Are you one in 50 million?
Campers, that is. Every year, that's the approximate number of Americans who hit the nation's trails and spend their nights in our national parks and other areas, enjoying the great outdoors and the freedom we all hold to be so precious.
These days, with the economy still struggling to recover, more people than ever will be attracted to the relatively low cost of camping. But that also means there'll be more inexperienced campers in our parks this year. If you're an "old hand" you can help the newbies by offering friendly advice. But whichever category you fall into, you may find the following camping safety advice useful -- either for yourself or to pass on to others.
As with all vacation and travel activities, the best trips are those that are carefully planned in advanced. The key things the well-prepared camper should have include:
• Maps and information about the areas you'll visit. Learn how to read the maps!
• More than enough food for the trip, including high-energy bars.
• Water carriers and purification filters or tablets (or a vessel to boil it in).
• Survival essentials including compass/GPS, flashlight, spare batteries, matches in a waterproof container, pocketknife, charged cell phone, prescription medications, identification information, and insect repellants
• A first aid book and kit with, as a minimum, large and small adhesive and non-adhesive bandages, gauze pads, antibiotic and hydrocortisone creams, painkillers, antihistamines, tweezers, and products for dealing with heat, bites and plant poisons (see below for more information).
• Make sure your tetanus vaccinations are up to date.
• Tell someone where you plan to camp and the route you will take.
Some basic safety rules about where you pitch your tent or locate your camper can help you avoid some obvious hazards. For example, don’t erect the tent in an area that might flood if it rains. On a slope, dig a shallow trench that will divert water either side of your tent.
Don’t pitch on a trail which is clearly regularly used by animals either, or under a tree, where there's a risk branches might fall. Also, check the site for insect infestations or sources of food (like berries) that might attract wild animals.
There's nothing better than sitting around the campfire as evening falls -- but fire is one of the biggest camping hazards, not just to you but to all of your surroundings. First, always check and abide by the fire regulations in your camp area. If fires are permitted, dig a pit or use stones as a boundary. Never leave a fire unattended and always douse it when you're done -- even if it looks dead.
Store gas canisters upright, out of the sun and away from other heat sources. Never use fuel-burning equipment inside a tent or camper.
Weather can change quickly out in the wild, especially in wilderness locations. Research weather patterns before you go and check forecasts whenever you can. At night, it can be surprisingly cold, so take extra clothing/bedding, adding and removing as necessary.
Don’t forget too that heat and sun can potentially be just as hazardous. When you're out, even if the sun isn’t shining, use lip screen and sunscreen with a factor of at least 15, wear a hat and sunglasses, and keep yourself well hydrated -- don’t wait till you're thirsty to drink some water.
Wild animals are just that -- wild. They should not be approached or fed. Research wildlife in the area you will visit and plan accordingly. If there are bears, store your food at least 200 yards from you tent, preferably hung from a tree. See this guide for what to do if you encounter a bear or mountain lion: http://tinyurl.com/lions-bears.
Keep your eyes peeled for small critters at all times. Wear a DEET-based repellant for mosquitoes and long sleeves and pants to avoid insect bites. If you spot a snake, avoid sudden movements but back away slowly.
If someone gets bitten, you need professional medical help as soon as possible. For immediate first aid, wash the wound, take an antihistamine pill, and apply a tourniquet (not too tight) two to four inches above the bite (if on a limb). Don't use ice or cooling packs which can make things worse, especially with snake bites
Lots of plants are poisonous -- you should never touch, and certainly not eat, them unless you know for sure it's safe to do so. The most common plant contact dangers though are poison ivy, sumac and oak. Learn to recognize them and, again, you should seek medical help. Meantime, wash the area, take an antihistamine and apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to relieve itching. For more information, see this useful instruction sheet from the non-profit kidshealth.org: http://tinyurl.com/ivy-oak-sumac.
In addition to the earlier guidance ensure you either keep perishable food cool or carry non-perishable items. For longer or remote trips, consider taking dried foods that can be rehydrated -- they're light to carry and, chosen wisely, nourishing. Other good foods include peanut butter, dried fruits and nuts and canned fishes and meats.
Food should be packed in waterproof containers. If you can't wash your hands before handling food, ensure you have a stock of disposable wipes. For more about food care when camping see this Government guide: http://preview.tinyurl.com/food-camping.
The simple, most basic rule is not to let children out of your sight while camping. Realistically, this may not always be possible, so equip them with whistles they can blow if lost, and teach them about local landmarks and how to identify a sheltered area. Consider using walkie-talkies. Don't let them swim without adult supervision and tell them never to drink untreated water, no matter how clear it looks.
In this short space, I hope I've provided a useful introduction to the basics of camping safety. There are lots more to discover online. Start with the Government's Centers for Disease Control (CDC) checklist here: http://tinyurl.com/cdc-checklist.