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Campers Beware! 3 Dangerous Plants to Avoid While Hiking

| Updated Mar 22, 2023

Eek! You DO NOT want to mess with these plants! Here are 3 dangerous plants to avoid while hiking and camping…

There are three main plants in the United States that hikers and campers need to be aware of. These plants pose a risk by merely being touched. 

Granted, there are other dangerous plants that can kill you if you eat them. But we’re going to assume you’re bringing a bagged lunch on your hike and not snacking on the plants on the trail. 

Other articles found on the web will warn you against Giant Hogweed and the Manchineel Tree, but those are very rare and very isolated. So, you’re not likely to come in contact with them. Not to mention Florida locals mark Manchineel trees with a big orange X to warn you away.

So, we will focus on the dangerous plants that most affect hikers and campers. Plants that you are actually likely to come in contact with in most states. 

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1. Water Hemlock

water hemlock

This plant is one of the most dangerous in the western hemisphere. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous and should not be touched and certainly not ingested. Its toxin, called cicutoxin, attacks the central nervous system and can kill you in less than 15 minutes. 

Symptoms of exposure include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, foaming at the mouth, rapid pulse and breathing, seizures, and death. 

Accidental poisonings usually occur when water hemlock is mistaken for edible plants such as artichokes, celery, sweet potatoes, sweet anise, or wild parsnip. But even touching the plant can make you sick or even kill you.

Where Does It Grow

Water hemlock is found throughout North America, particularly in wetlands associated with ditches, stream banks, pond margins, and marshes.

Interesting Fact: Some birds can safely eat water hemlock fruit but anecdotal reports suggest that humans that eat these birds can get sick second-hand.

How to Identify It

Water hemlock can be identified by its umbrella-like clusters of small white flowers and its hollow, segmented stem. The leaves are feather-like and divided into many small leaflets. 

The plant can grow up to 8 feet tall and has a distinctive parsnip-like odor. As such, it is sometimes called poison parsnip.

2. Poison Ivy / Poison Oak/ Poison Sumac

These plants are one of the most prevalent poisonous plants in the U.S. They are part of the sumac family and ooze an oil called urushiol. 

When touched, this oil gets on your skin, clothes, hair, shoes, and pets. Within 72 hours, it causes an allergic reaction that results in an itchy red rash with bumps or blisters.

Worst of all, the oil can be further transferred by more touch. (Wash with soap and water as soon after exposure as possible!)

So, for instance, if you touch poison ivy with your hand and then rub your face, you’ll get a rash on your hands and face.

If your dog runs through poison ivy and then you give him a big hug, you’ll have a rash up and down your arms. 

Needless to say, it’s extremely uncomfortable, and some people react far worse than others. Calamine lotion, diphenhydramine, or hydrocortisone can help control itching. Cool compresses and baths can help bring relief, too.

Poison Ivy

Where Does It Grow

Poison ivy is found throughout the United States except for Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the West Coast. But poison oak makes up for that western void by growing along the West Coast and Southeast.

Poison sumac grows in bogs or swamps in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the Southeast.

How To Identify It

The CDC has a helpful page with pictures on identifying poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Poison oak and poison ivy have similar traits. They grow as a vine or bush and most often have clusters of three leaves.

Three sayings help you identify poison ivy and poison oak:

  • Leaves of Three, Leave Them Be
  • Longer Middle Stem, Don’t Touch Them
  • Hairy Vine No Friend of Mine

Poison oak and ivy aren’t the only plants with three leaves from the same node. However, the middle stem is usually longer. So, those two traits combined are big signifiers. A hairy vine is another big signifier for poison ivy, and hairy leaves are tell-tale of poison oak.

Poison Sumac
Poison Sumac

Poison sumac is a bit different. The “leaves of three, let it be” warning doesn’t apply because sumac usually has 7-13 leaf clusters. It is a woody shrub that may have glossy, pale yellow, or cream-colored berries.

