Imagine you see a car accident on a rural road. The driver is injured, with a deep cut on their thigh that’s gushing blood.
In the case of a normal wound, you can apply enough pressure with your hands and bandages to control the surface bleeding. But in our hypothetical scenario, a main artery was cut and the driver will lose too much blood before an ambulance arrives. An injured person can bleed out in only a few minutes after something like a car accident or gunshot wound, so you have to move fast, and you need something more than just hand pressure and bandages—you need a tourniquet.
Tourniquets are small and simple devices that stop arterial blood loss from injured limbs in just a few seconds by pinching off the artery—similar to cutting off the flow of a garden hose by pinching the hose in half.
These tools often make the difference between whether someone lives or dies, which is why safety experts recommend you carry at least one in each of your bug-out and get-home bags. (You might keep an extra one in your home supplies, too.) Increasingly, groups like FEMA are campaigning to raise public awareness and availability of tourniquets, so you’ll likely start to see more tourniquets in public places next to defibrillator kits.
First responders and military medics almost always have a tourniquet in their gear. Not only do elite soldiers—who are careful to keep weight down and only bring the essentials—carry a tourniquet into battle, but many keep it attached to the outside of their belt/pack/gear (sometimes in a special pouch marked TQ) so that it’s easy to find and deploy in seconds. Tourniquets are one of the few medical products with that level of “find it fast” importance.
It’s possible to make a do-it-yourself tourniquet out of common materials like cloth and sticks or with a trip to the hardware store. But the data is clear: those hacky methods are not nearly as effective at saving lives.
Modern tourniquets are affordable, well made, and worth the purchase for most people because they’re dependable and easier to use when the adrenaline is pumping.
After all… you might be the injured driver, alone, not thinking clearly, only able to use one arm to save yourself in the minutes before you pass out. That’s not the time to deal with cheap knockoffs or finding a good wooden stick for a DIY tourniquet.
- Keep at least one of these in each of your primary kits: bug out bag, get home bag, home supplies, and car kit (if applicable).
- This is not a category to buy cheap—a $5-15 tourniquet is not good enough, and you’re better off spending that money making a DIY hardware-store tourniquet than wasting it on a knockoff product that will fail when you need it.
- The best tourniquets are only $30 and they last a long time.
- There are multiple styles of tourniquets, but only one style that’s approved in the military: the classic windlass design—essentially a solid stick that you twist to create pressure.
- The wider the surface area of the cuff, the better—narrow tubes/straps are more painful and likely to cause tissue damage.
- Normal tourniquets are for limbs only. There are special types of ‘junctional’ tourniquets for groins and armpits, but they don’t make sense for most people’s kits.
- Tourniquets are usually “one size fits most,” but will struggle with very tiny or very large limbs.
Best for most people:
CAT (Gen 7)
Our top choice for most people is the $30 Combat Application Tourniquet (Generation 7). Commonly referred to as the CAT-7, this product pioneered the modern off-the-shelf rapid tourniquet and has remained one of the leaders since.
One of the only two models approved by the U.S. military (and marketed as the “official tourniquet of the U.S. Army”), the CAT is also one of the more popular choices among preppers and first responders. This is also one of the few models we keep in our personal kits and use while teaching Wilderness EMT courses.
Through its latest Gen 7, CAT (distributed in the U.S. via North American Rescue) resolved the few outstanding complaints from the community: the windlass bar was strengthened and the straps/buckles were reconfigured to be even easier. Those upgrades put the CAT-7 at the top of our pile, although it was a close call with the runner up.
Also great is the $30 Tactical Medical Solutions SOFTT-W (for Special Operations Forces Tactical Tourniquet – Wide). The SOFTT-W is an upgraded version of the original SOFTT, with a wider strap that’s less painful and risky to use than the original model.
The SOFTT-W and CAT-7 are pretty similar—in fact, you’ll find both models among our expert’s personal kits and teaching materials. Both use the preferred windlass design, are built tough, take up the same small amount of space and weight, and can quickly and intuitively be used by normal people without too much training. Our main nitpick between the two is the locking mechanism for holding the tension you create after twisting the tourniquet. The CAT’s curvy hooks are a little easier to engage since you just have to get the windless over it and press down. The metal triangle and notch used on the SOFTT-W takes a tiny bit more dexterity as you have to manually flip the triangle over the end of the windlass. The difference between these two is really that minute for our recommendation.
