Spending time outdoors is often synonymous with adventure; and adventure comes with no small amount of danger. The idea of running into a hungry grizzly bear or crossing a raging river while hiking through a national park can be absolutely adrenaline-inducing. The danger is part of what makes spending any amount of time outdoors so much fun, and the dangers of camping is not a small list.
Camping and hiking are wonderful activities, and this article is not meant to deter anyone from enjoying them. But these activities are best enjoyed when practiced safely.
Common Camping Dangers and Camping Safety Tips:
Most bears avoid people. Realistically, the likelihood of a bear encounter while camping or hiking is very low. In fact, the chances of being attacked by a bear are lower than your chances of being struck by lightning. But it’s still very important to familiarize yourself with bear camping safety.
The most important thing to remember when camping in bear country is to never allow bears to procure your food or garbage. Bears that learn to find food in campgrounds become habituated to humans. These bears become increasingly aggressive and bold in their efforts to obtain food from these campsites, which, in rare instances, lead to bears entering tents and attacking people.
According to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, bears are attracted to all of the following items:
- All human food
- Pet food
- Cooking pots and utensils
- Cooking oils
- Fuel for stoves and lanterns
- Unopened canned beverages
- Cosmetics, insect repellents, lotions, toothpaste
- Bird seed and hummingbird feeders
All of these items should be stored where bears cannot get to them:
- In a hard-sided vehicle.
- It’s important to note that coolers, tents, and pop-up campers are not bear-resistant
- In a bear-resistant backpacker food cache.
- Suspended at least 10-15 feet off the ground and at least 4 feet from any vertical support.
Follow all local regulations as well as these guidelines:
- Do not sleep in the clothes that you have cooked in.
- Keep a flashlight and bear mace in the tent at night.
- In a backcountry camp, set up sleeping areas a minimum of 100 yards away from any cooking and food storage areas.
- Avoid aromatic foods, such as bacon and fish.
- Never place food inside your tent.
- Sleep in a tent, not out in the open.
- Camp away from trails, berry patches, carcasses or fresh signs of a nearby bear.
- Pack out all garbage and food scraps; do not bury them.
If a bear enters your camp and any attempts to scare it away prove to be unsuccessful, get to a safe area immediately. The bear is likely habituated to humans and may be extremely dangerous. Promptly report any such incident to the local authorities.
The way you should react to a bear encounter varies on the type of bear you come across. Brown bears and black bears often live in different areas, but some of their territory can overlap. The first step in survival is to identify the type of bear you’re dealing with.
Though they come in a range of colors including brown, black bears are often far smaller than brown bears. It may be difficult to tell them apart from just looking at them, but their attitudes are very different. Black bears are the more docile of the two, and their range covers most of North America.
Black bears typically try their best to avoid humans, so the best way to avoid crossing paths with a black bear is make your presence known. Sing, whistle, or speak loudly while hiking to signal to nearby bears to avoid you.
If for some reason this method doesn’t work and you come face to face with a black bear, do not play dead. You are much more likely to survive a black bear encounter if you try to scare it away. Try to make yourself appear bigger and more intimidating by spreading out your arms or, better yet, a jacket. Stand and face the bear directly while making as much noise as possible.
Never run away from or approach a bear. Black bears can run at speeds of 35 miles per hour; you cannot outrun a bear and it would be foolish to try.
Black bears are most active during early morning and late evening hours in spring and summer. Mating usually takes place in midsummer. Keeping bear behavior in mind and avoiding hiking in heavily wooded areas during early morning or evening hours can also be very helpful in limiting any potential issues with black bears.
Brown bears are ferocious, and enormous. The dreaded grizzly bear is a member of the brown bear family, and these bears can weigh up to 1,700 pounds. Grizzly bears, especially mothers with cubs, are well known for being very aggressive. Brown bear encounters are often far more dangerous than encounters with black bears. In fact, you are 21 times more likely to be injured by a brown bear than a black bear.
Brown bears are found in the western part of the United States; specifically in Alaska, Washington, Montana and Wyoming.
If you come across a brown bear while on a hike, if possible, back away slowly before the bear spots you. Never turn your back to a bear, and never run from a bear. Running will only trigger the bear’s predatory instincts.
