How to Stay Safe When Adventuring Outdoors: Three Common Outdoor Hazards and How to Avoid Them

As you head outdoors for your next adventure, remember to educate yourself on common hazards of your area.

If you’re just getting started in the outdoors, learning hazards is a wonderful strategy to become more aware of your surroundings. At the base level, you’ll learn to keep your group safe, but hazards also tune your senses and help you become more mindful of what’s going on in the natural world.

While not exhaustive, the list below shares some of the most common hazards you will come across in the Southeastern United States and offers advice on how to avoid them.


Ticks are external parasites that feed on the blood of mammals, birds, and sometimes reptiles and amphibians. Generally, they crawl up your body until they find a warm place, and then they slowly embed their heads in your skin. Ticks can remain on you for several days, growing fatter as they engorge themselves, at which point they usually drop off. Unfortunately, ticks can leave whatever disease they were carrying in your body, and that’s why you should check for them.

Figure 1: Lone Star Tick

Ticks are extremely common in the Southeastern United States. The CDC recommends several prevention techniques:

  • avoiding tick habitat (dense woods and brushy areas)
  • using insect repellents containing DEET or permethrin
  • wearing long pants and socks
  • performing a tick check. This means taking off your clothes and visually checking your entire body.

Remember, ticks love warmth, so they commonly show up around the groin area, but they can (and do) attach themselves just about anywhere, including your legs and scalp.

If you discover a tick on your body, here’s a great tutorial showing you how to safely remove it.

Even if you remove a tick, pay attention for any flu-like symptoms in the next few weeks. The CDC identifies the following as “the most common symptoms of tick-related” illnesses:

  • Fever/chills.
  • Aches and pains. Think headache, fatigue, muscle aches and joint pain.
  • Rash.

These symptoms may indicate the onset of a serious tick-borne illness like Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. If you experience any of those symptoms after a tick bite, see a doctor immediately.

Spiders: Black Widow and Brown Recluse

While many people fear spiders, the truth is that very few in the Southeastern United States are a danger to humans. You should be able to identify and avoid two common species: the black widow and the brown recluse. Both of these spiders are venomous, and their bites can require medical attention.

The black widow is a black spider that you can identify by the red, hourglass shape on its abdomen (See image below). If you see one, the hourglass is generally bright and obvious; you’re unlikely to mistake it for something else.

Figure 2: Female Black Widow spider

Black widow bites can be fatal for small children and the elderly, but for most people, they cause sickness rather than death. The sickness, however, can be quite severe, including muscle aches, nausea and difficulty breathing.

The brown recluse is a small brownish spider that is only about the size of a U.S. quarter. It can be identified by a violin or fiddle-shaped marking on its dorsum (See image below), which is just behind its head. Incidentally, this is how this species got the name “fiddle-back.”

Figure 3: Brown Recluse spider

The term recluse gives us a clue as to where it’s found. According to University of Kentucky’s Entomology lab, “brown recluse spiders live outdoors under rocks, logs, woodpiles and debris,” and since they like the dark, they may creep into shoes, clothing, or bedding.

To avoid both the black widow and the brown recluse, always shake out your outdoor gear before using, and look before you reach into dark places, including logs, railroad ties, or basement shelves.

Poison Ivy

While a plant may not seem frightening, poison ivy can cause a rash that is at best an annoyance, and for those who are allergic to the plant, the rash can be quite serious. It’s extremely common throughout the Southeast, growing both on the ground and as a woody vine that climbs trees.

The common phrase for identifying poison ivy is “leaves of three, let it be,” meaning if a plant has leaves in clusters of three, then don’t touch it. This adage means you’ll sometimes mistake other plants for poison ivy, but it will keep you cautious and safe.

Figure 4: Poison Ivy

When it climbs trees, poison ivy also looks like a woody vine; you’ll know it by the “hairs” coming off the vine. Though it’s woody, take care not to mistake this vine for firewood. Do not burn poison ivy! Anyone who inhales the smoke can get poison ivy in their lungs, which can result in serious illness.

If you come in contact with poison ivy, wash the skin with soap and water. If a rash develops, do not scratch it, as scratching can spread the rash. Treat the itching with a product like calamine lotion and it will usually go away in 2-3 weeks.

The Gift of Fear

Now that you have a few hazards to check for, you can use this information to help you pay closer attention to the natural world.

But don’t let a little fear paralyze you.

You’ll be amazed by your focused awareness and how much this adds to your trip.

So, while you’re checking under that log for black widows— wise move! —you are more likely to notice a millipede in the leaf litter. At first, you’ll be entranced by the rhythm of its legs, and then you’ll notice it has no eyes. Maybe these are wonders you’d have overlooked had fear not stoked your awareness and brought you close to the ground.