Is Camping Safe? Avoiding Animals, Insects, and Injury

by wheretheroadforks

There’s something about sleeping outside under the stars that just feels natural. After all, our ancestors did it for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s in our blood. After a recent camping trip, a friend asked me “is camping safe?” and it really got me thinking. While camping, you can encounter wild animals, disease-carrying insects, dangerous weather conditions, people, and various injury risks. In this article, we examine those risks in a rational and honest way, to determine whether or not camping is safe.

Tent under the Milky Way

Tent camping under the Milky Way

Table of Contents- Is Camping Safe?

This is a pretty long article. Use the links below to help navigate the page.

  • Wild Animals- Bears, mountain lions, snakes, and dogs
  • People- Hunters, robbers, and crazy people
  • Injury Trips, falls, burns, cuts, scrapes, etc.
  • Insects- bees, mosquito, ticks, ants, and other critters.
  • Sickness and Disease- Waterborne sickness, malaria, Lyme disease, etc.
  • The Weather- Extreme hot and cold as well as storms and natural disasters

Wild Animals- How to Stay Safe from Attacks While Camping

Many camper’s biggest fear is encountering a hungry wild animal. For the most part, this fear is logical and legitimate. Large animals are always on the hunt. Life in nature is difficult. If an opportunity presents itself, an animal may attack. Some wild animals pose a real risk to humans. Remember that you may not be on top of the food chain while camping in nature. With that being said, animal attacks while camping are pretty rare. The risk is lower than you may expect.

Before heading out into the woods, you should do a bit of research on your destination. Know which species are present, how to avoid them, and how to behave if you do experience an encounter. Knowledge is power. Knowing how to avoid certain animals and how to react during an encounter could save your life. Some common dangerous wild animals that you may encounter while camping include:

Bears

Grizzly bear with cubs

A grizzly with its cubs

Probably the most feared animal in the woods, bears are at the top of the food chain. Luckily, they aren’t much of a danger to campers. With all of the movies, books, and stories about bear attacks, you’d expect death numbers to be pretty high. While researching for this article, I was surprised to learn that only about 2 people die of bear attacks in North America per year on average according to the article ‘Bear Attacks- Killer Statistic that May Surprise you’ by Thealaskalife.com. That’s not very many considering how many millions of people go camping across North America each year. 

Even though the number of deaths is low, bears still pose a risk to campers. By taking a few simple precautions, you can reduce the likelihood of a bear attack to almost nothing. The most important thing you can do to prevent a bear from entering your camp is to properly store and prepare your food.

Tips for Food Storage in Bear Country

  • Store your food in a place where bears can’t get to it- That could be a designated food storage box, your vehicle, or hanging in the air from a pole or tree (you want your food to be at least 10 feet up and 4 feet from the vertical support so bears can’t reach it). Hanging your food should be your last choice. It’s not very effective unless you know what you’re doing. 
  • Never cook or eat at your campsite- Do all cooking, eating, and washing at least 100 yards away. It seems far but bears have an excellent sense of smell. Better safe than sorry.
  • Never bring any food into your tent- The smell can linger and draw bears into your camp. Even if you’re not camping in bear country, this is good practice to keep various other critters out.
  • Don’t sleep in the same clothes that you cooked in- Again, the smell can linger on your clothes and draw bears.
  • Avoid foods that have a strong odor- For example bacon, cheese, fish, etc. The smell can get into your clothes and even on your body.

If you go camping often enough, you will encounter a bear sooner or later. They are fairly common animals in much of North American and Eurasia. The best thing you can do when you spot a bear is to talk to it in a calm voice and back away.

Brown bear

Brown bear

There are three things you shouldn’t do if you encounter a bear:

  1. Don’t make eye contact- The bear may interpret that as aggression. It could trigger an attack.
  2. Don’t turn your back to the bear until you’re out of its sight- You want to be able to keep an eye on what the bear is doing. For example, if it begins to approach you, you need to be able to react.
  3. Don’t run- This is the most important thing to remember. If you run, the bear’s instinct tells it to chase after you. You are prey. Bears are faster than humans.

Most of the time, the bear will just glance at you and continue with whatever it was doing. In some cases, they may even run away from you. If, however, the bear begins approaching you, you need to determine the bear’s intentions. There are two types of bears you may encounter:

  1. Defensive bears- This type of bear feels threatened by you. Maybe their cubs are near or maybe they think you’re trying to take their food. In this case, the bear will make loud noises, scratch the ground, and generally act in an aggressive manner. The first thing to try is to calmly talk to the bear and slowly back away. If the bear looks like it’s going to attack, play dead. You want to lay face down with your hand protecting your neck. Stay in this position until the bear goes away.
  2. Predatory bears- To this type of bear, you are prey. In this case, the bear will be quiet. It will approach you slowly without showing any aggression. It doesn’t fear you. The best thing you can do in this situation is to act aggressively. Yell. Make yourself appear as large as possible. Throw rocks. Whatever you can do to show the bear that you are going to put up a fight. If you have bear spray, use it when the bear gets closer than 30 feet.
A Note About Camping Shelters and Bear Safety

Most campers agree that the safest shelter for camping in bear country is the tent. Bivy sacks, tarps, and hammocks may increase the likelihood of an attack. Particularly in polar bears country. I’ll admit that I don’t know if this is statistically true or not. I have heard this claim from multiple campers but haven’t been able to find any evidence to back it up.

