Forest Fire
Credit: Dreamstime.com

It’s true what they say: driving to your campsite is more dangerous than the camping itself.

I once stopped at an accident scene on my way to give a presentation about wilderness canoe tripping. A dozen or so vehicles were involved and many people were injured; sadly, a man in his late-60s died while I attempted to administer first-aid. 

During the Q&A session at the presentation that night, someone in the back row stated she hadn’t yet gone camping because she thought it was too dangerous. I paused for a moment, then asked, “Did you drive here?”

It’s still possible, however, that bad things can happen out there — even though it’s quite rare when compared to our everyday urban survival. According to the latest statistics from a variety of search and rescue groups, these are the worst possible scenarios (and how best to deal with them):

1. Severe Storms

Maybe it’s climate change or maybe there are just more people wandering the woods these days, but a sudden-but-serious squall is rated as the number-one danger. Staying off the water during a storm is an obviously smart choice. When at camp, however, it’s important to note that broken trees and flying debris cause the most injuries. Your best bet in severe weather is to stay out in the open, huddled down in a depression or hollow. Taking refuge inside your flimsy nylon tent, surrounded by trees, isn’t a good option. 

2. Lightning Strikes

Lightning strikes are some of the most common, and possibly deadly, mishaps we can be exposed to. In many cases, victims are struck while standing on a lakeshore, watching the storm. The majority, however, are hit by a corresponding ground charge while lying asleep in their tent. 

Weathering-out an electrical storm at the campsite is far better than being on the water. Some kayakers and canoeists claim that you can paddle safely during a lightning storm as long as you keep close to the shoreline. A protective “umbrella” is formed, at about a 45-degree angle between the paddler and the treetops. This is just a theory, however, and I think I’d rather take my chances on-shore. Just make sure you pitch your shelter far away from any mound of high rock or tall tree. Also, the deeper you go into the woods, the greater the chance of lightning hitting another nearby object. Keep as low as possible — but don’t lie flat out. Sit on top of a backpack or, if you happen to be in your tent when an electrical storm hits, squat on top of your sleeping pad with both feet close together. This reduces conductivity — you want something between you and the ground to dissipate the surge of energy.

3. Waves & Swells

A wave is far more dangerous than a swell. The difference is that swells, generally formed far from your location, don’t break very often and your vessel can usually ride along with them. A wave, especially when produced by sudden high winds and in shallow water, will break when its height reaches one-seventh of its length (it can no longer support itself). A windswept wave of less than half-a-metre in height can easily swamp a canoe or kayak. Hypothermia will quickly kick in, especially if you’re paddling in the spring or fall. Once capsized, you have approximately 30 minutes before the “big chill” sets in, if you’re wearing a PFD. If you’re not, you have less than 10 minutes. 

Hit an approaching wave bow first. Allow it to hit you sideways and you have a good chance of flipping. If the wave hits from behind, you’ll take on too much water. Also, perform a low-brace at the bow and stern when the wave hits. It’s like having three boats side-by-side. 

4. Bears

Most novice campers are more paranoid about bears than anything else. Actually, a bear attack is one of the least likely things to happen to you. However, bears can cause some concern. It’s important to note that bears are very similar to humans — they are unpredictable. Each occurrence is different and your reaction should depend on the particular circumstance. First, consider how the encounter came about. 

If a curious bear wanders into camp, then try a mild aggression technique. Or, if the bear knowingly approaches you, then definitely be combative. Running only triggers a predatory response (and you’ll never outrun a bear). Climbing a tree is possible, but black bears and young grizzlies are good tree climbers. Showing aggression is a better option. However, if you happen upon a bear while on the trail, then it’s far better to calmly back off and give the animal its space. Worse yet, if you surprise a mother black bear with cubs, never show aggression or she’ll fight back — likewise if a grizzly is in full-fledged attack mode. You’re best to take a defensive position. Lie face-down with your hands wrapped around your neck to protect your vital organs and spread your legs (somewhat) apart to help anchor yourself, in case the bear attempts to flip you over. In general, arming yourself with bear spray or bear bangers is a good idea — but use them only as a last resort, if the bear is attacking.

5. Forest Fires

You can’t outrun a forest fire — spotting one in the distance doesn’t mean you’re safe. First thing: stay calm (relatively, anyway). It will help when formulating an escape plan. If you’re in a forested mountainous area, head downhill — fires travel four- to five-times more quickly uphill. Avoid narrow valleys, steep slopes or canyons. These areas act as natural chimneys for fire and smoke; if the flames don’t get you, the smoke will. Stay in open areas — fields when hiking or the middle of open lakes if paddling. 

If you are trapped, try to get to an open area and ditch any flammable materials (including the camp stove and fuel container in your pack). Remove all synthetic clothing — it could melt to your skin and cause severe burns. Cotton or wool is much better. Do not wet your clothing or skin — the intense heat could create steam and scald you. (Cover bare skin with sand if possible.) Lie face down on the ground and filter out the smoke by placing a dry bandana or cotton shirt over your mouth (steam from wet clothing could burn your lungs). Remember, if you’ve left a detailed trip plan or packed a personal locator beacon, help will soon arrive. 

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2014 issue.

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