Woods and Camping Safety for the Whole Family
A family camping trip can be a lot of fun with a little preparation. Knowing everyone’s limits, planning ahead, and packing the right items will help your adventure come off without a hitch.
Here are the basics of woods and camping safety.
If you’re not skilled in the outdoors, begin your adventures by taking day trips. But even then be aware of camping safety issues, such as insect bites and stings; plants that can cause rashes and allergic reactions; exposure to heat, wind, water, and cold; and getting lost.
Once families feel comfortable with their camping skills, they may want to plan a few days or a week in a wilderness park. But first, get information from park rangers, read guide books about the terrain and weather, and talk with campers who’ve been there.
Common Camping Dangers
One common mistake made by camping families is not being ready for seasonal changes. Storms blow in and out during all seasons, and there can be sudden shifts in temperatures in spring and fall, particularly on high mountains. Precipitation and wind lead to rapid cooling, especially when temperatures drop at nightfall.
Excessive heat can be a problem for young children, whose sweat glands are not fully developed until adolescence. On hot days, hike in the cooler mornings and evenings. During the day, spend time in shaded areas. Wear skin protection whenever you or your kids are exposed to the sun, including hats, sunscreen, and cotton clothes.
Another common problem is getting lost. Teach your kids how to recognize landmarks at the campsite and on hikes. While hiking, encourage them to turn around and look at the trail to familiarize themselves with their surroundings. Teach them to remain where they are and stay calm if they are lost. Kids should wear whistles (whistles can be heard farther away than the human voice) and know the universal help signal of three blows or loud sounds. Try to take your cellphone along in case you can get a signal.
Before your trip, look for a local class or go online to find out more about map reading and finding directions. For wilderness trekking, always carry a topographical map and compass.
To protect against sudden temperature and weather changes, think layers. Layers of clothing(tank tops, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, etc.) made of polyester, polypropylene, and wool let you add or remove clothing as needed. To protect against rain and wind, bring breathable, lightweight waterproof jackets and pants.
All family members need comfortable hiking shoes to prevent blistering. When hiking, tuck pant cuffs into socks and boots to protect against ticks. Kids should wear brightly colored clothes to increase visibility. Caps or hats will help guard against the sun and insects.
Setting Up a Campsite
Natural hazards, such as forest fires and fallen trees, are less likely to be a problem at campgrounds that you can reach by car. But other dangers lurk, such as broken glass, discarded needles, and other hazardous trash.
Scout the area before setting up a tent. In wilderness areas, look for signs of animal and insect use; for example, yellowjacket wasps build their nests in the ground. If berries are plentiful at a site, bears may forage for food there.
To build a firepit, look for a clearing and previous firepits. During fire-hazard periods and dry seasons, use portable stoves rather than campfires.
Drinking the Water
Assume that all wilderness streams and creeks are potentially contaminated water sources due to domestic and wild animals. Giardia lamblia, a common parasitic contaminant, can cause nausea, bloating, gas, stomach cramps, and explosive diarrhea leading to dehydration.
If you are can’t bring bottled water with you or your supply runs out, iodine is an inexpensive and easy way to purify water (you can buy iodine tablets that dissolve in the water; check the expiration date before using). You can also use water filters. Boiling is an excellent method for purifying water, but takes a lot of time, energy, and resources; also, proper boiling times can vary based on elevation.
Food Supplies and Foraging
Plan your meals according to how many days you will be on a trip, and then bring extra food. Pack plenty of portable foods, such as granola bars, packaged trail mix, breads, peanut butter, fruit, and other camping-friendly foods. You can even buy dehydrated meals that only need water added to them.
It’s best to leave foraging for berries to the animals because it’s easy to mistake toxic berries for edible ones that can make someone pretty sick and ruin the entire trip.
Plants and Insects
Common plants to be wary of are poison ivy, oak, and sumac. Show your kids pictures of these plants before your trip, and if in doubt, avoid touching any unknown plants. Dress your kids in long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect the skin from exposure to plants that may cause allergic reactions. You can apply protective products before hiking that will act as a barrier against the oils of the plants.
Any area that comes in contact 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 (1%) may help to stop the itching that’s common with poison ivy.
Antihistamines taken by mouth are effective for allergic reactions or itchy rashes — from contact with poison ivy to mosquito bites to bee and wasp stings. Use citronella-based products to repel insects and put it on clothing instead of skin whenever possible. Repellents containing DEET also can be used. Choose a repellent that contains no more than 10% to 30% DEET; in higher concentrations, the chemical (which is absorbed through the skin) can be toxic. Be sure to follow the directions on the label. DEET-containing products should not be used on children younger than 2 years old.
Another camping concern is ticks, which can carry several types of infections, including Lyme disease. Check your kids at the end of each day for ticks. Examine places where ticks like to hide, like behind the ears, in the scalp, under the arms, and in the groin area.
Be aware of the bulls-eye rash seen in some people with Lyme disease. This red ring may grow to about 2 inches in diameter around the bite about a week after the tick bite.
Protecting Against Animals
Teach kids that animals in the wild are strong and will defend themselves and their young if threatened. Kids should not approach wild animals, even small ones, and should never feed them. Don’t leave kids unsupervised — especially young children. Instruct them to stay calm and call loudly for help if they encounter a wild animal.
Always ask the park rangers about wild animals in your wilderness park. Keep the campsite free of food odors and do not bring food into tents. Pack food in your cars overnight; if you’re going on a long camping trip, pack food in resealable plastic bags and animal-resistant containers.
What to Pack
Essentials for every camping trip include:
- a map of the area
- a compass
- a flashlight with extra batteries and bulbs
- extra food
- extra clothing, including rain gear
- sunglasses and sunscreen
- a pocketknife
- a folding saw
- matches in waterproof container
- candles or fire starter
- plenty of clean drinking water
- insect repellents
- full water bottles for hikes
- a waterproof and lightweight tent
- ground insulation for sleeping
- a blanket for emergencies
- a signaling device, such as a whistle, mirror, pocket flare, walkie-talkie, or cellphone
- duct tape
- 50 to 100 feet of nylon rope
Bring a first-aid kit that includes:
- adhesive and butterfly bandages
- self-adhesive roller bandages
- sterile gauze pads
- a cold pack
- splinting materials
- large wound dressings
- blister dressings
- nonadhesive dressings
- cloth-based adhesive tape
- elastic bandages (Band-Aids)
- non-latex gloves
- large plastic bag
- safety pins
- tweezers and needles (to remove splinters or ticks)
- topical antibiotic cream (such as Neosporin)
- oral antihistamine (such as Bendadryl)
- medications for pain or fever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- hydrocortisone cream (1%)
- alcohol pads
- a liquid antiseptic soap to clean wounds
Knowing how to make a splint in case of injury is also useful and can be learned in first-aid classes.
Camping Emergency Basics
Before your trip, notify friends and families of your destination and time of return. And sign up at park registers before and after wilderness treks.
In the case of an emergency, the most important thing to do is to remain calm. If your kids have whistles and were instructed to wait in a sheltered area if they get lost, you should be able to find them more readily. If you bring a cellphone, make sure it’s charged and consider bringing extra batteries.
Always stay on the safe side when setting boundaries for family camping. The more remote your location, the more care you should take in choosing your activities. Survey campsites for riverbanks and cliffs. Check out climbing trees for dead branches and moss, both of which cause falls.
So do your homework before your trip. Good preparation for camping lets the whole family enjoy the great outdoors safely.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2014