Dangers of the Trail and How to Avoid Them

image via Woodland Park Zoo

image via Woodland Park Zoo

In my spare time, I like to research trip ideas, mountain ranges, and travel destinations. My current obsessions is the Himalayas in Nepal and India. Do a Google search for “hiking the Himalayas” and the very first page provides an article about a Belgian woman who was decapitated during her trip and the murderer was never found. I immediately thought, “Well, the Himalayas don’t sound safe.”

However, I did a little more research and found that some of the trails are extremely popular. During peak season, hikers are hardly ever alone. There are also tea houses along the way in the popular hiking regions, where hikers can stay every night for prices that are inexpensive by American standards. Crowds of hikers and a bed indoors every night sounds pretty safe to me.

Google “women Appalachian Trail” and the story of Gerry Largay, a hiker who went missing without a trace on the trail in Maine, pops up. While her story is certainly a tragedy and I hope that her family finds solace one day, I would say that female solo hikers are not necessarily in very much danger while hiking.

The point I’m trying to make is, researching any travel destination will likely yield horror stories of crimes against women. But those crimes are few and far between. How many women get murdered or go missing while their walking through their very own neighborhoods? I’m more likely to be assaulted on my former college campus than on the Appalachian Trail.

What sort of dangers do people worry about on the Appalachian Trail?

  • Crazy people in the woods. Threat level: ZERO TO LOW This is a big concern for the family members of hikers. After all, every redneck murder movie takes place in the woods. Solo hikers are urged to bring a two-person tent to make crazy people think there is more than one person in the tent (this might be a good idea for car campers, but it’s unnecessary in the backcountry). The truth is, anyone who is on a murderous rampage will probably be looking for victims in more populated areas, not miles from a road.
  • Bears, coyotes, poisonous snakes. Threat level: LOW You will likely encounter bears and snakes, and possibly hear a pack of coyotes. However, these animals have no interest in being around you. A black bear will not sniff out your food and immediately attack you to get it. The bear might 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 rattler or Copper Head on the trail, and it will take it’s sweet time moving along. Or it might just hang out and rattle at you. However, it won’t chase you down to bite you, let it’s venom slowly poison you, and swallow you whole.
  • Ticks, spiders, bugs, waterborne pathogens, norovirus, and other small but harmful organisms. Threat Level: MEDIUM TO HIGH Okay, yeah, you’re 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. Most water treatment methods are not 100% reliable in preventing giardia. 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. Taking a garlic pill everyday does reduce the amount of bug bites you get, and it’s always helpful to keep a few Benadryl on hand in case you have an allergic reaction to anything.
  • Crazy people in town. Threat level: LOW There are more crazy people in towns than in the woods. Just like any where else, most people are nice, but you might run into a not so nice person every now and then. Try to avoid camping alone beside roads. Also, take precautions while hitch-hiking.
  • Getting lost in the woods and not being able to find the trail. 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 this 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 easy to spot my bright, purple pack.
  • Camping alone in the dark. Threat level: ZERO TO LOW Sure, camping alone for the first few times is scary. Every squirrel or mouse scurrying over the leaves sounds like a bear outside of your tent. I did know one hiker who had a bear sit on top of her tent. The bear had stolen a hanging food bag, then sat down on the tent to eat his snacks. She was perfectly fine in the end though. The biggest risk during the night is tripping over a rock while getting up to pee.
  • Getting injured, not having cell service, and dying. 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 you have to wait for rescuers to find you. A big 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 hiked back to the top of the mountain to call for help. The operator told them to take the injured hiker down a side trail to a cabin where there would be a road. They packed up his gear for him and helped him down the side trail.

Do you have any hiking or camping fears? Tell me about them in the comments!





9 thoughts on “Dangers of the Trail and How to Avoid Them

  1. I tend to travel much emptier spaces than the AT and may not see people for days at a time if my luck holds out. I have learned not to camp too close to babbling brooks because my ears will play tricks on me. Just as I’m about to drift off to sleep I’ll think I hear human voices. I can sleep with animal noises around me pretty well but the thought of humans approaching in the dark gets my hackles up for some reason.

    So I guess you can say I’m afraid of babbling brooks. 🙂

  2. Yes, go to the Himalayas. There are lots of people on the popular trails in Nepal, or you could hire a guide or join a guided group…you would be providing money to the local economy and would meet interesting people.

  3. I agree, for every tragedy, there are thousands of happy, cheerful hiking stories of people who went out there, had a great time, and came back safe.

    • I wouldn’t worry too much. If you don’t make it to the campsite, you can just set up where ever you find a good spot. Camping alone becomes less scary after the first few times. And as far as your water filtering equipment goes, I didn’t treat my water ever and I was fine. You should be alright until you can get to town and get new one.

  4. Great post! I’ve been doing the Camino from Germany to Portugal (in stages, no way can I get the months I need off from work at one time) as a solo female hiker. I get horrified looks from so many people, and the big “Isn’t that dangerous???” question. I started to think there were maybe monsters in the woods that people weren’t allowed to tell me about…you know, like in the horror films there’s always someone who tries to warn the kids off before they go to the cabin/camp/whatever. I may just print a bunch of copies of this post out and hand them to people when they ask 🙂 Thanks for this!

  5. My fear is the same as Kathleens…getting caught in between campsites seems kinda scarey…would it be weird to set up a line around my tent with a couple bells just for safety? I feel silly for asking but have heard of people doing this and I will be hiking alone.

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