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I love camping! Why am I writing this article about the dangers of camping, then? We often misunderstand where the real risks are and we spend a lot of effort on things that matter less, so I will be using data to find the answers so we can be careful in smarter ways.
My purpose is not to scare you into not camping, it’s to bring awareness to the highest risks so that we are adequately prepared. And perhaps to help you not worry about some things that receive a lot of attention.
What is difficult about this subject is that nobody is collecting and storing these numbers for the whole United States–however, the National Park Service (NPS) does have significant data that we can use. Many of the numbers I’ll share come from the NPS and their Search and Rescue (SAR) data.
None of this data should be considered medical advice, and any health-related discussion is not approved by the FDA and is only based solely on the writer’s research and opinion.
- Heart Attack
- Treacherous Roads
- Dehydration / Heat Exhaustion
- Sprained Ankles and Broken Bones
- Getting Lost
- Knives and Axes
- Bee or Hornet Stings
- Beaver Feaver (Giardia)
- Wild Animals
- Altitude Sickness
- Avalanche / Landslides
- Your Tent
- Falling trees
1. Heart Attack
Data from 8 national parks were analyzed, and it was found that out of the 78 deaths that had occurred in the parks 17% were related to heart problems. (source 2)
It’s not that the trees, the sun, and the wind cause heart attacks–heart attacks can happen if you exert yourself in ways you are not used to.
Many people who haven’t been to the gym for a long time know that to be safe they need to be careful about running or working out intensely without working up to it. Our hearts, especially as we get older, have to be exercised gradually to avoid a heart attack.
If you go camping, it is tempting to think that you’re just going to be walking around the campsite, and a 2-mile hike is not a big deal. While this is true for someone who is active, already, if you are not active, this may be a lot to ask of your body.
If it’s been a while since you’ve done some exercise before you go on that hike, try and do some light exercise and gradually increase the difficulty before you try that 5-mile hike.
2. Treacherous Roads
One of the best parts about camping is that you’re getting away from it all! You are escaping the traffic, the stoplights, the freeways, the strip malls…
One danger, though, that is underestimated is driving to your camping destination.
11.5% of deaths in 8 national parks were due to driving accidents. While 3.3% of all non-fatal injuries sustained were due to motor vehicle accidents. (source 2)
We love to camp in nature, in the middle of the wilderness. Because of this, the views that we get to see while driving can be spectacular!
It’s extremely tragic that the beauty and amazing nature that we get to enjoy can be the cause of distraction-related driving accidents.
Often the beautiful views are coupled with tricky roads, which is an even more dangerous combination.
Please take the extra time to pull over safely if you want to take in the view from the roadside. It’s easy to feel safe with the beautiful views outside your windshield.
One of the most impressive and beautiful features of many national parks are the mountains. Mountain terrain while you’re driving inevitably includes winding up mountainsides with sheer edges on one side and a cliff edge on the other, requiring discipline to drive safely. These switchbacks are especially dangerous since you can’t see oncoming traffic, easily.
My family was affected by this--a family member actually rolled a van packed full of people because they misjudged the slower speed necessary for the hairpin turns on the mountainside. We were all very fortunate that nobody was seriously hurt, but it’s a good reminder for me to always be careful on mountain roads.
These mountain roads can be downright scary in rain or snowy conditions (especially snow). It’s worth it to pull out the chains for your tires in the snow or to pull over and wait for a rainstorm to pass if you can’t see where you’re driving.
Around 17% of those involved in a SAR operation in a National Park (around 850 per year) were due to issues related to “fatigue and physical conditioning.”
One of the most deadly attributes to have in the outdoors is overconfidence. Feeling like you can conquer any mountain is fine for YouTube inspirational videos, but when you’re out in nature, it’s important to understand your limits.
It can be exhausting to be outside in general, although hanging around the campsite isn’t too strenuous. It’s the activities that bring us outside that can often wear us out. Hiking is one of the most common activities associated with camping, and thus is the most likely to tire us out.
If you have little conditioning or experience hiking in general, always go with the short hike first. Work your way up till you can get to those multi-day hikes.
It was hard to find how common hypothermia is while camping, but I was able to find from the Center of Disease Control, that around 500 people who were in “rural” areas died in the United States from hypothermia from 2006-2010. (source 6) This could also include residential areas as well.
Campgrounds generally will fit within the rural description, and it makes sense that they are also areas of risk. Hypothermia means when your body is losing body heat, thus, cold and wet conditions are dangerous–even swimming in 80 degree Fahrenheit conditions can lead to mild hypothermia.
Since when you’re camping, be it in the wilderness, or at a campground, you are exposing yourself to the wind, rain, and snow. Hypothermia can occur even when you’re nearby to civilization if you let your body temperature drop.
