Camping and Hiking Safety Guide

Camping with your friends and family has many benefits. You will share rewarding experiences, spend quality time together, and create amazing memories! Despite these many benefits, you may have some safety concerns.

Rest assured, you can have a fun and safe camping experience with a bit of awareness, planning, and preparation. This article covers safety tips for your next outdoor adventure.

Highest Risk Activities at National Parks

The most effective way to stay safe is to know your risks. The personal injury law firm Panish Shea & Boyle LLP partnered with data visualization agency 1Point21 Interactive to produce a study about mortality in national parks. They found that there were only 8 deaths per 10 million visits to park sites from 2007 to 2018. Based on those stats, visiting a national (or other) park should generally not be considered a death-defying activity.

If you look at the causes of those limited fatalities as a percent of all fatalities, a few activity-related causes stand out. Drowning is by far the greatest risk, followed by Motor Vehicle Crashes, Fall/Slips and Environmental:

  • Drowning 24.5%
  • Motor Vehicle Crash 17.4%
  • Fall / Slips 12.3%
  • Natural Death 10.5%
  • Suicide 9.5%
  • Environmental 6.0%
  • Transportation 3.7%
  • Poisoning 0.9%
  • Homicide 0.6%
  • Wildlife/Animal 0.3%
  • All Other / Undetermined 14.4%

Most of the deadliest parks in the nation have lots of water recreation. Mountainous terrain poses higher risk of falls. Environmental deaths are most often caused by extreme heat or cold.

Here are some tips that address the most serious, common and preventable risks:

Drowning (Risk #1): Take Water Safety Seriously

Many parents are probably aware of the risk that a neighbor’s swimming pool poses, but may let their guard down while on vacation. The Red Cross suggests the following tips for water safety:

  • Even if lifeguards are present, you (or another responsible adult) should stay with your children.
  • Be a “water watcher” – provide close and constant attention to children you are supervising; avoid distractions including cell phones.
  • Teach children to always ask permission to go near water.
  • Children, inexperienced swimmers, and all boaters should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets.
  • Take specific precautions for the water environment you are in.
  • Always swim with a buddy.
  • Don’t use alcohol or drugs (including certain prescription medications) before or while swimming, diving or supervising swimmers.
  • Wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when boating or fishing, even if you don’t intend to enter the water.

Many drowning deaths can be linked to boating or boating-related accidents. Make sure everyone is wearing vests while boating. Sometimes kids and adults are reluctant to wear life preservers because the traditional vests (called Type I and Type II vests, which are the safest in an accident) tend to be quite bulky and uncomfortable. Today, there are U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket options for canoeing and kayaking (Type III vests) that are much less restrictive. Children should not be left unsupervised with inflatable, non-U.S.-Coast-Guard-approved flotation like water wings.

Another major factor that leads to drowning is alcohol. A study on drowning prevention (Review of the role of alcohol in drowning associated with recreational aquatic activity) found that 30% to 70% of adults who die from drowning have positive blood alcohol levels.

Moving water is especially dangerous. Do not underestimate it. Rivers and riptides can sweep someone away faster than you can respond to help. Always be wary of the weather forecast in high flash flood risk areas such as rivers, dry creek beds and canyons. If you plan to swim in the ocean, make sure everyone knows how to escape a riptide (i.e. swim perpendicular to the current, never against it). One member of our family almost drowned at age 12 or so when he stepped off a sand bar in a river and tried to swim back to it, against the current.

Always monitor children near any bodies of water and teach children to ask for permission before going near water. Swim lessons are always a wise investment given the primary danger that water poses to children. Our kids took swim lessons every summer from age 4 to age 10.

Motor Vehicle Crash (Risk #2): Slow Down, Be Road Aware

Most people are probably unaware that car accidents are the #2 risk at national parks. Simply being aware of this risk should help you avoid one. A scientific study on recreational travel fatalities reported that fatal park accidents were typically caused by “unfamiliarity with roads and local driving conditions, unfamiliar traffic rules, travel fatigue, and exterior distractions”. Plan your route ahead of time, slow down in unfamiliar areas and focus on the road when driving through a park. Find a designated pull out / parking spot if you really need to take in the view.

