For people who enjoy boondocking away from it all, a lot can go into the decision on where to set up your rig. Where is the ideal view? Is the site flat? Where is the closest fishing hole? But many people don’t think about the overall safety of their chosen campsite until it is too late.
As a family with both a wildland firefighter/emergency responder and a background in geologic hazards, we often spend HOURS finding a spot that we are reasonably sure won’t kill us in our sleep. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind.
Fires can start from natural causes, such as a lightning strike, or more often from human causes. They often create their own winds that can push a fire front along at high speeds. Spot fires from airborne embers can ignite and quickly surround your site in flames. Know basic fire behavior (generally travels uphill and downwind) and keep that in mind when choosing a location.
Before you head out, check on the wildfire conditions and restrictions for the area where you will be camping. You can check on active fires in the area on InciWeb. Select a camping spot that has minimal vegetation and no overhanging tree branches, and clear away dead flammable debris.
Be watchful for signs of fire (smoke, orange glow, visible flames). For an interesting book about the Glenwood Springs, Colorado Storm King wildfire, check out “Fire On the Mountain” by John MacLean.
Flash floods and debris flows
The flash flood that killed ten people in Arizona highlights how dangerous and unpredictable rainstorms can become, even far away from your location, particularly if an area has been previously burned.
Often, people want to camp on flatter surfaces that can be found at the mouths of canyons where seemingly innocent creeks trickle by, but those flat surfaces were put there from past flood events.
Upstream rains draining to narrow channels can quickly gain a lot of energy. That energy picks up rocks, mud, trees, and debris along the way, sending a thick slurry of deadly material rushing downstream.
If the floodwaters don’t get you, the debris being carried in them certainly can. Avoid camping in drainages (even dry ones), at the mouths of canyons, or in low areas where water may accumulate; and be very aware of the weather upstream from your location.
If you notice that the site you want to camp at has a bunch of large boulders lying around, look up! Is there a cliff or an outcropping of rock above you?
Chances are that those boulders laying around fell (or rolled) there from somewhere. Avoid camping under cliffs, exposed rock faces, or talus slopes. Keep in mind that rocks can bounce and roll down a slope quite a distance.
In the US, lightning strikes are second only to floods for weather-related deaths, killing on average 40-50 people each year. Be on the lookout for lightning when storms begin to build, even if there is no rainfall. Lightning can strike 10 miles away from the thunderhead. The safest place to be during a storm is inside a hard-topped vehicle.
To best hedge your bets against a lightning strike, choose a campsite that is not below a solitary tree, in a wide-open area, or exposed on a ridge or elevated surface. Stay out of pit toilets and open-topped vehicles as they offer no protection from a strike. Wait a good 30 minutes after the storm before heading back outside.
Any time you are boondocking, know how to get out quickly if you need to evacuate. Have at least two drivable routes in mind in the event that one is blocked or impassable.
Park in such a way that you can leave your campsite quickly if needed. Some families practice RV fire drills or emergency situations so everyone knows what to do and where to go before an emergency happens. Planning ahead of time can make your stay more relaxing when you arrive.
Important info and things to think about.
Sandi O'Regan says
Great article! I, too, am a firefighter/EMT and have some knowledge on what to look for. BUT, never thought of the Rockfall possibilities. Thank you for your insight.
Excellent advice! Like turtles – Rv’s are the shell of protection – until broken – then what?
The biggest concern for me is a fire in an RV! They burn up in a matter of seconds if not about 3 minutes. Be careful and inspect rubber hoses and propane fittings etc. Practice getting out fast – and remember if it happens at nite you will be groggy and slightly confused – precious seconds! Do NOT try to fight it – extinguishers are to aid your escape – not fight the fire.
This isn’t meant to unduly scare anyone – but like the Boy Scouts: “Be Prepared”, is what it’s about.
First hand experience on noticing fire coming out underneath the RV. Was going up a long hill in a class A towing a Geo Tracker when I glanced out my drivers side rear view mirror and noticed flames coming out from underneath the RV. Fortunately I was able to pull off the side of the road immediately, went to the door exit and grabbed my fire extinguisher and put the fire out before any real damage was done. Later found out that because my transmission was overheating going up the long steep grade the pressure release valve opened and the transmission oil leaked onto my catalytic converter. Hence, the fire, but if I hadn’t had a fire extinguisher all I could have done was watch it go up in flames. Now keep in mind this was about 20+ years ago.
Wow Mike! That was a close call! It sure pays to know what is going on all over the rig(s)! I installed a transmission temperature gauge and monitor it along with the the other clocks. The GM manual says the Tranny temp.. should be between 180 and 200 degrees Farh.. That is for it’s health and fluid longevity. No mention of pressure or relief valves!
The gauge is very reasonable and easy to install – mountain driving and towing makes it almost mandatory – as you now know. I wonder what the maximum temp/press would be to open the relief valve? I have never seen or heard of it being addressed
Glad all was good with you and you were alert and able to handle it quickly! Safe travels…….Doug
PS: I am going to check my Class A and see if there is, or if I can install a shield of some sort!