Pick clothing that will keep you warm and dry. Gym shorts and cotton do not give you enough protection against the elements in cold conditions.
5. Dehydration / Heat Exhaustion
Dehydration and heat exhaustion aren’t strictly the same thing, but dehydration can throw off the body’s ability to regulate its temperature, and thus it can be difficult to separate the two’s symptoms.
Heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, an extremely dangerous condition that can lead to severe symptoms, including death.
Dehydration is always a concern for any outdoor activity, and heat exhaustion is more of a concern for parts of the country that get very hot.
One point of reference is the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon responded to 480 heat-related illnesses from 2004 to 2009. 6 of those cases were fatal.
The Grand Canyon has some camping, but for the most part, the main event (and most dangerous portion) is to hike inside the Grand Canyon. The danger of the Grand Canyon is a helpful reminder to us if we are camping in hot locations. Staying hydrated, and finding shade is critically important in these conditions.
So, even if you’re not camping near the Grand Canyon, remember that heat exhaustion and heat stroke can affect you as well. From the Center for Disease Control, around 190 people in rural areas have died in the United States from 2006-2019 from heatstroke. (source 6)
We live in Texas, and I’m writing this article in August. It’s been over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks, now. Camping during this time of the year is possible, but you need to use a bit of smarts and some technology to stay safe.
If you want more detail on how to successfully camp in Texas (even with the brutally hot summers), check out our article on this subject.
6. Sprained Ankles and Broken Bones
Hiking is one of the most rewarding outdoor activities associated with camping. Even if you’re car camping, there are often trails near the campground so you can go hiking, and if you’re backpacking, you have to hike–often for several miles–before getting to your campsite.
When you’re backpacking, you may be potentially dozens of miles from civilization or help.
While you are hiking (especially in the wilderness) , you can count on hiking on rocky, unstable, uneven terrain, crossing rivers, hopping from rock to rock, and maneuvering over and around fallen logs–Almost the perfect recipe for a sprained ankle–especially when you have a heavy pack on your back.
In fact, this is the most common injury for hikers, according to the data collected for national parks. (source 2) 22.5% of non-fatal injuries were because of a “short fall” while hiking/walking.
I can speak with absolute certainty, being that I understand the male psyche, that most of the injuries that do occur are minor and are not reported–even in the best case, a sprained ankle can make a fun trip into a miserable one.
Shoes can help protect your ankles and feet, certainly, but for the most part, it’s physical conditioning, hiking technique, and how careful you are that will prevent any sprained ankles. Even the most careful person can trip and fall, though.
An injured ankle is not a big deal if this happens while you’re playing basketball at home, or if you injure yourself in the gym because you are surrounded by people. Breaking or spraining an ankle miles away from civilization could be life-threatening if you are by yourself.
If you are determined to travel by yourself, bring a whistle so that you can alert other travelers in the area.
Even better, it’s worth it to invest in a powerful GPS unit that can send out SOS signals to ask for help. I found this GPS unit on Amazon that is well-rated. If you’re stranded in the wilderness and aren’t able to move around, then food and water become a real problem, so being able to ask for help could save your life.
In addition, getting lost is a very common problem, and having a GPS like this can help prevent that.
7. Getting Lost
Almost half of all Search and Rescue (SAR) operations by the National Park Service are for hikers, making hiking, by far, the most common reason a SAR is attempted. While there are many reasons why this is, one common reason a SAR is attempted is that someone did not come back when expected.
Getting lost is very easy in the wilderness–I’ve experienced this several times where I’ve been totally turned around and had to rely on a map or the trail markers to know where I was going.
Although we don’t put getting lost at the top of our dangerous activities, it definitely deserves more care and caution, since this is one of the most common reasons why a SAR happens (to rescue a lost hiker)
The NPS still has 23 victims identified that have gone missing with no knowledge of their fates in the National Parks since around 1970. (source 3)
These risks can be mitigated greatly from a few simple steps:
- Always tell someone where you are, and when they should expect contact from you. A SAR won’t happen for you if nobody knows you are gone.
- Avoid hiking alone. If you choose to hike alone, spend some more money on the GPS unit we talk about in the broken ankle section.
One of the most exciting parts about several camping locations is the chance to dip your feet into the water or cast your fishing line in. Whether you’re camping near a river or creek, a lake, or the ocean, water features really can enhance or even make the camping experience.
In 2005, 153 SAR incidents occurred due to swimming, ending up with 15 deaths and 29 injuries.
Although these numbers aren’t high, it’s important to make sure everyone is accounted for while you’re swimming and to ensure whoever needs a life vest has one, especially if you’re kayaking or on a watercraft.
9. Knives and Axes
I’ll do just a little stereotyping by admitting that a lot of guys have a fascination with sharp objects.