The reason that tents are said to be safer in bear country is simply that they are large and confuse bears. Even though a bear could easily tear inside, they probably won’t if they don’t have a reason to (food smells, for example.) In a bivy. Tarp, or hammock, you’re basically a sitting duck. A bear can clearly see you laying there and take a taste if it’s hungry. With this being said, a bear attacking you while you sleep is incredibly rare. Almost unheard of. It is something to keep in mind though when selecting your camping shelter.

For more info on bears, check out my guide Bear Safety Tips: How to Avoid Bears While Hiking and Camping

Mountain Lions

Mountain lion walking in the snow

Due to recent conservation efforts, mountain lion populations are growing and their territory is expanding. These beautiful animals that were rarely seen for decades are now commonly spotted near cities and popular camping spots like national parks. While this is great for the species it may be bad for campers. It’s a good idea to be aware of them and to know how to react if you see one while camping in their territory.

To reduce the likelihood of a mountain lion attack, you should:

  • Avoid camping and hiking with kids or pets in areas where mountain lions are known to live- Mountain lions are much more likely to attack small prey than fully grown adult humans.
  • Don’t hike during dusk and dawn- Mountain lions are nocturnal and hunt during this time of day.
  • Don’t leave any food out- Take the same kinds of precautions you would in bear country. Store food away from camp and don’t or cook at camp. Hide food away from camp, etc.
  • Travel in a group if possible- This greatly reduces the likelihood of a mountain lion attack.

If you do encounter a mountain lion while camping, you should:

  • Make loud noises- Yell, clap your hands, bang objects together.
  • Appear as large as you can- Raise your arms, pick up your kids or dogs if you have them with you, spread open your jacket.
  • Make eye contact- You want to act as intimidating as possible.
  • Fight- Throw stones or pick up a stick to fight with if the mountain lion is going to attack.

Mountain lion attacks are still incredibly rare. There have only been 27 deaths from mountain lions in the past 100 years in North America. Having said this, attacks may be on the rise. Check out this interesting article from Outsideonline.com for more info on the frequency of mountain lion attacks. 

Rattle snake

Rattle snake

Snakes

Snakes inhabit all corners of the globe. You can encounter these creatures almost anywhere including deserts, forests, grasslands, or even your back yard. The most dangerous type of snake you could encounter is, of course, the venomous variety. Snake bites are a legitimate concern for campers. According to the World Health Organization, 81,000-138,000 people die of snake bites each year.

Luckily for campers, antivenom is widely available in North America and much of the developed world. If you’re camping deep in the backcountry or in a developing country where antivenom isn’t as easily available, you’ll have to be a bit more careful.

Before leaving for your trip, do a bit of research on the types of snakes that are native to the region where you plan to camp. That way, you know what the risk is. You may even find that there aren’t any venomous snakes around.

How to Avoid Snakes While Camping

Snakes can slither into your tent or sleeping bag without you even noticing. While climbing into your sleeping bag after a long day hiking or cycling, a snake can unpleasantly surprise you with a life-threatening bite if you’re not careful. Luckily, there are a few ways to reduce the risk.

Tips to Keep Snakes out of your Tent While Camping

  • Don’t pitch your tent where snakes could be living- For example, in tall grass, near a hole in the ground, near fallen trees, etc. Sometimes these spots are impossible to avoid, but if you have the option, find a different campsite.
  • Always zip your tent closed when you’re not inside- Don’t give snakes a chance to enter. Even if you’re just getting out of your tent for a few minutes to go to the bathroom, zip it shut.
  • Make sure your tent doesn’t have any holes- If it does, patch them or tape them shut. Snakes can enter through the tiniest of cracks.
  • Check your tent and sleeping bag for snakes before crawling in- Give your tent a good shake to warn the snake that you are entering.
  • Keep all food out of the tent- Snakes aren’t attracted to human food but they are attracted to animals that eat human food. For example, maybe a mouse enters your tent to nosh on your cookies. The snake enters the tent to eat the mouse.
  • If you’re camping in an open bivy sack or under an open tarp- Consider sleeping on a large plastic tarp or groundsheet. Snakes don’t like slithering over unfamiliar materials.

Snakes can also hide under rocks or in tall grass where you can accidentally step on them while hiking or just setting up camp. If you’re camping in a particularly risky area, use a stick or trekking pole to poke around before setting your foot down.

What to do if you Encounter a Snake While Camping

Humans aren’t snake prey. They won’t chase after you. If you see a snake, just stay out of its striking range and walk around it. Don’t approach it or try to move it. If the snake feels agitated, it will strike. That is its only defense.

If a Snake Bites You While Camping

  • Remove your jewelry- You don’t want it to get stuck and cut off circulation when swelling begins.
  • Clean any debris from the wound- Brush off any dirt. Pick any twigs or grass out.
  • Apply a bandage with a bit of pressure- not too much pressure.
  • Do not attempt to suck the venom out- Everyone has heard this trick. It doesn’t work.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet- Again, you don’t want too much pressure on the bite. This can speed up the effect of the venom.
  • Don’t flush the wound with water- You can remove any debris that got into the wound.
  • Get to the hospital as quickly as possible- You may need antivenom. 

Dogs

a threatening dog

Dogs

While not wild animals, dogs are one of the more common and vicious animals that you can encounter while camping. Particularly if they are in a pack. While bicycle touring, I’ve been chased after by dogs countless times. Luckily, I haven’t been bitten yet.

