All adventurous activities, including camping, have an inherent element of risk, otherwise, they wouldn’t be adventurous, would they?
So how do we deal with this risk and stay safe on a camping trip?
As an experienced expedition leader and outdoor educator, I want everyone I work with to return safely from expeditions and adventures out of doors.
To make sure this happens my primary responsibility is not to step in and ‘rescue’ them when they struggle but to help them learn strategies to cope in the outdoors.
These camping safety tips are based on the training I give to people preparing for camping expeditions and adventurous activities and will help you return unscathed from an adventurous camping trip.
Proper Preparation and Planning
Staying safe on a camping trip starts long before you start off down the trail, research and route planning should be your first step.
Research the area you are planning to visit so you are aware of risks that you might encounter whether from local wildlife such as poisonous snakes or bears, bad weather, closed trails, local hunting seasons that might put you into conflict with hunters or forest fire risks to name a few.
Some of these things might be serious enough to stop your camping trip before it has begun, such as severe weather warnings if you are planning to camp at high altitude, but mostly they will inform your decisions about what route to take, about where your campsite or sites will, what equipment you need to take and about the terrain that is safe to traverse.
Tell Someone Where You are Going and When You Will Return
These details will help a search and rescue team find you if they need to and telling someone when to expect you back will allow them to alert the authorities if you don’t return, this simple step has saved lives in the past, and failing to do so has cost lives.
Never leave on a camping trip without telling someone where you are going and when you will be back. I’d go even further than that and say don’t leave on your camping trip without leaving a detailed plan of your trip with someone else.
Just telling someone where you are going isn’t enough, if you don’t get back when you say you will how will they know exactly where to direct a search and rescue effort?
You can leave something as simple as a map with your route drawn on it but it needs to be detailed enough that should something go wrong whoever you leave it with can pass it on to whoever becomes responsible for your rescue.
You should include on this map potential route changes that you have predicted and thought about in the planning stage; such as changes you might make under certain weather conditions, rivers you won’t cross if the water is too high or ridges you won’t walk along if the wind is too strong.
I always leave a copy of my route map with my wife if I am hiking and camping alone, or with another family member if I am camping with my wife and children.
With my route and camp sites marked on it and any additional details that might be useful, such as other places I might camp if I can’t walk as far as I wanted in a day or details of my equipment to help a search and rescue team identify me. For example, the fact that I carry a bright red rucksack might help them find me if they needed to.
Don't Rely on Technology
Although GPS, altimeters, weather computers and other modern gadgets can make our camping adventures easier and more convenient over-reliance on these gadgets can place us in danger when they inevitably fail. Batteries run out, have shorter life spans in the cold and electronic gadgets get wet and break.
When they break we need to be able to cope on our camping trips without them, at the most basic level that means that we need to take spare batteries or a way of recharging devices we use regularly.
We also need to make sure that any function performed by a piece of modern technology is backed up by something that doesn’t rely on that technology functioning, the easiest example is your map and navigational equipment.
Take a Paper Map and Compass
Their batteries never run out and they show the wider terrain around your planned route rather than the potentially limited scope of a map downloaded to your phone or the small screen of a GPS device.
This extra information can help us make decisions about route changes demanded by the weather, which direction to head in if we need to get help, back towards, roads or areas of population, for example, all information which we can’t necessarily get from our gadgets, especially if you have taken a tumble in a stream and broken your GPS.
Take a First Aid Kit
Self-rescue is a very important principle if you are heading into the outdoors for a camping trip. If you can’t provide at least some basic care for yourself then you shouldn’t go out in the first place, and why should you expect someone to rescue you if you can’t at least help yourself to some degree.
A simple first aid kit is all that’s required for a camping trip but it must be able to deal with minor cuts and lacerations, burns, blisters, contain bandages for compressing sprains and strains, painkillers and antihistamines.
Take Spare Clothes and Keep Them Dry
Remember camping takes place out of doors, sometimes in inclement weather and sometimes accidents happen and a sudden rainstorm or an unintended dip in a river or marsh will leave you soaked to the skin.
As soon as you are wet you will begin to get cold as wet clothes lose their ability to insulate you and the evaporation of the moisture from your now sodden clothing wicks the heat away from you.
This is why spare clothes are always an essential item on a camping trip, they give you something dry and clean to wear at night and something dry to wear to reduce your risk of hyperthermia if you get wet.
If in Doubt Go Around
You have spent plenty of time planning your trip including taking the time to think about alternative routes that you might need to take in case of bad weather or emergency, you now need to be prepared to follow those plans if need be. Far too often people push on regardless and end up in bother.
Just because your route says go a certain way doesn’t mean you should if it is dangerous, that might be as simple as not walking through a field with a bull in it or perhaps not crossing a river in flood or even not using bridges or chain ladders that are broken or damaged.
If you are having doubts about whether or not it’s safe to cross a river or climb a ridge don’t do it!
Pitch Your Tent Safely
Even though most of your effort when you are camping seems to be expended on getting to your camping spot there are safety issues once your there too.
Some of these will have been addressed in the planning stages as you look for a suitable place to pitch your tent but others can only be addressed once you arrive.
The big factor to consider is not making sure you don’t pitch your tent anywhere that something can fall on it, be that a branch of a tree or an avalanche.
Don’t pitch under trees at all if you can help it and if you can’t certainly have a good look for dead branches, or whole dead trees, hanging in the foliage above you.
Also, bear in mind any livestock in the area, are you going to be woken by a herd of cows trampling across your tent in the middle of the night?
Are there any wasp or bees nests that you will disturb? Once you have pitched it away from any of these dangers there is another question; where shall I cook?
Whether you are using a stove that you have carried with you or lighting a campfire the answer should be well away from your tent and certainly not inside it unless you have a tent and stove designed for that, some wall tents and tepee style tents have a sleeve for a chimney can have wood-burning stoves inside them.
The general rule though is not to cook in or near your tent. Tents burn away to nothing in seconds with the touch of the smallest spark and the burning nylon will easily maim and disfigure anyone inside the tent.
Another reason not to cook near your tent is that it may attract unwanted wildlife if you are camping in bear country the smells of your cooking might attract bears and it would be advisable to have a separate cooking site away from where you will be sleeping.
These camping safety tips are not designed to put you off, you should definitely go camping but to make the most of your trip and to keep you safe, especially if you are planning a particularly adventurous camping trip, these simple steps can make a huge difference. They have saved lives before and certainly will again.