In California State Parks, 17% of all reported injuries were “lacerations” (or cuts). It’s impossible to know what the reason behind all of these lacerations was, but the most likely reason is because of our own metal tools that we bring camping.
Most likely though, if an injury was reported, it was probably significant enough to remember. Cuts from other sources such as tree branches are generally not significant.
If you’ve been out camping, you probably know already that most of the time cuts happen it is because of knife or ax safety issues.
I recently went on a backpacking trip, and everyone had their own pocketknives. We managed to only get away with 2 of the guys cutting themselves, one of them requiring a significant bandage wrap on their hand.
Knives and axes are dangerous if used carelessly and without experience, but with skill, they can be safe and very effective. Take some time to get to know your tools and make sure you practice the basic safety precautions.
For knife safety, this is a great video explaining how to handle a knife without problems.
For ax safety, check out this excellent walk-through on how to split wood without hurting yourself or others, and also look super cool while doing it.
In the two years that this study occurred, 12 people died in California National Parks from falls (defined as falls greater than 50 feet). (source 2) Making it the 3rd most common reason for death.
This definitely will depend on the area… if you are hiking up steep slopes and scrambling up cliffsides, then this is more of a danger. If you are camping in flat areas, then this is not as dangerous.
In any case, never stand on the edges of things. If you want to get a view, make sure you are on your belly to maintain as much contact with the ground and ensure someone else is there to help if you get in trouble. Don’t feel completely safe with this method, though, always keep a respectable distance from the edge. Edges can be dangerous in that they are ready to crumble as soon as they get some weight on them.
It’s difficult to find out how many incidents with snakes occur while camping since snakes can be anywhere. However, we do have some data.
This means that being bitten by a snake is one of the most common injuries that occur. These data are not limited to camping, though, because anyone who goes outside can be affected by a snake. It also means that most snake injuries are non-fatal. This is most likely due to medical help that’s available in most locations.
This means that the further you are away from a hospital, and especially if you are alone, to take special care to avoid snakes in the chance that you won’t be able to get help. Try to avoid going off-trail and avoiding tall grass, deep leaves, or any other location where you can’t see the ground.
12. Bee or Hornet Stings
The danger of being stung from a bee is possible for any person who goes outside (and sometimes even those who stay inside). Because you’re camping, you are statistically spending more time outside than if you are staying at home.
In 2017, 89 people died from bee or hornet stings in the United States, which was more than those who died from any other wild animal. (source 7)
This number is very low for the number of people in the United States, also considering that bees can affect residential areas as much as rural.
Still, if you know you are allergic, consider taking extra precaution if you are going camping far away from help.
13. Beaver Feaver (Giardia)
Giardia nicknamed Beaver Feaver, is a disease often transmitted from contaminated water, and over 15,000 confirmed cases occur every year. (source)
The data is inconclusive on this subject because most campers don’t camp with the plan of getting sick or keeping track of all of their actions.
Many theorize that campers who drink untreated mountain stream water are significantly more likely to get Giardia than those who don’t (source)
Others claim that contracting giardia from water is a possibility, but that good hygiene is just as important. (source) This makes sense, because what we do see is a higher number of outdoor enthusiasts who contract giardia. When you’re out in the wilderness, it’s really easy to get back to our root and forget that germs exist and not wash our hands… I’m only able to say that since I’ve been there.
For me. I don’t know where all the dangers hide, but I think it’s best to not risk getting sick. Therefore, I would recommend filtering your water. If you get the right type of filter, taking care of your water isn’t hard and isn’t even laborious.
I just bought an awesome water filter that I really liked to use because I didn’t have to pump the water. You can check it out on my recommended gear page here.
14. Wild Animals
Many people fear wild animals when they think of camping or hiking. This is not without reason. A single incident of a bear attack is remembered for years.
Wild animals definitely have harmed humans in the past and should be treated with respect. But, with reasonable safety precautions, the risk is actually fairly low in comparison to the rest of much of this list.
Mammals other than dogs led to 73 human deaths in 2017 (source 7), (out of curiosity’s sake, dogs caused 36). This number also includes farm animals.
Wild animals should always be a concern, but they shouldn’t stop you from enjoying nature. In fact, I wrote more in-depth about bears and cougar attacks here where I talk about whether you are safe in your tent, and some strategies to stay safe.
We talk specifically on this site about preventing run-ins with bears here.
I wrote a huge article about camping in a thunderstorm with a lot more in-depth statistics. There is lots of information about where to take shelter if you’re car camping or even if you’re in the wilderness. Check it out here.
Around 27 people are killed by lightning strikes every year, and only around 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, immediately.
