Disaster Preparedness While Camping and Hiking

Natural Disaster Survival While Camping and Hiking

Lightning strike behind a barn.

There is some evidence that human-caused climate change is leading to an increase in the severity of weather-related natural disasters. Wildfires may become more prevalent during droughts, hurricanes can be intensified by warmer weather over the oceans, and more severe inland storms can cause unexpected flooding and mudslides. This has implications for how we organize our cities, and how we conduct and execute disaster-relief plans, but it’s also important for outdoors enthusiasts to be ready for whatever comes their way.

Even if the weather does not become more intense due to global climate change, hikers and campers should still be prepared for any sort of conditions that they may encounter outdoors. In these environments, where there’s not always the comfort of a sturdy roof or room enough to store weeks worth of supplies, it’s critical to be prepared for any sort of natural disaster. In this guide, you will find information about the kinds of disasters that may strike, how to survive them, and how to be prepared for whatever may come your way in the wild. You will also find information about the organizations and individuals, such as health communication professionals, who can help you as part of a disaster-relief effort.

The Essentials of Disaster Preparedness in the Wild

Being prepared for a disaster while camping or hiking shares a lot in common with general disaster preparedness, although a lot of the disaster resources that you may find in a populated area likely to be unavailable to you. In order to be as prepared as possible, it’s important to understand how you can survive a disaster with the bare minimum of resources, and what resources should be an absolutely essential part of your disaster response plan. National Geographic spoke with three survival experts about surviving a disaster in the open. Here’s what they had to say:

Know the Types of Disasters That Could Strike

Different kinds of disasters are liable to strike in different areas. Desert areas are more likely to feel the effects of a drought; coastal areas, especially on the Atlantic coast, are more likely to see hurricanes; mountainous areas are prone to avalanches in the winter and mudslides in the summer; low-sitting valleys are more likely to experience flooding.

If you are hiking or camping near home, you may already be very well familiar with the kinds of disasters that have historically affected the area. However, if you’re unsure or if you are traveling somewhere new for an outdoor experience, you should do some research ahead of time. Find out what kinds of disasters can affect your area and the warning signs that they will show.

Know Your Plan for Each Type of Disaster

Once you know what kinds of disasters you may encounter, you can develop an action plan for each. Your plan should include:

  • Required Materials: Any disaster that may separate you from civilization for a period of time will require you to provide your own food, water, and shelter for at least a few days, depending on how long it takes help to reach you. Food should be ready to eat, meaning that you don’t have to cook it or otherwise prepare it. It’s also a good idea to bring light sources like headlamps or flashlights. For disasters that may make your equipment wet, flameless light sources are a must. For disasters that may leave you with an abundance of water, water purifying tablets or equipment can help to cut down on the weight you’re carrying. No matter what you bring with you, make sure that it’s suited to the kinds of disasters that you might encounter.
  • Survival Strategies: Different kinds of disasters will demand different behavior from their victims. It’s important to know what kinds of disasters you may encounter ahead of time and the right strategy to adopt for each one. We’ll go into more detail about disaster-response strategies in a moment.
  • Get Help: Ultimately, the materials that you carry and the strategies that you adopt should all be aimed at one goal: getting you into a safety situation as soon as possible. Oftentimes, this means finding your way back to civilization or contacting a person or organization who can come to rescue you. However, you should also be aware that some disasters may make travel unsafe. It’s important to assess the situation before trying to reach the next town or city.

Once you understand the basics of your survival plan, it’s a good idea to review them periodically. If a disaster occurs suddenly in the wilderness, you probably won’t have time to review a document or go online to look up advice — you will need to know right then and there how to react.

Take Action Immediately When Disaster Strikes

If a disaster strikes while you are in the wilderness, your disaster survival plan should go into effect immediately. Stay calm, act decisively, and begin working to keep yourself alive and to establish contact with help. Do not wait around to see if the disaster is really that serious, do not panic, and do not abandon your plan.

How to Survive Natural Disasters

Different natural disasters require different survival strategies. It’s important to know how to survive each kind of disaster that you may encounter in your area and apply the right survival steps as needed.

