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You cannot wait for your weekend camping trip. Work has been particularly stressful this week, and you need an escape.
You are bragging to your friends about the amazing campsite you are going to. They start talking about how they are afraid of camping and the outdoors. Their pessimism starts to ware on you.
They ask questions like, “Isn’t it supposed to rain?” and “Aren’t there like mountain lions and bears out there?”
Tired of them raining on your parade and constant negatively-toned questions, you pack up and head home to start packing your camping gear.
As you battle traffic on Broadway Street, you get stopped at (another) red light. Your mind starts wondering about the questions that your co-workers were asking…
The forecast is calling for potentially inclement weather. And there is wildlife in that area that could be dangerous…
You start pondering the idea “is tent camping safe?” and what can I do to lower any risk that I may run into out there?
How safe is camping in a tent?
Tent camping is really quite safe. When I first got into camping and backpacking, I would always worry about wild animals. While that is certainly a risk associated with camping, it is really rare to find yourself in a dangerous situation.
There are over 30 million tent campers in the United States each year, and the number of fatalities is incredibly low. While there is no perfect way to see the number of incidents that occur to tent campers, looking at National Park Service data offers a glimpse.
A three-year period shows that drowning, suicide, and motor vehicle crashes are the causes of the most fatalities within Nationals Parks. None of which are directly related to tent camping. For reference, animal attacks were the cause of 1 death over a three-year period.
This data does not reflect all outdoor-related accidents by any means, but it shows the general trend that camping is not a leading contributor.
While not inherently very dangerous, that does not mean that you should throw caution to the wind on your next camping trip.
You still need to be vigilant and risk-aware.
From checking the weather forecast to bringing the right camping gear, you need to know what the risks are and how to minimize your chances of an accident.
What are the biggest risks involved with a camping trip?
There are a lot of individual, specific risks associated with camping. In my experience, the risks of camping fall into three main categories.
Weather is the biggest risk that you will run into when camping, hiking, or backpacking. This can range from snow, rain, wind, lightning, and more.
With snow comes difficulty finding the trail, increased risk of slipping/falling, and hypothermia. I have been out on the trail when there was still significant snow at higher elevations in the mountains. It makes finding the trail much more difficult, so you need to make sure you have good wayfinding skills.
This is when having a GPS map of the area comes in really handy. You can check your current GPS location to make sure you are still on the right trail and do not miss an important turn. Getting lost on snow-covered trails can easily compound a bad situation into a worse one.
With snowy and icy conditions also comes slipping and the risk of hypothermia. Both of which can lead to things turning serious. This is why when dealing with snow you take the proper precautions and have the right gear.
Having sleeping bags that are rated for the appropriate temperature range makes a huge difference. I always recommend campers have a sleeping bag rated for at least 10 degrees colder than what they expect the temperature to be. For example, if the forecast calls for overnight temperatures in the 30s, I recommend having a sleeping bag rated for at least as low as 20 degrees.
Whether it is flash flooding, trail washouts, or ruining your gear, rain can pose a lot of challenges.
If you are camping in a canyon or at a lower elevation than your surroundings, you need to be particularly aware of flooding risks. You may not even be aware that it is raining at higher elevations. But, this water will run downhill and can lead to swelling rivers and flooding at lower elevations.
If camping in one of these areas, your campsite could flood. This can lead to your gear getting soaked (or even washed away) if you are not vigilant.
Even if you are not near a river, you need to be aware of where water is pooling up during a rainstorm. Just last year, I set up my tent during a lull in a rainstorm in what I thought was a good spot. Once it started raining (really hard) again, a puddle started forming underneath my tent. I had to get out and quickly move spots to avoid water getting into my tent.
Lastly, severe or consistent rain can lead to trail washouts. This is when part of a trail gets eroded/carried away due to water flow. Trail washouts can be minor or severe enough to make the trail unusable.
Lightning is another cause for concern any time you are outdoors.
If you a storm pops up while you are camping, you may need to move your tent or seek shelter in your vehicle, if car camping.
A preferable camp spot during a lightning storm is away from tall trees and in a lower-laying area.
Lightning strikes will generally take the path of least resistance to the ground. So as long as you are not on top of a mountain or ridgeline, you will lower your risk.
If you are new to tent camping, this is one that might have you particularly worried. I know it was my biggest fear when I first started camping.
Whether it be mountain lions, bears, coyotes, or another wild animal. These are real threats, but encounters with these animals are quite rare. With attacks being extremely rare.
Avoid camping near animal dens or areas that show evidence of frequent usage.
