- Razor–helpful to shave hairy parts to clean or repair a wound
- Quick Clot–this is debatable because it can be helpful to stop bleeding, but it destroys tissue and may make it difficult for a physician to debride the area. Direct pressure should stop most bleeding.
- Trauma Shears–great for cutting clothing, thick bandages, splints, etc.
- Matches or a lighter
- Compass–helpful if you are lost, but also to direct EMS to find you in the backcountry
- Oral rehydration tablets–to use in conjunction with water for mild to moderate dehydration
- Flashlight–in case you arrive at your car after dark with a medical emergency. Pack extra batteries.
- Snacks/gel shots–nice if you’re hungry, but sugar can treat hypoglycemia
- Personal medications–always have a small supply of any pills you need for acute or chronic medical conditions
- Multipurpose tool–for cutting, crimping, and everything else
- Personal hygiene items–to clean wounds, or freshen up for an after-ride beer
- Hand sanitizer–to clean hands and wounds if nothing else is available
- Extra cash–for gas, water, phone, etc.
- Maps of areas you frequent
- Extra set of car keys–to store outside your vehicle if you lose yours on the trail
- Extra clothing–to don if you arrive back at your car hypothermic or become stranded in your car during inclement weather
Things that you (probably) do not need to carry
- Snake bite kit–the unsavory fact is that these are pretty much worthless. Snake bites should not be treated with suction, a tourniquet, or cutting X’s over punctures.
- Sutures–unless you are a competent medical professional, and have everything you need to suture properly, these are a bad idea. Dirty wounds that are sutured may harbor life-threatening anaerobic bacteria. If you need stitches, get to the nearest ER.
- Needles, IV fluids, tubing, intubation equipment, etc.–unless you are an EMT, nurse, or physician, these are products that you will probably never use, though I have seen people without training carry them anyway in case someone else knows how to use them at the scene.
Your emergency kit should reflect the area you live and ride in, which would differ greatly if you lived in northern Alaska than in southern Georgia. Be prepared for natural disasters such as blizzards or hurricanes if you become stranded anywhere on or off the road.
Having the correct gear in your emergency kit is only part of the battle. If you spend a lot of time in the backcountry, or riding/hiking in remote places, you should strongly consider wilderness survival and medical training.
I encourage everyone, particularly backcountry athletes, to get certified in CPR. Although CPR survival rates are low in the general population (3-5% outside of a hospital), they are far more successful in younger people, and in athletes of all ages who may suffer an unexpected arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). Some people actually purchase an AED, or portable home defibrillator, to keep in their car in the event of a sudden cardiac even after an accident or during a sporting event. They cost as little as $999 online.
In addition, there are several agencies that offer courses on backcountry survival and how to treat medical injuries. National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, is one of the most popular. There are also disaster-specific courses, such as avalanche training, that may apply to your cycling (or other) hobbies.
Whatever you decide to bring, ride smart and practice safety. Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. Be as prepared as you can for conditions you will face as a mountain biker and outdoor enthusiast. Life can be brutal, and it does not discriminate.
Your Turn: What did I miss? What else would you recommend carrying in a first aid or emergency kit, and why?