Thunderstorms and Blizzards

The NSSL estimates that there are roughly 16 million thunderstorms each year, 100,000 of which affect the United States alone. That makes thunderstorms — or blizzards, in colder climates — a common natural disaster that one can encounter in the wild.

Thunderstorms are often a prelude to other disasters. In particular, campers and hikers should beware of lightning strikes out in the open. As soon as you hear thunder or see dark clouds on the horizon, you should:

  • Avoid setting up your tent next to a lone, tall tree or on high ground. Lightning strikes can actually be dangerous within 15 to 30 meters of the actual strike, so you want to avoid likely targets.
  • Ultimately, though, your tent is not the safest place to be during a thunderstorm. Safer locations include an enclosed structure, especially one with plumbing or wiring that could divert the strike away from its occupants, or an all-metal vehicle.
  • If a safe location is unavailable, head for low ground and avoid wide-open spaces. If you are with a group, try spreading out so that you aren’t all injured at once.

Although lightning strikes are the most immediate source of danger in a thunderstorm, you should also be aware that these storms can lead to other disasters, such as flooding or wildfires. Don’t assume that, just because the storm has passed, the disaster is over.

Shelter is also important in severe winter storms or blizzards. Here again, a warm enclosed space is ideal. However, if you are out in the backcountry when a blizzard strikes, this may be unavailable to you. Instead, you may be able to build an igloo shelter out of snow or dig a space out of a snowdrift. If you do this, it’s critical that you do not sleep directly on the snow, which will sap your body heat.

In a blizzard scenario, it’s a good idea to start a fire as soon as you can. Try to accumulate fuel for the fire before the blizzard strikes and keep it under shelter so that it stays dry.

Ultimately, surviving a blizzard is all about conserving body heat, with the help of shelter, a fire, and warm clothing that you’ve packed with you.

Tornadoes

Thunderstorms may also be accompanied by tornadoes, violent columns of air that stretch from the storm clouds to the ground. Tornadoes can be difficult to spot unless the wind inside of them picks up water droplets, dust, or other debris. Be on the lookout for a condensation funnel (or funnel cloud) forming from storm clouds. If this funnel reaches the ground, it then becomes a tornado.

Typically, staying safe during a tornado involves finding shelter in a basement or sturdy building. However, these options are rarely available to hikers and campers. If you are in or near your car while a tornado is coming, you may be able to drive out of its path. However, if the tornado changes course or catches up to you, stay in the car with your seatbelt on. Duck down in your seat and cover yourself with whatever is available to protect your head and body against flying debris.

If you are out in the open when a tornado strikes, your safety options are limited. If a sturdy building is nearby, you should try to reach it. Otherwise, lie flat on the ground and cover your head and neck with your arms. Get away from trees and cars, which can be turned into deadly flying debris by a tornado.

Hurricanes

Hurricanes are tropical storms with sustained winds of at least 74 mph. However, more intense hurricanes can see winds of much higher speeds. The winds, the debris they carry, and the water that a hurricane brings with it can all be dangerous. Preparing for a hurricane involves being ready for each of its elements.

The good news is that hurricanes are fairly predictable, especially when compared to other natural disasters. They have a regular season — June 1 to November 30 — and the National Weather service can often give days (or even weeks) worth of warning before a hurricane strikes, so there is no real reason to be caught outdoors or unaware before a hurricane.

Instead of going on a hiking or camping trip before a hurricane, listen to official safety warnings — including evacuation notices, as they apply. Find shelter if you are planning to stay, and be aware of the possibility of flooding.

Floods

Floods can be less bombastic than other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or lightning strikes, but they actually kill more people each year than any of those events.

It’s easy to underestimate floods. Floods can also follow other natural disasters, such as thunderstorms and hurricanes, catching us when we are already vulnerable. Flash floods, in particular, can strike with little to no warning and can be deadly to those in their path.

The most crucial step to flood safety is to say out of a flood’s path altogether. While you may have sought low ground during a thunderstorm, it’s a good idea to get away from ravines and rivers as soon as the lightning passes. Seek high ground in order to stay out of the way of floodwaters.

