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                                                                           Safety While Camping

                                                             Sometimes Being Careful is Just Not Enough

                                                                                By Warren Petkovsek

     In a previous article I talked to about RV safety. We covered safety topics related to propane, electrical and mechanical issues and even a safety checklist. Now it’s time to cover another component of the safety equation, safety while camping. Many of you are thinking, “What can he possibly teach me? There’s really nothing about safety that I don’t already know.” Still, people somehow manage to get hurt every day. Back in 2006 I suffered a near crippling and potentially fatal accident in my own back yard and I was doing nothing but walking . . . yes, WALKING from the back to the front. Not to put a damper on the party here, but there are also unforeseen fatalities every day. Just look at all the crosses on the side of the highways. If that’s not enough to get your attention then just think about your kids. Did you know that unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among children 14 and under in the United States? Poisoning, burns, drowning and falls happen far too often while camping because most folks see camping as a fairly low risk activity and they underestimate what can happen while enjoying the great outdoors. OK, enough of the doom and gloom. Let’s look at how we can stay safe while camping and still have a great time.

     As Texas State Park volunteers my wife and I have seen plenty of folks suffer mishaps in the parks. Heck, during my years as a Boy Scout leader I’ve seen some bruises, blood and trips to the emergency room that sometimes happen when folks, especially youngsters, go camping. Almost all of these accidents could have been avoided, but some, like my example above, just happen. The best thing we can do is what the Boy Scouts have done for over a hundred years; “be prepared.” Let’s talk about how to do this. Here we go!

        Inform others where you will be camping and when you are planning to return. Make  them an itinerary including contact information for where you will be camping.   

        Be sure that everyone in your group knows the number of your campsite and its location.

        Keep first aid supplies handy and review the contents of your first aid kit at least twice a year. Your kit should include disposable medical exam gloves.

        Be sure to have emergency telephone numbers with you. These can probably be obtained from the park staff at check in and should include the nearest emergency room or minor care facility, pharmacy and even a vet if you have pets.

        Never approach any wild animal no matter how tame they may seem, especially nocturnal animals that you may see during daylight hours. They may have rabies.

        If you or your pet gets sprayed by a skunk forget about washing it with tomato juice. That doesn’t work. Here is an effective non-toxic “de-skunker” recipe: Using a 2 quart container and a spoon mix 2 tsp Dawn Dishwashing Liquid (3 tsp if another brand) and 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide. Then mix in ¼ cup of baking soda (it will foam up). Mix everything well and pour the mixture into a pump spray bottle. This will take care of the skunk smell. Avoid spraying it into the eyes or mouth and don’t let pets lick it for at least 15 minutes.

        Do not camp in areas that are not designated campsites. This will ensure that you are camping in a safe place and if you are hiking near streams take note of the water level. If it begins to rise noticeably just leave the area and get to higher ground. Leave everything behind and get yourself and everyone in your group to safety. A stream can flash flood even if it’s not raining. It may be raining somewhere upstream. Also check the weather forecast before your trip begins.

        Always carry a cell phone, but know where the nearest ranger station, land line or pay phone is located in case of poor cell coverage. Many times in areas of weak cell coverage you can still get out a text message when you can’t make a phone call. Many newer cell phones have a compass feature and even a GPS function. Always take your phone with you and be sure that the battery is fully charged.

        Dress children in layers if the weather is cold and watch for signs of heat stress if the weather is hot. Remember, a child’s body temperature will change faster than an adult’s.

        No one, especially young children, should hike alone. Just like swimming – use the buddy system and don’t forget to tell others where you will be hiking.

        Avoid dehydration by carrying plenty of water; not alcoholic beverages or soft drinks. These can actually increase the probability of dehydration.

        Keep a shovel and a bucket of water near your campfire at all times, do not make a campfire during burn bans and always supervise children around fires or camp stoves. Never use charcoal starter or other flammable liquids on a burning fire.

        Never heat a tent or camper with an open flame such as charcoal, lanterns or your RV cook top or oven due to the potential of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Remember – carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and fatal! It kills about 30 campers each year.

        Stay away from vines and plants unless you are certain that they are safe. Don’t guess. Be sure. There is really nothing that will cure a rash associated with poison ivy, poison sumac or poison oak. If you come in contact with any of these you need to get medical attention and possibly a prescription for topically applied medicine. Then just ride it out for a few weeks.

