We’ve all heard stories of things that go bump in the night—especially when those things go bump in the middle of the deep, dark woods. Huddled in your cabin or tent after a night around the fire sharing ghost stories and campfire treats, it can be easy to dismiss some of these campfire legends, but not all tales of ghouls, creatures, and creepy things are fantasy.
Take this one for example: An 11 year old boy on a Father’s Day camping trip in Utah was torn from his tent while sleeping. The cut in the fabric of the tent was so clean that authorities at first thought the boy had been abducted, but a bear had been trawling campsites in the area, attacking unsuspecting campers.
Broken limbs, dehydration, confusion, death: all of these things and more can result from going into the wild unprepared.
While many campers think that packing their rucksacks with marshmallows and a sleeping bag is enough for their trip, the reality is that camping safety skills are as essential to your wilderness experience as water and a compass.
You Are What You Wear
Before you plan your trip, research the weather and environment in the area you’ll be camping. Backpacking in the mountains? Pack gear that accommodates sudden changes in weather and temperature. Setting up a tent in the desert?
Remember that daytime and nighttime temperatures here are as different as night and day. Being prepared with clothing and gear appropriate to the area’s weather patterns can mean the difference not just between comfort and discomfort, but potentially between life and death in the wild.
Once you know what the weather could have in store for you, read reviews about the gear you want to purchase and bring on your trip. Knowing others’ experiences with that waterproof jacket or ultralight rucksack you’ve been eyeing will help you make an informed decision in choosing the gear that’s best for your particular camping needs.
Keep in mind, too, that the clothing you wear in the city differs greatly from what you’ll need in the wilderness. Avoid cotton and opt for moisture wicking materials, wool or synthetic socks, and quick drying or waterproof outerwear. And don’t forget hiking boots!
Bring Boring Basics
It can be tempting to purchase the latest and greatest high-tech camping gear for your trip, but don’t neglect the basics that could save your life in a variety of wilderness situations. Yes, that portable shower may be a cool way to get clean in the outdoors, but iodine tablets will provide clean drinking water when your supplies run out. See our review of the top water purification tablets to give you more options for potable water.
When paring down the contents of your pack, don’t cut these essentials from your list:
- First aid kit (personal medications, antibiotic cream, antiseptic wipes, poison ivy cream, gauze pads, bandages, cotton swabs, compress, splinting materials, tweezers, scissors, safety pins)
- Hot/cold pack
- Bug spray
- Snake bite kit
- Bee sting kit
- Eye drops
- Iodine tablets or water purification system
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Extra batteries
- Plastic bags and extra trash bags
- Extra tarp
- Nylon cord or twine
- Multi-tool knife
- Notebook and pen/pencil
- Waterproof jacket and pants
- Extra socks
- Fleece jacket, hat, and gloves in cold climates
- Tent and tent stakes
- Sleeping bag with appropriate degree for climate
Get Old School
Whether you’re embarking on a multi-day wilderness adventure or a laidback overnight camping trip, it’s essential to know your routes. While you can use your GPS or your smartphone to help you map your hiking route and camping spots, technology can fail, leaving you stranded.
Even if you’re familiar with the terrain, bring a map and compass. Even more importantly, make sure you know how to navigate using these tools before you set out. Check out our must-read article on how to use a compass to help you navigate any terrain.
Take a Lesson from Aron Ralston
127 Hours should be a required pre-camping film. This film, which tells the story of Aron Ralston, a lone hiker who was forced to cut off his own arm after being pinned against a slot canyon wall by a boulder, reminds campers and hikers of the importance of making their plans public.
While it might be thrilling to run off into the wild on your own, leaving a copy of your camping itinerary with friends and family can help you avoid a dangerous, and potentially life-threatening, situation. Check in with the local ranger station, too, and sign in at the trail register if available. Oh, and don’t forget to stick to your itinerary in case someone needs to locate you!
Understand Climate Change
While debates surrounding global climate change are raging, it’s important for you to understand the local climate and weather in the area you’ll be camping and hiking. You already researched typical weather patterns in the area you’re going to, and have purchased gear that’s going to keep you warm, cool, and dry as needed.
Before you set out on your trip, be sure to track the weather, especially if you’re going to a region that’s susceptible to sudden and random changes in weather or temperature. You can use the National Weather Service to find extreme weather warnings for your area to help you plan ahead.
Even if you’re prepared for weather changes in advance, it’s impossible to predict every extreme condition or storm that you could encounter. For example, would you know what to do if you were caught in a lightning storm? What about a flash flood? A hail storm?
Arm yourself with knowledge before you leave. The USDA Forest Service website contains safety advice on a variety of camping related topics, including a section on lightning safety tips.
You’re Not Alone
Once you’re out in the wilderness, understand that you’re not alone. Animals of all shapes, sizes, and sensibilities roam the forests, mountains, deserts, and streams that you love to explore. Respect their habitats and their territory by preparing for possible creature encounters.
