4 Tips for Hiking and Camping Safety

Summer. Even the word conjures up images of happy times—vacation, the beach, hiking and camping. Unfortunately, summer can also bring with it sunburns, bug bites, the threat of ticks, and several other unpleasant possibilities.

Successful summer outings require preparation. While most of us know what to bring to the pool or the beach, a hiking or camping expedition requires extra planning. Running out of supplies, becoming dehydrated, or experiencing sun poisoning can bring a camping or hiking expedition to a halt.

In order to ensure a safe and pleasant experience, experts recommend the following tips:

1. Dress for Success

"When hiking or camping, campers should dress wearing light colored, loose fitting clothing," says Thomas J. McDonagh, Jr., MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Northwell Health Physician Partners General Pediatrics at Huntington in New York. "Clothing that fits more tightly at the wrists and ankles is helpful. Dress in layers if expecting a variation in temperatures during a hike. Long sleeves and pants will provide the greatest protection against both bites and sun exposure."

2. Be Sun Smart

Protecting yourself against the sun's damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays is of the utmost importance: UV radiation is a known cancer-causing agent, according to multiple health agencies, including the United States Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Furthermore, painful sunburns can spoil a camping or hiking trip. McDonagh suggests reapplying sunscreen approximately every two hours and "Sooner if swimming or sweating excessively. Sunscreen should have an SPF [sun protection factor] of at least 30 and protect against UVA and UVB [rays]. Sun protection also includes wearing a wide–brimmed hat and sunglasses."

3. Keep Bugs at Bay

Insects and bugs can sting, bite, and carry disease, so it’s important to protect yourself and your loved ones. In addition to wearing the right clothes (see above), insect repellent is critical.

Repellants with the chemical DEET are considered the most effective; products with 10-30 percent DEET are the norm. However, parents take note: The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that children should use repellants containing no more than 30 percent DEET, and that babies under two months should not use DEET.

The amount of DEET in the repellant determines how frequently you'll need to reapply: A product with 10 percent DEET needs to be reapplied after two hours; a product with 30 percent DEET should last for up to five hours, says McDonagh. Alternatively, "Picardin is another insect/tick repellent ingredient that has proven to be safe and effective,” he adds.

"Insect repellant should be placed on bare skin and clothing; do not apply under clothing," notes McDonagh. One important warning: Repellants with the ingredient permethrin should be used on fabrics only, not applied to the skin.

If you’re tempted by other options, be warned: "There is no scientifically validated data demonstrating effectiveness for homeopathic [treatments] or wearable gadgets," that are supposed to keep bugs away, McDonough says. "The safety of these products has not been demonstrated either, but [on the other hand] there is no likelihood of harm, based on the ingredients."

Zach Gottehrer Cohen, an Eagle Scout Triple Crown High Adventurer in Rockville Centre, New York, agrees that the most effective insect repellents are DEET-based. But for those who are looking for more natural methods (or just want extra protection), Cohen suggests ingesting garlic. Mosquitoes are attracted to the smell of lactic acid, a compound that is created in the body when we sweat, and the pungent bulb can help mask the scent from the inside out. "You might be a little smelly," Cohen admits, "but in my opinion, it's not a camping trip if you don't come home stinking, anyway."

For a camping trip, Cohen recommends area-based repellents like citronella burners. "The most effective strategy I've found is to create a perimeter of burners that create a small protected area around the campsite, as well as an additional one right in the center." And pay attention to the wind, he advises: "If it's coming consistently from one direction, you only need a semicircle placed upwind of the central area of the campsite.... If you want a quick rule of thumb, you want to use spray/skin-based repellent on hikes, and area repellents on a campsite."

Note that citronella burners require caution, especially if children are present, according to Joel M. Siev MD, FAAP, of the Department of Pediatric/Adolescent Medicine at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group: "[You] don’t want them walking around and getting burned."

4. Quench Your Thirst

Proper hydration is also a vital part of hiking and camping safety, as running out of water can have serious consequences. Organize an outing around your water supply, and "Plan to drink about one liter per hour," Cohen suggests.

Since you don't want to have to lug gallons of water with you up and down hills, Cohen recommends becoming familiar with filtration, as it can make water from the natural water sources you'll encounter safe to drink. Here's his advice on filtration and hydration:

  • Iodine is the easiest way to treat water. "It requires the least amount of physical labor, as opposed to pump filtering, which requires a fair amount of time and energy." Always follow the directions on the iodine bottle, and be aware that it takes an hour after treatment before the water is safe to drink.
  • Pump filters are a great option. "The upside of pump filtering is that it removes toxins, instead of relying on an additive to neutralize toxins. … When choosing a filter, look for something with a good flow rate, since you don't want to use up all your energy pumping water. One liter per minute is a fairly good flow rate. Most filters will do an equally good job of filtering out bacteria, but some will wear out faster than others, so check how many uses a filter is good for. Also, as with any backpacking equipment, weight is a factor to consider."
  • Let your ears lead you to water. "The sound of running water can often fade into the background of the sounds of nature, but if you listen for it, you can hear the recognizable sound beneath the rustle of the trees. Walk down hill in the direction of the sound until you find the river or stream. Avoid filtering from stagnant water (water that doesn't move), since stillness gives harmful bacteria the opportunity to grow." Not sure if the water is safe to treat or drink? If algae is floating on the surface, the water is probably too stagnant for safe drinking.
  • Cool your water. If you are camped out at a specific location and want to keep your water supply cool, Cohen suggests digging a small hole (about a foot in depth) in the shade and burying your water containers. If your campsite is close to running water, you can leave the containers to sit in the water, tethering them to a sturdy object on the shore.
  • Keep cool. If you become overheated, in addition to staying hydrated, Cohen recommends applying water to the back of the neck, wrists and forearms. "These places have large blood vessels near the surface of the skin, and cooling these areas will make your whole body feel cooler," he says. "If you have a hat, soak it, and don't wring it out. Otherwise, wet your hair, and let it drip. Cooling your head will allow your body heat to escape faster, and intermittent drops of water on your shoulders and down your back can offer refreshment and comfort for a good deal of time. Don't use drinking water for heat management, unless you've rationed your supply for that purpose."


McDonagh, Thomas, MD, FAAP. Email correspondence with author. June 27, 2016.

Gottehrer Cohen, Zach. Email correspondence, June 27, 2016.

Joel M. Siev MD, FAAP. Email with source July 14, 2016.

"Sunscreen FAQs." American Academy of Dermatology. Page accessed July 14, 2016.

"Choosing an Insect Repellant for Your Child." HealthyChildren.org. Last updated August 8, 2012.