Fall / Slips (Risk #3): Respect Your Limits, No Unnecessary Risks

Always use caution when heights are involved. Do not take unnecessary risks. The research study Fall-Related Accidents Among Hikers in the Austrian Alps: a 9-year Retrospective Study found that hiking deaths from falls occurred on trail, in good conditions, on descents and men were extremely over-represented (men and women were similarly at risk for injuries). Risk-taking and fatigue were likely major contributors in most of these accidents. Age was also associated with falling deaths. Most of these deaths occurred among 40+ year-olds, with a big jump in the counts at age 60+.

To help keep yourself and any little hikers safe, you should research the trails you plan to hike in advance of your trip. Do your trail research: look at trail maps and reviews on AllTrails or similar apps. Note the distance and the elevation gain over that distance. Some trails that are labeled as moderate or even easy may have steep drop-offs that pose falling risks. Watch a YouTube video of the trail. Ask park rangers, if available, about potential risks on the trails you plan to hike. Finally, keep the kids close on potentially hazardous trails in case they decide to spontaneously throw a fit next to a steep drop off (Yes, our kids have done this).

Environmental (Risk #6): Extreme Heat, Extreme Cold

Environmental risks are probably the most underestimated risks on this list. Most casual hikers and campers are not aware of the rule of threes:

• You can survive three hours in extreme heat or cold
• You can survive three days without water
• You can survive three weeks without food

Most of your camping gear, including your clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent and portable water storage should be carefully planned based on the environmental conditions you will experience on your trip.

Before taking the family on the next camping adventure, learn about what weather extremes you might experience. Google the destination and average temperatures. Understand that elevation can alter the temps dramatically, so try to research the temps at the specific spots that you plan to visit. Our family was surprised to experience a snowstorm in June on our trip to the Tetons.

It is important to learn about and bring the proper layering of clothes for the conditions that you have identified. Bringing proper rain gear on trail is an important safety precaution. One member of our family became hypothermic on a summer canoe trip in Minnesota after a long day of paddling through rain without proper gear. Hypothermia is a dangerous condition that can creep up on you if you are not paying attention.

In extremely hot conditions, hydration (with electrolytes) and protection from the sun are paramount. The Grand Canyon inner canyon is notorious for producing heat exhaustion and heat stroke victims of hikers who underestimate the heat. These hikers likely do not realize that in desert conditions, their sweat evaporates faster than they can sense it. Experienced long distance desert hikers wear sun hats, carry three or more liters of water (often mixed with electrolytes) and avoid strenuous activity in the middle of the day. Many also use sun umbrellas and sun gloves to protest themselves from the sun.

Safety Tips Before Your Trip

  • Tell someone where you are going and when you are coming back. It is important to document your plans with one or more people you know if you plan to do any hiking on your camping trip. Try to avoid hiking alone, if possible. If you are planning a solo adventure, a Garmin device would be highly recommended. Your friends and family can then track your location and you can call search and rescue if needed.
  • Check your vehicle. Before your trip, make sure your vehicle is checked and in good running condition. Have your mechanic check tires, breaks, battery, fluids, lights, wipers, air filter and air conditioning. Schedule an appointment a few weeks prior to your trip to allow enough time for any repairs. Also make sure you have a spare tire and an emergency kit that includes food, medical supplies, and a blanket. Keep your car organized so that you can find what you need in ana emergency. Join a roadside assistance program or check with your insurance for roadside assistance options.
  • Check your camping equipment. Make sure your camping equipment is in good shape and nothing is broken or damaged. It is best to do this well in advance in case you need to replace or make a repair. You do not want to discover that your tent is damaged while setting up camp.
  • Stock a solid first aid kit. Always keep medical supplies in your vehicle and pack a portable first aid kit that you can fit into a backpack with all the necessary items.
    • Antiseptic wipes
    • Antibacterial ointment
    • Assorted bandages
    • Gauze pads in various sizes
    • Medical tape (for bandages)
    • Leukotape or moleskin (for blisters)
    • Athletic tape (to immobilize joints – sprained ankles are a common injury)
    • Pain relief medication such as Ibuprofen or acetaminophen
    • Insect sting treatment
    • Antihistamine for allergic reactions
    • Non-stick pads
    • Butterfly bandages
    • Tweezers
    • Safety pins
    • Multitool
    • First-aid instruction cards or printed guide
    • Include extra prescription medication needed in case your trip unexpectedly becomes extended. Keep a list of allergies, medications, and doctor’s phone numbers.
  • Be prepared for allergies. Spending time outdoors can mean encountering something that can trigger an allergic reaction. Always keep antihistamines in your first aid kit and available during your trip. Look out for dizzy spells and swelling from insect bites.
  • Bring a map. GPS may not be reliable while driving in isolated areas and in campgrounds. Always have a map and study it so you can navigate without the use of technology.
  • Consider a satellite device. A Garmin compact satellite communicator is an expensive gadget, but gives our family great peace of mind in areas where cell service is rare.
  • Pack and store food safely. Food that is not stored and handled correctly can cause food borne illness that could ruin your trip. Here are some food safety tips:
    • Use a well-insulated cooler.
    • Pack foods in waterproof bags or containers.
    • Have plenty of block ice to keep food below 40 degrees for the duration of your trip.
    • Precook as much food as you can to avoid cross contamination.
    • Keep raw food separate from ready to eat foods and drinks.
    • Keep your cooler out of the sun.
    • Always wash or sanitize hands before handling food and eating.
    • To avoid unwanted guests, never keep food out at your campsite, in your tent or backpack.
    • If your campsite offers a metal food storage container, use it to store your cooler and cooking equipment. If not, keep your cooler and cooking equipment in your vehicle when not in use. Even smaller animals like racoons can get into unlocked coolers.

