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The Great Outdoors: Camping Safety
By Aisha Khan, MD, FAAP
When summer starts, many families set off on camping trips to enjoy the great outdoors. Whether you’re taking your crew on the road to a remote campsite across the country or to a nearby state park, it’s important to plan carefully and take precautions to help ensure your summer adventure is safe and healthy.
The outdoor environment can present a variety of hazards, from mild insect bites to serious accidents. Being prepared before you go is the best way to protect yourself and your family from these hazards. But there are also measures you can also take during your trip to prevent illness and injury.
Before You Gear Up and Head Out
It’s a good idea to take these steps in the weeks before your camping trip:
- Make sure your family’s vaccinations are up to date. Check with your family physician to find out which vaccinations are needed. Your doctor may recommend tetanus, pertussis, meningitis, or hepatitis A shots, depending on where you’ll be camping. Be sure all members of your camping party get the recommended shots before you leave for your trip.
- Check the weather forecast. We all know the weather can change in an instant, so you should be prepared for anything, but checking the forecast at least a few days before you leave can give you an idea of how to pack and dress to protect yourselves from the environment. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, getting an idea of typical weather patterns there can also help you prepare.
- Research your campsite. Visiting the campground’s website and getting input from others before heading to a site can go a long way toward ensuring your family’s health and safety. For instance, a site may have an unfenced body of water that could be a potential drowning hazard for young children. The site may also have slippery rocks or possibly dangerous wildlife to contend with. Knowing these potential dangers before you go can help you prepare or even prompt you to change your campsite to avoid them altogether. Even if you’re visited the site before, it’s a good idea to make sure nothing has changed since the last time you were there.
Pack To Be Prepared
The outdoor environment is difficult to predict, so you should always pack to prepare for the unexpected. You may feel like you’re packing too much for your trip, but it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared.
- Take enough food and water – and pack it properly. In general, you should pack enough food and water for your entire trip, plus an additional two to three days. This is particularly important if you’re camping in a remote area without grocery stores or restaurants nearby. Dehydrated foods, energy bars, jerky, and dried fruit are great snacks that also double as an emergency food supply. Pack perishable items in waterproof containers and plenty of ice in an insulated cooler, to protect not only against spoilage, but also against foraging animals. Be sure to bring all of the necessary tools to safely cook and eat your meals. If you run out of water, don’t drink water from natural sources until you’ve boiled it. Contaminated water and foods can cause serious illness and increase the risk of infectious diseases.
- Gather emergency supplies. One of the most important things to take on any camping trip is a first aid kit specifically meant for the outdoors. Whether you purchase a ready-made kit or put together your own, it should include standard and butterfly bandages, gauze, over-the-counter pain medications, antiseptic and hydrocortisone creams, sterile alcohol wipes, eye drops, tweezers and scissors, sunburn relief spray or aloe vera gel, antihistamines, triple antibiotic ointment, hand sanitizer, a thermal blanket, and moleskin for blisters. You should also make sure to take your family’s prescription medications, a flashlight or electric lantern, a compass, and a safety whistle.
- Pack protection against insects and animals. Any time you’re outside, especially in the Houston area during summer, chances are good that you’ll have to ward off insects. Wearing an insect repellent on your skin and clothing with at least 20% DEET and that lasts for several hours can help protect against mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and chiggers. Also consider packing light-colored clothing, which helps you identify ticks better. If you’ll be camping in an area with bears, take some bear spray. It’s something you hope you’ll never have to use but that you’ll definitely be glad you have.
- Include protection against the elements. Pack enough water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 for every member of your group to use every day. Don’t forget that you can still get a sunburn even if it’s cloudy. Although it’s summer, temperatures may drop, so be sure to take matches, lighters, or a fire starter to keep the campfire roaring in the evenings.
Stay Smart Stay Safe
No matter where you’re camping, spending time outdoors is very different from being in an indoor environment. Weather, wild animals, terrain, and a myriad of other factors can expose you and your group to health and safety hazards you wouldn’t normally encounter. Keep these safety tips in mind as you enjoy the great outdoors.
- Prepare food carefully. Cooking on a campfire is one of the best parts of camping out, but limited space, working outside, and working with different tools than in a kitchen can make it difficult. Be sure to wash your hands and disinfect surfaces frequently to avoid cross-contamination. Always cook your food to the proper, safe temperatures and keep perishable items cool.
- Practice fire safety. Never leave your fire unattended. Campfires can get out of control and cause massive brush fires. Clear a 10-foot area around the campfire, removing anything that could catch fire. Always keep a close eye on children and make sure they’re never near the fire. And keep a bucket of water nearby to extinguish the flames.
- Stay cool and hydrated. It’s summer, so no matter where you’re camping, you have to stay mindful of high heat and humidity, which can both lead to heat-related illnesses and dehydration. Make sure every member of your group drinks plenty of water throughout the trip and never waits until they’re thirsty to drink. It’s also smart to wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, and stay in shady areas whenever possible. Also make sure everyone is resting between and during activities as needed to not overheat.
- Enjoy the water with caution. If you’re in an area with bodies of water, make sure before jumping in that swimming is allowed and that there are no warnings against swimming that day. Never swim during storms, even if it’s not currently raining. If you hear thunder, there’s a risk of being struck by lightning. Always make sure you are within arm’s length of a child when around water, and never leave them unattended. Also make sure everyone in your group is wearing a life jacket if you’re boating, kayaking, or canoeing.
- Avoid wild animals. Always give wild animals their space and keep a safe distance, even if they seem harmless. Remember that you’re a visitor in their territory, and they will try to protect that territory at all costs. Also keep all food secured and do not feed any wild animals. If you’re camping in an area known to have bears, know how to use bear spray and what to do if you encounter one. Make sure you’re wearing boots and gloves when moving any logs or brush that snakes may be hiding under, and be sure to tell your kids to never get close to a snake and always stay on hiking trails. Most snakes try to avoid people and only bite when they feel threatened.
- Prevent carbon monoxide illness. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless and can cause illness or death in people and pets when breathed in. For this reason, you should never use any equipment that burns fuel, including gas stoves, heaters, lanterns, and charcoal grills, inside an enclosed space, such as a camper or tent.
A camping trip is a fun summer activity the entire family can enjoy and heeding these tips can help ensure everyone on the trip stays safe and healthy!