Is going camping dangerous? I’ve been doing it for 40 years, and it hasn’t killed me yet—but that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. Here’s everything major that’s gone wrong on one of my trips. Hopefully my experiences can help you avoid something similar.
My Puppy Ate a Toad!
What happened: My wife and I saw Bowie, our middle child, playing with something in the grass. I went over to make sure it wasn’t a rattlesnake, and came back to inform my wife it was just a frog or toad. “Don’t let him eat that!” she shouted. It was almost too late—I was able to pry his jaws open and pull it out of his throat. A few minutes later, he started foaming from the mouth and become more and more lethargic as the hours passed.
What I did about it: As soon as he started showing signs of a reaction, I rinsed Bowie’s mouth out with fresh water, then threw two 25-milligram Benadryls down his throat, lifted his snout into the air, and pinched his nose closed until he swallowed them. Benadryl is amazingly effective for dogs, counteracting allergic reactions they may have to stings, bites, and stuff they shouldn’t eat. The maximum safe dose is one milligram per pound of body weight; Bowie was six months old and about 50 pounds at the time. (Consult your vet before administering any medicines to your dog.) I then sat up all night, holding Bowie in my lap while his heart rate fell, became irregular, and then returned to normal. By the morning, he had fully recovered.
What I learned: Humans can be really bad at assessing risk. We spend too much time worrying about dramatic situations, like encountering mountain lions, and not nearly enough worrying about more mundane, common things, like poisonous amphibians. When I got home, I familiarized myself with poisonous toads—it turns out this one was a Colorado River toad—and brushed up on the first aid procedures associated with exposure to them. I got it right this time by happenstance, but now I’m confident in the appropriate steps to take should one of our dogs ever eat a poisonous toad again.
I Forgot My Tent Poles!
What happened: Arriving in camp one evening, I tried to set up my tent, only to discover that the poles were thousands of miles away at my apartment in Brooklyn.
What I did about it: I rigged a support structure that suspended the tent from overhanging trees. It worked, but had it rained, it wouldn’t have.
What I learned: Always lay your gear out to check for missing or broken parts before packing everything up for a trip.
My Sleeping Pad Got 17 Punctures!
What happened: On the first night of the infamous puppy-toad trip, we slept on an expanse of sand close enough to the trailhead that it seemed to be a popular spot, judging by the litter hiding in the bushes. We woke up the next morning to find our brand-new, ultralight two-person sleeping pad partially deflated. The next night, after hiking much farther into truly remote backcountry, I inflated the pad but it wouldn’t hold air. I found one hole, patched it, and blew it back up, only to have it deflate again. That continued until I was out of patch material. I eventually counted 17 pinholes, but there could have been more. My conclusion: there must have been tiny shards of broken glass in the sand we slept on that first night, and they they got rolled up in the pad when we packed up camp.
What I did about it: I pulled out my first aid kit and tried creating patches using duct tape, superglue, and nitrile gloves. None of that worked, and we slept on the ground. It was miserable.
What I learned: When it comes to comfort, nothing matches the packed size and weight of an air pad, but care must be taken to protect them from damage. I’d pulled the pad out of the tent and laid it on the bare sand to deflate it and roll it up. From here on out, I’ll do that inside the tent and ensure that outside debris stays out of the tent.
My Dog Fights Bears!
What happened: I once arrived at a campground well after midnight, opened the car door to let out Wiley, my oldest dog, only to have him get into a fight with a black bear five seconds later. And that was only the start of Wiley’s bear-fighting career. He’s since scrapped with them in our yard at home, on backpacking trips, and at our cabin.
What I did about it: Well, I yelled and swore a fair bit, but that was pretty ineffective. In the end, the bear ran away, and I managed to grab Wiley before he could give chase. Since the areas where I live and recreate outdoors are all home to bears, my solution was to find Wiley a bear-fighting assistant. I guess two big dogs barking and making smells just scares bears, as we haven’t had an encounter since bringing Teddy, a rescue dog, home two and a half years ago.
What I learned: People are terrible about leaving attractants around popular camping areas, and this quickly habituates bears to treating those areas as food sources. Dogs may be the best tool we have to haze bears, keeping them away from those places.
All My Raingear Failed at Once!
What happened: A rainstorm turned worse than expected while hiking an exposed ridgeline. My rainjacket and pants wetted out instantly, soaking me to the bone and filling my waterproof hiking boots.
What I did about it: I trekked out to a paved road and hitched a ride back to my car.
What I learned: Even the best gear can sometimes prove inadequate. Always take the time to read the forecast, look at historic extremes in a given area, and make a plan B.
This Baguette Is Terrible!
