Tips from Wilderness Medicine Experts on Staying Safe Outdoors

May 18, 2021

Tips from Wilderness Medicine Experts on Staying Safe Outdoors  As many people are making plans to enjoy the great outdoors this spring and summer, Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Wilderness Medicine experts are sharing some important information to help make it a safe and enjoyable time for the whole family.

Seth Hawkins, M.D., wilderness medicine expert, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and medical director for N.C. State Parks, offers the following tips.

Water safety and the myth of “dry drowning”

  • Drowning can have three different outcomes: fatal drowning, nonfatal drowning with injury or illness, and nonfatal drowning without injury or illness.
  • Drowning only takes a few seconds and can happen without an obvious struggle.
  • “Dry drowning” is a myth, perpetuated on social media every year, and causing unwarranted fear in many parents. Deaths that are wrongly described as “dry” or “secondary” drowning are caused by other existing health issues, such as infections, pneumonia or heart problems.
  • Most young children who die from drowning do so in a home swimming pool, so pools should have barriers to prevent access by young children.
  • Adults must always closely supervise children whenever they are in a pool, lake, river or ocean and should always remain within arm’s reach.
  • If caught in a rip current on the coast, always swim parallel to shore. Once free of the current, swim diagonally to shore.
  • N.C. state law requires anyone younger than 13 years of age to wear an appropriate life vest when on a boat.

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion

  • Heat exhaustion is a fairly routine condition, but heat stroke is truly life-threatening.
  • Signs of heat stroke can include seizures, agitation, confusion, slurred speech or loss of consciousness, although an altered mental status is the main sign. When someone is suffering from heat stroke, you should immediately call 911 and immerse the person in or douse them with cold water.
  • Signs of heat exhaustion can include nausea, fatigue, dizziness, weakness or rapid pulse. Someone suffering from heat exhaustion can recover by resting in the shade and drinking cool fluids.

Safely visiting national, state and local parks

  • When hiking, wear hiking shoes with a good grip.
  • Never climb on or around waterfalls and never play in the stream or river above a waterfall.
  • Watch children carefully and stay on designated trails and observation decks and platforms.
  • Be aware of steep drop-offs. Stay one body length away from the edge of cliffs and do not climb or walk over rocks at the edge of cliffs as they may be unstable.
  • Rock climbing, bouldering and rappelling are allowed at certain state parks but permits must first be obtained from the park office.

“Although our wilderness and emergency medicine teams help train rescue squads and first responders from across the region, injuries often occur in remote areas that are very difficult for emergency crews to access,” Hawkins said. “We are fortunate to live in an area with an abundance of natural resources and opportunities to enjoy nature, and by always being prepared and responsible and exercising good judgment, we and our loved ones can safely enjoy the great outdoors.”

Media contact: Joe McCloskey,, 336-716-1273