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Stay Safe while Camping and Hiking

Enjoying the outdoors is more fun — and safer — when you're prepared for situations you might run into on your hike or camping trip.

We've listed a series of outdoor health and safety risks and what to do about them. With proper preparation and safety precautions, every camping trip and outdoor activity can be a fun, safe, and healthy one.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas found in the fumes from burning fuel that contains carbon, such as wood, charcoal, the propane used in a camp stove or lantern, or the gasoline used in a generator. Generally speaking, CO in a completely open area is not harmful. However, CO in an enclosed or partially enclosed area can be very harmful and even deadly. For example, if you burn wood or charcoal or use a camp stove, fuel-burning lantern, or generator in a tent or shelter, you could be poisoned by CO.

One reason CO is so dangerous is that it's invisible and odorless. Because you can't see it or smell it, you could get sick or die from CO before you even know it's there. Every year, thousands of people are poisoned by CO exposure.

To protect yourself from CO:

  • Place camp stoves, generators, portable heaters, fuel-burning lanterns, and similar items outside only and away from tents and shelters. To keep warm in cold weather, pack warm clothes and extra blankets.
  • Be alert to the most common symptoms of CO poisoning: headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Remember that breathing in high levels of CO can make you unconscious or kill you. People who are sleeping or drunk can die from CO poisoning without ever having symptoms.
  • If you think you may be sick from CO poisoning, get fresh air and medical attention quickly.

Animal Encounters

Be safe by keeping your distance from wildlife you encounter while on a camping trip or hike. Do not handle, feed, or unintentionally attract wild animals with open garbage cans or litter. Do not bring wild animals into your tent or trailer and do not try to nurse sick animals to health.

Some diseases that infect animals can cause illness in people. These diseases, called zoonoses, can be dangerous and include rabies, histoplasmosis, hantavirus, and tularemia. Recognize the danger of diseases from wildlife and enjoy wildlife from a distance.

Campfire Safety

The traditional end to a camping day is a campfire. Following simple fire safety rules can prevent a smoldering ember from becoming a wildfire. Sixty-plus years after his creation by USDA Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council, Smokey [the] Bear still offers simple wildfire prevention rules:

  1. Dig a small pit away from overhanging branches. (Most parks have campfire pits ready and waiting for you.)
  2. Circle the pit with rocks or be sure it already has a metal fire ring.
  3. Clear a five-foot area around the pit down to the soil.
  4. Keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby.
  5. Stack extra wood upwind and away from the fire.
  6. After lighting, do not discard the match until it is cold.
  7. Never leave a campfire unattended, not even for a minute.

Other Possible Outdoor Risks

Sunburn

Spending time outdoors means spending time in the sun. Consistent protection from sun exposure — all year round — is important on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days.

Bug Bites

The best defense against bug bites is to use insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient. CDC recommends DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus against mosquitoes, and repellents with 20 percent or more DEET against ticks. Always follow the directions on the package. Wear long sleeves and pants when possible.

Scrapes and Scratches

Blisters, scratches, and scuffed knees are common on a hiking trail, so bring items necessary to clean and, if necessary, bandage them. Prompt treatment can help prevent infection and promote healing. Your backpack should hold first aid supplies that you might need if someone gets hurt.

See the CDC's Emergency Preparedness and Response site for information on gathering emergency supplies, as well as information on avoiding heat exhaustion, landslides, and more.

Questionable Drinking Water

Your best bet to ensure your drinking water is safe is to bring bottled water from a trusted source on your hike or camping trip. If this isn't possible, you can disinfect water by bringing it to a rolling boil for one minute (at high altitudes for 3 minutes). Other options are to chemically disinfect or filter your water.

Above content provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted June 2013

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