What happened: My wife and I visited Écrins National Park in France for a backpacking trip. Because we intended to be the first people to cross its high alpine pass that season, I wanted to pack light. And since my wife has celiac, I decided to pack a single gluten-free baguette rather than one bad baguette for her and a good one for me. That was a mistake.
What I did about it: For two days, I suffered through tasteless, grainy mouthfuls of something that definitely wasn’t real bread, in a nation famous for its bread.
What I learned: While weight is the single biggest factor in determining your ability to enjoy a backpacking trip, it’s not the only factor. I swore never to sacrifice flavor for ounces again. Nowadays you might spot me struggling up a mountainside loaded down by a Platypus bottle full of wine and a nice hunk of meat, but once I reach camp, it’s going to be worth it.
My Friends Got Lost in Death Valley!
What happened: For a big group camping trip, I gave everyone detailed instructions on how to find our site in a very remote part of the park. One truckful of friends spent an entire day wandering around dirt roads, unable to find us, before they gave up and went home.
What I did about it: I worried that they’d suffered a breakdown or gotten stuck somewhere, so I went looking for them. But with no radios or satellite communicators in their car, I was unable to do much.
What I learned: Now for group trips, I make custom geospatial PDF maps, then load them onto my friends’ phones and show them how to use them. And I do that whether I plan to travel with them or not. Since then I’ve had no problems adopting that approach, even with first-time campers.
I Was Eaten Alive by Sand Fleas!
What happened: It was a warm night on a beach down in Baja, Mexico, so I slept right on the sand. In the morning, I woke up covered head to toe in painful, itchy sand flea bites.
What I did about it: I scratched them, which was also a mistake. Cortisone provided some temporary relief, but it took the bites months to totally heal.
What I learned: Don’t underestimate how bad bug bites can be. (I know, I know, sand fleas are technically tiny crustaceans.) It’s always worth taking the time to set up a tent. And never forget the bug spray.
All the Kids Got Seasick!
What happened: I took my youth group out to Santa Cruz Island, off the California coast, to go camping. The sea was rougher than expected, and every single one of them got seasick.
What I did about it: I grabbed onto their belts so they could vomit overboard, and generally tried to be sympathetic.
What I learned: Always make sure your destinations are worth it. That island is positively carpeted in cute little foxes, so the kids forgot how miserable the journey was once the first fox walked over to say hi.
I Lost My Canoe Paddle!
What happened: During a 14-day Boy Scout canoe trip through Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, I tried showing off to the other kids by throwing my paddle down into the water so it’d bounce back up and right into my hand. It did not come back up.
What I did about it: One of the parents was smart enough to pack an extra paddle. I’d have been dead weight for the rest of the trip without it.
What I learned: Never take inappropriate risks with your equipment or treat it carelessly.
All of My Jeep’s Tires Went Flat!
What happened: I borrowed one of the new Cherokees from Jeep for an off-road camping trip with friends. The tires that come standard on most cars are designed for highways, not trails, and so these tires got one puncture after another. We eventually had to abandon the Jeep in a safe spot and return for it on our way out. Once back in town, we visited a tire-repair shop and had to buy two new tires just to make it home.
What I did about it: Between my friends and I, we’d all brought more than enough tire-repair gear. When we got to camp, I borrowed a more capable vehicle, went back to the Jeep, and pulled the wheels off, then all of us got creative trying to fix them around the campfire that evening.
What I learned: Nothing on your vehicle is as prone to damage as a tire, and nothing will strand you faster. Always run appropriate tires for the conditions you’ll face, and never forget your tire-repair kit and air compressor. Getting stuck in a remote area can have real consequences.
I Lost My Friend!
What happened: On a backpacking trip, a friend and I decided to split up. He didn’t show at our destination.
What I did about it: I got the local fire chief out of bed at midnight on Christmas Eve to initiate a search and rescue operation. My friend ended up making it out on his own after getting badly lost but suffered mild hypothermia.
What I learned: Never split up. This situation got so extreme so fast that it’s also what prompted me to start carrying a satellite communicator.
I Crashed a Motorcycle!
What happened: About halfway through a dirt-bike trip across Labrador, in Canada, I hit a giant pothole and flipped my bike while moving at about 50 miles per hour, landing on my head.
What I did about it: I don’t remember the next two or three days of the trip due to the concussion, but my friend and I managed to repair the bike enough that it got me all the way home to Brooklyn—or nearly. It gave up a few miles from my apartment.
What I learned: Quality safety gear is worth it. I wouldn’t have survived the crash without it. No matter who you are, how good you are at something, or how careful you’re being, accidents can and will happen.