Making critical mistakes at camp can turn your safe haven into a den of problems.
Camping or making camp in various environments is usually done for two main reasons: leisure time away from a normally hectic lifestyle or out of necessity when a survival situation dictates needing to leave your home and bug out for some time in nature’s backyard. Regardless of the scenario, your camping techniques and procedures don’t change to any significant degree.
You’ll need to set up at the best-suited location, gather firewood for your campfire, repel biting insects and curious wildlife, and be prepared for the changes in temperature and conditions that Mother Nature likes to throw into the mix without warning.
However, whether you’re an experienced camper or a novice just beginning to venture out into the wild outdoors, there are some common—and not-so-common—mistakes that can occur during your stay under the open sky.
Chalk it up to inexperience or lack of preparation by newbies, but even for the veterans of outdoor living, a true survival situation can rattle the hearts and bones of even the most prepared. In such cases, bushcraft basics and safety practices at camp might be overlooked. The results can run the gamut from mild inconveniences around camp to serious illness or injury and, possibly, death.
Here, I’ll lay out those problems, why they might occur and, most importantly, how to avoid them so your campsite will be secure and ready to do what it was intended to do: offer a safe refuge while in nature’s unpredictable backyard.
Water From Nowhere
You had a long day of hiking, and it’s now time to set up your tent. Being tired, you choose the spot where you stop and begin assembling your shelter. Big mistake!
Without surveying the land around you, you’re susceptible to unforeseen and unexpected flash floods that can literally sweep away your camp—and you. At the very least, a heavy rainstorm can create an excessive amount of runoff that can seep into your shelter and cause problems throughout the night.
A simple solution to prevent being washed out while sheltered is to take enough time to check for higher ground, notice the weather patterns around you and choose the site with the least vegetation nearby (a sign of less water in that area).
Warm and Cozy, or Cold and Uncomfortable
Building a fire is at the heart of both a weekend campout and a survival situation. However, it can only burn if it has fuel, and that’s usually where the problem occurs.
Underestimating the amount of firewood needed to make it through the night warmly and provide protection from insects and curious creatures is an error many novice campers make. Seasoned survivalists might experience this same issue, but it’s more likely to be due to them having to deal with more pressing problems after bugging out.
The common rule of thumb for everyone should be to build the largest pile of firewood you can—and then build five others just as big. This is one situation for which having too much is not greed, showing off or being a worrywart.
Food, of course, is essential for maintaining energy and keeping your mind sharp while in the great outdoors. It can also create a number of problems if it’s stored, or meal scraps are disposed of, improperly. The sense of smell of many woodland animals is acute, and they might detect your tasty dinner from a good distance away. As a result, hungry animals might venture into your camp.
First, all unused food must be stored high above the ground in a sealed container and/or cooler on a rope. This keeps most creatures away from your tasty treats. Second, your trash from dinner or even small snacks must be tightly sealed in trash bags and disposed of properly. If you have the ability to dump your trash in designated receptacles, do so. If you’re far into the woods, keep it contained as you would your “good” food until it’s time to leave. Failure to follow these simple rules could result in you having face-to-face encounters with nature’s denizens—with potentially serious (and even deadly) results.
Don’t store food in your pack or tent, because both can be damaged by scavengers in search of a free meal. This practice can also attract animals to your abode, and that’s unlikely to turn out well, whether it’s mice or a grizzly.
This is a two-fold problem. First, packing improper gear or leaving key items behind can have major repercussions on your time out under the stars. Forgetting key items, such as lanterns, first aid kits or an all-around blade, can make tasks more difficult and time-consuming. This then takes its toll on a person mentally, and that’s not good when bugging out.
The second issue with gear and/or equipment is that some people fail to test any new kit items prior to embarking on their adventure. Upon use, they might find that it’s cheaply made and breaks quickly or isn’t compatible with their requirements.
Worst thing to do? Pack an item in your bag in its original packaging. This not only adds dead weight and extra space requirements, it also takes extra time to open and leaves you with trash you don’t need to carry.
Sometimes, the little things can hurt, and there are fewer things in the woods that hurt more than hundreds of biting and stinging insects feasting on your tasty skin. Failure to have a plan to fight off these flesh-hungry assailants can make both your days and nights true nightmares—not to mention leaving you open to bug-borne illnesses.
A simple fix is packing enough of the correct insect repellent for your time in the outdoors. What might work on biting flies might not protect against mosquitoes (and vice versa). And don’t forget about ticks, gnats and sand fleas.
Don’t underestimate the amount of repellent you need by thinking that your fire’s smoke is going to miraculously make them disappear. It won’t, and you’ll be bitten from head to toe.
