Photo Credits

Basecamp Ama Dablam

A 25-second exposure in Ama Dablam basecamp, Nepal. A steep ascent, the peak is 5,563m (18,251 ft).

© Cristian Tzecu :

Kitchen Safety: Don’t Get Burned!

Learning from Ourselves: How to Prevent Burns in the Backcountry

Camp Kitchen

In July of 2014 five young men and their leader were settling down for dinner on day eight of a fourteen-day backpacking trip in the Midwest. They had just received their only food resupply of the trip and were huddled under the tarp that covered their backcountry kitchen. It was around 6:30 p.m. and raining heavily. A participant had been helping to cook dinner and was ready to put some hot water into his cup.

The participant was squatting next to the stove with close-toed shoes on, picked up a pot of boiling water with a set of personal pliers, and began pouring the water into his cup. The pliers slipped off of the pot, resulting in boiling water pouring into his right shoe. He rolled out from under the tarp and instinctively removed the shoe. The leader got to him quickly and removed the sock, which revealed burns around the ankle and on top of the right foot. The leader picked up the participant, carried him to the lake nearby, submerged the burned foot into the cold water for around 10 minutes, and administered Ibuprofen.

After cooling the burn the leader carried the participant back up to the campsite and into a tent. The leader elevated the burned foot, applied A&D Ointment and bacitracin, and covered the burned area with loose gauze. The leader used their satellite phone to call the Camp Manito-wish emergency line, which connected them to our on-call staff team. After several dropped calls, the leader connected with our on-site nursing staff for next steps in treatment and the Camp Manito-wish wilderness team began mobilizing to execute an evacuation. The participant’s pain was managed throughout the night and he was evacuated from the field the next morning to seek medical care at a nearby hospital before making his way home. He suffered partial thickness burns on top of the foot and ankle.

Burns acquired in the backcountry kitchen account for around 8% of the incidents reported to Camp Manito-wish YMCA (based on an analysis of reported incidents from 2009 to 2014). These incidents have varied from spilled boiling water to grabbing a hot pan with one’s bare hand to hot oil splattering when flipping a pancake. Seventy-five percent of those incidents occur during dinner at the end of a day of travel (canoeing, backpacking, or sea kayaking) versus the other 25% that occur in the morning during breakfast. An average of once every two years there is an incident from spilled boiling water that requires an evacuation.


Camp Kitchen Fire

There are many things that the participant and the leader did right in the situation above. The participant was squatting in the kitchen instead of sitting on the ground while handling boiling water, an action that might have kept the burn from occurring on his torso or upper thighs and may have minimized the surface area of the burn. He also used a tool to grip the pot instead of grabbing it with an unprotected hand. The kitchen space was protected and participants were moving around the space instead of through it, making it less likely for a pot or stove to be knocked over. The participant was wearing close-toed shoes to protect his feet from injury while around the campsite. The response from the leader after the incident was immediate. The leader promptly cooled down the burn, administered first aid just as the protocols are spelled out in his Wilderness First Responder training, and documented the analysis and treatment thoroughly. He not only took care of the injured participant, but also made sure the rest of the group was safe.

Despite everything that went "right" in this situation, in the end a young man still suffered an injury. So what could have been done to keep this from happening? There are always multiple factors leading into an incident. The most apparent factor is that the participant could have used a "dipper cup" to scoop hot water from the pot rather than pouring hot water from a large pot into small cup. The steps leading to a safe transfer of water would have been this:

  1. Remove hot pot of water from the stove and place onto the ground to limit the likelihood of spilling.
  2. Place the cup that will receive water onto the ground.
  3. Remove hand from the cup while hot water is being poured.
  4. Dip the designated "dipper cup" into the water, fill, and pour contents into the receiving mug.
  5. If you are going to pour, it should be from a big vessel to a big vessel and from a squatting position.

While this step-by-step backcountry kitchen lesson seems like the most obvious answer to preventing this incident, its lack of use was not the only factor leading up to this partial thickness burn. There was an institutional error that was present before it occurred. Camp Manito-wish has an in-depth and impressive training process for its trip leaders. Within the 11-day training, all trip leaders go through a Training Trip that mimics what their trip will look like. However, in the long list of topics that gets covered in staff training, the backcountry kitchen set-up specific to boiling water is one that was taken for granted. The reality is that the risk posed by pouring hot water from a pot to a cup near one’s feet was never discussed with this participant. It is also likely that this conversation never happened during this leader’s training, an example of how an assumption of existing knowledge can be detrimental.

In the gap between what we assume to be common knowledge in our leaders and participants lays a great amount of risk. While the possibilities in that gap seem to be infinite and sometimes unglamorous, it is, in reality, where the high-probability and low-severity risks turn into incidents. An injury that makes up 8% of the incidents reported on a consistent basis year-to-year deserves to be talked about. Camp Manito-wish YMCA will be using the data from incidents and near-misses in the field to enhance staff training and you can bet that risks presented in the backcountry kitchen will receive special attention.



Dani Engmark

Dani Engmark is the Wilderness Program Director at Camp Manito-wish YMCA. Before entering the administrative world, she taught courses for a variety of higher education institutions and led extended wilderness trips culminating in 45 days backpacking in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Dani is currently residing in Boulder Junction, WI, where she is a fan of cooking good food and throwing snowballs for the neighbor’s dog seven months out of the year.


The opinions of  contributing writers may not be the the same as the opinions of OSI.

Posted by

Dani Engmark

on 4/22/15
Field SafetyProgram ManagementIncidentsResource


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