Bees and wasps
Bees and wasps generally make their homes on the ground and in trees, so keep your eyes open as you find a site to pitch your tent or a tree to shade your afternoon meal stop. Be careful as you walk under low hanging branches, too.
While a sting isn’t necessarily life threatening, campers with known allergies should carry medication, like an EpiPen, to ensure their safe arrival at an emergency room. To learn how to best treat bee stings, check out our earlier article on this.
Snakes make their dens in dense underbrush or other shady wilderness areas, such as crevices between rocks or in rock walls. While snakes generally don’t bother people, you can take a few steps to avoid a potentially life-threatening bite. Use a stick or hiking pole to clear brush and high vegetation out of your way—you’ll be moving snakes out of your path, too.
Wear gloves when collecting stones and sticks for your campfire to avoid snakebites to your hands, and wear high socks and hiking boots that protect your ankles. Finally, be sure to carry a snake bite kit in the event that you have an unfriendly encounter with one of these reptiles.
Like snakes, bears like to be left to their own devices and generally aren’t interested in campers. In fact, the majority of known bear attacks occur because campers or hikers invaded territory where bear cubs were present or left food unattended.
If you do encounter a bear on the trail or in the backcountry, make yourself as big as possible: stand tall, raise your hands above your head, and get to higher ground. Don’t make eye contact with the bear, but do make as much noise as possible to scare the bear away. Scream, shout, bang pots and pans together: anything you can do to be loud and intimidating.
In the unlikely event that you are attacked by a bear on the trail, remember this old adage: “If it’s brown, lie down; if it’s black, fight back.” Brown bears, such as grizzlies, usually don’t attack to kill, just to protect their young or their territory.
This means they’ll rough you up, but will walk away when they think they’ve neutralized the threat. So get on the ground, cover your head and neck with your arms, and keep your pack on if possible.
Black bears, on the other hand, can be more consistently aggressive than brown, so it’s especially important to stand your ground with black bears. Make yourself big, make noise, hold your ground, and fight back to scare them off.
These wild cats are fighters. If you’re in an environment where mountain lions roam and you encounter one, maintain eye contact with the cat and slowly back away from the animal. If the animal approaches or attacks you, stand your ground. Throw rocks and make noise, and never pretend to be dead in a fight with a mountain lion.
These animals won’t stop fighting, so neither should you.
Set Up with the Sun Up
Even experienced campers have trouble setting up tents and campsites in the dark. Plus, if you wait until dark to set up camp, you risk pitching your tent in an unsafe area.
Give yourself at least two hours of daylight to locate and set up your campsite. This ensures you’ll have plenty of daylight to explore your surroundings, and to set up your tent and fire for warmth and food.
Don’t Eat Where You Sleep
Bear attacks happen at campsites where campers are careless or lazy with their food supplies. Drawn to the smell of cooked food or even garbage, bears wander into campsites and might mistake campers as the food.
Avoid unnecessary encounters with bears and other animals at your campsite by being smart about where you cook, eat, and store your food. Be sure to pitch your tent at least 150 yards away from your cook site. This means building your fire well away from your tent, cabin, or wherever you plan to bed down for the night.
In addition, prepare all of your food in your cook site, keeping it away from your sleeping area. Wash all of your dishes with soap and water and store them away from your sleeping area, too. Store all of your food in bear-proof canisters and hang them from trees in your cook site.
Even if your food is in a bear proof can, you shouldn’t bring it back to your campsite. Clean up your garbage and store it in bear proof cans, too. Never throw scraps of food into the woods or leave it lying around your campsite, as the smell can attract curious animals to your site.
Remember that 11 year old boy who was attacked in his tent on Father’s Day? In the same year at a popular site in Utah, a bear tore through the door of a cabin where food had been cooked and the windows left open. Even if you’re camping in a cabin, you’re still at risk of attracting animals to your campsite with the enticing smells or remains of food.
Tend Your Fires
You may have built an extraordinary fire pit, but it’s still important to make sure your fires are always attended. Don’t build your fires too close to trees or brush, as this can encourage a fire to spread vertically; choose a flat spot for your fire pit to ensure it can’t spread horizontally either. If possible, use a flat stone slab as the base for your fire pit.
Even if your fire has burned down to embers, be sure to put it out completely before going to sleep for the night. Drown the fire with water, ensuring that all sticks, coals, and embers are thoroughly wet. Embers buried deep in the ash can potentially reignite later.
Leave No Trace
Camping is more fun for everyone when you are ecologically conscious. Practice Leave No Trace principles on all of your wilderness adventures. Pack out what you (and any other forgetful or inconsiderate campers) brought in, especially trash—but you added extra trash bags to your Boring Basics list already, so you’re set!
No matter how well marked your trail on your map or GPS, you’re unlikely to find a convenience store or concierge along your route. Practicing the safety measures outlined above will ensure you have all of the supplies and skills you need for a safe, stress-free wilderness experience. Now lace up your boots, strap on your pack, and hit the trail, happy camper!
Do check out our tips on the LNT principles to ensure that you leave no trace behind!