The Ground Floor
Traveling light? Don’t travel so light that you forget your ground insulation. The cold earth can sap the heat from your body and leave you with a chill that’ll last throughout the night. Your tent’s floor won’t help, nor will a thin piece of fabric.
Raise yourself off the ground with a makeshift bed frame using small saplings lashed together with paracord; alternatively, gather tree boughs and clean, dry leaves and pile them up. Remember: Three feet of boughs will equal about 6 inches of padded support once compressed by your weight, so don’t be afraid—load them up high!
Avoiding the Weather Forecast
Going for a planned campout? If so, checking the area’s weather during that period is a very sound idea. Failure to do so could leave you wet, cold and at risk for hypothermia. Conversely, if you’re not prepared for hot and sunny weather, you could face sunburn, heatstroke or severe dehydration.
“No one is perfect. Mistakes can happen. Nevertheless, the key is to plan well ahead of time and use common sense to minimize those mistakes while out in the field.”
Yes, if an emergency strikes and you have to bug out quickly, watching a weather forecast probably won’t be at the top of your priorities. But, once you’re in the wild, observing the actions of birds and other animals can help predict incoming serious weather. Likewise, cloud movement, as well as cover and wind patterns/strength, can indicate that inclement weather could be on the way.
Staying quiet applies to both beginners and seasoned pros, but for different reasons.
An inexperienced camper might not even think they should share their plans to others prior to leaving home. With designated campsites, along with modern equipment used at times, the idea that anything could go wrong might be the farthest thing from their mind. Freak accidents do happen, cell phone coverage can be lost or nonexistent, and getting help to you might not be accomplished quickly due to poor weather conditions or the remoteness of your location.
Consequently, your “safe” camping outing could become anything but. So, tell your friends and family your location, your trip duration—and a plan if you don’t check in or return as expected.
For experienced individuals, pride or extreme confidence in their skills could prevent them from speaking to others about their plans or location. Remember: Even the best-skilled person can encounter unforeseen dangers or situations that might arise and that they aren’t equipped to handle. Mother Nature is tough; don’t bet your skills against hers.
Water is a must-have during survival situations—so much so that after just a few days without it, you could die of dehydration.
This is no different while out camping. Bringing water with you is a viable practice and could ensure you have enough to drink, use for hygiene and mix with foods that require rehydration.
“ … whether you’re an experienced camper or a novice just beginning to venture out into the wild outdoors, there are some common—and not-so-common—mistakes that can occur during your stay under the open sky.”
However, the trouble arises when your supply runs out and your next option is to drink from what appears to be a crisp, clean stream. Unfortunately, pathogens are not visible to the naked eye and can be present in water that looks and smells “okay.” After drinking your fill, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and nausea can occur and make your stay outdoors not only severely uncomfortable, but also medically serious due to your body’s loss of fluid.
Always keep at least one water filtration device in your pack or BOB. They’re light, small and relatively inexpensive, so there’s no reason to be without one.
Do Your Best Before You Go
No one is perfect. Mistakes can happen.
Nevertheless, the key is to plan well ahead of time and use common sense to minimize those mistakes while out in the field. This prevents them from becoming serious—at the very least, ruining your weekend and, at the worst, causing life-threatening situations.
Don’t Make These Mistakes
Think you have problems? These campers’ mistakes reached a truly frightening level.
Mistake: Ignoring the local weather. Four years ago, John K. and his son failed to bring a weather radio on their campout—and they paid the price. What started as normal weather soon became highly breezy, then colder, and then, all hell broke loose. Wind was whipping throughout their campsite. One tent was destroyed as they both hunkered down in another. After the storm, they realized several trees were knocked down—some mere feet from their tent. Suffice it to say, they changed their ways: They now bring a radio and a sturdier tent on all outdoor outings.
Mistake: Not bringing proper gear and unprepared for insects. During their teen years, Gordon H. and his buddy decided to hike light and fast while traveling outdoors, so leaving behind their tent was their (not-too-bright) idea. One night, when a storm was adjacent to their location, they laid down a ground sheet and slept under their canoe. However, thousands of mosquitoes decided to infiltrate their camp and “bug” the hell out of them for hours. They were sweating up a storm—sealed in their sleeping bags with only their mouths exposed to breathe. With this bad experience behind them, a tent was never left behind on their future outdoor adventures.
Mistake: Not positioning a tent in the proper location. Jim G. was unable to create a fire due to the effects of heavy rains at his location. When the rain let up, he was finally able to eat some food, albeit cold. Then, as darkness hit, he went inside his tent. After a few hours, relentless rainstorms pounded his tent, and a direct line of runoff flowed down the slope behind—and into—his tent. All his gear was soaked, because the tent floor was ultimately submerged in cold, dirty rainwater.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.