Woods and Camping Safety for the Whole Family

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A family camping trip can be an enjoyable experience with a little preparation. Knowing everyone's limits, taking the time to plan ahead, and packing the right items will help your adventure come off without a hitch.

Here are the down-and-dirty basics of woods and camping safety.

Planning Ahead

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 bug bites and stings; plants that may 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, gather 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 transitions regarding proper clothing and equipment. 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 cell phone 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.

Proper Clothing

To protect against sudden temperature and weather changes, wear multi-layered clothing made of polyester, polypropylene, and wool. Layers of clothing — such as tank tops, long-sleeved shirts, and sweaters — will allow you to reduce or increase 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 protect against insects.

Setting Up a Campsite

Natural hazards such as forest fires and fallen trees are less likely to be encountered at campgrounds that can be accessed by cars. 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 unable to bring bottled water with you on your trip 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). You'll need to 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, appropriate boiling times are uncertain because boiling points vary according to 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 purchase dehydrated meals that only require the addition of water.

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 only be used on children older than 2 years.

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 — a red ring that may grow to about 2 inches in diameter around the bite appearing about a week after the tick bite.

Protecting Against Animals

Teach kids that animals in the wild are strong and agile, 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 — small children, especially, are vulnerable. 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:

  • map of the area
  • compass
  • flashlight with extra batteries and bulbs
  • extra food
  • extra clothing, including rain gear
  • sunglasses and sunscreen
  • pocketknife
  • folding saw
  • matches in waterproof container
  • candle or fire starter
  • adequate supply of clean drinking water
  • appropriate insect repellents

Other necessary items include: full water bottles for hikes; a waterproof and lightweight tent; ground insulation for sleeping; a blanket for emergencies; signaling device such as a whistle, mirror, pocket flare, walkie-talkie or cell phone; duct tape; and 50 to 100 feet of nylon rope.

First-Aid Kits

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)
  • thermometer
  • non-latex gloves
  • large plastic bag
  • safety pins
  • scissors
  • 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

In addition, bring a liquid antiseptic soap to clean wounds. Don't forget extra protective dressings for severe arm or leg blisters. Knowing how to make a splint in case of injury is also useful and can be learned in first-aid classes.

Camping Emergency Basics

In the case of an emergency, the most important thing to do is to remain calm. During an emergency, families need to decide together on the best plan of action, examining the resources available. 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.

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 cell phone, 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.

Properly preparing for camping lets the whole family enjoy the great outdoors safely.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2011

Related Resources

OrganizationAmerican Red Cross The American Red Cross helps prepare communities for emergencies and works to keep people safe every day. The website has information on first aid, safety, and more.
Web SiteCDC: Travelers' Health Look up vaccination requirements for travel destinations, get updates on international outbreaks, and more, searachable by country.
OrganizationNational Park Service This site contains information on America's national parks and the many ways you can enjoy the great outdoors.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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