What to do if you Encounter Aggressive Dogs While Camping

  • Stop moving- Some dogs stop chasing if you stand still. If you’re on a bike, get off and put the bike between you and the dog. Most of the time the dog stops in its tracks if I get off my bike and stop. 
  • Talk nicely and try to calm them down- Some dogs calm down and become friendly if they see that you are a friend and not an enemy. They are domesticated animals. 

If these don’t work and the dogs are still acting aggressively, you should:

  • Yell at the dogs- Return the aggression. Show them that you are going to put up a fight.
  • Pick up a stick- Be prepared to fight them off if they decide to attack.
  • Throw rocks- This often scares them away. If there are no rocks around, you can try pretending to throw rocks. This sometimes works as well.
  • Use bear spray- If you are carrying it, this stuff is extremely effective against dogs.

If you get bit, it’s a good idea to go straight to a clinic to start a series of rabies shots. While catching rabies is unlikely, the disease is extremely deadly if left untreated.

People- How to Stay Safe From Humans While Camping

Probably my biggest safety concern while camping is other people. Humans are the most unpredictable species. You never know what we’re going to do. People can be friendly one moment and turn violent the next. With that being said, campers and hikers are some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met. Everyone you come across is generally like-minded and in a good mood. Probably because they’re enjoying the outdoors. There are some dangerous types of people you can encounter while camping.

Hunters

Hunter and his dog

When it comes to human encounters, most camper’s biggest concern is accidentally getting shot by a hunter. An overeager hunter could mistake you for a deer and fire before confirming what he’s firing at. While hunting accidents are pretty rare, they do happen occasionally.

How to Avoid Getting Shot by a Hunter While Camping

  • Know when hunting season is- This varies by region and depends on the game. Before heading out into the woods, you should check whether or not hunting season is open. Deer season is probably the most dangerous for campers. Luckily, this is in the late fall and winter in most places.
  • Check where hunting is allowed- If you want to camp during hunting season, you could just go somewhere where hunting is forbidden. For example, most national parks in the US prohibit hunting. There are a few exceptions, however.
  • Make human noises- Talk, sing, whistle, etc. Just make some sounds that indicate that you aren’t an animal.
  • Wear bright colors- You want to be easily visible to hunters. Generally, orange is best. You could also wear high-viz clothing. Whatever you do, you don’t want to wear earth tones that blend into the terrain. You also don’t want to wear colors similar to the animals that are being hunted. For example, don’t wear white during whitetail deer hunting season.
  • Keep an eye on your dog- Always keep them on a leash. Consider tying a bright colored bandana around their neck. You don’t want a hunter to mistake it for game.
  • Respect hunters- They have the same right as you to be there. Try not to ruin their hunt by scaring away the animal they may be stalking.

Again, the chance of getting shot by a hunter is incredibly low. You do hear about an accident every once in a while though. A hunter would have to be pretty careless to shoot a human. That would mean that they shot without even confirming what they were looking at was even legal game.

Robbers

Whether or not you have to worry about robbers depends entirely on where in the world you camp. For example, at a designated campground in the developed world, the chance of being robbed is nearly zero. In fact, I have never heard of one camper robbing another. Even petty theft rare. For wild camping on the side of the road, the risk goes up significantly. Robbery is more common in some countries than others. 

Tips to lower the risk robbery while camping:

  • Stay well hidden while wild camping- The goal is to camp without anyone knowing you were ever there. Find a site that passers-by can’t see from the road. Look around to ensure that nobody sees you enter or leave your campsite. Don’t turn on any lights after dark. If nobody knows you’re there, they can’t rob you.
  • Ask a local if it’s safe to camp- Some regions are particularly dangerous. There could be bandits searching for a target. Many times, a local will invite you to camp on their land or invite you in if the area is dangerous.
  • Ask the police if they know of a safe place to camp- Whether or not the police help depends on the country. Many times, they can point toward a safe place to camp. Sometimes they even allow you to camp at the station. I can’t imagine a safer place. Who would rob you at a police station?
  • Stay in a campground- For the most part, campgrounds are safe. Theft is unlikely.
    Stay in a hotel- If you’re in doubt, it’s best not to camp. A night in a hotel will cost less than you would lose if you were robbed. You must evaluate the risk.

Luckily, I’ve never been robbed while camping but I have heard some scary stories from fellow bicycle tourists. Encountering an armed robber during the night would be a terrifying experience. Unfortunately, there are only so many precautions you can take to avoid these types of encounters. Sometimes you just get unlucky. It doesn’t help to be overly paranoid.

Crazys

You meet some strange people while camping. Particularly in rural areas. People who live out in the boonies are just different. Some are real characters and some just come off as a bit creepy. You have to try your best to be a good judge of character while camping. If you meet someone who feels off, try not to let them know where you’re camping. People are unpredictable. You just never know what they are capable of.

One of my biggest fears is encountering a crazy or violent person while camping. I know this fear is irrational but pretty much everyone’s wandering mind imagines encountering an ax murderer or serial killer out in the woods. Maybe I’ve just watched too many horror movies.

Injury While Camping

Overall, camping is a pretty low impact activity. Major injuries are uncommon. Having said that, there are a few minor injuries that you will probably sustain if you camp often enough. Fortunately, most of these can be patched up with a basic first aid kit. A few ways you can injure yourself while camping include:

Trips and Falls

trip and fall over a banana peel

While camping in the woods, it’s easy to trip over a stone or branch and take a spill. Walking around camp in the dark can also be dangerous. If you take a fall, you could easily scratch yourself up or even break a bone. The best way to treat an injury is to prevent it from happening in the first place. To prevent trips and falls while camping, you should:

  • Use trekking poles or a walking stick- When negotiating difficult terrain, trekking poles help you maintain balance.
  • Wear a headlight or use a flashlight while walking around camp at night- You could easily trip over your gear or a tent guy line and injure yourself.
  • Wear sturdy shoes or boots- If you end up stepping wrong or slipping, good footwear can save your ankle. Hiking boots or trail runners are good choices. 
  • Know basic first aid- If you plan to camp in a remote area, learn how to treat minor injuries. The knowledge could save your life.

