Camping in Wildfire Smoke: Stay Safe and Enjoy the Outdoors

Camping in Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke is affecting camping plans across North America. With massive wildfires sparking uncontrolled blazes and pumping smoke into the air, you may be wondering: is it safe to go camping in wildfire smoke could ruin your plans?

The short answer is no, you should avoid camping in areas with hazardous wildfire smoke conditions that can quickly degrade air quality, especially if you have any respiratory problems.

Now I’ll talk to a camping lover who doesn’t have any respiratory problems. Despite the different dangers of camping in wildfire smoke, with the proper precautions and preparations, you may still be able to enjoy the outdoors this camping season.

As an enthusiast camper with over 12 years of experience exploring the trails and forests of the Pacific Northwest, I’ve created this comprehensive guide to help fellow outdoor enthusiasts stay safe if camping near wildfire smoke.

With the recent surge in intense western wildfires due to climate change, I understand firsthand the health hazards of smoke exposure for campers. I’ve had multiple trips affected by nearby blazes and want to share the precautions I’ve learned so we can all continue enjoying nature safely this season.

Why Camping in Wildfire Smoke is Dangerous?

Breathing wildfire smoke is bad for your health, even if you’re healthy. Smoke has tiny particles that go deep in your lungs. This can cause:

  • Coughing, wheezing, tight chest
  • Stinging eyes and throat
  • Runny nose and lung irritation
  • Headaches and fatigue
  • Higher chance of lung/breathing infections

Smoke is especially dangerous for kids, older people, pregnant women, and people with existing lung/heart conditions. Particle levels above 150 AQI are unhealthy for everyone.

Camping means you’re exposed to smoke for a long time. Unlike just walking your dog, camping for many days means sleeping, cooking, and activities in smoky areas. According New York State Department of Health, even short-term smoke exposure can have lasting health impacts.

Read also: Camping in 100-Degree Weather

Environmental Impact of Wildfire Smoke

In addition to the health risks it poses to humans, wildfire smoke also has a significant impact on the environment. Wildfire smoke can:

  • Reduce air quality: Wildfire smoke is a major source of air pollution, and it can reduce air quality for hundreds of miles downwind from a fire. This can make it difficult for people with respiratory problems to breathe, and it can also harm plants and animals.
  • Damage ecosystems: Wildfire smoke can damage ecosystems by reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches plants, and by depositing harmful chemicals into the soil and water. This can make it difficult for plants to grow and can harm aquatic life.
  • Contribute to climate change: Wildfire smoke is a major source of greenhouse gases, and it can contribute to climate change. This is because the smoke contains carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere.

Monitoring Wildfires and Smoke Near Your Campsite

Before camping, check smoke conditions in the area. Use sites like:

Useful Sites for Monitoring Smoke Conditions

  • FireSmoke Canada: Tracks wildfires and smoke movement. Shows current air quality index (AQI) levels across North America.
  • AirNow: Real-time AQI reports and forecasts for the U.S. Green means healthy air, orange to purple means hazardous.
  • AirVisual: Mobile app to check localized AQI forecasts. Know conditions hour-by-hour.

AQI Guidelines

Use these AQI guidelines:

AQI RangeAir Quality LevelCamping Recommendation
0-50HealthyNo health impacts expected, good camping conditions
51-100ModerateSensitive groups may have minor symptoms, healthy adults should be okay
101-150Unhealthy for sensitive groupsLimit outdoor time for kids, older people, people with breathing conditions
151-200Unhealthy for everyoneEven healthy people will commonly have irritated lungs, coughing, chest discomfort. Avoid prolonged camping.
201-300Very unhealthyWill cause symptoms in anyone exposed for 24 hours. Camping not recommended due to serious health risks.
301+HazardousEveryone should avoid outdoor activity, emergency conditions

Use the AQI guidelines to understand air quality reports. Under 100 is generally safe for camping, over 150 should be avoided for multi-day trips due to pollution health hazards.

Read also: How to Stay Safe in Extreme Weather While Camping

Have Backup Camping Plans Ready for Bad Air Quality

Given unpredictable smoke patterns, have a Plan B in case poor air forces you to cancel. Identify alternative campsites farther from large fires, or plan a completely different backup trip.

Monitoring Smoke Conditions

Many parks post fire and smoke updates online and on social media. Follow these closely until your departure date – zones can go from green to hazardous quickly as winds shift.

If conditions are poor, postponing your trip until autumn when fires die down is wise. Protecting your lungs is more important.

Fun Indoor Activities

If smoke forces you to cancel camping plans, there are still fun indoor activities you can enjoy when air quality is poor:

  • Host a game night with classic board and card games
  • Have a movie marathon of your favorite outdoor/adventure films
  • Plan arts, crafts, cooking camp-inspired meals
  • Set up an indoor tent and sleep in sleeping bags for a “backyard campout”
  • Visit local museums, aquariums, botanical gardens if open
  • Look through old camping photos and plan future trips
  • Video chat with family/friends and share virtual campfires
  • Learn new outdoor skills like knot-tying, fire building, emergency prep

While not the same as actual camping, having indoor activities planned can help ease disappointment from canceling a trip. Make the most of poor air days and get outside once conditions improve.

Respect Fire Bans and Use Caution

Follow all fire bans and restrictions where you camp. Never light campfires when prohibited. Use gas stoves carefully away from plants, store flammable stuff properly, and avoid any activity that can start flames.

Do your part to prevent human-caused fires, as even a small blaze nearby can force campground closures. Always keep an evacuation bag ready in case a fast wildfire erupts.

Read more about: Can You Use Solo Stove During A Fire Ban?

Precautions and Safety Measures When Camping in Smoky Conditions

N95 Respirators When Camping in Wildfire Smoke

If camping in smoke, wear an N95 mask. N95s filter out 95% of harmful particles in smoke[1].

Important Protective Gear

Other important gear:

  • Portable air purifiers: Helps reduce particle pollution inside tents and vehicles.
  • Eye protection: Prevents eye irritation and dryness from smoke.
  • Barrier cream: Protects exposed skin from contamination.
  • Personal air quality monitor: Lets you monitor pollution levels in real-time.

Don’t rely on bandanas or basic masks that fail to filter out dangerous particles. Investing in proper N95 masks and equipment is critical to reduce smoke inhalation and keep your lungs healthy.

Additional Health Precautions

More precautions to take:

  • Run air filters continuously in car/tent.
  • Avoid strenuous activity and take breaks inside vehicles/tents.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and limit alcohol which makes smoke impacts worse.
  • Monitor smoke forecasts and have emergency meds for asthma/COPD ready.
  • Know the signs of smoke-related illness – coughing, wheezing, chest pain, headache.
  • Have an evacuation plan in case a wildfire starts near your campground.

Prioritize Health and Safety Over Camping Plans

Camping in the wilderness is nice, but the smoke from nearby wildfires is seriously unhealthy. Avoid camping in wildfire-smoking areas. Have backup plans, follow fire bans, and use health precautions if camping in smoky conditions.

Postponing a trip is better than having a medical emergency miles from help. Be prepared, use caution, closely monitor conditions, and prioritize health over plans when wildfire smoke fills your campground. With proper precautions, you can enjoy the outdoors again once fires and hazardous smoke go away.

I hope this article helps you camp safely during fire season. Let me know if you have any other questions!

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