For people who love to spend time outdoors, camping trips make great vacations. There are several important things to keep in mind, however, to ensure that your getaways are spent safely, for both you and the environment.
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The first place to start considering camping safety is before you leave. You can start by checking the weather forecast for the area you plan to stay in. If severe storms are expected you may want to postpone your trip. If there are chances for some rain and that doesn't deter you, you want to make sure what the chances are for lightning, or be aware of locations that may be prone to flooding before you choose where to set up your tent. You should also bring a weather radio with you to stay informed of any incoming alerts. Check the fire danger for your area before you go so you know whether or not you will be able to have a campfire.
First aid kits, flashlights, matches, plenty of clean drinking water, water purifiers, pots for boiling water or iodine tablets (depending on just how much you want to rough it), food and clothes that can withstand any elements you may be facing are all crucial to have with you when you get out into the woods. You should also try to keep a phone on you in case of an emergency. Even if you are in an area without service, if you have to move to find help you may pick up a signal before you reach a person who can assist you.
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There are thousands of campgrounds in the United States, from privately owned sites to state or national parks and forests. Most of these locations will have guidelines and existing sites for you to set up your camp. Make sure you follow the rules laid out by these organizations and stay in their designated camping areas.
If you plan to head out into the woods and do some camping away from pre-established campgrounds, you should first make sure you are allowed to be where you are going. Don't try to set up on private property without permission. You should also be careful of the environment around you. Camping is an opportunity to get back into nature and unplug from our increasingly busy lives. Destroying a natural setting is not the way to get out and experience it. Don't try to break down branches or remove plants from a crowded area to set up your space. Instead look around for an already open location where you can set up easily.
When placing your tent you should be aware of the location. If you are on any kind of sloped ground, you want to be aware of the potential for flooding. Set up a tent on an incline by pointing the opening downhill. If water starts to flow down the hill it won't be pouring directly into your tent this way. You also want to avoid setting up on an area of flat ground if the landscape around you slopes down towards that space, as that will quickly flood if heavy rains start to move through. Examine the ground where you are considering setting up your tent. If the dirt is clearly cut away from former water flows, you know that this area is likely to be an issue if rains come.
Setting up your tent within a reasonable distance from your car is a good way to avoid lightning strikes. If a thunderstorm moves through you will not be protected in a tent, surrounded by trees or in an open field. Aside from a completely walled building, an enclosed car is the next safest place to be. If your car is too far away for you to get to when lightning starts flashing, you run the risk of being struck on your way to the vehicle. If you set up close enough you can run to your car and wait out the storm.
Firewood and Fires
Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kamener
One of the most common mistakes a camper can make is trying to bring their own firewood to a different area. Many invasive insects stow away in firewood and can be released into a new environment when you move your firewood stacks. They can then wreak havoc on the native trees of that area. The emerald ash borer, for example, was an issue in Eastern Asia that made its way to the United States in 2002. Forests in Michigan, where the infestation is worst, have been quarantined so that transporting any wood from these areas is illegal, to the tune of $250,000 in fines if caught, to prevent the insect from destroying any more trees. All it takes is one infested bunch of firewood to cause a crisis to a forest.
Don't think that just because you check it out and don't see any insects in your firewood that it must be safe. Always err on the side of caution and get your firewood at your camp site, buying it locally in the same area you plan to stay. You can also bring artificial fire logs, or a small charcoal grill to do your cooking on.
When building a campfire, it's important to make sure that you allowed to in that area. Look for signs posted that restrict fires, or check with the officials at the site you are staying on to be sure of the rules for your location. If you are in an area with extreme drought or a high fire danger warning, do not try to build a fire.
If you are all cleared to build a fire, make sure you do it away from low branches or other obstructions that can easily be caught by the flames. Dig a pit for your fire and circle it with rocks or other nonflammable materials that can help contain it. Keep a bucket of water nearby and never leave your fire unattended. Put it out completely before you go to bed for the night. If it starts to get too big, put it out before it gets out of your control. You can also keep a shovel nearby and put out hot coals and flames by throwing dirt on them to smother them out. Carefully discard of lit matches and keep dry debris away from the flames.
Food and Trash
While you are camping you need to be aware of wild animals and to prevent them from wandering over to your campsite. Keep anything odorous, food, garbage, heavily-scented personal items, aware from where you are sleeping. Hang them in bags 10 to 15 feet above the ground in a tree at least 100 yards away from where you will be sleeping. Don't keep any food or cooking supplies with you in your tent. The smell may attract animals, and you want to keep them away from you. Creatures like bears will often be more interested in your food than in you, so your best bet to avoid them is to keep anything they may want far away from you. Be sure to collect everything you brought in with you before you leave. Never leave your garbage behind.
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To stay safe and comfortable on your trip you want to avoid things like sunburns, insect bites, and dehydration. When camping in hot summer heat, you may want to consider a portable, battery-powered fan. Always keep plenty of clean water, or ways to clean water, on you. Drink regularly throughout the day, especially if you're participating in hiking or other physical activities.
Wear a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF and reapply every four hours to prevent burns. If you'll be spending time on water fishing or swimming you may want to apply more often to combat the extra UV rays you'll be getting reflected off the water. If you start to feel too hot take a break from what you are doing, sit down in the shade and drink cold water. Wrapping water bottles and canteens with tin foil can help keep them cooler, longer.
You should also be aware of snakes and insects while you are outdoors. Always check your shoes, sleeping bags, and other equipment small critters may try to hide in for warmth during the night. Don't stick your hand into dark, unfamiliar places without checking them first. You should also try to sleep elevated from the ground, and don't leave your clothes loose on the ground. Pack up things you aren't using tightly to avoid anything getting into them.
Use insect repellants and big sprays to keep yourself from being bitten. Check yourself regularly for ticks when you are spending time outside. Keep bite remedies in your first aid kit in case you get stung by anything unpleasant.
Finally, if you plan to forage for food, make sure you know what you're doing. Never try to touch leaves or eat berries or mushrooms if you are not positive of what they are. Many poisonous plants and fungi bear a striking resemblance to the nontoxic versions you may be looking for.
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