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This is a fun post and is worth the read:



What About Poisonous Plants?

A friend who is planning a camping trip recently asked me, “what should I bring to treat poison ivy?”

As you might expect, the main thrust of my reply was to deny the question’s assumption: do everything in your power to avoid getting a rash in the first place.

The first step is to learn now, ahead of time, what these poisonous plants look like so that you can recognize them in the field.  The best way to accomplish this, particularly for young kids, is to take advantage of outdoor camps or nature programs offered by the Scouts, local parks, other outdoor organizations, etc.  That way your kid (or you) can see the real thing before either of you are on your own in the woods.

poisonous plants pamphlet

For sale at Mountain Wanderer 

You might think that bringing some kind of poisonous plants identification card with you is the thing to do.  It’s not. When you start traipsing around in the woods, you rarely think: “Oh no, that may be a poisonous plant!  Let me take my pack off, dig past the jerky and trail mix, toss my rain jacket to the side, and find that pamphlet to check this stupid plant.”  This is even less likely of a scenario if you are to come across a snake in your path.

Check it: if you didn’t already know, at least vaguely, what you were looking for, then you wouldn’t know when to consult your card.  But if you did, you wouldn’t need the identification card in the first place!  (Yes, philosophy friends, I found a way to work Meno’s Paradox into a blurb about poison ivy…)

Now I have nothing against field guides, and I think those quick identification cards are as convenient as can be.  But they serve a different purpose — they help amateur birders (for example) figure out what they’re looking at.  People like that are in the woods primarily to see and identify various kinds of life in the wild.  That’s why they’re out here to begin with. But if you’re going to the woods to hike, camp, fish, or whatever, you won’t have that ID pamphlet in hand all the time. And you won’t want to have it.

So learn what these things look like ahead of time.  There are three very common plants that are poisonous on contact (although there are many more that are poisonous to ingest).  Again, in person is best, but I’ll do what I can here:

Poison Ivy

poison ivyThis sucker has leaves of 3 leaflets, sometimes with a mitten-like appearance.  The stem tends to be hairy, with no thorns.  There are many local variations of poison ivy, so it’s good to get to know your local area before going bushwhacking.

Poison Oak

poison oakThis plant is less common than poison ivy, with two major types, Atlantic and Pacific.  Like poison ivy, it has leaves of 3, but the leaflets look like oak leaves, rounded off.

Poison Sumac

poison sumacThis one is easier to identify but is much less common.  It has leaves with an odd number of leaflets paired up (not staggered) with one on the end, anywhere from 7-13 per leaf.  This plant forms a shrub and is woodier than the other two.

It would be good to check out the following two sites for more information if you’re planning a trip, although nothing beats having someone show you the real thing (these are also where I lifted the images):



Now what?

Poison ivy and poison oak, in particular, look similar to lots of other plants.  And sometimes it’s really hard to avoid contact with plants when…outside.  So, my advice is to always wear pants when you anticipate low-level plant cover. 100 degrees? Don’t care. Wear pants. Particularly on the east coast these plants are concentrated to wooded areas where there is a lot of shade.

What happens if you do have contact and develop a rash?    The source of the rash is an oil secreted by these plants and so it can persist on clothing which has made contact, and even spread from hands to other regions after recent contact.

SO WASH YOUR HANDS FIRST!  Chances are your hands have made contact with the oils by way of scratching, and may be spread to more delicate regions (face, etc.)  Then wash the area affected, wash and/or replace any clothing that might have made contact.  Try not to scratch it.  If it got on your face or other sensitive areas, keep a close eye on it as you may need more advanced care.

Some say that calamine lotion or even rubbing alcohol helps the itch.  I haven’t found that.  If I get a rash, I’m going to be miserable for a week or two and will likely need prescription lotions given my sensitivity to the oil.  That’s why so much of my efforts are placed in keeping my wits about me and preventing contact in the first place.

Have fun out there!

Types of Camping

What does it mean “to go camping”?  “Camping” can mean lots of different things to different people.  It’s always good to remember that “going camping” does have a broad range: from rustic backcountry camping (maybe under the stars?) to renting out a furnished modern cottage with electricity (but hopefully not with a television…), there are many ways to enjoy the outdoors and “go camping.”  There are options for pretty much anyone, even for those people who otherwise say they “hate camping.”  It’s always important to ask those people: “What exactly do you hate about it?”
calvin and hobbes
I thought it might be good to outline the four basic types of camping since I’ll be using these terms a bit.
Luxury Camping – This is for those who enjoy the outdoors, but want to return to their own, private, enclosed space at the end of the day.  Many campgrounds have cabins, cottages, or even houses with varying degrees of amenities.  Some people camp in their own RV’s or luxury campers (I hope to own something like this someday…maybe…someday…).  The idea is that you are able to spend the night in a place which is enclosed and has its own private “facilities.”  Many people are unaware of these less rustic options in state and national parks, and so avoid visiting them.  But they shouldn’t!  This is a great way to enjoy the outdoors (and maybe a campfire or two) while still being able to curl up into a bed safe from critters, bears, and severe weather.
luxury camping
Car or Tent Camping – This is a little more rustic, and what most people consider “camping” to be.  You’re outdoors, and camping in a tent, but your vehicle is a short distance away.  Most state parks and public campgrounds offer these sorts of campsites, complete with a picnic table, a fire ring, and shared public facilities.  But you’re car is close enough to store your food and to flee for refuge in severe weather or in the case of a bear attack (I’m just now getting used to the idea that Western PA has a considerable population of black bears).  Most monthly scouting campouts are of this sort, with Saturday activities varying from trip to trip.
car camping
Short-Term Backpacking – The idea here is to carry all that you’ll need with you, including shelter, food, and enough water to get you to the next water source.  Typically this requires carrying some form of water purification (filter, checmical tablets, etc) so that you can refill once or twice daily.  These trips are usually short enough (one night up to about a week) that you can carry all your food with you for the course of the trip.  If you’re lucky you get a chance to camp at a modern campground at least once in the course of your trip so you can shower and get rid of any accumulated trash.  All of the backpacking trips I’ve been on have been of this sort.
backcountry camping
Extended Backpacking – This type of trip lasts at least a week and some people go for months on the trail without returning home.  These trips require careful planning since you’ll need to restock in towns along the way.  Since you’re in town anyway, many people on extended backpacking trips will plan to stay at a hostel or cheap hotel once a week to get cleaned up, go out for a few drinks, and revel in civilization before hitting the trail again.  A small class of these folks are considered “thru-hikers,” those who attempt to complete a long-distance trail (like the 2300 mi Appalachian Trail or 2600 mi Pacific Crest Trail) all at once, spending around 5-9 months on the trail.  What a challenge!