If you are attacked by a brown bear, PLAY DEAD. Fighting back will likely increase the intensity of the brown bear’s attack. Keep your backpack on, if possible. This will help keep your back protected. Use your hands to protect the back of your neck. Lay ﬂat on your stomach and spread your legs to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over. If the bear is able to turn you over, keep rolling until you are back on your stomach. Remain as still as possible until the bear leaves the area. Getting up too soon may prompt another attack.
Yellowstone National Park has tracked bear encounters within the park since 1970. According to their findings, the majority of those who play dead when attacked by a brown bear suffered only minor injuries. On the other hand, those who fought back suffered severe injuries 80 percent of the time.
Bear mace, or bear spray, is a special chemical solution containing up to 2% capsaicin, which comes from hot peppers. This solution is extremely irritating to the respiratory system. It doesn’t cause any permanent damage, but it is effective in temporarily disabling a bear long enough to provide an opportunity for hikers and campers to escape a dangerous situation.
Bear mace has been proven to be very effective at repelling aggressive bears. In fact, it is even more effective than using a gun. Statistics show that those who defended themselves from bears with firearms were injured in about half of those cases. In a 2008 study, scientists found that bear spray was 92 percent effective in deterring attacks from brown bears, black bears, and even polar bears. Even more impressive, 98 percent of those who were equipped with bear mace and found themselves in close encounters with bears were uninjured.
In conclusion, always carry bear mace when camping or hiking in bear country.
Camping is not complete without a nice campfire. Campers are almost obligated to roast marshmallows and tell scary stories around one. But, if they choose to enjoy a campfire, they are definitely obligated to build it properly and safely to prevent it from burning out of control. Not only do campers need to be careful with fire for their own safety, they also need to think of the safety of the land around the campsite. In 2020 alone, wildfires destroyed more than 4 million acres in California. Though most of the California fires were caused by lightning and not from camping, the disaster illustrates how easily fire can burn out of control.
Build the fire a safe distance away from your tent, and keep flammable material far from it. Use stones to build a non-flammable barrier around the fire. In the wise words of Smokey the Bear: “only you can prevent wildfires.” For more information on fire safety and instructions on building a campfire, click here.
Always check the weather forecast before camping, hiking, or spending any extended period outdoors. If a storm is approaching, postpone your plans. If nice weather is expected, carry on with your plans — but with caution. Unfortunately, weather can be fickle and it is possible to be surprised by a storm, even after checking the weather forecast multiple times.
The chances of being struck by lightning are only around 1 in 500,000. According to the CDC, “about 10% of people struck by lightning die, most commonly due to heart attack. Other lightning injuries include blunt trauma, neurological syndromes that are usually temporary, muscle injuries, eye injuries (“lightning-induced cataract”), skin lesions, and burns.”
Though your risk of being struck by lightning is already very low, there are things you can do to lessen your odds of being a victim of a lightning-related fatality. If you are caught in a thunderstorm:
- Avoid standing near tall structures, like isolated trees
- Avoid bodies of water
- If you are on an elevated area, such as a hill or mountain, leave immediately.
- Do not lie flat on the ground. Instead, the CDC recommends crouching down “in a ball-like position with your head tucked and hands over your ears so that you are down low with minimal contact with the ground.”
- Stay away from objects that conduct electricity
- If possible, seek shelter in a fully enclosed car. A tent is not a safe shelter.
Something worth mentioning: do not believe the myth that lightning does not strike the same place twice. Lightning can, and often does, strike the same site twice — or more.
Extreme heat can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even worse — death. Extreme heat is the top weather-related killer in the United States. In order to avoid suffering from a heat-related illness, it’s important to know the symptoms.
- Excessive sweating
- Pale/clammy skin
If you experience these symptoms, you need to cool off. Drink plenty of water and, if possible, take a dip in a nearby water source.
- Throbbing headache
- Lack of sweat
- Fever — body temperature is above 103 degrees
- Strong pulse
- Loss of consciousness
If you or someone else experience any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Take action to cool the person off.
