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Dangers of the Appalachian Trail and How to Avoid Them

Dangers of the Appalachian Trail and How to Avoid them.
No danger on the Appalachian Trail here….

Isn’t it Dangerous?

What a familiar phrase. Anytime I plan any sort of hiking adventure, international travels, or road trip it seems like there’s always a handful of people who want to question my sanity and lack of male protection. A simple “have fun” would suffice.

I remember when I was first starting out hiking, and people close to me would grill me on every possible danger on the Appalachian Trail they could possibly think of. There was already a part of me that was scared to do what I was about to do, and loved ones trying to chip away at my confidence did nothing to help the situation.

So, I’m writing this post about the dangers of the Appalachian Trail and how to stay safe, not because I think you’re in danger or I want to fear-monger potential hikers. I’m writing this to show support to all you newbie hikers who have doubts filling your heads and want literally anything to say to your family and friends to make them shut up.

Dangers of the Appalachian Trail

Creepy People in the Woods 

Threat level: LOW 

This is a big concern for the family members of hikers. After all, every redneck murder movie takes place in the woods. However, murders are incredibly uncommon on the Appalachian Trail when you think about the millions of people who set foot on it every year. (Sorry I couldn’t find a link to any statistics.)

I think women especially have concerns about hiking solo, particularly in regards to running into creepy men while we’re hiking all alone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely been times when I’ve been sexually harassed on the Appalachian Trail and that sucks. But I’ve never felt like I was going to be the victim of a violent crime.

How to Stay Safe

  • Keep some pepper spray in the hip belt pocket of your backpack. I’ve never had to use mine, but it does give me peace of mind while I’m hiking or traveling solo.
  • Take additional precautions when hitch-hiking into town. It’s OK to say no to a ride if you have a bad feeling about it.
  • Don’t be creepy or weird towards other hikers. Don’t follow along with any solo hikers unless you’re confident that they want your company. If you’re a man try to be especially aware of if you might be unintentionally making any solo females uncomfortable.

Bears, Coyotes, Poisonous Snakes

Threat level: LOW 

You will likely encounter bears and snakes, and probably hear a pack of coyotes. However, these animals have no interest in being around you.

A black bear won’t attack you for your food. More likely they will wait until you’re sleeping and try to get to your food bag you hung in a tree. Coyotes don’t want to get close to you either. Snakes are probably the least scared of you. You might see a Rattle Snake or Copper Head on the trail, and it will take it’s sweet time moving along. Or it might just curl up and stay where it is.

How to Stay Safe

  • Give animals space. If you see a bear or snake, back off and let it be. When I did my Wilderness First Responder certification, my instructor told us that most snake bites happen to intoxicated young men. Don’t be that person who tries to pick up a snake. Additionally, photos are not a priority when you spot an animal.
  • Utilize the bear boxes and bear hangs at the shelters. If a bear comes sniffing around at night, you don’t want your food near.
  • Be aware of your surroundings in regions with high bear and snake populations. I would even say, don’t listen to headphones in New Jersey where there’s lots of bears or Pennsylvania where there’s lots of rattlesnakes. You want to be able to hear. I once almost stepped on a rattlesnake because I was listening to music and couldn’t hear it rattling.

Ticks, Spiders, Waterborne Pathogens, Norovirus, and other small but harmful organisms.

Threat Level: MEDIUM TO HIGH 

Bugs and creepy crawlers are a fact of life on the Appalachian Trail. You’ll have gnats swarming your face, mosquitos biting your legs, spiders creeping around while you sleep.

You’re probably going to get bitten by bugs and maybe pick up a virus or two. Worst case scenario, you might get Lyme Disease or giardia. The thing about tiny bugs and organisms is that it’s really difficult to stop them from their parasitic ways.

You can spray yourself with bug spray to keep ticks and mosquitos away, but covering your skin in chemicals and not being able to wash it off is probably bad for you too.

How to Stay Safe

  • I recommend using something to treat your drinking water such as a filter, Steripen, or purifying drops. This will reduce the likelihood of getting sick from the water.
  • Use a natural bug repellant, like something citronella based. This way you don’t have to douse yourself in chemicals, and it smells good too.
  • Do a tick check every night before bed. Just sweep your hands through your hair and over your body. Lyme disease is a real danger in many regions along the Appalachian Trail. Contracting Lyme disease is unlikely if you find the tick early.
  • It’s always helpful to keep a few Benadryl on hand in case you have an allergic reaction to a spider bite or anything else.

Getting Lost in the Woods

Threat level: LOW TO MEDIUM 

Once you’re in the woods, every thing sort of looks the same and it’s difficult to get your bearings in relation to anything. If you hike off of the trail a great distance, you could very easily get lost.

Luckily, the AT is well marked for the entire way, so if you stick to the footpath there isn’t much of a risk. You will go off the trail a short ways to camp and pee. Most campsites are not very far off of the trail or they are on a side trail. I did find that I got confused while leaving the trail to pee, so I always left my pack beside the trail. It was brightly colored and easy to spot.

How to Stay Safe

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t go really far off of the trail. It’s not Leave No Trace anyway if you’re walking around off the trail.
  • Many backpacks have a safety whistle built in on the clip of the sternum strap. Take a look at your pack and see if you have one. Be aware of this feature if you ever do get lost.
  • Download the trail maps to your phone. It’s not an ideal way to navigate back to safety, but it’s better than nothing.

Getting Injured and Being All Alone

Threat level: ZERO TO LOW 

Getting injured in the backcountry means that you likely have to hike out to a road to get help or wait for rescuers if it’s a big injury. A common fear is getting injured, not having cell service, and being alone without help. However, there will always be someone behind you on the trail, and you probably won’t have to wait more than a few hours for help.

During my hike, an elderly hiker fell and busted his kneecap in the 100 Mile Wilderness. He set up his tent on an incline for the night. In the morning, two hikers came along and found him. One hiker went back to the top of the mountain to get cell phone service and call for help. Between the hikers and the rescuers they got him out. People will help you if you get hurt.

How to Stay Safe

  • Verizon has good service along the Appalachian Trail, and I recommend using them as your service provider. Bring along a power bank so your phone doesn’t die.
  • If you’re really worried, you can get a SPOT satellite messenger. They’re kind of pricey, but it’s worth it to some people.

I hope this post did something to ease some of your concerns about the dangers of the Appalachian Trail. The truth is, nothing I or anyone else says will make all of the fear go away. You just have to get out there and see for yourself that it’s not scary.

Does anyone have any fears I didn’t mention? Share in the comments, even if they’re totally irrational.

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