Your Guide to Individual First Aid Kits (IFAK): Avoid Rookie Mistakes

Dietrich Easter

You've probably heard about the infamous IFAK. Maybe you have questions. What exactly is an IFAK? How do I set it up? Below, you’ll find a guide to individual first aid kits and some advice on avoiding rookie mistakes. 

The individual first aid kit (or IFAK) is carried on your body and designed to treat the emergency needs of one person - or individual. The IFAK contains accessible, lifesaving tools. 

 

Let's learn more. 

What's an Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK)? 

An IFAK is worn on your body and designed to treat one person. The IFAK contains a few common items to treat trauma or immediate emergencies. However, not all IFAKs are created equal.  

Frankly, some IFAKs are insufficient. Companies advertise them as IFAKs, but they're just stuffed with near-expired Band-Aids - not helpful when you're bleeding out. However, there are also good IFAKs that people use for the wrong purpose. 

To have an effective IFAK, you need more than quality gear. You need to have the right gear for the job. 

What’s Inside an Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK)?

In this section, you’ll find a list of general items stored in an IFAK.

 

10 common items inside an IFAK:

  1. Rolled gauze

  2. Tourniquet

  3. Chest seals

  4. Pressure bandages

  5. NPAs and OPAs

  6. Rescue Masks

  7. Gloves and facemasks

  8. Emergency blankets

  9. Burn gel

  10. Trauma shears

 

This is not an exhaustive list. Depending on your situation, you may alter your kit. In the sections below, we’ll talk about several different types of IFAKs.

IFAKs for Different Situations

Let's talk about several types of IFAK: 

  1. Civilian Responder IFAK 

  2. Tactical IFAK 

  3. Wilderness/Survival IFAK 

 

We'll look at each of these in more depth, and you'll see the types of content stored in each IFAK. 

Civilian Responder Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK)

The civilian responder IFAK is a personal first aid kit you'd carry around in daily life. It's small enough to carry around while still having what you need. 

In a civilian responder IFAK, it's important to think about things you need the most, including any lifesaving medications, like an EPI-pen. 

 

Here are several items common in an EDC IFAK: 

  1. Rolled gauzeRolled gauze may be the most versatile first aid tool out there. Why? You can do a lot with rolled gauze, including wound packing, pressure bandages, compression wraps, and slings. If you could only carry one thing, there's an argument that rolled gauze is it - particularly in civilian situations. 

  2. Tourniquet. The tourniquet ensures you have a foolproof way to stop extremity bleeds. Usually, we'd recommend a SOF-T or a CAT; however, something like the SWAT-T is lighter, has more uses, and can be applied to young children and adults. 

  3. Pressure bandage supplies. Some people may opt to carry an emergency bandage or just carry some adhesive wrap with gauze. 

  4. Basic airway control. NPAs and OPAs will give you a tool for breathing control. Also, some people carry a keychain pocket mask or a full rescue mask

  5. Gloves and PPE. If you're trying to help someone else and you have the time, gloves and goggles aren't a bad idea. 

 

If you're curious, check out this video on how to use an IFAK. 

Tactical Individual First Aid Kits (IFAK)

As you know, in the tactical environment, you are more likely to encounter gunfire, knives, and riots - so you'd better be ready for trauma. 

For this reason, your tactical IFAK isn't the place for small band-aids and over-the-counter medications. 

 

Items to place in your tactical IFAK: 

  • Tourniquet. This moves to the top of the list. In a tactical environment, the chances of an extremity wound are significant.

  • Gauze. For a tactical kit, consider packing hemostatic gauze - it's good for packing wounds in the groin or the axilla. 

  • Chest seals. It's smart to carry chest seals in any IFAK; however, these things are a must in a tactical first aid kit. If you're struck by gunfire to the torso, then a chest seal is one of the primary ways to treat that wound. 

  • Airways. NPAs are common in the IFAK, they can be tolerated by semi-conscious patients, and they are easy to store. 

  • Needle for decompression. A chest decompression needle could be lifesaving if you develop a tension pneumothorax. However, don't use it if you're not trained and authorized.

 

Also, you may consider having some light source in your IFAK, so you can quickly assess a wound if needed. It's hard to treat what you can't see! 

Wilderness Survival Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK)

If you're looking for a more survival/wilderness medicine IFAK, you have more considerations. 

