Vail-area district ranger gives tips for safe campsite selection |

Vail-area district ranger gives tips for safe campsite selection

A hazard tree can look like a healthy tree

Dispersed camping is allowed in the White River National Forest, but safe site selection should be on the minds of all who seek to find a place to camp in the backcountry.
John LaConte |

VAIL — As numerous people whose lives were touched by high school teacher Meredith Latchaw mourn the death of the Aurora resident this week, many campers are saying it could have happened to them.

Latchaw was killed in a freak accident on July 31 when a tree fell on her campsite near Red Sandstone Road, 12 miles north of the town of Vail.

Camping about 100 feet from the Latchaw family was Alan Gionet and his daughters; Gionet said in selecting his campsite he hadn’t thought twice about trees that could fall on him.

Few people do.

While many select their camp sites seeking the protective cover trees provide, one of the oldest rules of camping is to make sure there is not a dead branch or broken limb above.

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In the White River National Forest, however, where lodgepole pines were heavily affected by the mountain pine beetle from 2006 to 2012, dead branches and broken limbs are often attached to dead trees which are rapidly decaying.

In addition to the classic suggestion to look up for dead branches, Eagle/Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis gives these tips to campers selecting sites in the White River National Forest:

  • Check the weather before you leave. It doesn’t have to cancel your trip, says Veldhuis, but it will make you more ready if and when dangerous conditions do pop up.
  • When you get to your site, especially if you’re dispersed camping, look around for any dead or leaning trees. “They don’t even have to be right next to camp,” Veldhuis says. “You need to try to get a sense of — if a tree could fall — what would the range be?”
  • As you continue your scan, look for damaged tree trunks on living trees. Living trees with damaged trunks can also fall from strong wind, Veldhuis says.
  • Don’t limit your scan to pine and spruce trees. “With aspen, sometimes you’ve got deer and elk and wildlife that like to brush up against trees,” Veldhuis says. “That can be an entry point then for disease and other reasons that weaken the tree.”
  • Remember that a hazard tree can look like a healthy tree. “If there’s a tree that’s left standing after most of the trees around it are dead or falling over, that tree could still be a risk,” Veldhuis says. “What happened to its surrounding trees could be impacting that tree. Look for conks sticking out — those are rounded, they call it a fruiting body — that could mean there’s something going on with the tree.”

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