Who doesn’t love a good trip into the wild? Whether you’re hiking, kayaking down a river, camping for the night, or doing some other manner of outdoor activity, it can be therapeutic to unwind in the great outdoors. Many of us crave that escape from society to spend time out in the quiet, desolate expanse of the world. There are no loud noises and bad smells… well, for the most part. There’s no dealing with light pollution, so you can get a great look at the stars. The air is clean and fresh.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. Although the human race has collectively spent millennia outdoors, it’s no secret that many have lost their lives due to poor planning and mistakes. Problems like running out of food or water, or dealing with extreme temperature changes — read hypothermia — can lead to severe bodily harm if not death.
If you’re not careful, the wilderness is not a forgiving place, and it’s relatively easy to make a mistake that can put you in danger. Make a wrong turn during a hike, and you could end up lost for days or running low on supplies. Forget to pack the supplies for a fire, and you could be forced to endure a long, cold night. It’s even worse dealing with a cold night if you’ve slipped and fallen in some water. Forget to dispose of your food scraps properly, and a bear could wander into your camp.
We could drone on for days about how many potential dangers you face out there in the wide open expanse of the wild. However, it makes more sense to discuss the most common dangers — things you may very well come face to face if you spent enough time out in the woods.
1. Snakes, Bears and Wolves — Oh My!
Although it certainly feels like it when there are few humans around, you’re never alone in the woods. There’s always a chance you might come across an animal. There are plenty of small ones like porcupines, skunks and possums out there, but there are some big ones that can be dangerous too.
Bears are incredibly dangerous. If you don’t bury your trash, leave half-consumed foods laying out and do not follow proper hygiene you might have one stumble into your camp. The same is true of wolves and coyotes, especially at dusk and late at night.
If you come across a large animal, don’t panic. Do your best to keep your distance, try not to attract their attention, and always keep them in sight.
Depending on where you’re hiking or visiting, snakes may also be a concern. Some, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and water moccasins, are poisonous. Always check your sleeping bag before climbing in, even if it’s inside a tent or sealed area.
If you are bitten, stung or attacked and you think the creature might be poisonous — usually, you’ll see some discoloration at the wound — it’s important to get to a hospital as soon as possible. While waiting for help to arrive, follow proper poison protocols. Clean and cover the wound, but don’t flush it with water. Remove all tight clothing and jewelry before you begin to swell, and keep the wound at or below where your heart is if possible. Don’t cut the wound, try to suck out the venom, apply a tourniquet or apply ice to the area. Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine, as they can speed up your body’s absorption of the venom.
2. Plants, Berries and Mushrooms
Berries often look downright delicious at first glance, adorned in vivid red and purple hues. But some are incredibly dangerous if eaten. The same is true of mushrooms and a variety of other plants you might come across.
Unless you’re expressly trained in spotting these types of foods, you should avoid them altogether. Foraging can be dangerous if you are inexperienced.
It’s entirely possible something you eat won’t hurt you in the short term, but mess with the wrong poison, psychotropic or chemical, and you could find yourself debilitated in the middle of nowhere with no help and no motor skills to seek it.
Oh, and let’s not talk about how foraged foods can sometimes contain parasites. That’s nightmare fuel for sure.
3. Insects Can Be More Than a Nuisance
Bugs can be annoying, but there’s a lot more out in the wilderness than just bugs that are a nuisance. Even some common insects can pose a risk. Mosquitoes, for instance, can carry deadly diseases like malaria, West Nile Virus and Zika.
Other potentially danger insects include spiders — some of which are poisonous — ants, fleas, ticks, hornets, bees and wasps. If you’re allergic to any of these insects, which you may not be aware of before you come into contact with them, those dangers increase tenfold.
It’s hard to believe but bugs can be and are one of the most dangerous things you’ll experience in the great outdoors, and they also happen to be incredibly common. That’s why it’s vital you take the necessary precautions regardless of where you’re traveling or visiting.
Insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin can help considerably, but you must remember to reapply it regularly throughout your trip. You can also apply creams, essential oils and several forms of mint to deter insects more naturally. Before climbing into your sleeping bag check it and your body for insects — ticks are easy to miss. If you do find a tick burrowed in your skin, remove it immediately. If you get insect bites, clean and protect them as soon as possible. If a poisonous insect bites you, you need to get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
Smoke also helps deter insects. Some outdoors enthusiasts will light a cigar or use smoke-creating plants and materials to scare off the bugs. These are sometimes useful strategies, but they also come with significant risks. Both of these methods have the potential for creating a wildfire and causing severe damage to the surrounding forest. It’s probably best to stick with the tried and true methods for deterring insects — liquid or cream based repellents.