Lightning isn’t the most common way to get hurt while camping, but you are at higher risk while you are outdoors (and even in your tent).
Perhaps it’s not surprising, but I was a little to find out that one significant subset of injuries were human-caused issues.
The National Park Service Investigative Services branch had, on average, around 90 new criminal cases against other people every year for the past 5 years, as reported in the 2018 annual report (source 4)
In 2018 alone, 11 severe violent acts, and 7 full or attempted homicides. In 2017, there were 11 severe violent acts and 4 full or attempted homicides. (source 4)
For the years of 1993 to 1995, 15 injuries were reported due to human assaults or fighting in seven California state parks. (source 2)
Although there isn’t enough data that I could find explaining the reasoning for the bulk of these crimes, many of these crimes in the annual reports have truly tragic backstories. This is a sobering topic to research–some of the incidents there was nothing that someone could do to be prepared for something like that.
Perhaps the only consolation is that with millions of visitors to all the national parks with only these numbers–reported violence is extremely rare.
Out of all the national parks studied in one survey in the year 2005, 23 SAR operations were related to a suicide attempt. 18 deaths occurred out of these 23 SAR operations.
More people died from suicide in 2005 in National Parks than from any of the other higher-risk activities (except hiking).
It’s also a sobering topic, and there’s not much you can do, personally, to affect this, except to be mindful of whether someone is alone who has been struggling with emotional health.
Over the past 2 years, ~70 of the crimes investigated by NPS investigative services were drug-related. (source 4)
If you look in several camping forums, you’ll see that many, many campers admit to being high on drugs while camping–it’s likely that the vast majority of drug offenses are never discovered. It seems almost a cultural norm to many people that drugs and camping are together.
It makes sense because being out in nature far away from other humans–accountability to others and society is fairly low.
17. Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is often unpleasant, but the most commonly experienced is not very dangerous. Altitude sickness can be felt at elevations as low as 8000 ft above sea level and is manifest in symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and headaches. (source) Acute Mountain Sickness is very common and doesn’t have strong enough symptoms in many that warrant any further action.
In California and Washington State parks, only 1% of reported injuries were due to altitude sickness. (sources 2 and 5) It’s not clear if the altitude sickness reported were of the more dangerous and lethal forms of altitude sickness
18. Avalanche / Landslides
From the CDC, 13 people died due to a landslide or an avalanche. (source 7)
Again, these could have occurred at any point, but if you’re hiking in the mountains, this is definitely a concern. Even hiking behind others up a steep slope can be treacherous. In my experience it’s very common to dislodge a rock that gains tremendous momentum on its way down the mountainside. Any of those people in the tumbling rock’s path are in danger of serious injury or worse.
The last time I went backpacking, even, we would frequently hear rocks cracking and thundering down the mountain that fell without any help from a human.
Most campers go to the wilderness in the summer. Summer in the mountains doesn’t mean there is no snow, often, and in fact the melting snow can cause changes to happen without any advance notices. Many areas have been marked as avalanche areas (and you can often see the tree fall to prove it). Take care going through these areas and don’t linger.
19. Your Tent
What?? Even my tent is dangerous? Thankfully your tent is only slightly likely to hurt you, and not fatally injure someone.
It’s crazy, sounding, I know. But I actually stumbled on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s injury report on tents (source), and from 2010 to 2015, at least 503 people were injured by their tent, with the primary reason being “assembling/disassembling tent”.
This might not be surprising to someone who sets up a tent all the time–those tent poles are put under a lot of force, and if a tent pole slips from your hand, getting whacked in the face could be really painful.
503 cases in 5 years (even if under-reported, which I’m sure many guys don’t report the cause of mysterious injuries if it was their tent that did it), is not a huge number–but it’s good to know just for the sake of making sure whoever is setting up their tent gives proper respect to the tent poles.
20. Falling trees
Dead or suspect limbs that are ready to fall off of a tree are morbidly called widowmakers.
While there aren’t data to show how often this happens, anecdotally, this is common enough that it should be of real concern when pitching camp.
On this archived Reddit post, assuming people are being honest, there are at least 14 cases of people either first or second-hand that have experienced either a fatal tree fall or a close call.
On HammockForums.net, there are around 13 incidents reported.
Stay away from diseased or dead trees, as wind can make them topple and fall. Also stay away from camping underneath trees with dead branches above. The absolute safest thing to do is to pitch your tent away from trees in general, but that is not always an option.
For an in-depth presentation on how to identify danger trees, check out this presentation here.
This was kind of a downer article to write, because I love being outside and I love camping. It was a good reminder for me, however, about what the dangers are and what dangers are overstated. Hiking related injuries and issues (like getting lost) is the most common way to be harmed. Don’t underestimate the care needed to hike safely, and you’ll have a great time outside.