The majestic great outdoors is filled with beauty and wonderment. It is also filled with many dangers if you are not properly prepared for all that Mother Nature can throw at you. Whether you are heading out for just a half-day hike or an adventure of a lifetime, follow these tips to stay safe and ensure a fun-filled summer.
Danger: Chest pains while hiking
Action plan: Most likely it's a muscle strain or heartburn, but don't take chances. Stop moving, and sit down in the shade. If the pain subsides after a bit, you can get up — but start making your way back to the car, not deeper into the woods. If the pain returns, call 911 and let emergency personnel come to you. No cell reception? If there's more than one person with you, send someone to find help.
Danger: A thunderstorm
Action plan: Count the seconds between a lightning flash and a thunderclap. If it's under 30, you run the risk of being one of the 300 people a year struck by lightning or one of the 70 or so killed by it, according to the National Weather Service. When black clouds approach, avoid open fields, isolated trees, picnic shelters, metal bleachers and water. If you can't find a large shelter but you can make it back to your car, that would work — just keep your hands off any metal, such as the door handle, until the storm passes, advises Richard Kithil, president of the National Lightning Safety Institute.
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Danger: A snake on the trail
Action plan: Only 1 in 6 species are poisonous, and they want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. Simply watch where you're going, and slowly move out of striking distance. If you are bitten — even if you think the snake isn't poisonous — call 911 immediately. Do not apply ice, heat or a tourniquet, and don't suck out the venom. These traditional remedies cause more harm. Do remove any rings or restrictive clothing, and wash the bite while you wait for help.
Danger: A tipped canoe with grandkids aboard
Action plan: If you and the grandkids are wearing life jackets — you should insist on this — grab the boat's line, and swim to shore, says Cliff Jacobson, a wilderness consultant in River Falls, Wis. If that's impossible and the shoreline is visible, leave the boat and swim to shore, with the younger ones always in front of you. If you capsize in water with a current, don't stand up; the force of the water could mow you down.
Danger: Blisters on your feet
Action plan: Try to avoid popping a blister because the fluid-filled sac serves as a germ shield. To dull the pain and speed healing, soak the area in cool green tea, brewed strong. Down a glass while you're at it; green tea is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Danger: Driving in heavy rain
Action plan: If the rain is making it difficult to see, pull over, and wait out the storm, ideally in a place away from trees that could fall onto the car or guardrails that conduct electricity, says Julie Lee, former director of the AARP Driver Safety program. Flash floods are the No. 1 cause of thunderstorm-related deaths — and 50 to 60 percent of flood deaths happen in cars swept away by moving water — so don't drive over a flooded road. "Just two feet of water can sweep a car away," Lee says. If you are trapped in rising water, get out of the vehicle through a door or window, and get to higher ground.
Action plan: Ticks can transmit diseases and are notoriously hard to avoid, but tucking long pants into your socks and wearing long-sleeved shirts are a good first defense. Plus, consider planting American beautyberry. Crush the leaves, and rub them on your skin to release chemicals that repel ticks and also mosquitoes, advise scientists at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. If you do find a tick, use tweezers to grasp it as close to the skin as possible and pull up with steady, even pressure, making sure you get the whole bug. Clean the bite and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. If the area shows a target-shaped rash afterward, see your doctor — it could be a sign of Lyme disease.
Danger: A hungry gator
Action plan: Floridians often advise tourists to run in a zigzag pattern if chased by a gator, but John Brueggen, general manager of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, says that's not necessary if you're smart. "The biggest mistake you can make is waiting at the water's edge," Brueggen says. "He's going to lunge out, and he's either got you or he doesn't." Twilight is especially dangerous because that's when gators see us better than we see them. If you're attacked in the water, aim an elbow at the fleshy area around the animal's throat or eyes — and scream for help.
Danger: An exploding campfire
Action plan: Building a campfire is one of the primal joys of the outdoors, but avoid circling the flames with rocks from the shoreline, says Jacobson. Sandstone and other porous rocks absorb more water, which forms steam when heated, causing the stones to explode like grenades. Instead, ring your fire with dry-area rocks, or don't use them at all — they won't make your fire any safer.
Danger: Poison (ivy) gas from your bonfire
Action plan: You know not to touch "leaves of three," but it's even more important to keep poison ivy and its cousins, poison oak and sumac, off your log pile. For people who are allergic to the urushiol oil in poison ivy — or those with breathing issues such as asthma or COPD — the smoke can be especially dangerous because a rash can break out on the lungs' lining, causing extreme pain and respiratory problems.