5 Emergency Preparedness Tips for Family Camping

kids in woods
How do you keep your kids safe in the woods?

In August 2011, a 12-year-old Boy Scout named Jared Ropelato put the Scout motto "Be prepared" to a true test. After wandering away during a fishing activity, he ended up miles away from his group, and was forced to spend 20 hours in the woods alone, as temperatures dropped into the 40s overnight.

How did young Jared survive? He was prepared. Having attended Scout camp the prior summer, he remembered how to build a lean-to, a hole big enough to get inside that he covered with dirt and leaves to protect himself from animals and the elements.


While losing a child on a camping trip is a parent's nightmare, this story show how preparation can help increase the chances of a happy ending. For some, preparedness means having the gear; for others, it means having the know-how. The truth is, it's both. You can have the best supplies money can buy, but you need to know how to use them. Likewise, you can be an Eagle Scout five times over, but there's nothing like having a water-proof tent in a deluge. And when you're camping with the family, it's not about proving you have the skills of MacGyver; it's about having fun, staying safe and creating some happy family memories.

So, before you plan your next trip to Yosemite or your local lakefront campground, remember our tips on emergency preparedness. We'll start with something a body can't do without.

5: Pack Plenty of H2O

Don't just pack enough water for the amount of time you'll be gone; throw in several extras. It's not fun or lightweight bringing bottles and bottles of water with you, but it's critical.

Why? In an emergency, people typically worry about having enough food, but lack of water is more dangerous. You can go several days without food, but not without water. Your body is 50 to 70 percent water and needs consistent fluids to prevent dehydration. Without water, you start to lose energy and your ability to think calmly --and you need both in a camping emergency.


If you're going camping in a mountainous or lakeside terrain, you may think bringing water is not a big deal; after all, there are running streams, babbling brooks and beautiful waterfalls around. Wrong! Presume that nature's waterways are polluted from animals. One contaminant, giardia lamblia, is a parasite that causes nausea, diarrhea and serious stomach problems. If you think lugging water for a family of four is problematic, try dealing with diarrhea out in the woods.

One option is to carry pouch waters which are easier to transport than bottled. Or, bring iodine tablets that dissolve in water, purifying it. Boiling water is another idea, but this takes time as well as the proper gear. When kids are involved, you may not have those options.

In 1798, poet Samuel Coleridge wrote, "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." The 21st century translation? Bring your own!

4: Have a Communication Plan

boy with whistle
Arm each family member with a whistle and teach emergency codes before the trip.

You hope the kids won't be out of your sight in the wilderness, but you should still have plan for handling communication, no matter their ages. After all, Jared Ropelato wasn't a toddler, but a 12-year-old. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Tell the Neighborhood: Before you leave on your trip, tell someone "back home" where you're going, when you're due back and who is with you. This is critical because you need to have someone who knows when you're due to return, especially if your immediate family is all together.
  • Whistle a Happy Tune: Cell phones don't always work in nature, but whistles are easy to use and actually carry further than the human voice. Arm each family member with a whistle, and teach emergency codes before the trip. Three loud blows is the universal signal for help. Two whistles can be a code for kids to let you know they hear you and are close by.
  • Implement the Buddy System: As early as toddlerhood, we're taught to hold hands and have a buddy. When camping, this is key, even for adults. Make sure everyone has one or two people to stick with.
  • Don't Leave the Cell Phone Behind: Although the signal may be sketchy, bring your cell phone just in case you do get reception. (The text feature may work even if you can't make a call). Hand-held radios or satellite phones are also other options.


3: Know the Lay of the Land

You wouldn't go to Disney World without knowing the weather, the peak season and how to use a FastPass. Likewise, don't embark on a family camping trip without doing some solid research; unlike riding Space Mountain, being unprepared in the wilderness could be a life-or-death situation.

Familiarize yourself with the area before you go as each terrain has its own challenges. Pitching your tent on a sandy campground is different from pitching it on hard earth; a rocky site may mean lots of hiking prior to arrival. Whatever the case, prior knowledge is key.


Get to know the campsite on arrival. Check for hazards like riverbanks, cliffs or rotted branches. Know who and what is around you, and don't assume everyone in the Great Outdoors is friendly. Keep doors locked or zipped at night and when you're gone.

Research the weather before your trip; call the ranger stations where you'll be staying to check on potential dangers such as flood or hurricane paths. Transitional seasons (spring and fall) can bring swings in weather, and mountainous regions can experience extreme highs and lows.

Teach your family to notice landmarks. As in the movies, everything can look alike when you're lost in the woods. Seek out identifiers at your campsite and on hiking trails.

