The thought of summer activities such as camping is an exciting one, but managing asthma in an outdoor setting can be challenging, especially if you aren’t prepared. As someone who lives with moderate asthma that usually flares up with pollen allergies, I’m all too familiar with the challenges the great outdoor presents to my sensitive airways.
Last summer, I was hiking a major trail near Lake Huron when I noticed that I was having difficulty breathing. I immediately grabbed my rescue inhaler, sat on a rock to administer the right amount of my albuterol inhaler and waited to regain my breath.
Having an asthma attack on a secluded trail an hour away from a hospital made me and my companions anxious. After this experience, I learned my lesson and have become much more conscious of how my condition affects my breathing when I’m doing outdoor activities. Camping does not have to be avoided by those of us with asthma, but it needs to be managed with extra precautions.
Dr. Kanao Otsu, an allergist and immunologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, offers Allergic Living readers expert tips on how to prepare for a camping trip that’s both fun and safe.
1. Tweak that Asthma Action Plan
Any child or person with asthma needs an Asthma Action Plan, and it may need to be updated to allow for activities like camping amid triggers like grass pollen or moldy foliage. This can be done annually with your doctor, but for people with more moderate to severe asthma, Otsu says it’s best to update it every six months. The plan outlines the medication you need and how to regain control if symptoms emerge and also for an emergency such as an asthma attack.
2. Essentials to Pack
Be prepared with your medicine. Otsu says to double-check that your prescriptions are filled, so you don’t run short. Bring with you:
- Controller inhaler: This is the inhaler you take daily to control underlying inflammation and reduce symptoms in the first place.
- Rescue inhaler (aka blue puffer): for opening airways and immediate relief.
- Spacer: Not everyone uses, but allergists recommend this device for ensuring medication reaches your lungs.
- Daily antihistamine medication, the brand recommended by your allergist or doctor.
- Set of epinephrine auto-injectors, if you also have food or stinging insect allergies.
3. Be Prepared to Avoid Emergencies
If you will be camping in a remote location, Otsu recommends first visiting your doctor and letting the physician know the location of your trip and for how long you’ll be there.
“If your asthma is severe, your doctor might prescribe prednisone to take with you,” she says. “It all boils down to your severity and past history. If it’s really severe, choosing a camping location that is closer to a hospital is preferable.”
She stresses: before going, do your research. “You want to know exactly where you are camping and what environmental or physical triggers will be around you,” says Otsu.
4. Mind Your Triggers
One of the biggest triggers for my asthma is environmental allergens. If you decide to embark on a camping trip, Otsu advises knowing what your outdoor triggers are as a first step to controlling your asthma. “A lot of asthmatics are triggered by environmental allergies, such as tree or grass pollen and ragweed,” she says. Otsu encourages carrying rescue inhalers and antihistamines in the daily trip pack you’ll be carrying.
Cold air is another trigger, even in summer. “It might get cold in your tent, and there will be a lot of cold air exposure to your lungs,” says Otsu. “Taking your controller inhaler each morning and night is a great way to keep asthma at bay when it’s cold out.”
Bringing pets on your camping trip is something to be careful about, especially if they will be sharing a tent with you. “Being in a confined space with an animal that you may be allergic to may pose a serious problem and irritate your asthma,” says Otsu.
Altitude can be a factor, too. So if you’re planning on camping at high altitudes, Otsu reminds that the oxygen concentration will be less than places at sea level.
5. Steer Clear of Campfires
The campfire is almost synonymous with camping, but those with asthma need to beware. Smoke from campfires is very irritating to your airways, and can set off airway inflammation and even provoke an asthma attack.
The best precaution is to avoid being near a campfire, but what if that’s not possible? Otsu recommends sitting a relatively far distance from the campfire. If the wind changes and blows the smoke in your direction, switch seats with someone else.
Before booking a camping site, check if there have been any wildfires in the area, as the wind can carry smoke and irritate your asthma.
6. Physical Activities While Camping
From hiking to canoeing, there are plenty of activities to take part in while camping. If exercise triggers your asthma, Otsu recommends pre-treatment.
“Take your rescue inhaler 15 to 20 minutes prior to physical activity,” she suggests. “And being mindful of your body and when it needs rest is probably the best way to tell if you’re over-exerting yourself and causing your asthma to flare.”
7. When to Camp
One parting piece advice: Otsu says to think ahead about the best time of the year to go, to avoid your peak allergy season. For instance, if ragweed is your nemesis, try not to go in late summer and fall when it is pollinating.