Cuts and Scrapes

Minor cuts are fairly common while camping. Maybe you took a fall and scratched up your knee. Maybe you walked into a sharp tree branch. Whatever the case, it’s important to carry a small first aid kit so you can patch yourself up. I like the First Aid Only 299 Piece first aid kit. It’s available on Amazon.

Simple treatment like applying antibiotic cream and bandages prevent small cuts from getting infected and turning into more serious problems. It is easier for small cuts to get infected while camping because you just can’t stay as clean as back home. Take the time to patch yourself up no matter how insignificant the cut seems.

Burns

You can accidentally burn yourself with camp stoves and campfires pretty easily. The best thing you can do is to simply be careful around fire. If you do burn yourself, clean off the wound with cold water. It’s a good idea to carry some burn ointment and bandages to apply as well. This should be in your first aid kit.

Joint Pain

While camping, you may be carrying a heavy backpack which puts additional strain on your back, shoulders, and knees. You’re probably also sleeping on the ground which doesn’t help either. It’s a good idea to carry some mild pain reliever.

I hate taking medications, but sometimes a couple of ibuprofen are necessary to get me through the trip if I’ve had a long day or if I slept wrong on my back. Ace bandages can help with knee pain. Some people get relief from muscle pain relief creams like Bengay or Icy Hot.

To help prevent joint pain in the first place, consider using trekking poles while hiking. They take some of the stress off of your knees and back. This reduces the likelihood of suffering joint pain during a long trip. I like the TrailBuddy Trekking Poles. They are lightweight and durable. 

Foot Pain

While camping, you spend a lot of time tromping around with a heavy pack. Your feet spend the day cooped up in big sweaty boots. This isn’t ideal for their health. Two common foot problems campers experience are:

  1. Blisters- These come from your shoes or boots rubbing in a particular spot on your foot all day long. The most common cause is ill-fitting footwear. If you do get a blister, put a bandage over it to prevent it from getting worse. If it pops, keep it clean and apply fresh bandages as needed.
  2. Athletes foot- This is a fungal infection of the foot. The infection usually begins when you allow your sweaty feet to remain in your shoes for too long without allowing them to air out. The best remedy is to give your feet a break and allow them to dry out. Anti-fungal ointments are also available.

To keep your feet healthy you should:

  • keep them clean- Wash your feet off in a stream or lake once in a while.
  • Change your socks often- Wearing sweaty socks for days on end allow the fungus that causes athletes foot to grow. Many campers like Merino wool socks because they dry out quickly, wick sweat, and breathe well.
  • Wear sandals around camp- Give your feet a break from your boots. Let them air out. This helps with avoiding blisters as well. I like hiking sandals.
  • Keep your toenails trimmed- This helps to avoid discomfort.
broken bone

Broken ankle

Broken Bones

One injury that you can sustain while camping that can be life-threatening is a broken bone. Imagine breaking a leg 20 miles deep in the back country. If you’re unable to carry yourself out, it could mean the end.

This is one injury that your basic first aid kit can’t fix. It can, however, help you make it somewhere where you can get help. For info on treating a fracture while camping, check out this guide from Trails.com.

Insects- How to Avoid Bites and Stings While Camping

One of the worst parts of camping is dealing with the bugs. An argument could be made that insects are more dangerous to campers than wild animals. They bite, sting, carry life-threatening disease, and are just plain annoying.

To help keep the bugs away, you should:

  • Use insect repellent- I hate putting chemicals on my skin but this stuff is pretty much a necessity in some places. Make sure to use a repellent with a high concentration of DEET. I like Repel 100 Insect Repellent. It contains 98.11% DEET and protects for up to 10 hours. The bottle lasts a long time. 
  • Cover up while the bugs are out- In my experience, the evening is the worst. Be sure to wear long sleeves, long pants, and socks to keep the bugs off of your skin. It’s also important to cover up when walking through areas where your skin comes into contact with trees, grass, shrubs, etc. to keep insects off of your skin.
  • Use a bug net when you sleep- Most tents have one built in. If you’re sleeping in a hammock or under a tarp, make sure you use bug netting so you don’t get bitten up during your sleep. I like the Sea to Summit NANO Mosquito Pyramid Shelter. It weighs just 2.9 ounces and packs down very small. Once, while backpacking in Thailand, my buddy’s arm slipped out of his mosquito net while he slept. When he woke up, his arm was covered in around 50 bites. It was quite shocking. I can’t imagine what he would have looked like if he slept without a mosquito net.

Before camping, you should do a bit of research on the types of insects you may encounter and the diseases that they may carry. In some regions, all you have to worry about is a minor bite or sting. In some places, insects carry deadly diseases that must be taken seriously.

