Everything you thought you knew about camping is wrong


If you’re a chick with a backcountry bent, you’ve probably heard more than once that packing off into the woods while it’s your time of the month is akin to chumming the water while swimming near great whites. Only with hungry bears. (Or maybe shark bears.)

Indeed, bears have such super noses that we’ve all been taught to leave any food-smelly things far, far away from our tents. But really, are they Jaws-like in their blood lust, following the faintest whiff to a speedy and gruesome kill?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. According to the National Park Service’s recent roundup of relevant scientific literature:

  • Menstruation was not a factor in any of hundreds of grizzly bear attacks reviewed by one researcher. In Yellowstone, in fact, 34 of the 43 people attacked by grizzlies in the last thirty years were men (hmm… sound familiar?) Menstruation didn’t appear to be a factor in any of the nine attacks on women.
  • In one set of experiments, black bears presented with used tampons and menstruating women ignored both. There has also never been a case of a black bear attacking a menstruating woman.
  • Polar bears are an exception, apparently responding strongly to used lady products. (They’re the closest among bruins to being shark-like – swimming in the ocean, eating seals, etc. Coincidence? I think not.)

Anyway, all this tampon talk got me thinking: What other annoying camping and hiking myths refuse to go away? Plenty, it turns out. Here are a few (and readers -- I hope you’ll weigh in with your own in the comments section) :

  • Metal attracts lightning.

Nope, not true, though I suppose this is an understandable error. Back when I was on trail crew, fleeing the summit of a mountain during a thunderstorm, my backpack began to emit an eerie wail. The whine turned out to be a pickaxe head I had stuffed in there, vibrating with charge. That’s because metal conducts electricity, and when you’re in a lightning storm, the air is full of it. So while the sparking or whining of metal is a sign to get-the-hell-down-now because lightning may strike in your immediate vicinity, it is not a sign that the metal is attracting a strike. Now, if you happen to be touching metal – perhaps a fenceline – that is struck by lightning or receives a charge from something else that is, well, it’ll transfer the electricity right to you and … ouch.

But o’ course, conductivity has its bright sides. A metal cage can transfer current around you and into the ground, provided you’re insulated from it in some way. A car with a metal frame can do this – or so my meteorologist mom once told me and my brother when we drove out on the storm-beaten plains east of our hometown to watch lightning up close. Fire lookouts are also designed with this principle in mind.

  • Lightning position protects you from getting struck.

Well, actually, I don’t know if this is a myth or not, but pretty much everyone in the know will tell you that it’s only a last resort, which should at least suggest that it doesn’t work nearly as well as getting to safe ground – e.g., below treeline, or somewhere you’re not the tallest thing around. For reference, assuming lightning position involves crouching with your feet together on a sleeping pad or something else that will insulate you from electricity that might come through the ground from a nearby strike. Keeping your feet together reduces the amount of current that can pass through your body – as seen in this adorable National Outdoor Leadership School video starting around minute 2:35.

Now, this brings us to another lightning myth, which is that you’re safe from night storms while supine on your sleeping pad … not true! (Again, see said video.) The more of your body is on the ground, the greater the exposure to ground current in the event of a strike. So yeah, this means that sometimes you should probably get in lightning position in your tent in the middle of the night (or even consider moving), if you happened to camp in a vulnerable spot – e.g., above treeline on a big mountain – if a storm happens to land on you.

  • Water must be boiled for 1-20 minutes to ensure it’s safe to drink.

Nope, not true – and conserving fuel is important. By the time water reaches a boil, everything in it likely to make you sick is dead, no matter what altitude you boil at (unless it’s some sort of crazy extremophile bacteria from a black smoker on the bottom of the ocean… but really, who’s drinking that water?) 

  • Cotton kills.

Okay. This one’s not a myth per se, but an overstatement meant to keep folks from getting hypothermia and dying when they’re caught unprepared (and to sell expensive synthetic gear … “Cotton sometimes is a factor in someone’s death out of doors, along with poor judgment and bad luck” is more accurate, but doesn’t really roll off the tongue or move polypro off the shelves). But it turns out there are some pretty fun ways to test the efficacy of cotton vs. synthetic fabrics yourself without risking death in the elements, at least in terms of how quickly they dry… and yes, cotton loses every time.

Sarah Gilman is the magazine's associate editor. She often wears cotton (along with requisite synthetic and wool gear) on backpacking trips because it is comfortable and cheap. All things in moderation, people!

Polar bear image courtesy Flickr user Stefan Cook. 

Image of synthetic gear courtesy Flickr user GORE-TEX Products.

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