        Small children can drown in as little as one inch of water. Teach your children good water safety habits. Supervise children at all times when they are in or near the water. Everyone, adults included, should practice the buddy system when in the water. Never jump in and try to rescue a person that is in distress in the water unless you are trained and qualified to do this. Try instead to reach them with a pole like a fishing rod, boat paddle, a rope or even a boat. Also throw them anything that floats like a PFD (personal floatation device), wood, an ice chest or even a gas can.

        Wear and use PFDs (life jackets) when boating, skiing, canoeing or during almost any water activity. Adults are obligated to set an example here for the younger folks. Be sure to check all PFDs for an expiration date. Older devices are not safe and should not be used.

        Do not allow anyone to dive into the water unless it is positively known that the water is deeper than 9 feet.

        Never allow anyone to go into the water until the temperature of the water is tested. If the water is too cold it could affect a child’s breathing or cause cramps.

        Do not wade in the water without protective footwear. There may be broken glass or other objects that can cause injury.

        Use sun screen with SPF 15 or greater to prevent sun burn. Apply it liberally and at least 30 minutes before going out into the sun so it will have time to penetrate. Reapply the sunscreen often.

        Avoid insect bites and stings by using insect repellant, but be sure to carefully follow the label directions. Some repellants may be too strong for small children.

        Avoid using scented shampoos, perfumes and other products that will attract insects.

        Be sure to shake out all clothing and shoes before getting dressed. A scorpion may not kill you, but it will ruin your day.

        Watch out for snakes and avoid them. If you encounter a snake don’t provoke it. If bitten by a poisonous snake, try to identify or, better yet, recover the snake, bring it with you and get medical attention immediately. Many of the past procedures for snake bite first aid actually do much more harm than good. Let the professionals handle this.

        Check for ticks and other insects in clothing or on exposed skin after returning from outdoors.

     Let’s talk a little about hiking again. Good map reading and compass skills will go a long way to keep you from getting lost in the first place, but still everyone has been lost at one time or another in their lives. I’ve been lost at least two times myself. The first reaction is generally to find yourself as quickly as possible and it’s usually for the wrong reason; to avoid embarrassment. If you are truly and hopelessly lost the best thing to do is stay put and wait for rescue in order to keep from getting deeper into trouble. This is a case where you really can’t make the situation any better, but you can sure make it worse. If you have a child that is lost don’t make things worse by taking off into the bush and looking for them on your own. Always contact the park staff or emergency services and let them handle things. The times that I’ve been involved in search and rescue efforts the lost persons actually found themselves. A cyclist that was lost at night on a mountain bike trail actually popped out on a paved road where we found her. Another time a young boy reported lost by his family actually walked practically into our campsite before we were even assigned a search grid. In the case of the woman on the mountain bike, she would have been found at least 90 minutes earlier if she would have stayed put and waited because the park staff had covered the area where she had been.

     While we are talking about getting lost, have you ever noticed that everything looks different at night? I’ve been a park volunteer and a Boy Scout leader for most of my adult life. I’m trained and experienced and I really don’t like to leave the paved roads at night. Even in the daylight things look totally different when you reverse direction and go the other way. This can be very confusing, disorienting and is just one more reason to stay put. Of course, like I said before, it is a lot easier to get found and a lot less nerve wracking if you have your cell phone with you. One man who was lost (and drunk) at night in the park used his cell phone to tell the rescue team that he was located directly under the moon.
Like I said before, I volunteer for several outdoor institutions as well as in public schools so, although it’s not required, I have kept current certifications for first aid as well as infant and adult CPR and I suggest that you do the same. It’s worth it just for the peace of mind. I sincerely hope that you never need to use these skills.

     In this article I’ve only really been able to hit the high spots. So I strongly suggest that all parents go to the National Safe Kids website at for more details on keeping kids safe at home as well as in the outdoors. They’ve got some great ideas and it would be well worth your time to check it out.

     OK, that’s just about all I can think of right now. Please review all of this with your family. I find that when information like this comes from someone else (like me) that kids tend to pay better attention than when they hear it from their parents who, naturally just nag at them all the time.

     Have a great time on your family camping trips, be safe and HAPPY TRAILS!

Warren Petkovsek has been an avid RVer for over several decades. He lives in Lumberton, Texas with his wife, Myra. A former teacher, band director and professional musician, Warren is now retired from the petrochemical industry. In addition to being a freelance writer he is also a school volunteer, a Texas State Park volunteer and has been a Boy Scout Leader for many years. Warren would be delighted to answer any RV related questions that you may have and would be happy to send you some or all of his other articles. He can be contacted at .