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Wilderness Safety: Risks and Prevention while Camping

Wilderness Safety: Risks and Prevention while Camping

By James Nichols



The most important measures for staying safe at camp involve some really easy tactics to avoid incidents in the first place. Armed with some statistics, we’ll look at some of the most common risks while camping and hiking, as well as some easy prevention measures.


Over the past 2 decades, most accidents while camping and hiking came from falling or drowning. In reviewing the causes, many of the falling injuries occurred because people were either inadequately equipped (like climbing without a harness), or they attempted a hike or climb that was above their experience level. If your group is venturing out on a hike, always make sure you review the terrain and technicality of the trail beforehand, so you’re not caught in a situation above what you can handle. Also using proper equipment, like hiking poles and shoes with good grip, can help minimize the of slipping.

Crossing rivers can be dangerous

With most incidents involving water, the causes range from younger children going swimming without supervision to fording a river in a dangerous area. We’ve seen problems arise from the second area many times, and a lot of people can mistakenly think rivers are benign until they’re halfway across. You should never try to cross a river by yourself, and crossing under the supervision of your group is your best bet.


Certain places, especially the desert, tend to have temperature swings that can easily catch people off guard. As a result, heatstroke and hypothermia are two of the most common illnesses encountered in the backcountry. We recently took a trip in the Sierras where it was 105 degrees at the trailhead and then 32 degrees that same night!

Makes sure you’re always planning for weather colder, rainier, and hotter than you may be used to. Simply being a little chilly at night is one thing, but if you're wet and it's cold out it could spell trouble. Always make sure to plan for the coldest possible night in the region, and never go camping without some sort of rain protection. Heat, on the other hand, can really sneak up on you, and you should always have the equipment to stay hydrated and shaded. Although sun block protects against sunburn, long sleeves and pants (ironically) are often the best protection against an unforgiving sun. 

Covering up also helps protect against poison ivy, poison oak, and insects (more on that below). Poison oak and poison ivy are among the most common risks people encounter while hiking, so make sure you know what both look like. If you do come in contact with some ivy, immediately wash the affected area with soap and water, and treatment usually includes calamine ointment. The pictures below should help you identify both.

How to identify poison oak and poison ivy

(Poison Oak, left, and Poison Ivy, Right. It's like the three leaf clover from hell)


Once as a kid I was camping by the beach, and around 4 pm we decided to take a walk towards the end of a large peninsula. After strolling along a sandbar, a heavy fog set in along with the rising ride, and within a few minutes we could barely see our own feet! We managed to find our way to the water’s edge by listening for the waves, only to find that all exits back to the mainland were submerged by the rising tide. We weren’t positive about which direction we had come from, and the sun was beginning to set!

Getting lost can be really unnerving, and panicking tends to only make things worse. The easiest thing to do is to prepare properly- have a phone with cached maps and GPS, bring a physical map and compass, and always alert people where you intend to go. But sometimes things happen and it’s easy to make hasty decisions that only make your situation worse.

If possible, take a break and try to think through the situation. In our case, instead of risking swimming across to the mainland in the dark shrouded in fog, we took some time to assess the situation. We knew the tide would recede in about 6 hours, and that temperatures at night wouldn't drop below 55 degrees. So we sat, waited until the tide went down and the fog subsided, and easily found our way back to camp. We should have never made the trip so late in the evening in the first place, and it was a lesson that I think of every time I want to go for a late night wilderness stroll.


Animals are one of the most common fears when camping in remote places, but the fact is that incidents are extremely rare and easily avoidable. The problem is that in the rare cases when animal attacks do happen, they tend to get a lot of media coverage, so people tend to think they happen more than they really do. Below is a quick look at some of the hazards from different types of wildlife in the US.


Insects actually pose far more danger to people than mammals in most camping environments. In particular, insects like ticks, bees, and mosquitoes can transmit diseases like Lyme Disease (ticks) or cause serious allergic reaction (bees).