The SOFTT-W is the other of the two models approved by the military. In many product categories “mil spec” or military-approved doesn’t mean much beyond a higher price tag. But in this case it’s important because these medical devices have undergone rigorous evaluation in the field, combined with a ton of after-action analysis by professional medics. Testers even use Doppler—think of it like sonar or an x-ray—to look inside a real body under the tourniquet to check that the blood flow has stopped.
Best tourniquet pouch:
When seconds count, you don’t want to be digging for your tourniquet at the bottom of a crowded bag, in the dark, adrenaline pumping, covered in blood. A special holster that just holds your tourniquet in an easy-to-access location is a nice-to-have accessory. We like the new $35 ITS TourniQuick Rapid Deployment Pouch. Designed for both the CAT and SOFTT-W, you can mount this high-quality pouch horizontally, vertically, on a belt, or through MOLLE webbing.
Why you should trust us
I’m a former Navy Corpsman (medic) that deployed with Marine Reconnaissance (to OIF/OEF) after working as a civilian Paramedic for an inner-city department. I currently teach classes around the country for “austere” field medicine — handling medical situations with limited resources — to hundreds of civilian and professional students. I’ve personally responded to a range of nasty casualties in the field, including using tourniquets to save lives.
Why we didn’t recommend a “best budget tourniquet”
We didn’t pick a budget tourniquet because they’re just not worth it.
Almost every product category in prepping is at the mercy of “you get what you pay for.” In most categories it’s usually fine to save a little money by sacrificing features or quality if you’re on a budget — something is usually better than nothing.
Not so with tourniquets. We’ve personally seen budget tourniquets with 5-star Amazon reviews fail in the field for no good reason.
There are a lot of copycats and knockoffs, particularly of the design pioneered by one of our top two recommendations, the North American Rescue CAT. If it looks like a CAT but doesn’t come from NAR, or is under $25, do not buy it! Here are two common fake examples on Amazon: Mgrowth and HEPHEAS.
This video does a head-to-head test of a counterfeit vs. proper CAT using Doppler ultrasound to measure any internal pulse (one of the methods used in a proper medical certification process):
There are even Chinese knockoffs that have copied real tourniquets so well they have the US patent number embossed onto the plastic!
If your budget doesn’t allow for a proper one, go the do-it-yourself route instead. Focus more on learning the skill, and with a trip to Home Depot, you can build a tourniquet for $5 that’s better than the $15 junk.
These field-expedient tourniquets will work in a pinch, although they’ll never be as good or dependable as the real thing.
- CAT Combat Application Tourniquet (Gen 7)
- Combat Medical TMT Tactical Mechanical Tourniquet
- H&H MET Military Emergency Tourniquet (Gen 3)
- H&H SWAT-T Tourniquet — a common model, likely the most popular in the elastic tourniquet category.
- H&H TK4
- m2 RMT Ratcheting Medical Tourniquet / RMT Pediatric
- PYNG MATCombat / MATResponder
- RATS Rapid Application Tourniquet System — a common but controversial model. Light and small, but not the best choice for most people.
- Recon Medical Tourniquet
- RevMedx TX2 / TX3 Ratcheting Tourniquet
- TacMed K9 — labeled for dogs only, but some use it for children.
- Tactical Medical Solutions SOFTT-W
- Thor TQ
Types of tourniquets
Windlass models are essentially a webbing loop/sleeve that wraps around or slides onto a limb, combined with a solid bar (the windlass) you can easily grab, twist to create pressure, and lock in place.
Most models have a latch or loop that holds an end of the windlass bar, preventing it from unwinding. In the picture above (the CAT Gen 7), the tip of the windlass slides into and is held by one of the two opposing plastic slots (near the medic’s left thumb). The velcro tab hanging below is then wrapped over top for extra security.
