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Beware the Call of the Wild

Know the dangers if you go camping with your kids

WEDNESDAY, July 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Heading for the great outdoors can be even more of an adventure than you bargained for if you're taking the kids along.

A few important precautions can prevent potential disaster.

One of the first, and biggest, mistakes parents make when camping is allowing the kids to go exploring on their own.

According to Barbara Maynes, a spokeswoman for Olympic National Forest in Washington state, that may be fine in the suburbs, but it's not a good idea in the wilderness.

"You need to be aware of your surroundings all the time," Maynes says. "Kids will wander out into the woods because parents are used to letting their children do that perhaps in the backyard or areas where they live. But in a park setting, especially in the wilderness, there can be a wide variety of hazards."

"Things like ground nestings of bees and yellow jackets are common. Rangers try to flag those nests, but kids love to climb on logs and go behind rocks and things. And those are precisely the areas that are prone to bee activity," she adds.

Plants present potential hazards, too, says Dr. Lloyd Van Winkle, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

"Poison oak and poison ivy can be huge problems. Your local parks people can usually give you pictures of the variety that's in your region, and you can learn to avoid it," Van Winkle says.

"A good preventative measure, however, is to simply carry a bar of soap with you. If you do happen to fall into a patch, you can wash the exposed area of the skin and, if it's within 10 minutes of the exposure, you can prevent the eruption in most cases," he says.

And beware encounters with wildlife, even seemingly non-aggressive wildlife like deer.

"It's a common misconception that deer are safe . . . you never want to let a child approach a deer -- or any kind of wild animal, for that matter," says Maynes.

"Wild animals can and do carry diseases that can be transmitted," she adds. "There are cases of people being bitten by small animals such as squirrels, and serious disease can indeed be transmitted that way. With deer, you've got the Lyme disease problem."

Van Winkle says approaching a baby animal can be particularly hazardous.

"A fawn can appear to be a benign, gentle creature, but if you approach it and the mother doe sees you do that, you'll find out how powerful a blow they can inflict from their hooves when they are defending their offspring," he says.

In some parts of the country, animal encounters can be downright scary. From Colorado to California, for example, cougars can be a concern, depending on the area.

"Make sure the children are close by," Maynes advises. "For example, on a day hike, don't let children run ahead. The safest way to hike in cougar country is to stay in groups."

And if you do find yourself face-to-face with a set of fangs?

"First of all, pick up the children and even put them on your shoulders, because you want to make yourself appear as big a possible," says Maynes. "Wave your arms in the air, and you can even yell or make noise."

On the other hand, if you meet a bear, deal with it differently.

"With black bears, you actually don't want to appear threatening, and the advice is to stand still and slowly back away," Maynes says. "If the bear appears aggressive, you want to actually hit the deck, so to speak, and curl up in the fetal position."

The bottom line, Maynes says, is to have fun but be cautious.

"This doesn't mean parents can't let their kids explore and have fun. It's just that in a natural area, you need to keep in mind that there are going to be hazards and risks that are different than those you'd likely find at home," she says.

What to Do: The National Park Service offers plenty of tips for an enjoyable camping vacation. And here are some helpful Backcountry Guidelines from New York's Adirondack Park.

SOURCES: Interviews with Barbara Maynes, spokeswoman, Olympic National Forest, Port Angeles, Washington; Lloyd Van Winkle, M.D., associate clinical professor of medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio
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