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Should you worry about camping near trees?

“If it bleeds, it leads.”

“People are only interested in risks that aren't normal. Ones they haven't thought about before.”

For whatever reason, people nowadays are especially interested in the sexy, unusual risks in their activities. Don't get me wrong, unusual risks are still risks. But no one thinks about getting in a car crash on the way to camping. EVERYONE thinks about getting eaten by a bear, hit by lightning, or – thanks to a couple sad recent examples – having a tree fall on their tent or camper.

Sure, branches and whole trees do fall. But after a large limb fell in an open clearing at our campground in North Dakota, I asked myself this question. Should you worry about camping near or under trees?

Why do trees shed their branches?

Your word for the day is cladoptosis. It's the regular shedding of branches by trees. Some tree species will let branches just fall off cleanly. Cladoptosis is similar to the way deciduous trees shed their leaves in the fall. Why would this be a benefit to the tree? Maybe a small branch is diseased. Perhaps it was damaged in some way. It could be too shaded by other branches, so leaves and needles are not getting enough sunlight. In some way, the branch is draining resources without benefiting the tree. So, off it goes.

So is cladoptosis the culprit? Is this why campers are getting crushed by branches? No.

Cladoptosis usually leads to shedding of very small branches. Twigs, really. It's messy, but not particularly dangerous. Unless you look up and get poked in the eye by one, I guess. (I should really stop joking about that sort of thing. Now I've guaranteed that a headline within a week will be “Scout blinded by a small twig falling from a tree.”)

Sudden Branch Drop Syndrome

There is another version of Cladoptosis that may be a more likely culprit for deadly – or at least trip-ending – branch drops: the creatively named Sudden Branch Drop Syndrome. This is when otherwise healthy-looking trees will suddenly drop a much larger branch. One large enough to cause injury or damage.

Arborists debate exactly why this happens. Is the tree sick despite healthy appearances? Is it a healthy tree trying to drop branches with disease or injuries?

Sudden Branch Drop Syndrome is more common when the tree experiences dry winters, followed by a wet spring or summer. That helps the theory a sudden increase in water weight exposes hidden weaknesses or injuries, causing the branch to drop.

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Unfortunately, perfect camping days are also the kind of days in which a tree happily draws up moisture and invests energy in growing branches. Summer days with relatively winds, and after a period of rain or other moisture. Those lovely days when the plants are green, lakes and rivers are full, and burn bans are canceled. Days with green grasses and lots of plant growth, including tree growth.

Sudden Branch Drop is, as the name describes, sudden. There will be little to no warning. There is nothing you can see (especially as a layman tourist) in the tree to tell that it's ready to drop a branch. Yet luckily, SBD usually happens during the day while the tree is chugging away processing sunlight. These are times people are away from their tents and campers to hike, boat, fish, etc.

Case in point: the very large cottonwood branch that fell at the campground we're hosts at happened in the middle of the day. Ranger Mom left for the National Park Service site in the morning and noticed nothing wrong. On her way back home, she texted me to point out the massive branch shown in the video.

Storms

Trees can also fail catastrophically at other times, too. We've all seen news video with trees felled from hurricanes, tornadoes, and localized severe thunderstorms. Branches already structurally damaged or diseased will fall during high winds. The wind pressure and shaking is too much for them. Same thing can happen with the root system, toppling the entire tree. Perhaps the root system is damaged. Perhaps the soil is too loose to support the huge windloads of a giant tree swaying in heavy winds, especially after a soaking rain.

Luckily for campers, most people will seek shelter away from their tents and Rvs during storms strong enough to do damage to healthy trees. Sadly, most is not the same as all. Our campground's maintenance guy tells of a very strong storm that blew through Stanton, ND and topped many of the trees in the park campground. One of which smashed directly into an RV, wherein the camper was watching TV ignoring the severe storm warnings. He wasn't injured, but it totaled his RV.

Lightning strikes will also shatter trees and send their branches flying.