Very similar to flat elastic exercise bands or round surgical tubing, elastic band tourniquets are basically just a long piece of stretchy material that you forcefully wrap around a limb a few times. You might see them referred to as a “wrap and tuck” or “stretch” tourniquet.
(Warning: graphic gore)
Some people say elastic models are easier to use than windlass models. We think that can be true in a practice setting, but we find that’s not the case in the field, and they’re definitely more difficult to use one handed than windlass types.
When you’re trying to find the sweet spot for tightness, we prefer the windlass because the risk is lower and it’s easier to make smaller adjustments without the whole thing unraveling.
Picture the common straps and ratchets used to tie down heavy loads on a truck bed. Ratchet tourniquets are similar. Some use a wind-up drum, just like truck ratchets, while others use a system more like your common household ratchet wrench or the buckles on ski boots.
There are some ratchet styles floating around, but we don’t recommend them. Army Rangers tested them in the field in the 2000s and went back to the windlass style. There are too many points of failure, such as clothing/skin/blood getting stuck in the ratcheting mechanism.
Pneumatic models use an inflatable bladder to squeeze off blood flow. In fact, a common blood pressure cuff is a form of tourniquet. But you generally don’t see these kinds outside of hospitals, and we don’t recommend them for average preppers.
Qualities we look for when reviewing the best tourniquets
- Intuitive: If it’s been a few years since you’ve practiced, how easy can you figure things out on the fly?
- Effective: Does it actually stop blood flow when used by an average civilian?
- Durable: Quality construction that won’t break under pressure or after repeated uses
- Secure: How well it stays tight and in place when moving the injured
- Meets CoTCCC or similar medical standards
- Possible to apply with one hand
- The surface area that creates pressure on the skin should be at least 1.5” wide, which reduces pain and possibility of tissue damage
- We prefer windlass-type models over rubber bands/tubing
- An area/tab on the product to write down time of application (important for professionals that take over from you later)
- Made in the U.S. or a similar country with established medical certifications
The frustrating tradeoff in this market is that windlass tourniquets are the most effective type, and usually fastest to apply, but the stretch-and-tuck models are more intuitive because it’s simply a wrapping motion.
Windlass models are usually easier to apply with one hand. The wrap-and-tuck stretchy band models can be awkward, similar to putting a bracelet on your wrist with only one hand.
Tourniquets that don’t use a windlass are at a mechanical disadvantage. It can be a lot harder for an average person to create enough pressure around a large meaty leg just by wrapping and tucking stretchy rubber. The windlass is what gives you leverage, like lifting something heavy with a pulley or folding a garden hose in half instead of pinching the tube with your fingers.
We’ve seen a wide range in the build quality of tourniquets. By design, tourniquets place a tremendous amount of pressure on a few small pieces for a few hours straight. A common problem, for example, are cheaply-made windlasses that fold under pressure, and if the windlass collapses, there’s nothing holding the tension you wound up.
Medical standards matter
The best tourniquets meet standards set by the independent Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care (CoTCCC), which is endorsed by the American College of Surgeons and the National Association of EMTs.
Unfortunately, some commonly-seen manufacturers played games by creating a for-profit TCCC trademark so they could put “TCCC Approved” on their products without going through the certification process. This was settled out of court in 2016, but it’s always possible to find more sleazy games.
Holsters and storage
It’s important to be able to access your tourniquet in seconds. You don’t want to be fumbling through a backpack or medical pouch as someone is rapidly bleeding out in the dark.
Remove your new TQ from any packaging as soon as you receive it. You may also want to re-fold the product so it stores with a flatter profile:
Because many people keep the TQ strapped to the outside of their pack/gear, the top models come with UV-resistant rubber bands (typically black) that won’t break from sun exposure. Don’t toss them out with the disposable packaging.
If possible, keep your tourniquet stored away from your limbs. You may see pictures of soldiers that rubber band their TQ to the front of a shoulder strap on their backpack or body armor, near the armpit. But if you’re injured in the upper arm (one of the few areas on your body a tourniquet actually helps), you don’t want your TQ to be damaged at the same time.