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Staying Healthy Outdoors
Tips for trouble free camping and hiking

Here are some tips to help keep you healthy and safe when camping, hiking, or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors.

Watch out for high altitudes and the sun

Watch out for the health impacts of high altitude.

The "Mile High City" Denver, for example, sits nearly 2,500 metres (5,000 feet) above sea level, and vigorous exercise upon arrival there can be very draining—even life threatening to people with certain health conditions.

Take it easy when you first arrive.

And, take even more care when you go higher.

Denver, high as it is, is well under half the altitude of the the main roads through Rocky Mountain and Yosemite national parks.

In addition, early or late snows in the mountains pose a danger at high altitudes in places like Alberta, British Columbia, California and Colorado.

Another danger of high altitude is sun burn.

The sun burns more when you are closer to it, as there is less atmosphere to screen out its impact.

The same high intensity burn can come on a beach, where sea spray and reflection magnify the impact of the sun.

Many effective sun screens are for sale in drug stores (pharmacies, chemists).

The ratings on each bottle or tube denote the strength of its sun blocking power, with the highest number being the most powerful. Beware of sun tan lotions that do not screen the sun at all.

You may want two strengths. Something around 15 for general use and one around 35 or so for more sensitive areas or longer times in the sun.


Camp in good health—deal with wildlife

Camping in Canada or the U.S. may become one of your fondest travel memories, but camping brings several dangers, besides too much sun.

Bears and other dangerous animals are common in North American wilderness parks and forest preserves.

Bears, for example, have become more dangerous as they have acclimatized to humans. Although dangerous, the smaller ones are cute, and there is a temptation to approach them. Do not.

If you camp in an area with bears, etc., keep your camp clean. Keep food in airtight, solid, heavy containers like glass or metal ones. Food may be stored in cars, unless the cars have fabric for roofs.

However—and this is not a joke—in some parks, bears are learning to discriminate among various car models to know which have the easiest to penetrate thin metal and other welcoming traits. Dumb animals? Never underestimate.

Burn or otherwise dispose of in a proper manner all garbage and food containers.

In wild areas, suspend food at least four and one-half metres (some ten feet) above the ground and one and three-forth metres (four feet) horizontally from a tree.

If you are near bears when driving, keep your windows closed.

Also, please do not be cruel to animals. The food you give them may be (will probably be) unhealthy for them. Are you going to be around to feed that deer during February, when large areas of many parks are closed to visitors?

Moreover, the repeated action of feeding or touching wild animals tames them, and renders them unfit for survival.

Deer, by the way, can be dangerous. When frightened, their sharp antlers can impale.

Mountain lions (also called cougars and puma) are more obviously dangerous, although attacks on humans are rare. Stand tall, avoid looking them in the eyes, talk softly, and slowly walk away—backwards. DrVoyageur luckily has not had the chance to test these techniques.


Hike with others

Hike with other people in wild areas. Because you seldom have mobile service in wilderness areas, you need someone around to help.


Deal with insects

Because they more prevalent, smaller creatures offer the greatest danger or at least the most frequent negative interface with humans.

The most common irritant in the North American outdoors is the mosquito.

These have become more of a concern due to their spread of the Blue Nile disease in North America.

S. C. Johnson & Sons makes an effective repellent that contains Deet. In Canada, this is called "Deep Woods" or "Régions Sauvages".

Dr. Voyageur does not know the pros and cons of chemicals like Deet, but he does know that there have been times in the Ontario bush (forest for non-Canadians) when he would have nearly killed someone to obtain a supply.

When hiking or camping, wear long pants and long sleeve t-shirts to protect against bites.

In addition, one of the simplest protections is merely keeping clean.

For some reason, mosquitoes like to bite people who have not bathed themselves for awhile. A stinky person is a favourite meal.

Pregnant women are also more likely to be bitten, perhaps because their warmer bodies especially during that "time of the month" foster more bacteria on their skins.


Deal with snakes

In contrast to mosquitoes, various types of rattlesnakes, the most common poisonous snake in the U.S., usually sly away from humans and generally (but not always) give warning if they do plan to strike.

As their name implies, their tails "rattle" when agitated.

Do not provoke them!

When hiking on a warm day, be careful about stepping between rocks or logs, as rattlesnakes are attracted to the coolness of the shade in these areas.

If bitten, try to remain calm. This keeps the poison from spreading too quickly.

Traditionally, you were told to isolate the bitten area by tying a cloth or rope around your arm or leg to stop the poison from spreading throughout the body as much as possible.

If you plan to hike a lot, "snake bite kits," which include a simple pump to suck out rattlesnake venom, are readily available in camping and hunting gear stores in Canada and the U.S.

However, recent research seems to indicate that this is counter-productive, as it concentrates the poison to flood out later. Dr. Voyageur—a travel doctor, not a medical doctor—offers no opinion on this.

In any case, obtain medical attention as soon as possible. This is why it is always a good idea to hike with someone else, who can help you.


Deal with black widow spiders

The female black widow spider—so named because it eats its mate—is more toxic than the rattlesnake.

It's also almost omnipresent in much of the United States, especially in California and the Southwest.

This spider is black, of course, with a red hour-glass shaped design on its huge belly.

The female black widow loves the dark.

This includes the insides of our shoes when taken off at night.

Be careful when reaching into dark places

Keep sleeping bags, etc. zipped up when not in use.

When camping, store unused shoes, etc. in tied plastic bags or in other secure places.


Know about sharks

Sharks live along both coasts of North America.

West coast shark attacks have been on the rise due to the increase in the popularity of the new shorter surf boards.

To one species of shark, the silhouette of a surfer paddling out on one of these boards looks just like its favourite dinner, the sea otter.

Shark attacks are less frequent off the coasts of the United States than in some countries, but please be careful.

For example, do not go into the water with unhealed sores, which may start bleeding once you are in the water.

SeaChange Technology, an Australian firm, has an electronic shark repellent that you may wear around your thigh and ankle while swimming. It sounds good, but Dr Voyageur does not know how well it works.


Deal with ticks

After hiking, examine your body for possibly disease-ridden ticks.

Pull off any with tweezers.

Don't try to scrape a tick off, which leaves part of it embedded in your body.

Wear insect repellent with Deet to avoid attacks in the first place.


Avoid lightning

Lightning strikes an incredible number of people each year in the U.S.

Avoid being the tallest thing in your area outdoors. And, do not seek shelter under trees.

If inside, discontinue use of telephones, computers and other electronic equipment during thunderstorms, and do not stand too close to windows.

This page is getting really depressing.

Just one more caution, however:


Avoid untreated water

Although water from city and village systems is considered safe in Canada and the United States—at least until the toxic waste accumulates in your body over time—do not drink untreated water (water not out of a tap) anywhere in Canada or the U.S.

You may be tempted if hiking through what seems to be a most pristine area, but avoid.

Also, if an area has had heavy rain or run off from melting snow, avoid drinking from municipal water systems, as sewage may have contaminated the water.


Good luck!

Have a safe and enjoyable outdoor experience.

For more health and safety tips

Go to >> Driving safely in Canada and the U.S.

Go to >> Being safe

Go to >> Staying healthy

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