10 Things That Can Make You Sick At Camp

Some of this stuff is really scary! Avoid these 10 things that can make you ill when camping.

1. unboiled lake or river water.

Drinking untreated water from rivers and lakes can lead to illness

As clear and pristine as that river or lake water looks, it can be very unsafe! There are chemical and heavy metal pollutants, microbes, bacteria, diseases and viruses that can live in water. Ingesting water that has been untreated leaves you open to contracting any of these problems.  If you drink untreated water, even far away from civilization, you can suffer from everything from intestinal distress such as cramps or diarrhea, up to death. The only time you should drink untreated water is when you are in a life or death dehydration situation and there is no way to purify it. Otherwise it’s just not wise. Why take the risk?

2. little critters.

Leave all wild animals alone, especially those that seem docile. They may be ill and pass it on.

Animals can be sick without appearing that way, so don’t approach any wild animal that you see.  Enjoy them from a distance, and use your camera for the memory. Use the telephoto lens if you want to get close. Actively avoid any wild animal that seems docile enough to feed or pet, and teach your children to do the same. Put away all foods in animal proof containers; rodent droppings can be hard to see in food and urine is invisible. Both can make you very sick! Don’t try and feed any wild animal, and leave “orphaned” animals alone–they are, most of the time, completely safe and not orphaned at all.  If you leave the area, the parent will be along eventually to keep it safe and sound.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an excellent article about the diseases you can get from wild animals, as well as what you can do to prevent getting sick.  They mention several diseases you can get from sick wildlife, including, but not limited to, anthrax, botulism, rabies, raccoon roundworm, giardia, hanta virus, Lyme disease, plague (yes, plague–it still exists), and other viruses, parasites, diseases and conditions that were grossing me out so I can’t keep writing about it.  But it’s stuff you need to know to put the proper respect for leaving animals alone in you.  For the sake of yourselves and your loved ones, check out the page by going here.

Keep your pet away from wild animals as well.  Rabies can be transmitted to them from sick animals. The link above will tell you all about that too.

3.  propane heaters in tents.

The two big dangers with using a propane heater in a tent are 1) carbon monoxide poisoning, and 2) knocking it over or having it tip over at night and burning the tent up with you in it. Carbon monoxide poisoning from using a propane heater in your tent isn’t an urban myth–it’s an uncomfortably common occurance.

Want to see a tent catch fire and burn to the ground? I thought you might: 

This tent burned to the ground in under two minutes.  The things that were inside were still burning seven minutes later. Food for thought.

Fortunately, there are heaters you can use in your tent.  Look for heaters that have carbon monoxide detectors that automatically shut the heater off if the levels approach levels of concern, and that automatically shut off if the heater tips over.  This one is a great little heater, the Mr. Heater F215100 Little Buddy. It has an automatic low-oxygen shutoff system as well as an accidental tip-over shutoff switch.  It runs on a small propane cylinder and costs about fifty dollars, not unreasonable for the safety features it has. There are others, as well.

4.  spoiled food.

Leaving food out not only can make it spoil, it can attract unwanted visitors like disease-bearing insects and small animals.

It’s easy to have food spoil when camping, especially when it’s summer and campers keep stealing the ice out of the coolers for drinks!  There are a couple of things that might help prevent spoilage, and the resultant food-borne illnesses like salmonella or e. coli.

  • Cook all foods thoroughly.
  • Keep raw meats away from all unprotected surface areas and cooked foods.
  • Have disinfecting wipes and/or disinfectant to add to wash water when handling and cleaning prep surfaces and dishes.
  • Keep a small cooler filled with ice dedicated to drinks, to cut down on ice loss in the food coolers.  This will also help keep melting to a minimum, since the food coolers will be opened less often.
  • Make sure the dairy products you are using are pasteurized, and the food and vegetables are washed before using.
  • Always wash your hands before cooking or eating food.

5.  too much sun

Summer is an awesome time to camp, but be aware of the possibility of heat rash and heat stroke

Heat rash can occur during hot, humid weather, when blocked sweat glands prevent moisture from escaping to the surface of the skin and evaporating.  This results in everything from mildly itchy, red skin to blisters and deep, red bumps. Although infants are most susceptible, it can happen to anyone.  Avoid heat rash by keeping your clothing choices cool and comfortable; that is, don’t overdress or wear tight clothing in warm weather.  Keep to the shade whenever possible, and keep your sleeping area cool as well.

Heat stroke is usually caused when your body overheats due to very hot temperatures, or due to too much physical exertion in hot weather. It can also happen if you drink too much, because your body’s ability to regulate temperature is compromised, and you can get heat stroke if you are dehydrated. It can occur if your body temperature rises to 104°F (40°C). Heat stroke is a serious, potentially fatal condition and needs to be dealt with immediately.  Get the person who is suffering from heat stroke medical help immediately.

