Outdoors people are pretty good at spinning tall tales around a campfire, but sometimes they get their fact and fiction mixed up. Here are 10 often-quoted myths about camping.
1. One group of 15 creates more impact camping than three groups of five or five groups of three.
False. Research scientists studying the effects of Leave No Trace principles have proved that one large group has no more impact than several smaller groups. It is the techniques and behavior of a group that make the difference. Learn the principles of Leave No Trace at www.lnt.org.
2. Moss grows on the north side of trees.
And on the south side. And the east and west, too. Moss can grow anywhere that there is enough shade and moisture. Your best bet for determining direction is to bring a compass and know how to use it.
3. In cold weather, you don’t have to drink a lot of water because you sweat less.
This is false on two counts. First, you lose much more water in the winter than you think. Winter air can be very dry, and the cool air wicks sweat away from you so quickly that you are often not even aware you are sweating.
Second, you need to drink more than you think because inadequate hydration contributes to both altitude sickness and to hypothermia. Start your day of winter hiking with a bottle of hot liquid shielded inside an insulated carrier: This will be more appealing to drink than ice-cold water.
4. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot.
The summit of Mount Thielsen, a spiky peak in Oregon, is known as the “lightning rod of the Cascades.” A glassy substance called fulgurite is formed by repeated lightning strikes, and you’ll find it all over Thielsen’s summit.
5. Magnetic declination (the deviation between true north and magnetic north shown on maps) never changes.
False. A variable navigators have long had to reckon with, declination varies with both geography and time. Over the past 36 years, for instance, the declination at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico has changed from 13.5 degrees to less than 9 degrees. For more information about declination visit the U.S. Geological Survey Web site at www.usgs.gov.
6. Hypothermia is a winter problem.
Yes. And a summer, spring, and fall one. Indeed, hypothermia can be even more insidious in milder seasons because it’s not as obvious.
Hypothermia is a particular danger to paddlers, especially when the combination of air and water temperatures adds up to less than 150 degrees. Prolonged exposure to cold water—whether from water sports or rain—is a prime risk factor for hypothermia, even in the middle of summer.
Remember, the best cure for hypothermia is prevention, and the best prevention is to stop exposure: Put up a tent or put on more clothes.
7. If you come upon a grizzly bear and it charges, you can easily outrun it to safety.
Not even close. An aggressive, 300-pound grizzly can hit speeds of 30 miles per hour in a charge—that’s 44 feet per second. To put that in perspective, an Olympic athlete who sprints to the finish line of a 100-yard dash in 10 seconds is only traveling at 30 feet per second.
Stephen Herrero, author of Bear Attacks (Lyons Press, revised edition 2002), says the best thing to do in a grizzly encounter is to stand your ground or slowly back away and talk to the bear, letting it know that you aren’t a threat. Avoid staring directly at the bear, which threatens it, but watch it closely.
8. Natural fabrics are the best choice for going out in nature.
Wool and silk can be good choices, but cotton, frequently touted as “nature’s fabric,” is a definite no-no for outdoor recreation. Check out the newest outdoor clothing manufactured with wicking synthetics.
9. You’ll find the warmest campsites down on a valley floor.
Not necessarily. While ridges tend to be windier, chillier places than valleys, a narrow, steep-sided valley can collect what is known as katabatic air at night. As the air cools, warmer air rises, and colder air flows in to take its place. Don’t climb to the top of the ridge to make camp, but keep off the valley floor too.
10. An upset stomach in the backcountry is probably caused by giardia.
Maybe; maybe not. Giardia usually takes at least a week to incubate, so unless you’re on a long-distance hike, it’s unlikely that today’s stomachache is caused by yesterday’s drink.
Other waterborne parasites can also cause intestinal distress, but backcountry stomach problems are often caused by careless sanitary practices—sharing food dishes with other campers and improperly cleaning pots, pans, and utensils. Wash your hands thoroughly before cooking and eating, and wash your pots thoroughly afterward.
Karen Berger’s newest book, Backpacking and Hiking (DK Publishing, 2005) is an illustrated guide to backpacking. Visit her at www.hikerwriter.com.