Camping Safely

Staying Alive and Healthy at an SCA Tourney

I put this article on my web site some years ago after I returned from the SCA's Estrella War, where two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning. On a night where the temperatures dropped to the freezing point, they took a propane tent heater into their tent. The tent was closed tightly enough to impede getting enough oxygen to keep the heater burning efficiently.

This was not the first incidence of a tent heater causing carbon monoxide poisoning, although I believe that this was the first incident which had a fatal outcome. I know of at least two near misses at other events, and there are undoubtedly more. There were also four tent fires at Estrella War, and dozens more at other events over the years.

A camping event should never be a life-threatening experience. However, many people are coming to tourneys without really understanding that they've left their secure little world and need different skills and knowledge to cope with the outdoor conditions and special circumstances that are typical of an SCA environment.

To help these people survive and enjoy a tourney, I dug out an article that I originally wrote about ten years ago, when I was doing a lot of work in the constabulary (the site security component of the SCA's West Kingdom. I hadn't put it on my web site because I was never really sure if it belonged there. But after the fatalities at Estrella, it's clear that the subject needs to be brought up. Please read it, take it to heart, reprint it, and circulate it wherever you can.

The SCA in general, and the West Kingdom in particular, bases much of its recreation around camping. For many people, it's the easiest way to construct a medieval-feeling environment with as few reminders of the modern world as possible. And wars like Pennsic, Estrella, Gulf Wars, and Lilies are often the high point of one's SCA activities. But if your familiarity with camping ended with the occasional overnight campout with the Scouts, or you've never camped out at all before, you should be aware of how the camping environment requires some adjustments in your usual life-style.

Safe Camping Priorities

In any outdoors situation, the first priority is staying comfortable. While a full-blown survival course isn't necessary, there are a few important differences between camping and everyday life, and understanding them can make the difference between a pleasant weekend and a miserable one.

We'll look at the three basics of survival -- water, food, and shelter -- as they pertain to camping in the SCA.


In hot weather, dehydration is a real danger. The cure is not simply drinking liquids, but drinking the right kind of liquids. Plain water is fine; so are most juices and sodas. Use coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages sparingly; they act as diuretics, fooling the body into thinking it's got too much water stored away. and causing it to excrete the "excess." Gatorade and other "sport beverages" are probably not worth the expense unless you're fighting or otherwise strenuously exerting yourself.

When camping, use only the water source approved by the autocrat or landowner. Don't drink out of streams! When in doubt, bring water from your own municipal supply; the chlorine treatment will stay effective for a number of days. Or bring some bottled drinking water.


Food poisoning is avoidable. Make sure that food needing refrigeration is stored in ice chests (yes, with ice in them!). Buy small bottles (or single portions) of mayonnaise or other foods that perish rapidly after being opened.

Wash your hands before preparing food, keep the cutting board clean (particularly after using it for chicken); in short, do everything your mother told you to do. It's important!

Dispose of trash properly. Don't let it accumulate, but dump it at regular intervals to keep down vermin. Dump waste water away from the camping area. Never use the area around a water supply for washing; it's a good way to make the supply vermin-infested, soggy, and otherwise unuseable. Think about getting one collapsible bucket for taking water away from the source to your designated washing area and another for carrying the waste water away ... but don't mix them up!


We use tents as shelters for sleeping and for staying out of the weather. Let's look at sleeping first, since that's something most of us will be doing sometime during the weekend.

The art of sleeping comfortably simply consists of making sure that, in cold weather, you have some way of keeping your body heat. The first step is to use a ground cloth to prevent moisture in the earth from dampening your bedding. The second is to insulate, either by bedding (at least as much underneath you as on top of you) or by the use of a foam mattress or an air mattress. You don't need to invest in a high-tech sleeping bag if you bring enough blankets and sheets and keep them dry. If it gets really cold, use your cloak as an extra blanket, and wear some clothing to bed.

