Outdoor Safety: Know Before You Go

By Matthew Abernathy, Assistant Director – Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center

Spring is the perfect time to go for a hike in the park. Mild weather, along with blooming flowers and lush forests, make the outdoors a wonderland of opportunity and adventure. Unfortunately, the forest is also home to a few hazards. Before hitting the trails, make sure you’re adequately prepared and familiar with some of the flora and fauna.

Be prepared: Ensure you have proper footwear, bug spray, sunscreen, a hat, snacks, and plenty of water. Dehydration impacts people of all ages, so ensuring there is water for everyone is essential. Don’t forget to pack a map and plot your course. It’s easier than you think to get turned around on a trail.

Plants: Look but don’t touch. Jones Park is home to more than 800 plant species, many with beautiful flowers, bright berries, and attractive foliage.

Poison ivy is one of the most well-known hazardous plants in our area. This woody vine usually has three leaves on each stem and reddish “hairs” that attach it to the tree. This plant contains urushiol oil, which may cause a rash, and the severity of the response varies between people. Avoid touching plants if you are unsure of the species. If you touch poison ivy, wash the affected area with a detergent, like dish soap, to remove the oil.

Poison ivy isn’t the only plant to avoid. Although some edible plants grow in the park, many others are toxic to humans when eaten. A few thorny or spiny plants common in Texas can cause itching and burning or puncture your skin. To be safe, avoid touching wild plants and never eat a leaf or berry growing in the woods. Instead, try documenting your trip by taking a photo of unusual plants and using a plant identification app to identify them. You’ll stay safe and learn more about your surroundings.

Stinging Insects: Many people fear the sting of ants, bees, wasps, hornets, and asps (stinging caterpillars). Although bites and stings happen, it’s important to remember that insects usually sting in defense. When you swat at one of these critters, they become defensive and try to protect themselves. If you ignore them, they most likely will leave you alone.

Many stinging insects are pollinators that are attracted to sweet scents and bright colors. If an insect investigates you, it may be because of something you are wearing or eating. They often confuse soda, popsicles, deodorants, lotions, and bright colors for flowers. Once they realize their mistake, they usually leave.

If you know you are allergic to insect stings, come prepared with items like Benadryl, sting swabs, or an Epi-Pen if necessary.

Mosquitoes: With many different species inhabiting the area, mosquitoes are part of life in southeast Texas. Although some do bite people, not all require a blood meal. Only the female mosquitoes feed on blood, which they need for egg production. The males feed on nectar from plants. Depending on the area you visit, some locations are more prone to mosquitoes.
Areas with stagnant water are mosquito breeding grounds. To protect yourself, wear lightweight, long-sleeve shirts and pants and use insect repellant.

Snakes: Although snakes strike fear into the hearts of people more than most creatures, the truth is that only three species of venomous snake inhabit Harris County, and most sightings are misidentifications. The eastern copperhead is the most common venomous snake in our area. Its cousin, the northern cottonmouth (or water moccasin), is much less common. Contrary to popular belief, this species does not chase its victims and isn’t as aggressive as people believe.
Hikers are least likely to encounter the Texas coral snake. It spends much of its life underground and tends to avoid people. As with most snakes, it bites when threatened, so if you spot one, leave it alone.

Staying aware of your surroundings is an essential part of spending time outdoors. At Jones Park, we strive to provide information for visitors to enjoy nature safely. To do this, we offer programs throughout the year to educate the public about the park’s plants, animals, and ecosystems.