5 camping safety tips for parents, from an emergency medicine doctor

family camping sitting on car roof - camping safety tips for parents
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Camping, backpacking, fastpacking, thru-hiking, boondocking, roughing it, glamping… There are so many terms to describe the different ways we sleep outdoors. Growing up in Oregon, I spent my summers enjoying bountiful outdoor options, and camping was an early immersive way to explore and connect with the outdoors. You get a unique satisfaction from making a home away from your regular comfort zone and the trappings of civilization — even for just one night.

Camping is all about fun and new experiences, especially for kids. But parents need to be mindful of the unique challenges that come with camping with little ones. From making many small decisions that can make or break the experience, to considering various safety factors, proper planning is key to ensuring a wonderful outdoor adventure that will make the whole family clamoring for future trips.

As a practicing emergency medicine physician and the chief medical officer for GOES Health, an app designed to get people outside more safely, here’s what to know about keeping your family safe while camping as you prepare for all those summer trips.

5 camping safety tips for parents to keep in mind

1. Brush up on your first aid

First aid is as much a mindset as it is a skill set. First aid training enables you to recognize the signs and symptoms that someone needs help, and empowers you to be a first responder when minutes count. From caring for cuts and scrapes (the most likely medical problem you’ll encounter) to helping a choking victim or performing bystander CPR, first aid can be a lifesaving tool until professional help arrives. You never know if or when you will need these skills, so consider brushing up (or getting certified) on your first aid training before summer starts.

Know before you go: How to wash out a wound

When dealing with a wound, a helpful reminder is: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” It’s important to flush out debris and bacteria from a wound, without harming the healthy tissue needed to heal the wound. The ideal amount of pressure to wash out a scrape or cut is approximately 6 to 8 psi. This is about the amount of pressure generated from a water bottle nozzle. In terms of what solutions you can wash a wound with, any solution safe to drink will work. And tap water has actually been shown to reduce the risk of infection over other solutions. This is likely due to the greater volumes of irrigation achieved out of a tap than any other method.

2. Manage insect bites and stings

Bugs can bite or sting and leave you with itchy or painful skin reactions—most often red, raised and swollen. A bug bite or sting is rarely dangerous, and while it is usually difficult to tell what kind of bug bit or stung you, the treatment of cool compresses, anti-itch cream and if very bothersome itching, oral Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can typically help. The local inflammatory reaction from an insect encounter can be very severe resulting in a red raised wheal the size of your palm called Skeeter syndrome. This can easily be confused with a local skin infection called cellulitis.

Know before you go: Watch for spread

Draw an outline of the swelling with an indelible marker. If the redness continues to spread outside the line for more than 24 hours, it may be a skin infection called cellulitis and need medical attention.

Keep an eye out for:

  • People who are allergic to bees, wasps, or ants could experience a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis when stung. If the allergy is known, ensure you’re traveling with an EpiPen and you know how to use one.

  • There are a couple poisonous spiders whose bites may require evacuation and anti-venom treatment from a medical facility. There are a few species of poisonous scorpions that deliver a toxin that would require evacuation and medical attention. These are especially dangerous for children. Aim to generally familiarize yourself with the wildlife in the area where you’ll be staying.

  • Some insects may transmit an infection or disease through a bite. These illnesses can take a few days or weeks to develop and can be very serious and require medical attention. Consider seeking medical attention when you return from your trip if you’re unsure.

3. Always do a tick check

There are more ticks than ever these days, especially in the warm summer months. Tick bites themselves are rarely dangerous, but they can carry nasty infections like Lyme disease. Removing them within 36 hours will substantially reduce the chances of Lyme disease transmission and illness.

If you are traveling in an area known to have tick-borne illnesses, learn the signs and symptoms of these diseases, which can occur within 30 days of initial exposure.