As tempting as it may be to watch the flooding up close, you should keep a significant amount of distance between yourself and any floodwaters. Remember that just six inches of flooding water can sweep you off your feet. Once you’re swept into a flash flood, your survival is no longer entirely in your own hands.

If you do end up in the water, do your best to grab a stick or object that you can use to maneuver yourself around rocks or other debris being carried along in the flood. Try to look for still waters, which may offer a chance to get out of the flood, or at least keep you from going further downstream or encountering dangerous debris.

Earthquakes

In July of 2019, parts of southern California near the town of Ridgecrest were hit with a swarm of earthquakes, the most severe of which happened over the course of just a few days. In certain parts of the country, dangerous earthquakes are a risk, and they can strike with little to no warning. In the United States, the states of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Mississippi Valley are all at a higher risk for earthquakes.

Most of the danger from earthquakes comes from falling debris or damage to infrastructure. In the wilderness, it’s easy to avoid buildings, which could otherwise potentially topple over and hurt you. However, there are still other things that could fall in an earthquake and cause damage. If you are caught outdoors, try to cover your neck and head. If possible, try to get to an open area, where trees and rocks cannot fall and hurt you. However, if no open area is nearby, do not try to make a run for one during the earthquake.

After the earthquake has passed, you should be aware that there may be aftershocks — smaller earthquakes that happen as a result of their parent quake — so it’s wise to leave the area as soon as possible. At the same time, earthquakes can also cause damage to infrastructure such as roads and bridges, so it may be difficult to get to safety right away. As much as possible, be aware of multiple paths to safety, in case the earthquake has closed off one.

Avalanches or Landslides

Avalanches and landslides involve rapidly falling debris down a mountain or hillside — either snow and ice, in the case of an avalanche, or dirt, mud, and rocks, in the case of a landslide. This fast-moving debris can be deadly — avalanches kill as many as 40 people in North American each year, while landslides can kill between 25 and 50 people in the United States in a given year.

Avalanches can strike with little to no warning, as the top layer of snow becomes “unglued” from the snow below it and begins to slide down a mountain. If you find yourself caught in an avalanche, the first thing you should do is to try and move out of the way of the snow. Do not try to outrun it. Instead, just try to get out of the path of the falling snow.

If you are unable to move out of the way of the falling snow, the best that you can do is to try to stay on top of the flow, rather than getting sucked under it. It’s possible to “swim” through the snow to stay on top. Alternatively, just thrashing about to keep your body afloat is also a valid strategy. If you are buried, try to hold one arm up out of the snow. This can help rescue personnel to find you and get you to a safe, warm environment.

Unfortunately, the same advice does not apply in the case of a landslide, where the only reliable survival strategy is simply to get out of the way of the sliding debris. Landslides can often occur following other natural disasters, such as floods, severe storms, earthquakes, or wildfires. It’s best to avoid areas that may be at risk of landslides. However, if you are unable to leave the area in time, you should seek higher ground.

Wildfires

Wildfires often make the news as long-burning, wide-spread events that are easy to avoid or escape with enough advanced warning. However, wildfires can easily start without warning and spread quickly, especially in dry areas with plenty of fuel.

They can have a variety of causes, from other natural disasters like lightning strikes to man-made wildfires, due to an untended fire or an errant cigarette butt. There is no surefire way to predict wildfires, but they are often easy to spot once they begin. Even if no flames are visible, they will often carry incredible amounts of smoke into the air, which can be visible for miles.

Wildfires can spread quickly, so it is not recommended that you try to outrun the blaze if you are caught in one on a hike. Although, if you are near your car, it is advisable to follow evacuation instructions from local authorities.

If you are unable to leave an area with a wildfire, then you should try to find a body of water that you can crouch in. This will help to protect you against the heat and debris of the fire while acting as a shield to stop it from spreading further. If there is no body of water nearby, then the next best option is a clearing with little to no vegetation — or other fuel for the fire. Lie low to the ground and cover your body and mouth with a wet cloth. This will help to protect you and your lungs from the fire’s smoke.

Disaster Preparedness Tips

The following tips will help you prepare for the moment of disaster and the following time period in the wild.

