Back to nature: What you need to know before you go

April 11, 2017 Allison Milionis

Most of us camp to bask in nature. Communing with trees, mountains, lakes and open sky unmarked by power lines helps restore a sense of psychological balance. We return to civilization well-rested with renewed energy and spirit to tackle what comes our way.

It turns out all this feel-good stuff isn’t in our heads. Sleeping outdoors adjusts our body rhythms, which is good for quality of sleep and therefore, good for health. A study from the University of Colorado Boulder backs it up.

Kenneth P. Wright, a sleep researcher and author of the new study and a related study from 2013, says camping syncs us to the rise and fall of the sun. Even a weekend spent in full light during the day and true darkness at night can have an impact on our circadian rhythm. That’s what helps us fall asleep earlier, wake up earlier, and can deliver a number of health benefits.

"Living in our modern environments can significantly delay our circadian timing and late circadian timing is associated with many health consequences. But as little as a weekend camping trip can reset it," Wright said in a statement.

Let’s get out there

It was a long winter. If you’re getting antsy to hit the trails and to re-align your circadian rhythm with the sun, we support you. But maybe you’re rusty at communing with nature, or you’re new to it. 

In that case, take a few tips from one of our experts before packing the camping gear or heading up the trail. Jacob Deakins, M.D., is an urgent care physician at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. Wilderness medicine requires special training to practice in remote places where outside rescue might not be available, and professional medical help may be hours or days away.

In addition to practicing medicine, Dr. Deakins is an outdoorsman and adventurer. We asked him about the results of Wright’s study. He knows about the benefits of sleeping attuned to the sun and says it’s one of many benefits to camping and being in the wilderness. 

But here’s the rub: In order to truly benefit from spending nights in the forest, you need to leave your electronic devices behind. Or at least, keep them powered off.

Shut ‘em down

“Some people have a hard time letting go of their devices,” says Dr. Deakins. But it pays off when they do, especially if they are kids who spend a great deal of time looking at screens. When Dr. Deakins and his brothers and nephews hit the trails, the rule is “kids leave their phones behind.”

Although it’s wise to take at least one cellphone on a hike or camping for safety purposes, Dr. Deakins recommends the “no kids’ phones” rule for all families seeking solace in nature. Recent studies show that electronic devices are having a negative impact on kids’ sleep and as a result, affecting their health, as well as their ability to concentrate and learn. In fact, we wrote about the signs of cellphone addiction in kids in a recent post.

Look, but don’t drink

There’s been a lot of rain and snow in many parts of the country this past winter, which means streams and rivers will be moving fast and appear to be pristine. No matter how tempting it is to drink from the babbling brook, don’t do it. At least, don’t do it without filtering first. The water may look clear, but your eyes can’t see pathogens, such as giardia.

The symptoms of giardiasis are terribly unpleasant anytime, but especially when camping or hiking. They include diarrhea, abdominal bloating and cramping, nausea and fatigue.

“Stay away from drinking any running water unless it’s a life or death situation,” says Dr. Deakins. “No matter how remote you are, there’s a risk of giardia.”

The doctor recommends bringing a filter straw, water filter system or even iodine pills or drops. All of these options remove most pathogens in the water. You can find water filtration systems at outdoor stores.

Practice good hygiene

While on the subject of water, Dr. Deakins advises packing hand sanitizer or a good biodegradable soap for hand washing. Gastrointestinal ailments caused by unhygienic conditions are common among campers and hikers. “Usually it’s caused by fecal contamination,” says Dr. Deakins.

Let that be a reminder to wash your hands with sanitizer or soap before handling all food – including the mid-hike trail mix.

Avoid the sneezies

With flora and fauna come sneezes and sniffles. When you’re in nature, especially in spring, you’re exposed to an untold number of allergens depending on where you are, the weather conditions, the amount of recent rainfall and the season.

For example, this year hikers and campers in the mountains of Southern California will encounter higher pollen levels because of the incredible amount of rainfall in the region. Pollen allergies can cause stuffy nose, itchy eyes and tiredness, and they be particularly harmful for people with asthma.

Dr. Deakins suggests taking an over-the-counter allergy medicine if you’re prone to allergies, before heading out on the trail. And pack an antihistamine in your first aid kit, as well as  hydrocortisone cream in case you encounter poison ivy or poison oak.

Check for ticks

Some people still insist that the only way to get a tick out of your skin is to smother it in petroleum jelly or to put a hot match to its tail-end. “Not true,” says Dr. Deakins. “Grab the end of the tick with a pair of tweezers and pull straight out.”

Even better: Take precautions to discourage ticks from getting on you in the first place. Some types of ticks perch on the edge of low-lying vegetation and grab onto animals and people as they pass by. Other ticks stick close to rodents and their nests and may only come out at night to feed. Wear long pants, sleeves and long socks to help keep ticks from attaching to you.

Then do a self-check or have a friend inspect your skin after your hike or spend time in the woods. Check your kids and four-legged companions, as well as your clothing. Carefully inspect areas around the head, neck, ears, under your arms, between your legs and behind your knees. Look for what may appear to be a new freckle or speck of dirt.

Lyme disease is caused by a tick bite, and it can be serious. But Dr. Deakins says there is a 24-hour window where the risk of a tick passing Lyme disease is very small. “The tick has to be embedded for more than 24 hours,” he says. Still, other pathogens can be passed within that timeframe so it’s best to avoid ticks as much as possible and remove them immediately when found.

Still want to hit the trail?

Don’t let ticks and allergies stop you from connecting with nature. If you have questions about hiking or camping or if you need trail maps, visit your local outdoors store. Consider joining a hiking club. There’s a wide range of websites devoted to the topic, and many of them include trail maps and tips.

What kinds of adventures have you had on the trail or while camping?

Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Please do in the comments section below.

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