Other Safety Tips for Your Campsite

  • Fire Safety: Campfires are the essence of camping. They are where we gather, make meals, tell stories. Fire safety is an important topic for kids and adults:
    • Be sure to discuss fire safety with the family before heading out to camp. Check out this Smokey the Bear resource.
    • Closely watch small children and pets around a fire. A fire that appears to be out can still pose a risk as hot coals may be buried in ash.
    • Make sure you know the campfire rules of the campgrounds. Most campgrounds will require you to use local wood that you purchase on location.
    • Use the fire ring at your campsite for fires.
    • Be sure to completely put out your fire before you leave. Keep a bucket of water and a small shovel nearby. You can use dirt or sand in an emergency but be sure to spread out the coals completely and add the dirt and move around until the fire is completely out.
    • Be aware of the weather such as strong winds which is not ideal for fire safety.
    • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Propane Safety: Propane stoves and heaters can be useful camping equipment. Be sure to always follow safety precautions and manufacturer instructions. To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, never use propane equipment inside tents, campers or any other enclosed space. Single use cylinders should never be refilled. Properly discard or recycle non-refillable cylinders when empty. Follow park rules on how to properly dispose of your garbage. Some campgrounds will have propane canister recycling bins available. Check with your camp host or the Visitor Center.
  • Wildlife Safety: Keep your campsite clean from food and food equipment to avoid unexpected wildlife encounters. Never get close to any wild animals even if they look tame. Always watch wild animals from a safe distance. Pay attention to the signs around your campground. Be sure to research wildlife safety tips for the area you plan to visit. If visiting a national park, the park service site will list wildlife safety tips for the park you plan to visit.
  • Plant Safety: Know what poison ivy, poison oak and sumac look like and stay on marked trails. Avoid touching any unknown plants. Any encounters with a poisonous plant should be washed immediately with cool water to help remove the oil that causes the allergic reaction. Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream can help with itching. Talk to children about plant safety and make sure they know not to eat anything without permission. Mushrooms and berries can be especially attractive and poisonous.
  • Insect Repellant: For camping and hiking, use DEET or picaridin-containing insect repellant. The most common and convenient insect repellants contain DEET, but DEET can damage some plastics in camping gear. Picaridin does not have that problem. Check for ticks daily. It is generally best to keep as much skin covered as possible when hiking. Light colors, long sleeves, long socks, or pants are best to help avoid ticks. Experienced backpackers also spray their clothes and gear with permethrin before they go on a trip.
  • Safe Drinking Water: Always stay hydrated during outdoor activities. Most campgrounds that offer tent and RV camping have potable drinking water available.

If you need to use water from streams or lakes, most experienced backpackers use a filtration system. There are systems that are large enough for a family. You can fill up the dirty water bag, tie it to a small tree, and let gravity do the work while you do other things. Remember to stick to potable water for teeth brushing!

Water purification tablets which contain chlorine, iodine, and halazone, are typically a backup purification method. These tablets can kill waterborne viruses, bacteria, and some parasites. You can also purify water by boiling the water for at least 1 minute.

Finally, the National Park Service also has a nice safety checklist and guide.

John Olsen

John Olsen is a seasoned adventurer with 20 years of writing, public speaking, team leadership, analytics and project management experience.

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