Learn and Practice Survival Skills

Basic survival skills can be useful in any disaster scenario. They can help you to stay alive until a disaster passes or until help arrives. Skills to know include:

  • Basic first aid
  • Starting a fire from scratch
  • Finding and disinfecting water
  • Determining which plants are safe to eat
  • Preparing food in the wilderness

Get Your Gear and Supplies

It’s important to pack for a potential survival situation when camping or hiking for a prolonged period of time. It’s also important to build a survival kit, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. At a minimum, a good survival kit should include:

  • Food: Pack enough food for at least three or four days. Items with a high nutritional density, like nutrition bars, are a good way to balance weight with nutrition and calorie requirements.
  • Water: You can survive without food for weeks if you need to, but most humans cannot last more than three or four days without water. Whenever you go hiking outdoors, it’s a good idea to bring more water than you will need. However, it’s impossible to carry a week’s worth of water through the wilderness on your own. Instead, you should bring water purification tablets or something to boil water with. Be aware of water sources in your area and how to get to them if you need to.
  • First Aid: A first aid kit including painkillers, bandages, and antibiotic ointment is essential for outdoor survival.
  • Blanket: Many natural disasters can leave you trapped outdoors and exposed to the elements for longer than you may have planned. A blanket can help to protect you from the elements and keep you warm in cooler weather.
  • Radio: A radio can help you avoid disasters by allowing you to stay tuned for warnings and notices. It can also help you get information about where to go for help following a disaster.
  • Whistle: In many survival situations, you will be waiting for others to come and help you. This is especially true if you have been injured in a natural disaster. A whistle can help to make your presence known to rescue personnel, especially if they are searching through a mountainous or densely wooded area.

Orient Yourself to the Environment

Rudimentary navigational tools such as a compass, GPS watch, or a hardcopy map are essential in a survival situation. They can help you to find bodies of water, in case of a wildfire or a prolonged stay in the wilderness. Even better, they can help you get to a road, ranger station, or town where you can find help.

If you do not have a map or compass, do your best to learn the local landmarks and try to navigate by them.

Be Weather-Wise

In this day and age, many natural disasters come with advanced warning. Pay attention to weather reports and disaster warnings, either online, on the television, or over the radio. If you don’t have access to this material, try speaking with your fellow campers and hikers to find out what they know. Remember, the best way to stay safe in a natural disaster is to avoid one altogether. Whenever possible, pay attention to weather and disaster forecasts and avoid being caught in the wilderness.

Communicate and Gather Information

Communication and coordination are essential to handling any public health crisis, including natural disasters and their aftermath. If you find yourself outdoors or in the wilderness during or immediately following a disaster or weather event, getting in touch with public health officials, search and rescue, or disaster response teams will be essential to avoiding any further fallout, and getting whatever help you need.

Walkie-talkies or other two-way radio equipment can help you to communicate with other members of your party or contact emergency personnel. If you don’t have these materials available to you, things like smoke signals, a large (but safe) fire, or flares can help to alert rescue crews to your presence and your needs.

Relief Organizations and Public Health Agencies

Many organizations monitor disaster and weather conditions, put out alerts for the public, and coordinate resources in emergency situations. If you are uncertain about the likelihood for a disaster or your area, you want to know more about how to be prepared, or you want to know who may come to rescue you in the wilderness, these organizations can help:

  • Center for Disease Control: The CDC collects information about weather disasters, how to prepare for them, and how a disaster may uniquely affect those who suffer from a chronic disease.
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency: FEMA has checklists and toolkits available to help you prepare for a disaster situation. They are also the organization responsible for coordinating and directing response efforts following a natural disaster.
  • Ready.gov: Ready.gov is a government-owned website specifically dedicated to disaster information, preparedness, and relief. They have extensive information about the kinds of disasters that may strike, how to respond to each of them, and the resources that are available to victims of natural disasters.
  • The American Red Cross: The American Red Cross has been responding to disasters for years. They provide relief to the victims of natural disasters including hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and more.
  • Local Authorities: Your local emergency services — such as EMTs, fire department, and police force — may often be the first rescue personnel on a scene following a disaster. If you are unsure about disaster-response procedures in your own area, then you can contact your local emergency services to find out more.