How to Pack for a Travel Emergency

Laura Lopuch

Are you ready for an emergency on the road?

What supplies do you carry to stop bleeding, stave off a headache, or worse, stabilize a fractured leg?

It’s inevitable that something happens on the road — that’s the nature of the beast. But how do you walk the fine line between your bag looking like a traveling hospital and bleeding like a stuck pig, for hours, if you don’t have even a band-aid?

Aye, there’s the rub.

To help you find that fine line between I’m not a hypochondriac– I just pack like one and mud is a fabulous substitute for a band-aid, right?I polled the Tortuga team to find out what they pack for travel emergencies.

Most Popular Emergency Supplies

Here’s a roundup of what almost everyone packs in their medical kit:

  • Anti-diarrhea medication
  • Ibuprofen
  • Tylenol
  • Band-aids
  • Benadryl (use for allergy attacks, or as a mild sleep aid)
  • Anti-nausea
  • Pepto (chewable is my favorite)

Have Kids? Off the Grid? Consider This:

Traveling with four kids has taught Jenn, our editor, a lot about what to expect in an emergency.

“When my kid cut the tip of his finger off in backwater Guatemala,” she says, “The local health center did not have a suture kit (in the entire place) nor did they have butterfly bandages. I realized that in a real emergency, I’d have taken a dirty needle over no needle. I realized it was my own responsibility to be able to provide clean, safe needle kits for a doctor’s use in off the grid places. “

Here’s a peek inside her medical bag:

  • Stick kit: IV start, a syringe, and a suture kit
  • Basic first aid bandage kit
  • Dental filling patch kit
  • Eye drops
  • Albuterol inhaler
  • Antibiotics
  • The usual suspects: Ibuprofen, Tylenol, benadryl, anti-nausea and anti-diarrhea medications

Weird — But Genius — Medical Supplies

Wondering why there’s electrical tape in Shawn’s bag? “It makes an amazing impromptu bandage,” he says, “I’ve cut myself so many times, and electrical tape is always there to hold me together.”

When you’re packing for your next trip and don’t have electrical tape lying around, Duct Tape will do in a pinch. You really can do anything with Duct Tape from fixing a rip in your bag, to taping two gaping lips of a wound together.

Or try Kinesiotape. This stretchy athletic tape — used to support injuries — is always in Angela’s bag. She’s used it as a makeshift patch for anything that has a hole in it, and for plugging a bathtub using a produce bag to do laundry.

“I also use it as a band-aid,” she says, “When there’s not much need for the cotton bit. I’ll use it over the band-aid if it won’t stick on its own.”

Country-Specific Medications

When you’re traveling internationally, or to less-developed countries, your favorite medications might not be available. Jessie brings Imodium and, “This magic stuff called Smecta (like Pepto but works better) to help with stomach issues.”

Taylor added Sudafed, Unisom, and Nyquil to her traveling pharmacy.

And Shawn will definitely bring anti-malaria pills. But even if you don’t take those — like Jessie who was diagnosed with malaria halfway through a trip — you’ll be okay. The medication to cure it is inexpensive, fast acting, and readily available anywhere malaria is an issue.

What If I Run Out Of My Meds On the Road?

First, take a deep breath. It will be okay.

When your medical supplies run out, hunting down a local pharmacy and communicating — whether in a foreign language, using Google translate, or elaborate hand gestures — was a common theme for the Tortuga team.

Don’t be afraid of what’ll happen when your supply — like of contact solution — runs out.

Get yourself on Google, find directions to a local pharmacy and figure it out. The human body is a wondrous machine with a miraculous ability to heal itself. In most cases, you’ll get medical help before anything turns horrible. Remember, the movies always over-dramatize (it’s in their nature) and you are fully capable of handling unexpected emergencies.

Tip: If you are on prescription medications, take paper and digital copies of the prescriptions with you to help the pharmacists.

Don’t Forget…

Once in New Orleans, my husband’s contacts swelled up to twice their size. Normally a guy who is prepared for any emergency, he hadn’t packed a spare pair of contacts on this trip. He wore his glasses, but the blinding fall sun started a pounding headache.

No local optometrist would prescribe him new contacts without a prescription faxed from his home optometrist (who was closed for the weekend). Thanks to that experience, he, now, always packs a spare pair of contacts.

Learn from Taylor, who sprained her ankle and fractured her tibia two days before a hiking trip to Acadia National Park. Thinking it must just be sore, she hiked 15 miles a day on a broken ankle. Now she always packs a compression sleeve, or brace.

Moral of the story?

If you forget something on this trip, learn from your mistake and pack it on your next trip. But, before leaving home, always figure out what the most difficult thing to replace on the road will be (for me, it’s my prescription glasses) and triple-check that you’ve packed that item.

#1 Must-Have Medication

Our hands-down favorite was ibuprofen. Don’t leave home without it.

Runners up were:

  • Anti-diarrhea medication
  • Band-aids
  • Kinesiotape
  • Flip-flops for staying in hostels (not a med, but might keep you from needing one)

What Should Your Travel Medical Kit Include?

There are two sides to this debate: err on side of prepared or travel light & brave what may come. 

Taylor opts on the cautious side: “I tend to overpack medication (at least by Tortuga standards), because I refuse to be violently ill in another country without any semblance of remedy.”

While on the other side of the spectrum is Patrick. “In most cases, packing for emergencies just makes travel harder. If I do have an emergency, I can usually buy something on the trip to solve the problem. If I were a woman, or had medical needs, I would probably feel differently.”

Bring the medications, or medical supplies, that you use most at home, and start experimenting on the road to figure out your perfect travel medical kit. This kit is going to be different for each person. It depends on how your body reacts to travel, and what medical needs you have now.


What should your travel emergency kit include? That depends on your comfort level in handling emergencies on the road.

The Tortuga team’s favorite medical supplies to pack are:

  • Anti-diarrhea medication
  • Ibuprofen
  • Tylenol
  • Band-aids
  • Benadryl: use for allergy attacks or as a mild sleeping aid
  • Anti-nausea
  • Pepto

Can’t figure out what exactly to bring in your kit? Pack the supplies you use most at home on some small trips. Soon you’ll get a feeling of what you should — and shouldn’t — bring.

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