While waiting for help to arrive, cool the person down by whatever means possible–submerge them in cold water if a lake or stream is nearby, sponge them down with cool water, use wet towels and/or ice packs, whatever is available. Heat stroke, left untreated, can result in brain or other organ damage and even death. It’s nothing to treat lightly. The risk of heat stroke increases with age (very young or over 65), certain health conditions, such as heart or lung disease or obesity, and certain medications, such as vasoconstrictors, diuretics, stimulants, beta blockers and antipsychotic or antidepressants.

6.  foraged mushrooms.

Foraging for mushrooms is a wonderful way to add variety to camping and your camping meals! But be absolutely sure the mushrooms you have are safe to eat.

There is nothing quite so wonderful as foraged mushrooms, especially if you’re planning on grilled steak for your camping dinner! The problem is, sometimes people go out picking mushrooms when they don’t have any real idea of the difference between safe and unsafe mushrooms in the area they are foraging in. Island Health has a wonderful article about mushroom foraging, with some great cautionary tips for collecting and eating wild mushrooms. You can access the article by clicking here.

7.  other plants.

Giant hogweed is exceptionally toxic, and sometimes mistaken for Queen Anne’s Lace, which is an edible plant.

Other plants you may come across while camping or hiking can do more than sting or prick you–they can make you sick! Most illness comes from mistaking berries, fruit or other parts of the plant as edible and ingesting it.  But others are just downright ornery.  Poison ivy is a common enemy of all things skin, and so is giant hogweed, a horribly toxic plant that makes you feel and look like you are suffering from severe burns. Outdoor Life has an excellent article online that warns you against 11 toxic wild plants. Research the area you will be camping in for plants that may be harmful to people, especially if you have kids–they pick and stuff berries into their mouths simply because they look good, and that can have serious results.  Teach your kids never to pick and eat wild plants, berries or fruit unless they have brought it to you to okay first. And teach them what giant hogweed and poison ivy look like, as well.

8.  insect bites.

The most annoying creature on Planet Camper.

You can get all kinds of diseases from insects that you encounter while out in the great outdoors. At home, too, but we’re a camping website, so that’s the side of bug danger we’ll be addressing. Diseases like Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and others can cause complications in your life it would be best to avoid.  Fortunately, there’s things you can do to avoid being bitten by bugs:

  • Keep camping gear and tents away from long grass or wet grass.
  • Wear light colored clothing to repel mosquitoes.
  • Wear dark clothing to repel ticks.
  • Use an insect repellent while camping.
  • Avoid, if possible overheating and sweating, which are two things bugs love!
  • Use a mosquito coil around camp.
  • If you’re not crazy about mosquito coils, burn sage in the campfire instead.

9. Not washing your hands.

Washing your hands may be the single most effective way to keep from spreading germs and disease.

Sometimes we let some degree of hygiene go while camping; the smoke smell stays in your clothes until you get home to do laundry, the kids go swimming instead of having baths, and sometimes we flick that bug out of the pancake batter before anyone else sees it and we make pancakes with none the wiser.  But if you are around food especially, wash your hands. Hand-washing lowers the risk of intestinal upset and diarrhea, and can prevent eye infections. Make a hand-washing station, keep it where everyone can access it, and make sure hands get washed!

1o. Excess consumption of alcohol can make you ill when camping too.

No one really enjoys dealing with a drunk while camping.

The truth is, there is next to nothing that has been said about the dangers of camping and drinking.  The exact opposite is true, in fact.  You’ll find tons of articles online about the joys of getting drunk when out in the woods, all the kinds of drinking you can do, and a general let-go-and-enjoy-life-have-a-drink-at-noon attitude. Drinking is fine.  There’s nothing more satisfying than that first sip of cold beer after the tent has been set up, the fire started and the camp chair unfolded.

But let’s take a closer look at the darker side, shall we?  The fact of the matter is, using camping as an excuse to let go and get drunk is the fast track to accidents that could have been prevented.  Drunks set growing trees on fire, go on rafting forays that nearly (and does occasionally) end in drowning, stab themselves with very good hunting knives, and give themselves a variety of cuts, bruises and sprains they’ve had to live with for the rest of the camping trip.  I’ve seen people so drunk they couldn’t set up their tents, and having fallen asleep underneath a tarp, woken up the next day with the sun beating down on them and the smell of vomit contained in hot poly.

Then there is the problem that

drunks become to their sober companions.  A drunk might think they are the life of the party, but they’re not.  They’re the village idiot everyone talks about when they get home. Likely as not they’ve embarrassed their family and friends as well. Don’t be that guy.  Drink and enjoy, sure, but stop while you’re still sober.  You can have more the next day. A hangover is no way to enjoy your time in the woods.


This list is by no means extensive; in fact, we could probably write an article on each one.  Keep these ten things in mind. Take the necessary steps to prevent being waylaid by these situations, and make your camping trip a lot happier and safer for yourself–and your loved ones.