Traveler, Heal Thyself

If you ever need healing in the wild, your little black bag better hold the right tricks. Ken Kristensen, 37, a Hollywood screenwriter, learned this lesson the hard way after cutting his knee open in northern Zimbabwe.

The nearest village was a two-hour hike away, and his med kit was little more than a glorified box of Band-Aids. Short on supplies but not on guts, he turned to the needle in his complimentary airline sewing pack--and the mint dental floss in his Dopp kit.

"It was like trying to push a needle through a football," he recalls. Four stitches later he was limping out of the bush in search of medical attention.

At a nearby village the local witch doctor made Kristensen play the maracas to prove he was worthy of treatment, then packed his wound with black poultice and sent him on his way. Within days the knee was in worse shape. The hospital he called in Harare urged him to get there stat.

On the way he met an elderly German couple who took an interest in his wound. Retired surgeons, they spent their time traveling the globe--and they always packed for trouble.

"He broke out his little duffel bag and gave me an anti-inflammatory shot and a bottle of antibiotics," Kristensen recalls. "I couldn't believe my luck." 

These days, a few scars the wiser, Kristensen invests in travel insurance and has upgraded his medical bag for a wider range of eventualities. Self-suturing should only be a last resort--and your chances of crossing paths with a surgeon are slim.

But with basic know-how, the right kit for your trip and a solid backup plan, you can be your own first responder. Consider these pages your wilderness M.D. primer.

First Aid Facts

MAKE THE MOST OF IT. If you pack smart, almost everything in your kit should pull double duty. Use Ziplocs to flush wounds: Fill one with water, puncture and squeeze. 

GO GLOBAL, THINK LOCAL. Vary your kit to fit the environment. If you're off to the jungle, add insect repellent. For a mountain trek, pack altitude-sickness medicine, such as Diamox. Desert bound? Bring oral rehydration salts.

FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS. If your doctor gives you an antibiotic, take it only as prescribed. Front-loading won't knock out the bug--it will actually help create resistant "superbugs" that can make you even sicker.

KNOW THE DRILL. Take a wilderness medicine course, such as those offered by NOLS ( Or get a backcountry first aid book, like the Field Guide to Wilderness Medicine ($48;

PLAY DEFENSE. Don't wait for a nagging pain to worsen; treat it ASAP. Prevent minor injuries like blisters from becoming major ones like staph infections.

PRACTICE RESTRAINT. Self-suturing is not advised, unless blood loss is severe. "Then I don't care if a chimpanzee does the sewing," says Luanne Freer, M.D., of the Wilderness Medical Society. "You have to stop the bleeding."

Foreign Policy

Shell out a few extra dollars ahead of time--or pay the price later.

YOUR CURRENT PLAN: Before departure, vet the specifics of your trip with your health care provider. Ask if they cover procedures overseas and if so, what types and in which countries.

Make sure to find out if they'll fly you back to the U.S. for stateside care--out-of-pocket repatriation can cost upwards of $100,000.

OUTSIDE OPTIONS: If you don't have insurance or your policy is stingy, consider short-term coverage ( For medical evacuations, MedJetAssist's new Plus Program ( will front you $50,000, provide a sat phone, and fly you back to your home country.
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