A Safety Refresher for the Outdoors

Santafe.com - July 15, 2008

Do You Know Where Your Black Widow Is?

Let’s assume all the basic criteria have been met. You slept well last night, didn’t drink too much, and you ate a healthy breakfast this morning. You’ve told someone where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. You wear your seatbelt. You stretch. In fact, these are the habits you keep for your outdoor life and they’ve served you well. But do you know what poison ivy looks like? Did you know I once got it so bad it got infected and I walked around—not itching—but in horrible pain for two weeks? Well, I did, and you can bet that I’ve kept my radar on for that God forsaken plant ever since.

No matter how experienced we are out of doors, it always pays to be mindful of the hazards that lie in wait and some of the unexpected ways they can trip us up. Here are the big ones for northern New Mexico.

Non-Living Hazards

Lightning - Conventional wisdom says you should seek a low spot in the terrain to minimize your chances of being struck in a storm. Avoid ridgelines, tall trees and such. The problem is that lightning can hit anywhere, so just get away from conductors such as water, golf clubs, and graphite fishing rods. If you’re holding or wearing a conductor, put it down and get inside if you can; if you have to ride it out, put the thing down and put some distance between you and it. Keep in mind that July and August are the lightning months in the Rockies. And you’re vulnerable to lightning storms up to fifty miles away.

Sun/Heat – You know this, but remember your sunscreen and wear long sleeve shirts and pants. There are some garments out there that are as cool as short sleeves and shorts. And some clothing lines now offer ultraviolet protection of 30 or greater. Drink tons of water, and make sure you’re sweating and urinating like you should be. Enough said.

Fire – If you are camping and get burned at the firepit, cool the burn off as best you can. Dress the wound if it’s a bad burn, letting it breath. Don’t put butter on it (this is a folk remedy that is actually harmful). Watch for shock and get help immediately if it’s a bad burn.

Rain – Rain is a good thing, except when you’re in an arroyo that fills with brown water during a cloudburst. With flash floods, it’s important to remember that the cloudburst can happen somewhere else. Pay attention to the season and any buildups of moisture-laden black clouds.

Snow – Jack London wrote a short story called “To Build a Fire”. It’s about a man in the snow who had to build a fire but couldn’t. The man ended up freezing to death. Usually, when an avalanche or hypothermia hits you, it’s already too late. If you’re going to spend time in the backcountry during the winter months, it would be wise to take an avalanche or wilderness survival course.

Wind – Wind is a sign that weather might be coming, or it could be telling you that you should drink more fluids to prevent dehydration. Or say it’s really windy and, in the distance, you see a big funnel-shaped cloud extending from some black clouds in the sky all the way to the ground. Figure out what direction it’s heading in and proceed in a different direction, FAST!

Living Hazards


Cactus and Yucca – Plants with thorns or stickers on them can make your life uncomfortable or, if you’re not careful, they can actually cause emergencies. We have a lot of dust in the Southwestern air, dust that settles on things that can prick you and cause infections. Spend the time to remove thorns, spines, or splinters, then clean the affected area.

Poison Ivy – Ask my mom, I was down for two weeks! Though not commonplace, poison ivy is a drag if you get it. Learn to identify it with and without leaves (it can get you in either form), and look for it in riparian areas on the Rio Grande, Chama, and lower Pecos rivers. If you’re in an area where the plant exists, make sure you know if you’re dog has gotten into it, and wash the animal and yourself afterwards with one of the commercially available soaps for irritant plants.

Huge Leaning Dead Trees – Don’t pitch your tent or park your car under one.


Spiders – In New Mexico, the heavies in the spider world are the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse. They live in cool, dry places such as woodpiles, cinderblocks, and rock piles. Look for them in spaces between hay bales. Be very careful in these places and keep kids clear, because a bite from one of these will put you in the hospital. The bite will take the appearance of a halo around a very red and irritated center. It won’t be long until you feel sick.

Mosquitoes – The West Nile virus has been a problem in recent years and has apparently run its course in this area. Nevertheless, the mosquito is one of the most effective disease vectors in the world, so protect yourself.

Ticks – Ticks are a meningitis threat, so after an excursion in heavy brush or pines, give yourself and your kids a thorough nook and cranny check. Check your pets too.

Bees and wasps – I got stung once, went to a very busy, very urban emergency room when I started swelling up, and they rushed me to the head of the line. If you’re allergic and are heading afield, make sure to remember your self-injection kit and that it hasn’t expired.


Rodents – Chipmunks are cute until someone gets hanta virus.

Skunks, Raccoons, Coyotes – The skunk hazard is obvious, but they are also famous as rabies carriers. Remember that all of these animals are by nature extremely frightened by humans; if they approach you, something is wrong, and my money is always on rabies. Rabies is very serious, so get out of there, alert someone, put the dog in the car.

Elk and Deer – Same goes. It should also be said that, unless it’s hunting season, YOU should resist all temptations to approach THEM too closely, especially the males with headgear. Cougars and bears generally prefer the females, for good reason.

Bears – We have black bears here. Like most animals, they hate surprises about as much as they love their children, so when you’re in dense and rugged terrain, make yourself heard, especially in spring when the animals and their young are emerging from their dens. If you have an encounter, speak to the animal calmly while avoiding eye contact and backing away slowly. If attacked, do not hesitate to punch, kick, and scream. I’m serious; the playing dead trick is for grizzlies. What’s the best way to avoid bear trouble? Keep a clean camp. Package your food well, and hang it in a stuff sack between two tallish trees. This is especially important when backpacking, because if a bear cleans you out—it’s happened to me—it’s a long, hungry hike back to the car.

Snakes – People make too big a deal about snakes around here, rattlers I mean. Not to say you shouldn’t keep your wits about you. Just understand that since they’re pretty far down on the food chain, and their venom is extremely expensive to make from a biological perspective, they’d rather run away from you than bite you. Here’s the key with rattlers: when it’s hot out, be on the lookout in shady spots, and when it’s cool, expect to find them in the sun. By the way, I’ve yet to see one in New Mexico above 8,000 feet, but I’m still on the alert if I’m where a rattler could make it through the average summer night.

If something good could be said of the hazards I’ve pointed out here, it’s that they make me more aware of what is happening around me in the New Mexican outdoors. Invariably, it’s when I’m looking for trouble that I find something else, something actually beautiful. Rattlesnakes are beautiful. I have found them, at a safe distance, because I was looking for them. I have slept in a snow cave and was warm while six inches of new snow fell outside. And I’ve walked up a bear trail and seen too much I didn’t like. Then I turned my butt around and headed for home.