Know before you go: Learn how to remove ticks and prevent tick bites

  • Wear protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts and pants

  • Utilize repellants with chemicals like DEET or Picaridin to treat skin and clothing

  • Perform regular tick checks on people and pets

A little knowledge of how to safely remove a tick can provide a lot of peace of mind. To remove a tick from the skin: Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to skin as possible. Pull up with slow, steady and even pressure. Try to keep it all intact. Look for a piece of remaining tick in the skin; if still embedded and unable to remove, it can act as an entry wound for bacteria and will likely need medical assistance to get it removed.

4. Know the signs of heat illness

We are coming off the hottest summer and hottest year recorded. Heat waves, heat domes in typically temperate areas, and extreme scorching temperatures are unfortunately becoming the new norm. Brace yourself for another record summer, and plan to keep you and your family of campers safe in the heat by looking out for symptoms of heat stroke.

If someone is feeling the heat, and seems dizzy, nauseous and weak, it is likely heat exhaustion. The way to differentiate from heat stroke is if confusion is present: An altered level of consciousness with elevated body temperature is considered heat stroke until proven otherwise. Know that heat stroke is considered a medical emergency and you should seek care immediately. But if you suspect someone has heat stroke, DO NOT WAIT to cool them down.

The fastest way to cool someone down who is showing signs of heat stroke is cold water immersion: The colder the better. Keep the head and shoulders above water, and fully douse the body in cold water. This has been shown to be effective in under 10 minutes. Take these steps before transport to a hospital, as the longer someone has heat stroke, the more severe the injury is.

Know before you go: How to prevent heat illness

  • Bring a spray bottle: One way to cool down is by using a spray bottle and misting the air around you.This can lower the ambient air temperature.

  • Watch the humidity: Keep in mind that in environments with humidity levels above 70%, your body’s ability to sweat effectively diminishes. This is because the increased moisture in the air slows down the evaporative process, hence the cooling process is diminished. This is why humid days feel so much hotter than a dry heat.

  • Use chemical cold packs: Forget about tucking chemical cold packs under your armpits, neck, or groin—turns out, that’s a myth and fairly ineffective. If you want to cool down, and cool down fast, slap those cold packs on your palms, cheeks, and soles of your feet. Packed with blood vessels and situated closer to the skin, these spots act like radiators in a car, dissipating heat faster than any other area of the body.

5. Be wary of burns and sunburns

Will you use a stove or campfire? Do you have the right medications and know-how to treat a burn? Don’t ruin your camping trip with a s’mores injury!

Always keep a close eye on kids whenever a fire is nearby, and pack antibiotic cream and non-adherent bandages for dressing burns.

Know before you go: Learn how to treat a burn

In the event of a burn from a hot object, cool the burn area with a cold drink, cold pack, or in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes to minimize the injury. Apply antibiotic cream and a non-sticky bandage to keep the burn wound protected from bacteria or further injury.

Remember that the most common type of burn outdoors is actually a sunburn. Stay on top of sun protection to ensure a comfortable campout.

Bring your SPF sunblock and a hat, as well as sunglasses: your eyeballs can get a sunburn (spoiler alert, it really hurts)

  • Be extra cautious around water and snow, which refract light and increase the burn potential

  • Be aware of the power of the sun at high altitudes (the intensity of ultraviolet radiation increases about 3% for every 1000 feet of elevation gained)

  • Reapply that sunblock more often than you think you need to, especially after being in the water.

Safe camping means being prepared 

Camping can be an incredible adventure: the sound of the wind rushing through the trees; the morning sunrise marching across a valley; the smell of smoke wafting from the campfire. To make the best memories, plan and prepare before you go. And download the GOES Health app to equip yourself with best practices on how to prevent and manage over 60 common outdoor injuries and illnesses. In moments of uncertainty, a comforting voice can calm the nerves: GOES+ offers 24/7 access to our team of wilderness medicine doctors. Ready to get out there? Motherly readers can use the code GOESMOTHERLY to get a free month on the GOES Health app.