Identifying Poisonous Plants While Outdoors

We think that there’s nothing better than being able to explore the outdoors. Nature is beautiful, and the unexplored world has a lot to offer. But to the uninformed camper or backpacker, the outdoors can also prove to be very dangerous. The ability to identify poisonous plans is an essential skill for any outdoorsman. Being able to do so can make your trip more enjoyable and can keep you safe.

Why the Ability to Identify Poisonous Plants is Important

poisonous plants

When outdoors, there are three poisonous plants most likely to cause problems. They include:

  • Poison Ivy
  • Poison Oak
  • Poison Sumac

All three contain urushiol, an oily compound that is responsible for allergic reactions.

Identifying poisonous plants while outdoors is a vital skill to have. Perhaps more importantly, it’s essential that you have extensive knowledge about these plants and feel comfortable identifying them. That’s because when you are outdoors, you are often in an unfamiliar setting. When in a different environment, you tend to rely on your natural instincts because they provide comfort and familiarity.

Your natural instincts will undoubtedly kick in if you were ever to find yourself in a survival situation. Imagine getting lost while hiking. You will not have access to any new knowledge. There’s no cellphone service, and you won’t have access to Google. You must rely on what you already know. Even worse, people tend not to think as precisely when they are in frantic or panicking.

That’s why identifying poisonous plants is so important. You need to trust your instincts when outdoors, and the ability to recognize and avoid poisonous plants needs to be second-nature. If it is, you can help keep yourself safe and may improve your chances of survival. Symptoms of coming in contact or ingesting a poisonous plant can range from mild discomfort to death.

What we just described may sound extreme, and in some ways, it is. Mountain hiking, for example, is a very safe activity. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, you have a .0064 percent chance of dying while mountain hiking. In the perfect world, you would learn survival skills and never have to use them.

But not learning them is not worth the risk. An accident can happen at any time while outdoors. Taking a few hours to learn necessary survival skills is an investment well worth it if it ends up saving your life one day.

Even if you don’t find yourself in a life-or-death situation, avoiding poisonous plants can make the trip more enjoyable for everyone. Have you ever been on a hike with someone who came in contact with poison ivy on the first day of the trip? They are miserable for the rest of the journey. If their symptoms are severe enough, they may have to turn around and head home.

Although poisonous plants can cause serious harm if you come in contact with them, they pose a much more significant problem if you inhale them. Inhalation is a risk for those taking an overnight trip who gather leaves and twigs as fuel for a fire. These campers end up inhaling toxic particles while laughing around the campfire, potentially resulting in a severe allergic respiratory reaction.

When push comes to shove, there’s no excuse to head into the wilderness incapable of identifying poisonous plants. If you are an avid backpacker who does not know about toxic plants, consider yourself lucky that you have not yet encountered them on one of your treks. If you’re a beginning hiker, there’s no better time to learn something that could one day save your life.

In fact, anyone who spends time outdoors should take the time to learn about the threat of poisonous plants. Not only does this include campers, hikers, and backpackers, but it means rock climbers and mountain bikers too. It even applies the everyday person who enjoys taking their dog for a walk through the local park. Learning about poisonous plants does not take much time, but it worthwhile.

Plants That You Should Be Able to Identify

If asked, “What does poison ivy look like?” you are probably familiar with the expression, “Leaves of three, leave it be.” That expression still rings true to this day when identifying poison ivy and poison oak. However, that expression will not safeguard you from poison sumac and other poisonous plants.

Studies have shown that plants account for 3.5 percent of all poisonings annually in the United States. Numerous plants are poisonous, but you should begin by focusing on the three most common. We recommend visiting this link from WebMD to see poison ivy pictures, poison oak pictures, and poison sumac pictures. Doing so can help you familiarize yourself with the plants.

Once you have learned to spot poison ivy, oak, and sumac, you can visit this link to see pictures of other species of poisonous plants. For now, however, we’ll focus on the primary culprits.

Poison Ivy

Although poison ivy is the most well-known poisonous plant, it is also one of the most difficult to spot because of its adaptability. The three leaves are attached to a small stem. The smaller stem then connects to the more plant base. The leaves tend to have jagged edges.

The base root of the larger plant will always appear fuzzy. The leaves of the poison ivy plant can be either red or green, and shiny or dull. Because of this, it is often difficult to distinguish them from ordinary tree leaves. Poison ivy usually grows as either a low-standing bush or in a vine-like manner.

Poison ivy will also have leaf stems that alternate on the branch, meaning they will never be directly opposite each other. Furthermore, the veins in the leaves will also alternate. That is often a key indicator if you’re unsure about whether a plant is poison ivy.

Poison Oak

Poison oak has characteristics very similar to poison ivy. Their leaflets consist of three leaves, and the plant grows in alternating patterns like poison ivy. The poison oak plant, however, grows in an erect, upright manner. Additionally, poison oak leaves are round instead of jagged. Like poison ivy, poison oak leaves can be either red or green, although they are only red in the fall.

Poison Sumac

The rule of thumb about three leaves will not help when it comes to poison sumac. Poison sumac grows as a small bush or tree. Each branch contains anywhere from seven to 13 leaves, which can often make the plant challenging to identify. Even more dangerous, the plant can produce white fruits that appear to be inconspicuous. Poison sumac tends to grow in swampy areas.

Tips to Avoid Poisonous Plants

If you are heading into the woods and are fearful of poisonous plants, there are a few steps that you can take to reduce your risk of exposure, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

First, the organization emphasizes that you can come into poisonous plants both directly and indirectly. If you’re on a camping trip, your bag could brush up against a toxic plant. The next time you handle your bag, you would end up exposing yourself to the poison.

To protect yourself, the CDC recommends covering as much skin as possible by wearing

  • Boots
  • Gloves
  • Long sleeves
  • Long Pants

Even if it is summer, you should still take this precaution if worried about coming in contact with poisonous plants. If heat is an issue, wear lightweight, athletic clothing. Also wear light colors, as dark colors will attract the sun’s UV rays. When you return from your trip, wash all of your clothing separately in case you’ve come in contact with a poisonous plant. You should clean the clothes in hot water.

We also encourage you to carry rubbing alcohol or dish soap with you on your trip. If you do happen to come in contact with a poisonous plant, you should rinse your skin with alcohol or detergent and lots of water. You’ll want to rinse frequently so that the plant’s poison does not set in on the skin. Also, both rubbing alcohol and dish soap can be used to clean tools or utensils that you handle.

When you return home, you should wash all tools and gear thoroughly. Urushiol can remain active for up to five years on a product’s surface. Not cleaning your equipment puts you at risk of exposure before your next trip begins.

You may also want to pack calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream into your pack. A small tube won’t take up much space, but it can help treat a rash or skin infection that develops from exposure to a poisonous plant. Both will reduce itching and blistering, which can thereby reduce spreading.

You should also be cautious about taking an antihistamine as means to reduce itching. Antihistamines can be useful, but they tend to make many people drowsy. Drowsiness and disorientation are incredibly dangerous when outdoors, especially when walking a trail or area of land with which you are unfamiliar. If you take an antihistamine, be sure that you have set camp for the night.

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