The worst kind of bugs you’re likely to encounter while camping

Mosquito

The mosquito. Every camper’s worst enemy

Mosquitoes

One of the biggest dangers you face while camping is the mosquito. Not only are they incredibly annoying, but they also happen to carry a number of deadly diseases including:

  • Malaria- This is probably the most deadly disease in human history. Even with recent advances in medicine, over one million people die each year from malaria. The disease is most common in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. Highest densities are found in Africa. For more info, check out my traveler’s guide to malaria prevention, treatment, and tablets.
  • Zika Virus- This one is pretty uncommon but cases have been recorded all over the world. Zika made the news recently with outbreaks in South America.
  • Dengue Fever- This is one of the more common diseases that campers catch. At this time, there is no vaccine or cure. Dengue is most common in India and Southeast Asia but cases have been recorded all over the world including the United States. For more info, check out this guide from the CDC.
  • West Nile Virus- This is the most common mosquito-transmitted disease in the United States. Many victims show no signs or symptoms and no vaccine or treatment is available at this time.
  • Yellow Fever- This is probably the most deadly mosquito-transmitted disease if you catch it. Yellow Fever is found mostly in Africa, Central America, and South America. A vaccine is available and is an entry requirement for many countries in Africa.

The highest risk areas for contracting these diseases are generally in tropical and sub-tropical regions in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and the Indian Subcontinent. The best way to avoid these diseases is to simply avoid getting bitten.

In Europe and North America, mosquitoes are mostly just an annoyance you must deal with while camping. Mosquito-transmitted diseases are much less common with the exception of West Nile Virus.

tick

Ticks

These nasty parasites latch onto your body and feed on your blood. Ticks carry a number of harmful diseases which are transmitted through the tick’s saliva. Which diseases are present depends on the region where you are camping and the type of tick that bites you.

In general, most tick-related diseases are transmitted to humans by the black-legged tick. These are most commonly found in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern United States. They are also found on the Pacific Coast. Different varieties of tick effect the south and west coast.

Of course, ticks aren’t just a problem in the US. They live all over the world. Before heading out camping, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research on the types of ticks and tick-transmitted diseases that are present in your camping destination.

Common tick-transmitted diseases include:

  • Lyme Disease- Probably the most common disease carried by ticks, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection. Unfortunately, this disease seems to be getting more and more common in the US, particularly along the East Coast. Cases have been reported in the Midwest and even in California. Luckily, it is believed that the bacteria causing Lyme disease takes around 36 hours to spread from the tick to the host. If you find the tick and remove it within this time, chances are you’ll be Lyme disease free. If you do catch Lyme disease, most cases can be treated with antibiotics in just a few weeks. For more info, check out this guide from the CDC.
  • Anaplasmosis- This disease is transmitted by black-legged ticks. It is most common in the Northeastern and Northern Midwest in the United States. Cases have also been confirmed on the Pacific Coast.
  • Babesiosis- Another tick-transmitted disease that infects red blood cells.

For an extensive list of all tick-transmitted diseases found in the United States, check out this list from the CDC.

What to do if you find a tick on your body

To lower the chance of disease transmission, it’s important to remove the tick as soon as possible. It’s best to check your body at least daily for ticks. Be sure to check under your hair where you may not be able to see.

The best tick removal method is to simply pull them out with a pair of tweezers. When removing the tick, be careful not to pull the tick apart or leave the head under your skin. Simply grab the tick with the tweezers and slowly and carefully pull it out.

Many people recommend touching the back of the tick with a hot match or lit cigarette to make them release their grip. Most experts agree that this isn’t the best idea. It can irritate the tick causing it to burrow deeper into your skin, making it more difficult to remove. Simply pulling the tick out is safer and more effective.

Bees, Wasps, and Hornets

a large beehive in a tree

A large beehive

Dealing with stinging insects like bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, etc. is an irritating part of camping. They always seem to come around just when you’re getting ready to enjoy a well-deserved meal after a long day on the trail. This happens because they are attracted to human food. Luckily, a single bee sting is mostly just a painful annoyance unless you happen to be allergic.

To avoid attracting bees and wasps to your campsite, you should:

  • Don’t camp near beehives- Before setting up camp, take a moment to make sure no bees are swarming around.
  • Avoid fragrant perfume, shampoo, soap, deodorant, etc.- While researching for this article, I read conflicting information about this point. Some argue that sweet odors from cosmetics attract bees. Some argue that bees don’t care about this and just want sweet foods. To keep bees away, you could use unscented products just in case. Insect repellent also helps.
  • Keep food covered- Use bags, lids, caps, etc to keep food containers closed. Don’t allow drinks to sit around opened. Tie garbage bags closed. If bees can’t get to your food, they won’t stick around.
  • Avoid brightly colored gear and clothing- This is another controversial point. Bees are attracted to floral colors but may be able to distinguish between flowers and clothing. Avoiding bright colors may help to keep bees away or it may not.

How to Avoid Disturbing a Bee Hive While Camping

The real danger with bees is accidentally disturbing a hive. According to this Washington Post article, bees, wasps, and hornets kill 58 people per year.  If this statistic is accurate, that makes these common stinging insects some of the most deadly that you are likely to encounter while camping. According to the article, they are significantly more deadly than snakes and bears combined.

