Family Camping Safety Tips

The first time I went on a backcountry canoe trip with a toddler, the father was very concerned with her safety and rented a satellite phone because there was no cellular coverage where we were going. She was a trooper on the trip considering we did a strenuous five day loop in Algonquin Park and it rained four out of the five days. By the end we were all complaining of being soaking wet, while she was happy to spend time in the tent.

How much should you worry when camping with kids? Can you over-prepare? Here are some things you should consider before leaving, and some things to do and keep in mind when you’re out camping:

1) Kids getting lost

  • If your kids get lost in the woods teach them to stay put.
  • Teach your child to find an open spot or a well marked trail and to wait there until help arrives.
  • Tell your child that it’s okay to make lots of noise to attract the attention of the adults when they are lost.

2) Campsite safety

  • Kids usually won’t wander away from the tent at night, but if it’s suspect they will, you should sleep between them and the entrance.
  • If there is a cliff or drop off nearby, they should be harnessed to something when they are walking around.
  • Teach them to never wander away from you by themselves.
  • Teach your kids never to go in the water when you’re not watching them.

When we were camping with our four year old at Massasauga Lake last year, I didn’t realize our campsite was located on a 30 foot rock that we had to climb all the time (there was a trail through the woods but it was buggy there). You couldn’t see from the pictures that the campsite was high up on a ledge and it didn’t look that steep. Luckily my daughter was old enough not to wander too close to the edge. One time when it was raining, I almost slipped getting water, and I might have fallen down had it not been for my five finger shoes that I was wearing. I was more careful wandering up and down that rock after that.

3) Campfire safety

  • The campfire should be surrounded by a wall of rocks.
  • There should be a bucket of water nearby at all times.
  • There should be nothing that anyone can trip on outside the campfire.
  • There should be nothing sticking out of the campfire, like sticks or logs.
  • Camp shelters and other flammable structures and things should be a good distance from the campfire.
  • Teach your child to “Stop, Drop and Roll” if their clothing catches fire.

4) General Safety

  • Take a First Aid certification so you can deal with accidents in the wilderness. You don’t need to take a wilderness first aid course, but one that deals with bleeding and broken bones is useful.
  • Bring a good first aid kit.
  • Bring allergy medication if your kids have never been camping before and you suspect they might be allergic to something on the trip.

During one of our trips, my husband cut himself with an axe on his shin. We were two portages away from the car and it was getting dark. We decided to bandage him up and stay the night at the campsite. The next day he got some stitches but first he had to tear away the hockey tape that was wrapped around his leg. It hurt! Also, the doctor was upset because we didn’t use any antibiotic cream on the wound, and we waited a long time, so he couldn’t completely sew up the wound in case of infection.

5) Water Safely

  • Make it a habit for kids to always wear a life jacket when on or near the water.
  • Adults should wear life jackets when paddling in water temperature that is cold, especially in the spring and fall.
  • We have a rule to wear a life jacket before July 1st and After September 1st.
  • If the water is very cold or rough, you should paddle close to the shore at all times. Never try crossing a lake.
  • Kids should sit on the bottom of the canoe but they can lean out and play with the water while you’re underway. They may even want their own paddle.
  • You should be kneeling or keeping your body as low in the canoe as possible. It all depends on how “tippy” your canoe is.
  • When the water is warm you can practice canoe or kayak rescues. You’ll realize that with one canoe it’s very hard to do, and you’ll learn that your gear has to be tied down all the time.

During one of our trips to Algonquin Park, it was early in the season and the weather started to turn bad. My canoe partner and I had a hard time clearing a rocky peninsula, and had to struggle to get to the portage. At the portage our group had to decide if we were going to stay or move to the next lake which was going to be our destination for the night. After some deliberation we decided to stay and setup shelter at a campground next to the portage. Soon after it began to rain. We learned a few days later when we returned that a man who had gone fishing had drowned on a lake near the park.

6) Bear Safety

There might be bears near your campsite. Here are some things you should do to prepare for it:

  • Before you unpack your gear, look around your campsite for signs of bears. If there are any droppings or foot prints you may want move to another campsite.
  • Do not keep any food or toothpaste inside your tent.
  • Do not bury your food waste. The bear will dig it up.
  • Keep your campfire 100 feet from your tent.
  • Change out of the clothing you were in all day and ate in.
  • Hang your food away from your campsite at night, or use a bear canister.
  • When you leave your campsite during the day, put all the food away as well. A park ranger once told me that he found a campsite where the people left a tub of butter on the picnic table while they went canoeing during the day.

Generally even though grizzly bears may seem scarier, it’s the black bears in Ontario that are persistent and can be an problem. We’ve seen many bears on our trips, but we’ve always practiced keeping a clean campsite all the time. The only time we’ve had our food taken was when we were in the Adirondacks and we put our food up in a tree and the bear broke the rope we used. We had some food in a bear canister that we shared with all the other people camping with us who also lost their food.

7) Respect the Weather Gods

No one likes to spend time outside when it’s wet, cold and miserable. Learning to read the clouds to predict the weather is a very helpful skill when you’re camping.

  • Check the weather forecast before leaving for your trip, and bring appropriate clothing, and some extra clothing just in case.
  • If you hear thunder you should get off the water right away. Go seek shelter if possible.
  • Being inside a tent or under a tree is not safe, but better than being in the water. Move to a building or a car seek shelter.
  • Count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of the thunder, then divide by five to find out how many miles away the lightning is from you.
  • Learn to identify the different types of clouds to read the weather hours or days ahead of time.

... clouds have their own classification system knowing cloud

  • There are the small fluffy clouds that form during the day near a body of water called fair weather clouds. They do not grow vertically. They shouldn’t be confused with the large dark vertically growing thunderclouds that bring rain, hail and thunder; you should seek shelter from those as soon as possible.
  • Then there are thin and wispy clouds (Cirrus) and gray overcast clouds. The Cirrus clouds tend to signal rain in a day or two. The gray overcast clouds (Stratus) usually mean there’s going to be light rain or snow all day.

Finally, before leaving on your trip leave a comprehensive trip plan with someone, and call them when you return to notify them you are back. It’s not enough to tell the people who fill out your permit where you’re going because you don’t check back with them when you return.


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