- Extreme thirst
- Dark yellow and strong-smelling urine
- Infrequent urination — fewer than four times a day
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Dry mouth, lips and eyes
Rehydration is the best remedy to treating dehydration. If you are able to, drink water and replenish electrolytes with sports drinks, like Gatorade or even Pedialyte. Avoid soda pop, caffeine, alcohol, or overly sweet drinks. These things can worsen dehydration. If you find it difficult to drink due to sickness, try sipping water until you are able to drink more. If you are not able to drink at all, you may need to replenish your fluids intravenously and need to seek medical attention immediately.
When spending time outdoors, it’s very important to stay hydrated. The importance of properly hydrating increases when extreme heat is involved. According to the Mayo Clinic, “you need to drink additional water in hot or humid weather to help lower your body temperature and to replace what you lose through sweating.” This means you need to drink a minimum of one liter of water per hour, and make sure to properly prehydrate before your camping or hiking trip.
- Downed power lines
- Human and livestock waste
- Household, medical, and industrial hazardous waste (chemical, biological, and radiological)
- Coal ash waste that can contain carcinogenic compounds such as arsenic, chromium, and mercury
- Other contaminants that can lead to illness
- Physical objects such as lumber, vehicles, and debris
- Wild or stray animals such as rodents and snakes
Exposure to contaminated floodwater has the potential to cause:
- Wound infections
- Skin rash
- Gastrointestinal illness
If you are camping in the rainy season, create an evacuation plan before setting up camp. To protect yourself from flash floods, establish your camp on higher ground, preferably on top of a hill. Never set up your campsite in dry creek beds or low spots surrounded by hills or mountains — aka the most dangerous areas to be if a flash flood strikes. If you come across floodwaters, do not walk, swim or drive through the water. Remember: “Turn Around. Don’t Drown!”
When the temperature of the body drops, the heart, nervous system and other organs cannot function properly. Untreated hypothermia can cause the heart and respiratory system to fail, which ultimately leads to death. In the United States, hypothermia is responsible for killing nearly 1,500 people each year, and it isn’t reserved strictly for winter months. Cold summer nights, exposure to wet conditions, or even sweaty hikes can lead to hypothermia.
- Slurred speech or mumbling
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination
- Drowsiness or very low energy
- Confusion or memory loss
- Loss of consciousness
If you get wet from rain or even sweat, dry off as soon as possible. Replace your wet clothes with dry ones immediately. Get to a warm place and wrap yourself in blankets. Another tip is to position yourself to minimize heat loss: take the fetal position, holding your knees to your chest. This body position is known as the heat escape lessening posture (HELP).
On average, around 4,000 people die from drowning in the United States each year. Drowning is the leading cause of death in US National Parks, and many prime locations for hiking and camping include bodies of water. The currents, temperature, and depth of these natural bodies of water are often unpredictable, making them incredibly dangerous.
If you go swimming, canoeing, or participate in any water-related activity, always wear a life jacket. Try to stay in lifeguard-protected areas when swimming at national parks. Always keep an eye on children when around water. If you are not a strong swimmer, take extra precautions or avoid entering the water altogether.
Additionally, be very careful when crossing a waterway that does not have a bridge. To avoid being washed downstream or injured, the American Hiking Society advises outdoor enthusiasts to look up and focus on the destination when crossing; do not look at the moving water as it can be disorientating. Keep footwear (but not socks) on when crossing waterways and avoid wearing long pants that can cause you to be easily swept away by moving water.
Insects are more than just an annoyance. Mosquitoes cause more human suffering than any other organism — mosquitoes alone are responsible for more than a million deaths every year. Ticks are also a real danger, especially considering the fact that these creepy crawlies are so difficult to avoid. Mosquitos and ticks have been known to carry deadly diseases like West Nile Virus, Zika, and Lyme Disease, among others.
Though dealing with insects is inevitable when spending any time outdoors, there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe. Use bug spray with DEET in it. Repellent with DEET in it can be effective in keeping both mosquitoes and ticks away. Reapply insect repellent often, especially if you’re sweating. Avoid swampy areas where mosquitoes prefer to breed. Wear long clothes and be sure to tuck your pant legs into your socks when hiking in wooded areas or tall grass to help prevent ticks from latching onto you. After hiking, be sure to check thoroughly that these parasites have not attached themselves to you. If a tick has not yet burrowed into your skin, it can be carefully picked off. If you find that a tick has attached itself to you, consult your physician as soon as possible.