While hiking is arguably the most ‘risky’ time of a backpacking trip, most of us spend more time hanging around the campsite. We might be more likely to fall and get banged up while actually walking and moving around in the backcountry, but there are also a whole set of different risks that can present themselves after we settle into camp for the night.
Here are some things to watch out for and tips to stay safe at camp.
Location, location, location.
But really though, as much as I love the freedom of being able to sleep wherever and whenever I want to out on the trail, there are some things to consider when choosing a camp site that will help set you up for success.
To play it safe, camp below tree line. When you are hiking or camping above tree line you are exposing yourself to more severe weather, winds, limited visibility if clouds roll in, and higher risk of being struck by lightning if storms roll in.
Camp away from roads. While trails, especially long trails, are usually pretty safe, more vandalism and incidents tend to happen at campsites and shelters that are close to roads or parking lots, where both hikers and non-hikers have easy access.
Camp away from wildlife’s stomping ground. Just do a quick check, or take notice while you are hiking if there are signs of wildlife ‘marking their territory’ in the area. Look out for bear claw marks on trees, moose rubs or teeth marks on trees, or signs that deer have been bedding down in the area.
If you find any of these signs, it’s very possible that animals might come back and pay you a visit, or may be distressed that there are people in their personal space.
Always check for widow makers. Always, always, always do this! A widow maker is a dead tree or large dead branch that is still hanging or leaning up in the air, but can be knocked down by the wind at any time. So you never want to camp under them or near them, they call them widow makers for a reason.
Cooking and stove safety
Be smart about using your camp stove. Never cook in your tent, even if the weathers bad, please don’t do it. This is how people die of carbon monoxide poisoning while camping, or burn/melt their tent down and then are SOL without a tent.
You *might* be able to get away with cooking in your vestibule if the weather is really terrible and just being out in the weather puts you at risk of hypothermia or dangerous exposure to the elements. But please make sure your vestibule is open and significantly ventilated, and place your stove and hot pot of food as far away from your tent and other gear in case a flame does flare up or it spills. Disclaimer: I really don’t recommend doing this. I do recommend cooking outside of and away from your tent.
Bonus points for hammockers – if it’s really rainy, just pitch your rain fly for your hammock, without the hammock itself (or keep it in its sleeve if it has one) and then you can cook under your rain fly. Or if you’re hiking in a group, it may be worth bringing a group tarp to pitch over a cooking/hangout area.
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You should ever get too cozy next to your running stove and boiling pot of water. Some hikers will sit down completely on their butt with their legs out on either side of their stove, or sit with their legs crossed right next to their stove, or sit at a picnic table with their stove running right in front of them on the table – these things terrify me people! Accidents do happen, and pots get knocked over sometimes and hikers have gotten severe burns from being to close to stoves that got knocked over.
Just be careful around a running stove and boiling water. Practice standing near your stove while it’s running to keep an eye on it, or squat down next to it to check on it but stay on your feet ready to jump up if something happens.
Use common sense here. While I know most of you reading this know basic fire safety tips, but I also know there are people out there who think it’s a good idea to use black powder as a fire starter. (This really happened, and this hiker quickly blew their own hand to bits and was evacuated.)
All you need to start a fire are matches or a lighter or a flint and steel fire starter, and some tinder like bark, tiny pieces of wood, or I won’t even judge you for using paper. If you can’t start a fire with those things – you need more practice!
Please don’t ever throw extra explosives or gas or anything like that on a campfire in the woods, this greatly increases the risk of hikers getting hurt/burned or starting forest fires.
Sleep with your head uphill. It’s rare that you’ll find a perfectly flat spot to set up your tent, so set it up in a way that your head will be on the slightly uphill side, so all the blood doesn’t run to your head in the night.
Don’t use ear plugs. This is more personal preference. There are of plenty of hikers who swear by sleeping with their ear plugs… but…. If some animal is clawing at my tent in the night – I want to hear it and maybe get a little heads up before it causes more trouble! As scary as that is, I’d rather be aware of my surroundings than purposefully block them out. But that’s just my preference.
Make sure all smellable things are out of the tent and stored properly. Put all your food, trash and other smelly things either inside a bear box or on bear cables if there are any, or do a proper bear hang. Just hanging it up on a branch so it’s off the ground is not a bear hang. You can learn how to hang a bear bag here.
Sleep with some sort of weapon or at least a whistle. Admittedly, I’ve never needed any of these in my tent with me at night, but I can’t rest easy without them. When I settle in for the night I always have my knife and whistle on me or by my head, and also started keeping my bear mace close too since moving to Colorado.
Is that excessive? Possibly. Does it make me feel better? Yes!
I do think everyone should at least have a whistle with them though at all times, just in case something does happen in the middle of the night, you can start ‘sounding the alarm’ right away and try to get some help.
Make sure someone knows where you are, and fill out trail registers. This is good practice in general, but make sure someone else back home has a copy of your hiking plan, including your start and end points and where you plan to camp in between. Always fill out trail registers, if there are any, along the way to let people know you passed through.
All things considered, even though there are risks, backpacking is not a very high risk activity. And the more you know about travelling in the backcountry and about your own personal limits, the safer you’ll be.
Check out these related posts to learn more about staying safe on the trail:
- How To Build Your Own First Aid Kit
- What To Do If A Bear Attacks
- How To Purify Your Drinking Water On The Trail
- Winter Hiking Safety Tips
If you have any extra tips about staying safe at camp, or on trail – drop them in the comments below!
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