How to Pack a First Aid Kit for Extended International Travel

It’s a question that the two 52 Places Travelers have fielded from readers and colleagues alike: How do you stay healthy when crisscrossing the world for nearly 365 days? And what do you pack in case you get sick? Each location has its own set of challenges, recommended vaccines and access to pharmacies.

There’s a thin line between being over- and underprepared, said Rebecca Acosta, the co-founder and executive director of Traveler’s Medical Service. The average globe-trotting traveler does not need I.V. bags and syringes, she said, though the items are suggested for those trekking in rural areas.

Jada Yuan began her year as the inaugural 52 Places Traveler in 2018 with a first aid kit that was built with the help of foreign correspondents. Ms. Yuan’s kit was so extensive that a Moroccan customs officer accused her of being a drug dealer.

Twelve months and some 74,900 miles later, Ms. Yuan returned to New York City with “basically the same amount of medicine,” she said.

This year’s 52 Places Traveler, Sebastian Modak, is having a similar experience. Five months in, his first aid kit has been almost untouched. But it offers enough peace of mind that it’s worth all the space it takes up, he says.

(His top recommendation for staying healthy? Drink clean, filtered water. Lots of it.)

Here’s how to pack a first aid kit, whether you are going around the world for a year or a remote adventure for a week.

Start With a Vaccine Checklist

The Centers for Disease Control has a list of vaccines, health notices and packing lists for those traveling around the world. That means accounting for location: Ms. Yuan and Mr. Modak had to plan for places as diverse as Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia and Japan’s Setouchi Islands.

Make sure to look up vaccine requirements far in advance of your travels, as some vaccines may require treatments or doses. Additionally, some nations may require proof of vaccination upon entering customs. The World Health Organization keeps an updated list of nations requiring yellow fever vaccines here.

Don’t forget travel insurance

If you are traveling with a group or on business, you may already have traveler’s insurance that covers medical evacuation. If not, consider buying insurance that includes medevac services, which are recommended when traveling to more rural destinations.

In addition to health coverage, travel insurance covers things like lost baggage and flight cancellations. So even if you stay healthy, it can come in handy when you're on road.

A good travel insurance package will also include a support number to call if you need help identifying the severity of your illness, and where to turn for help.

If your health care provider in the United States offers virtual doctor visits, you may be able to turn to your regular doctor’s office while abroad, too.

Management vs. prevention

If you have prescriptions, make sure they are filled for the entirety of your travels. That may take some coordinating between a primary care physician and insurance companies if medicines need to be resupplied on the road. Ms. Acosta recommends working with a doctor to compile a list of all prescribed medications, in generic form, in case prescriptions are misplaced.

When it comes to prevention, Ms. Acosta said, travelers should think of their medicine cabinet. “What are the type of things that you may grab from your medical kit at home? If it’s one in the morning and you have an upset stomach or a headache, what do you go for?”

Pack those items first.

For Mr. Modak that included vitamins. “I don’t know if you can overdose on vitamins but if so, I’m doing it,” he said from Bulgaria. “I take a multivitamin every morning and chew an Airborne vitamin C tablet, too, on top of that.”

Build your kit

“The worst time to go looking for a pharmacy is after you already need one — and that’s especially true when you’re traveling in an unfamiliar place,” said Ria Misra, the travel editor with Wirecutter, a New York Times Company that reviews and recommends products. That’s why she recommends building your own kit or carefully choosing a prepackaged one.

Traveler’s Medical Service offers recommendations for your kit, listed below; choose the brands that you’ve used in the past. (Traveling internationally is not a great time to test new medication.) Wirecutter recommends packaging a kit in the Osprey UltraLight Roll Organizer; the bag’s roll-up design allows it to pack down significantly.

For travelers short on time, some pre-packed first-aid kits cover the basics. Wirecutter recommends to First Aid Only’s Essentials Kit, which contains the basics needed to clean up minor cuts and relieve pain.

Keep those kits in a carry-on.

Make a checklist

Travelers should create a first aid kit for simple wounds and basic medications to treat stomach issues, colds and allergies. Some products that Traveler’s Medical Service recommends include:

First aid items

Alcohol swabs and liquid disinfectant solution

Bandages: Adhesive bandages, gauze, tape, blister pads and bandage rolls

Topical creams: Antibiotic ointment, antifungal ointments, hydrocortisone cream

Oral rehydration solution for diarrhea or dehydration

Tweezers

Digital thermometer

Lubricating eye drops

Insect repellent

Aloe gel

Medications

Antacids

Antihistamines for allergic reactions and seasonal allergies

Bismuth subsalicylate for nausea, gas and bloating

Laxative/stool softener

Anti-motility medication for severe diarrhea

Cough and cold remedies and lozenges

Pain relievers/fever reducers

Motion sickness medication

Similarly, note any preventive medicines in generic form should you need to restock while traveling.

INSPIRED? Follow our 52 Places traveler, Sebastian Modak, on Instagram as he travels the world, and discover more Travel coverage by following us on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our Travel Dispatch newsletter: Each week you’ll receive tips on traveling smarter, stories on hot destinations and access to photos from all over the world.

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