For example, where are you going? If you're visiting a campground nearby, you probably don't need huge alterations to your regular IFAK. However, if you're planning an excursion to a remote location, you'll need to set up your IFAK accordingly. 

 

Here are several items to consider for the wilderness IFAK: 

  • Emergency blanket. This might surprise you. However, hypothermia or hyperthermia can kill you within several hours. You can use an emergency blanket to shield you from the sun, protect you from the cold, or construct a make-shift shelter. 

  • Burn gel/treatment. One of the most common injuries in the backcountry is burns - usually around the campfire. For this reason, having some burn gel is smart. 

  • Insect repellant. Insects can kill. Believe it or not, they carry a lot of diseases, and mosquitos claim many more lives than grizzly bears.

  • Water treatment. Carrying a few water purification tablets is smart. Don't skimp on water; that can mess you up fast! 

  • Blister management. Walking and hiking can cause issues - be ready with something to manage blisters - left untreated, you could get an infection or risk a dangerous fall. 

  • Tourniquet. There are plenty of things that could cause bleeding in the wilderness - including accidental gunfire from hunters, or injury from axes, knives, and rabid animals. 

  • Gauze. Again, rolled gauze is the Swiss Army knife of medical gear. 

 

If you have the capacity, it's also smart to carry things like chest seals in your wilderness kit. You'll have to assess the type of country you'll be exploring.

Best Medical Bags for IFAKs 

You'll have to assess what works for your situation. However, in this section, you'll find guidance on good medical bags for IFAKs. 

 

Best bags for a civilian IFAK: 

  1. The ankle medical kit. It holds what you need, it's discreet, and it's easy in everyday life.

  2. Pocket kit. If you're not using an ankle kit, you can also tuck some essential supplies into a small pouch in your pocket.

  3. Cargo pocket kit. Something like a micro kit will fit comfortably in a cargo pocket. 

 

Bags for tactical IFAKs: 

  1. Small of the back. This small of back IFAK fits on the back of your belt, allowing you to access it with both hands. 

  2. MOLLE compatible. A rip-away pouch you can alter to meet the needs of your tactical setup. 

 

Bags for wilderness and Survival IFAKs: 

  1. Vanquest FATpack. These bags are high quality, which is one reason we use them for our Civilian Medical Trauma Kit - this kit is just the right size to hold all the gear you need for survival. However, it also works well as a rapid response kit for daily use. 

 

Note: For the personal EDC IFAKs, make sure you will actually carry them. If you don't carry it, then it's no use. Point? It's okay to sacrifice non-essential gear if it means you're more likely to carry vital equipment - especially in the civilian environment.

IFAK Rookie Mistakes Made

Here's a list of rookie mistakes to avoid:  

  • Wrong gear for the occasion. You need the right gear for the right situation. Bug spray isn't a big deal in Chicago - it's a huge deal in the wilderness. 

  • Storing the IFAK in your car. The IFAK should be on your person - that means it's attached to your ankle or on your chest rig for a tactical environment. It should always be with you: otherwise, it's not an IFAK. 

  • The IFAK is disorganized. IFAKs must be organized. You don't want gauze falling everywhere when you open it up. 

  • It's not accessible. You should be able to reach your IFAK with both hands. If you must keep it with a backpack, try to attach it to the outside.

  • Cheap supplies in the IFAK. Careful with IFAKs that haven't been tested. Some big-box stores will try to advertise something as an IFAK when it's just a box of Band-Aids. 

  • It's not labeled. This is important for tactical environments. Often, when you go down, someone else will help you. If they can't find your IFAK, they can't use the tools. Medical patches are smart. 

 

Let’s wrap this up.

Final Word on Individual First Aid Kits

Before you go, remember the number one rule for IFAKs: Carry. It. A bag stuffed in the trunk won’t do you any good while you’re hiking or biking – it needs to be within arm’s reach.

Take some time to evaluate your medical needs. Also, before you think about gear, think about training. Enroll in a local first aid class to get some hands-on experience. To get started, check out our articles on bleeding control and rescue breathing. 

Finally, remember that the IFAK doesn’t replace a larger first aid kit. If you’re curious, check out our guides to a family first aid kit, a tactical first aid kit, and a survival first aid kit.