California, like any other state, is not immune to dangers. You can get robbed or get into an auto accident anywhere. But California does have some hazards that are relatively unique:

  • Earthquakes
  • Poison Oak
  • Altitude Sickness
  • Rip Tides/Currents 
This article will highlight a particular risk, walk through how to reduce the risk and what can be done if you do encounter it.  


The chance of an experiencing a major earthquake while visiting in California for any given week is extremely small -- so small that most people should not spend any time worrying about the risk. Earthquakes are more likely to happen by the California coast then in the Eastern part of the state (see Probability of Earthquake map). Most buildings (especially high rises) in California are built to strict codes to ensure that buildings will not fall down.

Even though earthquakes are rare, it is worthwhile taking a few small steps to prepare (e.g. carrying a whistle or flashlight, avoid flying glass falling from tall buildings, etc) and know what to do in case of an earthquake. The following are good resources to read prior to your visit:

Poison Oak

Poison Oak is a plant that causes itching and rashes after contact with skin. It is not fun to come into contact with poison oak as the rashes could blister when scratched and the oil that causes the rashing is hard to remove from clothes (leading to secondary infections).

If you plan on hiking anywhere in California, learn how to recognize poison oak (leaves of three, leave them be) and avoid it by staying on trails and watching where you step and what you brush against.  If you do get poison oak, try to wash the area off as quickly as possible, and pat dry. Drugstores such as Walgreen's sell various over-the-counter salves that will reduce the itch and may help speed healing.

The following are good resources when hiking in California: 

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness occurs when you exert yourself at higher elevations in the mountains of California (e.g. Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Mt Whitney, etc) and you do not get enough oxygen. This may occur as low as 8,000 feet. The typical symptons are headache, nausea and shortness of breath. If you plan on visiting the high mountains in California, be prepared, don't try to do too much on your first day in the mountains, slow down, drink plenty of fluids and most people will be fine. The following are good resources when visiting the high elevation parks in California:

Rip Tides/Currents

Rip currents can be lethal. The good news is that your risk is pretty darn low if you do not go anywhere near the ocean!  But because most people visit California for the many beautiful beaches, it is important to obey all posted warnings and also to learn about the dangers of rip tides. Be vigilant when near the ocean with young children -- even when wading or walking on the beach.

If you get caught in a riptide - remember to swim parallel to the beach. Do not keep fighting to get to shore.  

The following are good resources when visiting California beaches:

Bottom line: A few minutes spent preparing for some of the hazards will help make your trip more enjoyable, worry and problem free.