The safe way to use a wood, kerosene or propane tent heater is leaving the door open a crack when using it, so it can get enough oxygen to burn efficiently. When you're ready to go to bed, turn the heater off, and make doubly sure that it is off. Never sleep in a tent with a burning heater. If it starts combusting the fuel improperly, it can produce carbon monoxide, an odorless, poisonous gas. When you're asleep, you won't know that this gas is being produced, and it will kill you without you ever being aware that you're in danger.

Getting drenched to the bone is seldom fatal, but it leads to illness by stripping heat from the body. If you don't have a good weatherproof cloak, at least invest in a plastic poncho or rain suit. It's not period, but we're talking health and comfort. And bring a change of clothing.

In a pinch, you can improvise an overcoat with a plastic trash bag by cutting out a head hole and arm holes ... another reason to stash a few extra trash bags in the tourney box.

Pitching Camp Securely

Every campsite is different, but there are a few common principles to observe which will make your camping more pleasant.

First, consider traffic. Are you blocking a traffic lane to the eric or the privies? If you are, you'll have a lot more company than you want, and you'll have it all night long. So leave those vital traffic lanes open. If you can't avoid pitching camp adjacent to a traffic lane, try to keep your guy ropes away from the lane.

Speaking of guy ropes, did you know that you should flag them? It's the law in the West Kingdom, and an excellent idea everywhere! But don't assume that because they're flagged, they're invulnerable.

Many of the sites we use have a lot of wind, which puts strain on the tent's guy ropes. Be aware of the direction of prevailing winds, and orient your tent to minimize the wind's influence on it. To keep the guy ropes from pulling out, here are some tricks that work wonders.

1. Drive the stake in as close to 90 degrees to the rope as possible, and drive it as deep as you can ... not only to reduce the chances of stubbing your toe, but to reduce the leverage of the rope against the stake.

2. Try to put the stakes as far away from the tent as possible, without creating a menace to navigation. The farther away they are, the better leverage they have.

3. Use longer stakes. Standard plastic or stamped metal tent pegs aren't much good for large pavilions. Use 12" nails with washers, available at about 40 cents apiece from large hardware outlets. In sandy soil, back up these stakes (or replace them) with one-by-twos at least a foot and a half long.

4. Double-line. That is, run two ropes from each point that now has one rope, and stake them down at least a foot or so apart.

5. If your stakes are holding but your ropes are too slippery to hold their adjustment in gusts, adjust the rope and then set the adjustment with duct tape.

Fire Safety

Let's face it. In the SCA, we play with fire a lot. We use it for heat, for light, for entertainment, for cooking. So camp safety must include fire safety.

In its infinite wisdom, the State of California has mandated that all tents sold here be fire-retardent. (This does not mean fireproof. The tent will burn, but its flames will not sustain themselves without additional fuel.) And at large outdoor events, the constables often have fire extinguishers. But that's about as much protection as you're going to get; you'll have to provide the rest yourself.

First, make sure you have your own fire extinguishers if you have a fire, even if it's simply a candle. For wood fires, a bucket of water will suffice. For white-gas or propane stoves, oil lamps, or paraffin logs, you need a "Type B" extinguisher; water won't work, and may in fact spread the fire.

Any fire policies in effect should be strictly adhered to. These policies have often been the only reason we have been able to get fire permits. They may seem like overkill, but they're really not.

Most places we camp allow off-ground fires in firepits. Your firepit should be a stable structure, not a washtub delicately balanced on a few rocks. And burn the driest, most seasoned wood you can, not green stuff that throws sparks. And is it too much to remind you to set up a windbreak?

One last thing about fire. Think about the fuel you're wearing. That's right. Clothes burn. And no clothing burns faster or hotter than synthetic like rayon, nylon, or polyesters. You are safest with 100% cotton, leather, or wool. And if you're cooking or tending the fire, tuck those long sleeves away!

If you see a violation of one of the policies listed below, point out the violation to the offender, or let the constables know. It really is important; you could be saving an untold number of people an untold amount of injury, death, and destruction. And if you see any kind of fire burning out of control, don't be afraid to yell out the alarm. Fire often gives you only one chance. Use it.