To avoid a bee, wasp, or hornet attack, you should:

  • Never disturb a hive- Don’t even go near if you can avoid it. Bees build hives in trees, cracks in rocks, and even the ground.
  • Listen to the bees- Before attacking, bees generally give a warning. They may begin swarming around without stinging. They may start bumping into you without stinging. This is the bees way of telling you that they are going to attack if you don’t get out of the way.
  • Don’t swat at the bees- Even though this is the natural human reaction, the bees take this as a sign of aggression and begin stinging. Probably because bears swat at them while stealing their honey.
  • Wear light colors- Most predators of bees have brown fur. You don’t want to look like a predator.
  • If you disturb a nest, run- This is really your only option if a swarm starts attacking. Bees may follow you for up to a quarter of a mile. Ideally, enter a shelter where the bees can’t reach you such as a car, tent, or building and wait for them to go back to their hive. They could stick around until dusk.
  • If bees swarm, cover your face- You want to avoid getting bitten on the face. Even if you’re not allergic, your eyes or throat could swell shut with enough stings. You also don’t want to inhale any bees or get stung on the eye.
  • Don’t jump in the water to get away from the swarm- Bees can wait for you to surface for longer than you can hold your breath. Every time you surface for air, they sting. This is a good way to drown.

A swarm of bees is no joke. Once, while throwing a baseball around with my grandpa, the ball fell in some tall grass where it must have disturbed a hidden hive. I walked over to get the ball but the bees were already beginning to swarm. Luckily, we were only across the street from the house so we were able to run inside with just a few stings each.

ants walking on a plant

Ants

Ants are an annoying part of camping that you just kind of have to deal with. These little guys live everywhere. Somehow, they always seem to find a way into my tent and onto my gear. For the most part, ants are pretty harmless. With that being said, there are a couple of species that are capable of harming or even killing humans.

To keep ants away from your campsite, you should:

  • Store your food properly- This is the most important thing you can do to keep ants away. Food attracts ants to your campsite. Make sure you keep all food containers sealed. Tie up garbage bags so ants can’t get to any food waste. Try not to drop crumbs or bits of food while eating.
  • Use insect repellent- Apply the repellent to your legs to prevent ants from crawling onto you.
  • Create a barrier with scents or flavors that ants don’t like- You could use vinegar, coffee, cinnamon, citrus, bug spray, etc.

Sickness and Disease While Camping

While camping, we expose ourselves to a number of harmful diseases that we don’t encounter at home. As we have seen, we can contract diseases from insects such as ticks and mosquitoes. We can also get sick from contaminated food and water.

One risk of camping in the backwoods is the fact that you could be many hours or days away from medical aid if you need it. If you begin feeling ill, you should break down camp and head to the nearest medical facility for diagnosis and treatment if required.

Most diseases that you encounter have an incubation period. For example, once bitten by a malaria-infected mosquito, you may not experience symptoms for anywhere from 10 days up to an entire year. Once you begin experiencing symptoms, your condition can worsen incredibly rapidly. You can wake up feeling fine and be on your death bed the following day with serious strains of some diseases. For that reason, it’s important to seek help immediately when you begin feeling ill.

Common Symptoms Include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Chills
  • General flue-like symptoms

If you begin feeling any of these symptoms, your first thought may be to take a rest and hope it goes away. While this is a reasonable reaction while you’re at home, it can be incredibly dangerous while you’re camping. Make sure you’re within reach of civilization if your condition begins to decline.

Cooking over a wood camp stove

Cooking over a wood camp stove

Food Safety- Avoiding Food Poisoning While Camping

While camping, you don’t have access to refrigeration. You need to be careful about what you eat to avoid getting food poisoning. Meats and dairy products spoil quickly. Particularly in hot weather. Spoiled food can make you sick. Cooking can also be an issue. Sometimes you can’t start a fire or use a camp stove to cook your food. Eating raw foods also carries risk.

Before heading off on your camping trip, you need to plan your meals. Consider the number of meals and calories that you’ll need to eat healthy and sufficient meals for the duration of your trip. Remember, while camping, you’ll be more active than usual. Because you’ll be burning more calories, you’ll need to eat a bit more to maintain your weight.

Healthy Camp Food Ideas

The ideal camp food doesn’t require refrigeration. You want foods that won’t be ruined by too hot or cold of temperatures. You also want to avoid foods that are too fragrant. Smelly food attracts animals and critters like bears, bees, and ants.

Good foods to take camping include:

  • Pre-packaged dehydrated meals- These are healthy and easy to prepare. They are lightweight and pack a lot of calories into a small space. To prepare these, you just have to add boiling water. The only drawback to dehydrated foods is the fact that they are pretty expensive for what they are. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend $8 for a lousy bag of mac and cheese. To each his own though.
  • Trail mix- A mix of nuts, pretzels, cereal, dried fruits, and candy. You can buy pre-made or make your own. This stuff is great because it’s healthy, requires no cooking, and can be eaten on the go.
  • Instant noodles- Ramen, instant mac and cheese, and cup noodles all make great camp meals. They are lightweight and easy to prepare. All you need is boiling water. The only drawback is the fact they aren’t too healthy. You don’t want to live on this stuff for weeks at a time.
  • Canned food- Another easy to prepare option. Bring your favorite soup, chili, or canned pasta. The drawback to canned foods is that they are heavy to carry.
  • Peanut butter- This is one of my favorite foods. I eat it on bread, bananas, and even cook with it. Peanut butter is healthy and loaded with calories.
  • Dried meats and fruits- Beef jerky is my favorite camp snack. I also enjoy noshing on dried fruits like apricots, prunes, and pineapple. Recently, I’ve gotten into making my own dried foods with a dehydrator. I bought the Nesco fd-75a, Snackmaster Pro food dehydrator from Amazon. If you want to try this out too, check out these excellent guides from Backpackingchef.com.
  • Tea and coffee- There’s nothing better than enjoying a nice hot cup of coffee on a brisk morning. Or a steaming cup of tea before bed on a cold night. All you need to prepare your beverage is hot water.