3. Stinging Nettle & Burning Nettle

Stinging Nettle & Burning Nettle
Stinging Nettle & Burning Nettle

Stinging nettle and its cousin, burning nettle, causes severe skin irritation that can last several hours. The plants live up to their names by “stinging” and “burning” you with countless tiny hairs on their stems and the underside of their leaves.

These tiny hairs are hollow, and when touched, the tips break off and expose a microscopic needle that injects nasty chemicals into your skin. These chemicals cause an immediate painful reaction, sometimes burning, itching, or tingling. 

Brushing the scraggly plants with bare skin is enough to get stung. You certainly don’t want to grab it; even cloth gloves won’t protect you from its sting.

Interesting fact: Nettle has been a staple for ancient cultures and when prepared properly, is still an important food source throughout the world.

Where Does It Grow

Burning nettle is often referred to as stinging nettle, but the two plants are different. Burning nettle is common in western and many eastern states, as well as a few central states. Stinging nettle is contained more to the western states.

How To Identify It

Stinging nettle and burning nettle have the same needle-like hairs, but the plants look considerably different from each other. The most notable difference is their height.

Stinging nettle is typically 3-10 feet tall but can reach 20 feet. The leaves are coarsely round-toothed on short stalks.

Burning nettle, on the other hand, are only 5 inches to 2 feet tall. Its serrated leaves occur opposite each other on the stalk.

The easiest way to identify either plant is by the hairs that cover their stalks and the underside of their leaves. 

Let's End on a Less Scary Note…

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Enough about scary plants! Here's video on plants you can safely touch and eat! Jennifer visits with Leeanne to learn how you can easily garden on the go. Bring fresh veggies and herbs on the road with you!

Mike and Jennifer's Official Travel Guide – Michigan's Lower Peninsula is now available!

Campers Beware! 3 Dangerous Plants to Avoid While Hiking 1

You are in for a HUGE adventure. While some of our guides are designed to explore an area in 7 days, this one can take an entire summer to see it all. We chose to start in Detroit and travel north up the “Thumb” region, but you can pick and choose any section you want to begin your adventure.

Each Stop in our Guide gives you at least 3 places to camp while exploring the area! The state is particularly well suited for RV adventurers and the Michigan State Park system is one of the nation's best. But don't forget the beauty of boondocking. State forests abound, most offering rustic and dispersed off-the-grid camping. We hope you pick this up and enjoy one of our favorite places in the US to RV!

Campers Beware! 3 Dangerous Plants to Avoid While Hiking 2
Mike and Jennifer Wendland

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Mike Wendland

Published on 2023-03-19

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

5 Responses to “Campers Beware! 3 Dangerous Plants to Avoid While Hiking”

March 20, 2023at2:17 pm, Bryant Payne said:

In the southwest deserts, I would add the cholla cactus (jumping cactus) to the list. An encounter with this cactus by a person or dog is an experience one will not soon forget.


March 21, 2023at3:53 pm, Team RV Lifestyle said:

We will have to check that one out – Thanks, Bryant! Team RV Lifestyle


March 19, 2023at1:29 pm, Ross Pierkowski said:

I am VERY allergic to poison ivy. Two things I have learned: 1) it can go systemic for people like me with a high degree of allergy. I can get it on the skin on my arm and it will go into my blood stream and spread to other places on my body. I can literally scratch myself and raise more blisters. A doctor should prescribe 14-21 days of steroids in order to shut down the body’s reaction to the systemic reaction and 2) there is a compound you can by that will deactivate the urushiol in your skin. It is the only compound available for purchase that does this. All the other common remedies only deal with the symptoms. It is called Zanfel and is available on Amazon. It is a bit expensive but it works and a little goes a long way. Hope this helps others.


March 20, 2023at9:48 am, Team RV Lifestyle said:

This is really helpful – Thank you for sharing this, Ross! Team RV Lifestyle


March 19, 2023at12:40 pm, Keith Cleaver said:

The picture of sumac in this article isn’t poison sumac, rather it is staghorn sumac. Staghorn sumac isn’t poisonous to touch.


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