West Kingdom Fire Policies

The SCA's West Kingdom includes Northern California, one of the most flammable localities in the world. Over they years, they have developed a set of fire policies which have proved necessary to ensure public safety and the continued use of their sites. Whether you live in that kingdom or not, I heartily recommend that these common-sense policies be followed.

1. No ground fires of any kind.

2. All firepits must have all grass cut short (cleared back) within a sixfoot radius.

3. All fires, stoves, and flame-producing light sources (candles, oil lamps, etc.) must be attended at all times.

4. All candles or lanterns must be enclosed. "Enclosed" means that there's some type of barrier (metal, glass, ceramic, etc.) surrounding the flame. Candles and lanterns are NOT to be put on top of the grass.

5 .All fires must have a fire extinguisher or a pail of water within immediate reach at all times. This includes gasoline or propane campstoves as well as hibachis, grills, and any other fires. We recommend that an A-B rated fire extinguisher be used on any gasoline or oil-fueled fire.

6. All Coleman-type (white gas or propane) camping equipment, lanterns, stoves, space heaters, etc. are allowable if kept from other flammable materials (grass, cloth, pavilions, etc.) and NOT placed directly on the ground. Whether you can put it on wood, tables, or chests (ice or not) depends on how much heat the item gives off.

7. No "tiki torches" are allowed at West Kingdom events, unless the Constable in Charge can be persuaded that their construction, or the site conditions, would not make them a fire hazard should they fall over or be blown or knocked down.

Common Sense Stuff (Or, Don't Be a Bozo)

Sunburn, etc.

A little sun is good for you, but a lot can hurt you. This will come as no surprise to those of us who live in sunny climates, but folks from coastal areas need to be reminded of this from time to time. Be sure to bring sunscreen and a hat to outdoor tourneys. These two things can make a real difference in comfort. And stay out of the sun if you can. The ozone layer is probably a lot thinner now than it was in the Middle Ages.

Sharp Things

These include such things as live steel (swords, daggers, and such) and utilitarian tools like axes or hatchets. No matter what the sharp thing is, be sure the area is clear of bystanders before you use or exhibit it. If you're chopping wood, make sure you leave enough room for errant bits of flying wood. You can get into serious trouble by being cavalier about the dangers of live steel. And if you haven't had much experience in using axes or the like, ask a more experienced camper to show you how it's done.

Please keep sharp things away from where children can get at them, and instruct them that such things are not toys. I have seen children "playing swords" with real carving knives. Scary? You bet.


As adults, we have a responsibility to use alcohol in such a way that you do not present a problem to yourself or anybody else. This really is a safety issue, as well as a social one; you can do yourself serious damage in an outdoor environment by getting too drunk to take care of yourself.

Using alcohol responsibly is easy for most people. If you're not one of those people, perhaps you have a deeper problem than we can help you with, and the SCA is not the place for you unless you're willing to forego alcohol altogether when you participate. In the past few years, we have had a rash of alcohol poisonings or other medical crises due to alcohol; we have also seen the usual number of drunken fights, threats and hard feelings. We don't need any of it, do we? So if you're going to use alcohol, it makes sense to do it in the presence of others who can gauge its effect on you and advise accordingly.

Of course, if you've had so much alcohol that you require medical care, the chirurgeons and constables will do what they can to keep you from hurting yourself. But it's contrary to the Society's dedication to "courtesie" to have made it necessary for someone else to forego their own enjoyment or even their sleep because of something you shouldn't have done, but did anyway.

Also remember that furnishing alcohol to minors is illegal. And it's especially reprehensible from a safety standpoint, because children have less experience in knowing when to quit, and alcohol-induced medical emergencies like dehydration or hypothermia are likely to hit them harder.

There are signs in a lot of factories that say "Safety is everybody's business." And it's true. And safety is mostly being aware of the dangers and using common sense to avoid them. As comfortable as SCA-style camping can be, remember that it's not like home, and you have to pay more attention to heat, cold, and other stresses of the outdoors.

Index of Previous Columns

Other articles you can read, mostly on tentmaking and medieval tents

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