You can easily prepare and eat all of the above foods in pretty much all conditions. They can be carried around for months without any spoilage. This way, you don’t have to worry about getting sick on bad food.

pouring a glass of bottled drinking water

Drinking Water Safety While Camping

Getting clean drinking water while camping can be a problem. Various parasites, viruses, bacteria, chemicals, and minerals contaminate many water sources around the world. These can cause a number of serious health problems and sicknesses if you aren’t careful.

Before heading out camping, do a bit of research on water availability. For example, if you’re heading into a desert environment where water is hard to come by, you’ll have to pack your own in. If you’re camping somewhere with industrial contamination from manufacturing or mining, you’ll want to know about it. In some parts of the world, you can drink the water straight from the river without worry. It’s important to know ahead of time about the water situation.

If you aren’t bringing in your own water, you should treat all water before drinking it, just to be safe. Even if it’s coming directly from a mountain spring. You don’t want to get sick from drinking contaminated water when you’re miles into the backcountry. Particularly because it’s so easy to avoid.

How to Make Safe Drinking Water While Camping

When it comes to treating drinking water, you have several options.

Water Filters for Camping

Filters use a mechanical process involving tiny .1 micron pores which strain out contaminants like bacteria, protozoa, and debris. Most standard filters do not remove viruses, chemicals, or heavy metals from the water. One of the nice things about using a filter is the fact that it doesn’t change the taste of your water. A good water filter is lightweight and doesn’t take up much space in your pack. In my opinion, a good water filter is an essential piece of camping gear.

More complex filters are available which use a chemical process or UV light to kill viruses. Some advanced filters even use smaller .01 micron pores to remove viruses and some heavy metals.

For a basic water filter, I bought the Sawyer Mini on Amazon. I have used mine all over the world while traveling and camping in North America, Africa, and Asia and have never gotten sick. I have filtered tap water and water directly from rivers and streams. Check out my full review of the filter here.

If you’re looking for a more advanced filter, consider the Survivor Filter Pro. This filter uses a 3 stage system to remove most viruses and reduce heavy metal content of water.

Chemical Water Treatment

Water purification tablets use a chemical process involving iodine to kill bacteria and make water safe to drink. The process usually takes around 35 minutes. The main benefit to tablets have over water filters is the fact that they can be used in freezing conditions where your filter could crack or break if ice builds up inside. The main drawback to water purification tablets is that they don’t remove dirt, sand, or other debris. Tablets also give the water a funny taste that bothers some campers.

When I go camping, I like to carry a small bottle of Potable Aqua water purification treatment to use as a backup in case my filter gets lost or broken.

Boiling Water

Boiling kills viruses, bacteria, and protozoa but does not remove chemicals, heavy metals, or debris. The main problem with boiling is the fact that it takes a lot of energy to bring several liters of water to a boil. You need to pack enough fuel if you plan to do this. Boiling water also takes a considerable amount of time. Not to mention the fact that you also have to wait for it to cool down after boiling so you can drink it. Boiling does not affect the taste of the water.

Tip: Use this purification method when you need hot water anyway. For example, when making tea, coffee, or cooking, don’t bother treating the water if you’re just going to boil it.

If you do get sick on food or water while camping

Even if you take every precaution, you’ll eventually catch a touch of food poisoning sooner or later. Maybe you drink some contaminated water or some food that’s just been sitting out a bit too long. It’s unavoidable if you camp often enough. If you start feeling nauseous or have diarrhea, you should:

  • Drink plenty of water- Your body loses a lot of water when you are vomiting or suffering from diarrhea. Be sure to stay hydrated. Make sure you filter water before drinking it so you don’t make matters worse.
  • Eat a bland diet- Avoid spices, dairy products, and meats. Try to stick to things like rice, noodles, bread, crackers, etc. These are easy on the stomach and can help you recover faster.
  • Take some anti-diarrhea medication- It’s a good idea to pack some Imodium or Pepto Bismol to calm your stomach if you eat something bad. You can buy this stuff in any pharmacy. Your first aid kit should also include some.
  • Take antibiotics- If you’re not improving after a few days, you may want to consider taking antibiotics to help kill the infection. It’s a good idea to carry some in your pack for emergencies. In some parts of the world, you need a prescription. Sometimes you can buy them over the counter from pharmacies. It just depends on where you are camping.
  • Get to a doctor- If the sickness is serious, you need to break down camp and get to a hospital for treatment. Diarrhea is still a leading cause of death in many parts of the world.

The Weather- Staying Safe from Extreme Temperatures and Storms While Camping

A lightening storm in Monument Valley

This point seems obvious but many people don’t take it as seriously as they should. Every year campers die because they weren’t prepared for the weather conditions. Extreme cold or heavy storms can at least ruin your trip if you’re not prepared. The best thing you can do is to simply check the weather forecast before heading out on your camping trip and pack accordingly. Here are a few tips:

Make sure your sleep system is appropriate for the weather conditions

You need to stay warm and dry during the night. At the same time, you don’t want to be too hot and uncomfortable while you sleep. Check the weather forecast and build your sleep setup accordingly. You must consider:

Sleeping Bag or Quilt

Pack a sleeping bag that is warm enough for the climate you’re camping in. It’s better to have a bag that’s too warm than too cold. You can always unzip it to cool off if you get too hot.