4. Dangerous Weather and Temperatures
One of the most common mistakes that people make when visiting the wild is that they do not properly prepare for the local temperatures and weather. In certain places, for instance, the temperature can drop dangerously low after dark, despite being comfortable enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt during the day.
It’s always essential that you pack the appropriate clothing and protective gear, even if you’re not expecting inclement weather. Hypothermia can set on quickly, even after something like a cold rain. It doesn’t have to be the winter, and there doesn’t have to be any snow present. Having your body exposed to the wet and cold can have serious repercussions.
The opposite is true, as well. In areas where extreme heat is present, or where there’s constant exposure to the sun, it’s important you stay hydrated and properly rested. Take a few moments here and there to sit down in the shade, and be sure to continue drinking water — not sugary drinks, alcohol or other beverages. Drink at least one liter of water an hour, more if you’re sweating profusely. You should also cover your head and face and wear sunscreen if you’re going to be in the direct sunlight for an extended period. These practices will go a long way toward keeping your body cool and comfortable in the hot climates.
Furthermore, be mindful about your surroundings at all times. For instance, when setting up camp try to avoid placing your tent in low-lying areas or near water. It’s possible during a storm that the water will rise, and if you’re sleeping inside, that could prove deadly. Try to find camp areas that are on relatively high ground and ensure you have ample space to build a fire and remain dry.
If you do fall in the water or get wet, be sure to dry off as soon as possible. You should change your clothes and then sit around a fire or get into a sleeping bag or under a blanket. Worst case scenario, you can huddle next to someone in your party to share body warmth.
5. Watch Out for Fire Hazards
In a thick forest, fire can be absolutely devastating. When a fire spreads, it can happen fast — so fast that you have little time to react. We’ve seen this happen in some of the recent major fires like the one in Tennessee that consumed 100 acres or the ones raging in California right now.
You might not be the source of the fire, so keep that in mind. Also, it’s entirely possible to plan a trip, and visit a location without ever knowing there’s a potential threat. You could set up your camp or hike through an area only to find yourself trapped by a wildfire.
Of course, it’s also important that you follow proper safety measures when building campfires. You don’t want to cause a wildfire, which happens more than you might think.
Always build your fire at a safe distance from flammable objects like your tent or underbrush. If you can find an existing campfire ring or location, it’s best to use that space instead of creating a new one. If none are available. Surround your fire with stones or dig a small pit to keep it contained. Never use accelerants or fuel in the fire, and try to keep papers, liquids and other debris away.
You should also inspect the area thoroughly, checking for overhanging branches, trees and dry foliage. Store any extra wood and other materials you plan to use at a distance from the fire.
As for what you use to light the fire, paper is out. Never use paper as a fuel source. If you do light the fire with a match, be absolutely sure the match is out before disposing of it. Never throw a spent match into the underbrush or nearby foliage. If you have extra water handy then spread it around the edges of the fire to keep the nearby ground moist. This helps contain the flames. You should also use water to douse the fire when you’re all finished.
Never leave a campfire unattended, as a breeze or wind could easily blow embers and debris into the surrounding area and spark a larger flame.
After dousing a fire with water, use a stick or pole to stir the embers and ashes. This helps ensure that any stray coals are not still lit.
Ultimately, if you have a small camping stove or cooking station available, it might be better to use that instead of a conventional fire. But it’s not always possible to have these tools handy, so just be sure to stay safe and attentive.
Have Fun, But Don’t Be Reckless
By now, you’ve surely noticed that many of the dangers discussed are fairly common and would be easy to avoid or prevent so long as you are vigilant and careful. While having fun and enjoying the great outdoors should always be the focus of any trip, that doesn’t mean you should be reckless. Often, the people that are careless when spending time outdoors are the ones that either find themselves hurt and in danger or lose their lives altogether.
In addition, there are also many tips that haven’t been discussed here including packing the right amount of food and water, staying aware of your surroundings so you don’t get lost, choosing the appropriate hiking and camping locations, and wearing clearly visible gear to alert any hunters in the vicinity of your presence.
Be smart and careful when you’re out in the woods so that you can enjoy your trip and get home safe.
[Note: This was a guest post.]