Widowmaker branches like the one above hang from or sit on larger healthier branches.   Adrian J. Hunter ,  Gumtree widowmaker from side cropped ,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Widowmaker branches like the one above hang from or sit on larger healthier branches.
Adrian J. Hunter, Gumtree widowmaker from side cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0

Widowmakers

Widowmakers are branches or other debris that are already disconnected from their parent tree, but have been caught up on healthy and still-attached branches. Rains and wind can loosen those branches and send them on the rest of their journey down to the ground.

Which trees are most likely to experience Sudden Branch Drop Syndrome?

  • Oaks

  • Cottonwoods (like the ones here at Sakakawea Park, featured in the video embedded above)

  • Sycamore


How are your tree ID skills? Cottonwoods during their “fluff season” are easy to ID. But if your hobby arborist skills are a little rusty, we STRONGLY recommend the iNaturalist app. It's a fun and interesting app for IOS and android. It's great for anyone interested in the outdoors in general, or the plants and animals around them in particular.

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We also recommend you practice identifying the trees around you by using field guides and tree books like these ones. (Note: these are affiliate links) It's a fun way to learn your tree species, and also a great way to add a little STEM education time for the kids.

What are the odds of getting killed by a falling tree while camping?

Is getting crushed by a tree branch a real risk for campers? The news would have you believe it happens quite a lot. An 11-year old Girl Scout was killed shortly after our video was released. In 2015, two campers were killed in Yosemite.

These are truly tragic events, that we wish never happened. And we're sorry that the video above, which was filmed just before the two more recent events, sounded a bit flippant about the risk. But just because a risk exists doesn't mean that people should not go camping, or that campgrounds should cut down all the trees that are anywhere near an RV or tent pad.

But while it does happen every once in a while. The odds of being killed by a tree while camping is still VERY low.

Some stats I came across while researching for this article and video highlight this point:

  • You are 2,000 times more likely to die of some other camping mishap than by a falling tree while camping

  • You are 600 times more likely to die in a car wreck on the way to the campsite

  • You are twice as likely to be struck by lightning (although I suppose you could catch a ground current from a tree that gets struck, then ALSO have a branch from that tree fall on you after it was struck.)

  • You are 75 times more likely to win a lottery jackpot

What can you do to be safe while camping near trees?

There are ways you can mitigate the risk of tree-related injuries / damage while camping.

Look up, and look around.

Look for “widowmakers,” the branches that are already detached – or nearly so – from their parent tree and may fall in the next stiff wind or heavy dew.

Look for branches that have little to no leaves on it, on a tree that is otherwise fully leafed-out for the season. This is a sign of a damaged or diseased branch that may eventually be shed. (Please note that this will NOT help for Sudden Branch Drop Syndrome.)

Identify the trees near your site, using iNaturalist or the knowledge you gain from guide books. If your campground is largely cottownoods or the other tree species subject to SBDS, then just make sure your camper or tent is not directly under any of its branches, if possible. Remember that even a small branch can gather some serious force after a long drop.

Bring a weather radio. If a severe thunderstorm warning is issued, you should be getting better shelter than a tent or your RV anyway. Being close enough to a tree where a branch could fall on you is FAR too close to the tree for lightning safety. Ground currents from a tree strike are a bigger risk than a fallen branch.


So... CAN you die from a tree fall while camping?

Sure. Anything is possible, and it does seem to happen from time to time. But when you think about 40 million Americans going camping every year, with 587 million camping days logged, this is a very, VERY low risk.

But here's the trick: sure, each of these camping risks sound very low. But it's not zero. Camping is not a risk-free activity. You should always be sure that you are aware of your surroundings. You should make sure you and your party know some basic storm safety, campfire safety, and nature safety.


Tell us your camping tree story!

Have you had any close calls with trees while camping? Have you noticed widowmakers in overhead trees and wisely chosen a different spot? Let us know on our Facebook post, linked below! Better yet, if you have pics, let's see them on Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #RegenRoadTrip.