Remember that sleeping bag temperature ratings are the lowest temperature that you can probably survive in that bag. Not the lowest that you will remain comfortable. For example, in a bag with a 20 degree Fahrenheit rating, you could probably only remain comfortable to around 35-40 degrees. Anything below that and you’ll get a bit chilly. For more info, check out my guide to sleeping bags and quilts.

I also like to pack a sleeping bag liner. These serve 2 purposes.

  1. First, they make the bag a bit warmer if you encounter some unexpectedly cold weather. Typically, they lower your sleeping bag rating by around 5-10 degrees depending on the model and thickness and material.
  2. Sleeping bag liners also help your sleeping bag last longer by keeping it cleaner. Because you’re not sweating directly into the bag, you don’t have to wash it as often. This improves the bag’s longevity. You can easily wash the liner. It’s just a simple piece of fabric.

I like the Friendly Swede Sleeping Bag Liner. It packs down small and the material is very silky and comfortable to the touch.

Shelter- Tent, Bivy Sack, Hammock, or Tarp for Camping

Your shelter should be appropriate for the climate. For extreme winter weather, you’ll want a tent or bivy that is designed for 4 seasons. These trap heat and can withstand a snow load. You don’t want to be caught in a snowstorm in a lightweight tent or hammock.

For hot weather camping, you’ll want to use a shelter that allows enough airflow to keep you cool and keep condensation at bay. 

For help with choosing a shelter for your style of camping, check out my pros and cons lists:

Sleeping Pad

These play a big part in keeping you warm while you sleep. The underside of your sleeping bag doesn’t provide much warmth while it’s compressed under the weight of your body. The pad provides that warmth as well a makes your sleep much more comfortable.

To determine the warmth of a sleeping pad, look at the R-value. The higher the number, the warmer the sleeping pad. Make sure the pad R-value is suitable for the temperature you are likely to encounter on your trip. The material that the sleeping pad is made of and the thickness of the sleeping pad determine the R-value. 

I have the Klymit Static V Sleeping Pad and have been pretty happy with it so far. Read my full review here.

Many campers prefer foam pads as they are cheaper, more simple, and you don’t have to worry about punctures. For a foam pad, check out the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Ultralight Foam Backpacking Mattress. It folds up small and weighs only 10 ounces.

For more info on choosing a pad, check out my guide Inflatable Vs Foam Sleeping Pad: My Pros and Cons List

Always be Prepared for Rain

Even if there’s not a cloud in the sky and the forecast is all clear, you need to stay dry in the off chance that it does rain. You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night in an unexpected rainstorm without any way to stay dry.

Make sure that your shelter is watertight. If you are camping in a tent, always pack the rainfly. If you are camping in a hammock or bivy sack, bring your tarp just in case.

When sleeping bags get wet, they lose much of their warmth rating. Down bags are particularly bad for this while. Synthetics stay a bit warmer when wet. For more info, check out my down vs synthetic pros and cons list.

You want to be prepared for rain during the day as well. Always pack a lightweight rain jacket or poncho to stay dry. That way, you can continue with your day comfortably if it starts to rain.

If you’re not expecting rain, consider carrying a tarp poncho. This lightweight piece of gear serves two purposes. You can wear it like a poncho if it starts to rain. If you need to camp, you can pitch it as a tarp. I like the Sea to Summit Ultra-SIL Nano Tarp Poncho.

Warm Weather Camping

On the other end of the spectrum, you want to stay cool while camping in hot conditions. You don’t want to camp in the tropics in a bivy sack made for alpine hiking. There is no need to use a 0-degree sleeping bag while its 75 degrees outside. You don’t want to wake up in a puddle of your own sweat.

For warm weather camping, consider using a hammock. It’s a great way to stay cool and comfortable as well as reduce the weight of your pack. For more info on hammocks,  check out my hammock vs tent pros and cons list. 

If the Weather Conditions are Dangerous, Get Out of There

There is no need to put your life at risk for a camping trip. You’re out there to relax and enjoy yourself. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody by camping through a blizzard or lightning storm.

If you’re just getting into camping, take it easy at first. There is no need to attempt a 2000 mile through hike for your first camping trip. Take some time to learn the ropes and work your way up to camping in more hardcore conditions.

Tents set up in the mountains on a cloudy day

Is Camping Safe? My Final Thoughts

Yes, camping is a perfectly safe activity. Millions of people who go camping every year around the world and stay completely safe. Don’t miss out on enjoying the great outdoors just because of the small chance of injury.

For whatever reason, our minds automatically jump to the worst case scenario. If we hear rustling in the grass outside of our tent, it’s automatically a hungry grizzly bear in our minds when in reality it’s just a mouse. If we hear footsteps nearby, our mind automatically assumes it’s a cold-blooded murderer when it’s probably just a friendly hiker. Our ancestors evolved this response hundreds of thousands of years ago and it remains in our minds to this day. I’m still spooked when I hear a sound in the night.

Sure, you may get a few mosquito bites or suffer a small scratch here and there. Hell, you’ll probably even see a bear if you camp enough. As with any activity, there are risks involved. As long as you do a bit of research about the region where you plan to camp, you can reduce the risks to an acceptable level and enjoy a safe and relaxing camping trip.

While all of the dangers outlined in this article do exist, the likelihood of serious injury while camping is incredibly low. Camping is one of the most popular outdoor activities. There’s just something natural about sleeping outside under the stars. I hope to enjoy camping for the remainder of my life. I hope you do too.

Have you experienced any dangerous situations while camping? Is Camping Safe? Share your story in the comments below!

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