The Ultimate Guide to Staying Safe While Camping

How to smartly set up your shelter, ensure your campsite is critter-proof, and more essential safety precautions to take before you even consider building a fire

Every year, it seems there’s some horrible incident in the news about someone getting seriously injured while vacationing in a national park or simply hiking in the woods. By and large, these incidents are relatively rare: During a normal (non-pandemic) year, more than 300 million people visit national parks in the United States, and that’s not counting state parks and forests or federal Bureau of Land Management property. Yet, despite a 40-year recorded low of park visits, national park workers anecdotally reported an uptick in injuries in 2020 due to a surge in inexperienced hikers and campers looking to vacation in the relatively COVID-safe outdoors. While the fresh air and relative solitude in nature can feel appealing after a year cooped up indoors, accidents do happen. 

This is not to say you shouldn’t camp, because you should definitely camp and hike and explore. But it’s important to do so safely and go in with your bases covered, because, let’s face it, there are a lot of potential accidents that can happen in nature. While it’s impossible to avert all forms of potential danger, Eater has compiled some of the basic safety precautions to take, based on the most common ways to, well, die in the wilderness. 

Be prepared.

Like the universal Scout motto, always be prepared. That means going in with the right gear, doing your research, and knowing the limits of your own skills and abilities. Start by scoping out your destination and getting a feel for what the terrain is, what kind of activities you’ll be participating in, and what’s banned (for example, many forests and national parks have rules about fires. Don’t set one, if it’s not safe and legal to do so.). 

Your packing list will depend on the location, planned activities, and the style of campsite or trail. Some spots may not have potable water, so you’ll want to pack plenty of your own, or plan a way to purify some (assuming there’s a safe source nearby). Some might not have a restroom, so you’ll need to read up on how to do your business outdoors (bring a shovel!). A packing list should always include essentials like potable water, snacks, matches, a jacket and dry clothes, a first aid kit, sunscreen, a map of the area, an emergency shelter, and a flashlight (not your cellphone!). The National Park Service has a handy basic packing guide available, if you’re looking for a place to start, and pro tip: Bring backups for key pieces of equipment in case they fail while you’re in the wild.  

It also cannot be stressed enough how vitally important it is that campers and hikers check the weather. One of the most common ways to find yourself in a bad situation is to get caught in a bout of severe weather without a plan for how to get out safely. That’s especially true in areas prone to flash floods. If it looks like the weather might not be great on your particular travel dates, it might be worth rethinking your trip, or at the very least creating a safety plan. 

Most importantly, tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and stick to that plan. The wilderness is a big place, and it’s difficult to coordinate a rescue if you’re lost or injured, if people don’t know where you might be.

Be smart when setting up shelter.

Picking the right spot to set up camp can be relatively easy if you’re going to an established site, and trickier if you’re backpacking in. Generally speaking, it’s always smart to leave some space between your shelter and the fire pit (if it’s safe to set a fire), lest any stray embers land on your tent. Placing a tent in a gully that’s prone to flash floods is a bad idea, as is pitching it on the top of a mountain during a thunderstorm, or planting a sleeping bag directly beside a dying or damaged tree. And do not under any circumstances bring a cooking stove inside your tent; it’s a sure way to die of CO2 poisoning.

No, you can’t just drink that water.

Many established campgrounds offer potable water, and state and national campground websites generally address if they do. However, it’s always smart to plan for a problem with water and bring some along. One option to save space is to freeze extra water in empty milk jugs to use as ice in a cooler, and drink it as it melts. Some serious campers also invest in tools for purifying water and killing any microbes in the wilderness. Don’t just assume that snow is safe to consume; boil it first. 

Know the rules about fire and follow them.

(Insert joke about explosives at a gender reveal party here.) The good folks at Eater have already created a guide to handling fire in the wilderness; suffice it to say, you should always listen to Smokey the Bear

Stay on the trail and leave your selfie stick at home.

There are so many reasons why this is important: Trails are established not just to keep people safe, but also to keep the environment safe. When humans step off a trail, they risk damaging delicate ecosystems as well as getting into dangerous situations (“Didn’t I just pass that tree an hour ago?”). And it seems like several times a year, a story emerges of a person leaving the trail for a photo at Yellowstone and getting serious burns from a geyser or mudpot. Likewise, turning one’s back to a cliff to take a selfie risks serious injury or death, not to mention it also just makes you look like you think the rules don’t apply to you. Don’t be an asshole

Don’t eat it if you’re not 100 percent certain what it is.

An Eater colleague who shall remain nameless once related a story about how they consumed a mushroom on a hiking trail that they were only about 80 percent sure was edible, and then spent the rest of the day fearing they might die. This is an example of what not to do in nature. Want to forage for ramps but can’t tell the difference between that delicate wild onion and lily of the valley? Don’t put that in your mouth. Stick to the trail mix unless you’re Euell Gibbons or accompanied by someone with experience in plant identification.  

Mountain lions, and bears, and moose, oh my!

It can be incredibly cool to see a moose or a mountain goat in its natural habitat, but this isn’t a zoo and these are not pets. Do not try to touch creatures in their natural habitat, and under no circumstances should you feed them; feeding animals encourages them to seek out more human food, which can be dangerous to campers and the animals themselves. Moose, bears, mountain lions, and snakes are not to be trifled with; keep your distance and do not approach these animals. 

Food should be kept safely out of reach of wildlife. Bears and other animals are attracted to all sorts of smells, including food, toiletries, and trash; the National Park Service does not recommend bringing food into your tent or burning scraps in a fire, lest you attract a curious animal. Personal bear-safe canisters should be placed at least 100 yards from a tent without any ropes or attachments and far from cliffs or hills. Some campgrounds may have bear-safe food lockers; look into that before you leave for a trip. Otherwise, consider hanging your food from a tree about 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the base of the trunk.

If a bear does come into your campground, you should try to make noise by banging pots together, yelling, and appearing as large as possible (get to higher ground if you can). Likewise, consider carrying bear spray when hiking. For animals like mountain lions or wolves, do not turn your back and run; make noise and look as large as possible to scare the animal away. Moose, bison, and elk are also surprisingly fast and are known to charge. Give them a very wide berth. If you’re bitten by a wild animal, seek medical care immediately. And don’t forget to check for ticks!

Rachel Jung with Rayco Design is a graphic designer, illustrator, and adventure addict creating her passions within the outdoor culture.

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