Bug repellent and long clothing can help prevent against ticks and mosquitoes. Bees can be avoided by wearing light colored clothing and being careful not to disturb nests. Staying away from standing water, tall grass and bushwhacking can also go a long way to keeping the critters away.


Consider this- death by bears are so uncommon in the US that there many years not a single person dies from a bear attack (not including Alaska). In fact, dogs kill about 30 times more people in the US each year than bears, and even cows kill 20 times more people! Popular camping destinations like Yosemite, although teeming with Black Bears, have never had a fatality or serious injury from a bear encounter, ever...

Mountain Lions aren't as dangerous as people thinkThe same holds true for mountain lions, which have killed just 4 Americans in the last 20 years! In other words, you are about 334 times more likely to get killed by lighting than killed by a mountain lion. Mountain Lions and Bears may be the most common fear of many campers, but the probability of an attack is incredibly, ridiculously low (it's worth noting that Alaska and Canada have more incidents). The types of Bears and Mountain Lions you find in most of America are far more scared of you- I promise.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t be cautious and try to mitigate risk of an incident from animals. For bears, the number one prevention measure is to properly store your food and make noise so they know you’re around. If it’s an area with a high level bear activity, use bear boxes or bear canisters, and make sure you keep a clean camp at all times.

If you do encounter a black bear, look big and make a lot of noise while maintaining space. Banging some pots together usually sends them running for dear life, and under no circumstances try to feed bears. If you do see a cub, leave the area immediately but do not run.

The same holds for mountain lions. They have not evolved to prey on humans, and will generally do everything necessary to avoid us. If you do encounter one act similarly as encountering a Black Bear- look big and be noisy. 

Brown Bears are a different type of threat, but food should be protected the same as Black Bears. If you’re in Brown Bear country (which includes parts of Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana), carry pepper spray, and keep a healthy distance if you see one in the wild. If you encounter one, speak a soft voice so they know you're human, avoid eye contact, and slowly walk backwards to give the bear their space. Remember that the likelihood of any serious encounter for most places is extremely low.


Many people (myself included) have a deep-seated fear of snakes. I’ve encountered many rattlesnakes while hiking, and each time I jump high enough that I’m pretty sure I could dunk on Shaquille O’Neil (and I’m talking in his prime!). Although the risk from being injured by a snake is greater than bears or mountain lions, less than 5 people on average die every year from a venomous snake bite.How to protect yourself from rattlesnakes

(Rattlesnakes evolved to have rattles to warn predators and avoid being stepped on due to their camouflage. Humans partially evolved our sense of sight and color to help detect snakes. Your eyes were designed for snake detection- use them!)

But it’s important to note that most deaths in the US are from people who are trying to move or handle a venomous snake. The lesson? Don’t ever try to move or handle a snake! Snakes will usually avoid YOU at all costs, but other bites usually occur because someone accidentally steps on or accidentally reaches near a snake. Avoiding brushy areas and wearing long pants can go a long way to protect you, and always make sure to watch where you put your hands (especially when gathering fire wood). 

In the rare event that you are bitten, wash the wound, cover it with a dressing, and try (if possible) to keep the area below your heart. Try to stay as calm as possible and immediately find medical attention. Do not try to apply a tourniquet or suck out the venom like in the medically misinformed movies. Also, remember that venom is hard for snakes to produce and they are not interested in wasting it on something they can’t eat- dry bites are common, but still seek medical attention.


Most accidents and injuries in the wild are preventable. Period. If you’re in your tent festering over the bear that you know is around the corner waiting to feast, remember that you are exponentially more likely to get injured simply driving to your campsite (or getting mauled by a cow, for that matter). Know where you’re going, bring the right supplies, properly store your food and use good judgement, and you’ll have a great trip on your next wilderness excursion!

Some Sources: (most deaths from not being prepared)

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