For example, if you see bear scat and claw marks on a nearby tree, you want to find a new spot. Some encounters are just by chance, but do what you can to minimize one with any kind of dangerous animal.
Another big component of staying safe from animals is proper cooking and food storage.
Avoid sleeping with food inside or near your tent. Even if there aren’t any dangerous animals in the area you are camping in, rodents will find their way to your food. (and chew threw anything between them and your food)
I also recommend cooking food away from your campsite. I like to cook any food at least 100 yards away from my camp spot. This way you can reduce the smell of food directly in your campsite.
Lastly, if you are in bear territories, use a bear canister (or at least a proper bear bag) if a larger bear locker is not available. Make sure to check the regulations in the area you will be in before heading out.
This one is pretty self-explanatory and pretty easy to have control over.
If you make a fire, make sure to do so in an existing fire ring/pit.
Additionally, make sure you have a way to extinguish it. Plus, when you do go to put it out, make sure the fire is fully and completely extinguished before leaving or getting into your tent.
The consequences of a fire getting out of control can be catastrophic. Make sure you are competent and confident before starting up a fire. This is especially true in the backcountry.
Finally, check with a camp host or ranger about any fire restrictions before starting one.
Tips for minimizing risks when camping
There is no way to eliminate risk completely, that is part of being alive. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to lower the risk as low as possible.
Whether you are at a National Park campground or on a backpacking trip through a remote mountain range, there are some general tips to minimize your risk.
Always be prepared
Stay aware of your surroundings
Store your food properly
Having the proper gear and knowing the risks of the area you will be camping in will go a long way to minimizing the risk of tent camping.
If it is your first time in a particular area, make sure you do a little bit of research beforehand. Check out the website for that particular forest, park, campground, etc. If possible, talk with someone who has been there before to get any information that you may not know that you need.
Are bears commonly seen in the area? Are there bear-proof lockers to store food? Does the nearby river often flood? Is there a camp store or gear shop close by?
These are some of the questions that you would benefit from knowing in advance of any camping or backpacking trip.
As you gain more experience, you will hone in on what gear you will need. Whether it be backpacking or just car camping, I had often taken more than I needed.
It is less important with car camping (the car is just right there), but you’ll be happier when you’re not loading and unloading a carload of gear that you did not use.
Stay aware of your surroundings
Staying aware is important with everything from weather to animals to fires.
If you see dark clouds rolling in over the mountains, you should make sure that your tent’s rainfly is attached and secured properly.
If you are cooking burgers over the fire pit, you want to make sure a hungry bear doesn’t stroll up behind you. You will definitely be startled, trust me.
And when you are done using the fire pit, make sure that it is fully extinguished before leaving the campsite or going to bed.
Almost any animal or human threat can be avoided if you are aware of your surroundings and are well-prepared.
Store food properly
One of the pillars of safe tent camping is properly storing your food.
Having a bear knock around your cooler as it ransacks your food is not how you want to wake up. But there is inevitably someone at a campground who does not take this seriously.
This is a big part of why wild animals continue returning to campgrounds.
If you are in bear country, there should be a storage locker for you to place your food. (and any scented items) Use it. Do not be the person who doesn’t use it. You may just lose your food to a hungry animal.
This is not beneficial to you or the animal.
If you are in the backcountry, utilize a bear canister (where required) or a durable food bag to protect against pesky rodents and other animals.
No, camping is generally safe. Accidents and incidents can occur, but tens of millions of people camp every year without anything negative happening.
This depends a bit on where you are camping, but generally speaking, wild animals should not be a cause for concern when camping.
Anytime lightning is involved there is a definite risk involved. If you are car camping, I recommend getting to a better shelter or getting in your car. If you are in the backcountry, get to low ground and away from tall trees.
Yes, you can safely camp in bear country. You will want to take some countermeasures though. A bear-proof container (bear canister or locker) is a must, while bear spray is recommended when grizzly bears are a possibility.
Three things I recommend to make tent camping safe are:
Pick a camping spot that is out of the way of any hazard (flood, rockslide, etc.)
Take food storage seriously (leaving food out will increase your chances of an animal encounter)
If you have a fire, make sure that you fully extinguish it before going to sleep
Camping in a tent is overwhelmingly safe.
There are risks associated with it (whether in a campground or in the backcountry), but it is very rare for something bad to happen.
Even though something bad likely won’t happen, you want to do what you can to minimize the risk.
The three best things you can do are:
Stay aware of your surroundings
Store your food properly
If you do those three things, you will decrease the odds that something goes wrong. Ensuring that your next camping trip is the best it can be!