Odourless, colourless and tasteless, carbon monoxide (CO) can’t be detected with the naked eye. Since campers spend most of their time outdoors, the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning is easily overlooked. But because camping activities can involve the use of fuel-burning devices, equipping yourself with a portable CO detector can ensure a safe outdoor experience.
Known as “the silent killer,” carbon monoxide forms as a result of incomplete combustion from fuel-burning devices. While carbon and hydrogen found in the exhaust of generators and other camping equipment like portable heaters, gas or charcoal grills and kerosene lanterns, combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water in a process known as combustion, incomplete combustion happens when there isn’t enough oxygen present. As a result, carbon monoxide is produced, which interferes with the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. Life-threatening injuries or even death can occur when exposed to high levels or over a prolonged period of time.
Carbon monoxide can build up to dangerous levels when using fuel-burning appliances in or near enclosed spaces, especially ones that aren’t properly ventilated. According to Dr. Bruce Campana, a hyperbaric medicine physician with Vancouver Coastal Health, many campers unknowingly increase their exposure to carbon monoxide by cooking inside a tent. Though cooking with a small grill in a covered space when it's rainy or cold outside might seem like a harmless way to keep warm, Campana warns against having cooking stoves or portable heaters inside a tent. “Even with the door open and windows uncovered, or in a vestibule, ventilation can be poor enough that CO builds up to lethal levels.”
Appliances like grills should never be stored inside a tent or RV, even after they’re turned off. “Combustion may still be occurring due to things like leaking valves or foreign debris that could still be producing CO,” explains Dean Schmitke, senior safety officer of incident investigation at Technical Safety BC.
While camping with a generator might allow for a more comfortable experience by keeping devices charged and a heater or coffee maker powered, the exhaust is potentially lethal. “Gas-powered generators, or any generator powered by fossil fuels, shouldn’t be close to a tent, and the exhaust should always be pointed away from the tent site,” says Campana.
Poor ventilation in a tent or RV can also contribute to increased exposure to CO. Older RVs were likely purchased before there were any significant safety regulations regarding proper ventilation, points out Campana. “Some propane stoves or heaters aren’t vented at all, or the venting is so old, rusted and perforated that it’s essentially nonfunctional. Older appliances are also less likely to burn efficiently, increasing the risk of CO buildup.” Campana advises RV campers to ensure appliances are routinely serviced, paying special attention to any devices that consume or produce gas.
Because CO is invisible, the only way to know you may be exposed to harmful levels is if you’re experiencing CO poisoning symptoms or if you have a CO detector. The ideal placement of a detector inside a tent or RV can vary depending on its style and design. “Always read and follow the supplied instructions for a certified CO alarm. Proper use of the alarm is an important factor to ensure it performs correctly,” says Schmitke.
When shopping for a portable CO detector, look for a certification mark recognized in your region, advises Schmitke. “Secondly, make sure it suits your needs and intended use.” Whether you’re looking for an entry-level model, one that’s particularly lightweight or a clip-on model for backpacking and hiking, detectors come in many different types and styles. Some detectors also boast additional features like lithium batteries that last for the life of the device, temperature sensors, waterproofness and the ability to flash for those with sensory impairments. “Choosing the right CO detector for you will help ensure you always take it with you and keep yourself and your friends and family safe,” says Schmitke.
Symptoms of CO poisoning present much like heatstroke or a hangover and include headaches, dizziness, vomiting and confusion. If you suspect you have CO poisoning, seek fresh air and medical attention immediately.