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August 1997

Poisoned In Camp?

How to deal with common backpacking substances that are more toxic than three-day-old socks.

Scene One: It’s the middle of the night, you’re green-gilled and retching, and your partner just happens to mention the fuzzy white mold on the salami he added to the spaghetti sauce. He says he was sure that boiling would make it safe.

Scene Two: Your fuel bottle leaked into your food bag. Everything was sealed in plastic, but the cheese still picked up a slight odor. Five days out and a week to go on light

rations, you eat the cheese at lunch. A few miles down the trail you are burping gas.

Scene Three: Because of snow and howling wind you decide to cook inside the tent. Several cups of tea and a freeze-dried dinner later, your mild headache has reached throbbing proportions. Your partner, complaining of head pain earlier, now seems irritable and confused.

Scene Four: Your child wanders into camp chewing something. In her hand is half a mushroom you can’t identify.

There you have it, four fairly easy ways to accidentally poison yourself in the backcountry (besides insect stings and snake bites, which we’ll cover in a future column). Thankfully, all four scenarios are easily avoided. Here’s what you need to know.

Food poisoning: Unfortunately, cooking does not neutralize the toxins produced by certain bacteria-especially staphylococcus-that can multiply rapidly on unrefrigerated meat. Luckily, the effects of those toxins usually dissipate after 6 to 12 hours and rarely pose a long-term threat. But the short term is most unpleasant. Symptoms, which come on 2 to 6 hours after eating the contaminated food, can include nausea, severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Treatment is limited to water, which prevents dehydration. Be assured that your distress is temporary, even though it will feel like an eternity. You can safely continue your hike when you feel up to it.

Petrochemical poisoning: When swallowed, white gas (the fuel most commonly used in campstoves) should be treated like any corrosive, meaning you shouldn’t induce vomiting to get the poison out of your system. That’s because corrosive chemicals can do as much damage coming back up the esophagus as they did going down. Also, breathing even a tiny amount of petroleum product into your lungs while you are vomiting could bring on a dangerous case of pneumonia.

Fortunately, even if you somehow managed to swig from the fuel bottle instead of the water bottle, you should be fine if you didn’t get any in your lungs. (If you did, head to the doctor fast.) Dilution is the solution to this body pollution. Drink a liter of water. Milk is even better, if you have it. (Packing any powdered milk in your grub sack?) You’ll feel better soon enough and should continue your hike without worry.

Carbon monoxide poisoning: People who cook inside in order to stay out of the weather often zip shut their tents for the same reason. What happens is that stove and campers are soon competing for oxygen. Without plentiful oxygen, stove-fuel combustion is incomplete and the result is carbon monoxide (CO). This gas is invisible, odorless, and tasteless. In other words, you’ll never know it’s there unless you recognize the symptoms. Once inhaled it enters your bloodstream, where it bonds to the hemoglobin of your red blood cells about 200 times better than does the oxygen your blood is supposed to carry. First to feel the effects are your brain and heart, the organs most in need of oxygen. CO poisoning accounts for about half the poison deaths in the United States each year, and is one of the most serious poison threats in the wilderness.

Symptoms begin with a headache, nausea, vomiting, and lack of coordination, progressing into irritability, impaired judgment, and confusion. You’ll find it increasingly difficult to get a full breath, and you’ll grow drowsy. If you don’t get more oxygen immediately, the next stage is coma, followed by death, typically from heart failure. Contrary to a common misconception, death by carbon monoxide is not a pleasant drift into permanent slumber.

Field treatment is simple: Get fresh air. If you’ve been exposed to low levels of CO, you’ll probably recover completely in a few hours because the half-life of carbon monoxide attached to hemoglobin runs around 51/2 hours. Once you feel better, you can safely continue your hike.

If the concentration was high, however, you’re in serious trouble. You could die even once removed from the source of the gas. Rapid evacuation to a high pressure chamber and concentrations of supplemental oxygen are your only hope. Unconscious victims of CO poisoning will need to have their airway maintained during the evacuation.

It’s important to remember: At higher altitudes where the weather is often harshest and you’re more inclined to cook inside a tightly sealed tent, you’re at greater risk from not only carbon monoxide, but tent combustion, too. Mountaineers the world over cook inside their tents, but they make a point of keeping the tent well ventilated. If you must cook inside, partially unzip a window or vent.

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