Know the locations of ranger stations, refuge areas and local hospitals. Hopefully, you won't need to visit, but if you do, time may be of the essence.

2: Pack Just the Essentials

Unlike those old-time movies set in the tropics, there won't be any porters to help get your bags to your campsite, so it's important not to overpack. However, there are certain camping essentials, especially when traveling with your family. These include

  • Insect repellent, sunscreen, the appropriate jackets and rain gear
  • A waterproof tent, ground insulation on which to place sleeping bags and extra blankets to ensure a comfy camping home
  • Nylon rope and duct tape to secure a broken tent pole or patch a hole
  • A Swiss Army or good pocket knife as well as a folding saw. Whether you're cutting wood or getting a fresh catch ready to cook, these woodsmen weapons are handy.
  • A compass, working flashlight and waterproof matches
  • Extra food. As with water, don't plan to forage along the trail or campsite. Portable food -- granola bars, fruit, trail mix, peanut butter and bread -- are good, high-energy snacks
  • And no matter what, have a fully stocked first aid kit.


1: Know What to Do When Animals Attack

This isn't a new reality show; it's the last, but not least of all emergency preparedness tips. You hope you or your family will NOT have an animal encounter, but you should be prepared just in case.

Prevention is paramount, so avoid animal interaction at all costs. Teach children never to feed or approach an animal, no matter how small or cute. And don't leave kids unattended.


Store all food in animal resistant containers or in your car. There are even special bags to hang your food aboveground, and in some camping areas, bear-proof bins are for rent.

But if you do chance on a bear, here's what you do:

  • If you haven't been spotted, retreat slowly, staying downwind. If you can't totally escape, then back off the trail so the bear has ample space and time to leave.
  • If the bear has seen you, behave in a non-threatening way. Turn sideways or bend down to appear smaller. If you need to speak, use a quiet, calm voice. This lets the bear know you're human and often, the animal will give you opportunity to leave. If so, stay upwind, confirming for the bear that you're human. Don't make eye contact, and hang on to your backpack for protection.
  • If the bear comes closer, climb a tree. Don't run as you will not win, even downhill. At close range, pepper spray works and will give you time to escape.

For more emergency tips, go to the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • All Campgrounds. "Keeping Up with Kids while Camping." (January 22, 2012). http://www.allcampgrounds.com/articles/tips/keeping-up-with-kids-while-camping.html
  • BetterOutside.com. "How to Prepare for Your First Camping Trip." (January 22, 2012). http://www.betteroutside.com/archives/how-to-prepare-for-your-first-camping-trip/
  • CDC. "Camping Health and Safety Tips and Packing Checklist." June 9, 2011. (January 25, 2012). http://www.cdc.gov/family/camping/
  • Emergency Essentials. "Winter Camping." January 20, 2012). http://beprepared.com/article.asp?ai=90
  • Emergency Essentials. "10 Tips on Hiking with 'Little Ones'." (January 25, 2012). http://beprepared.com/article.asp_Q_ai_E_92
  • Fischer, R.F. "10 Emergency Camping Tips." Made Man. February 28, 2010. (January 18, 2012). http://www.mademan.com/mm/10-emergency-camping-tips.html
  • James, Michael and Claiborne, Ron. "Boy Scout Jared Ropelato Found in Utah Wilderness." ABC News. August 13, 2011. (January 22, 2011). http://abcnews.go.com/US/missing-boy-scout-jared-ropelato-found-utah-wilderness/story?id=14297499#.Txy_96VrO3E
  • Kids Health from Nemours. "Woods and Camping Safety for the Whole Family." (January 19, 2012). http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/outdoor/woods.html
  • Kodiak Wildlife Products, Inc. "Camping Safety Tips." (January 21, 2012). http://www.macecanada.com/tips/camping.htm
  • Martinez, Timothy. "Boy Scout survives frigid night after getting lost." August 16, 2011. (January 19, 2012). http://www.camping-gear-outlet.com/blog/boy-scout-survives-frigid-night-after-getting-lost/
  • MountainNature.com. "Bad News Bears." (January 19, 2012). http://www.mountainnature.com/wildlife/bears/bearencounters.htm
  • National Park Services. "Bears." (January 22, 2012). http://www.nps.gov/glac/naturescience/bears.htm
  • Survival Common Sense. "Food and Cooking.: (January 19, 2012). http://www.survivalcommonsense.com/survival-food/
  • Teens Health from Nemours. "Camping Basics." (January 19, 2012). http://kidshealth.org/teen/safety/safebasics/woods.html