So you’re going to hike the Appalachian Trail and now that you’ve gotten all your plans in order, you’ve decided it’s time to tell Mom, Dad, your siblings, your Aunts and Uncles, you dog, your cat, all of your closest friends and your co-workers (after you first inform your boss, of course). You’re so thrilled about the journey that’s about to unfold, and maybe everyone else is happy for you too. However, it’s more likely you were met with:
“You’re CHOOSING to live outside for HOW long?”
“What about the bears?”
“Haven’t you ever seen ‘Deliverance’?”
“Shouldn’t you take a gun with you?”
“What if you get bit by a poisonous snake?”
“I could never do that. Too many bugs. What if you get lyme disease?”
When this is the dialog you’re met with, it’s easy to start wondering, “Maybe I am crazy. Maybe this is a really bad idea. I should just go to Tahiti instead.” Keep your quick-drying panties on! Don’t back out just yet. I’m sure Tahiti is great and all, and the folks at home do have a point… to an extent. Just in case it’s getting to you and you’re thinking about canceling your plans, allow me to clear the air on some exaggerations and misconceptions:
Let’s address some of these common fears and misconceptions, starting with those “Deliverance” hillbillies everyone’s so fearful of. Hearing banjos? Chill! The hill people in the south (for the most part), are the ones to be running towards, not running away from. The trail community is full of friendly folks that are eager to help you out with rides to town, and trail magic to fill that ‘hiker hunger’ void. So “squealing like a pig” isn’t something you should be too concerned about. They don’t call it ‘southern hospitality’ for nothing. That being said, it’s important to note that no matter where you go, whether you’re traveling through the woods or in the city, there will always be a few bad apples. Trust your gut, don’t do anything you aren’t comfortable doing, and know that there will always be tons of other hikers on the trail that you can band up with. Crime on the trail is low, but keep alert if you’re hiking alone, especially by a road crossing.
Wildlife is ‘wild’. Not tame. As long as you keep that in mind and use common sense, you should be okay. The only bear species you’ll be dealing with on the AT is the Black Bear, and for the most part, they’re pretty skittish. All the ones I saw either watched me with caution, ran away when they saw me, or were too busy grazing on plants to pay me any mind.
Since there is a good possibility you will see a bear, it’s wise to know what you should and should not do when it occurs. If you see one, DO NOT throw food, because then it will think that you and/or the location is a source of food. “A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear,” meaning it will have to be euthanized if it continues to approach people and/or a specific location because it associates them with food. DO NOT antagonize it or get too close. This will make it feel threatened. And most importantly, DO NO RUN! If you do, you’ll look like prey and their hunting instincts might kick in. Bear attacks are extremely rare and usually only happens when people run or violate the bear’s personal space. You also shouldn’t try to cuddle with them, pinch them on the cheeks because they’re “so cute”, and you should probably pass on that ‘bear selfie’. They’ve gained a lot of weight over the winter and don’t appreciate their ‘fat photo’ on Instagram.
Jokes aside, if you see a bear on the trail and it doesn’t run away, slowly walk around it, and keep an eye on it until you’re at a safe distance. If it doesn’t want to move from the trail or if it bluff charges you:
- Stand your ground
- Do your best death metal impersonation, or just yell really loud at it
- Wave your arms (or trekking poles) in the air
like you just don’t carein order to make yourself look bigger
Don’t stress the encounter too much though. I thought seeing a bear would be terrifying, but whenever I crossed paths with one, I just experienced that fascinated, wonderment that David Attenborough must feel every day of his career.
If you suffer from legit Ophidiophobia, you either should stay at home and never experience the awesomeness of the trail, or you could see this as a great opportunity to overcome it (like my husband has). Yep, you’re gonna stumble across snakes eventually. If you don’t see any your entire thru hike, someone needs to steal your pheromones and market that sh*t as snake repellent baby, because they’re everywhere! Even if you don’t have a phobia like myself, they’ll still startle the hell out of you when you’re about to step on them. Especially if it’s a rattlesnake (which actually happened to me).
Most of the time they will be of the non-venomous variety, like black rat snakes and garter snakes. However, it is possible you might see a rattlesnake or a copperhead during your hike. Why you shouldn’t stress? Copperheads have mild venom so bites are rarely ever fatal. Timber rattlesnakes have a mild temperament so bites are rare. Eastern Diamondbacks only range in the southern states and are generally very rare to find on the trail altogether. Even if you do get bit, the Appalachian Trail frequently crosses roads, so there will likely be plenty of opportunities to get off the trail if you must seek help.
You can’t avoid snakes altogether, but if you see one, don’t harass it, or act like an idiot and try to pick them up. They don’t like that. If it’s on the trail and doesn’t want to move, backtrack a little so it feels safe enough to slither away. Seriously, ‘danger noodles’ will win any staring contest. Admit defeat, and walk away so it feels safe enough to escape. When it gets more hot and humid, some snake species will beat the heat by partaking in more nocturnal hunting. So another way to avoid them is to abstain the temptation of night hiking during the summer months.
Bugs? Yeah, you’ll just have to get over this one. Remember you’re a guest in their home. Use the proper precautions and chemical means, if desired, to prevent mosquitoes, chiggers, and ticks so you’re not heading home early with lyme disease. Keep an eye on spider bites if you get them, and use your common sense by seeing a doctor if it looks infected or rapidly worsens. If you’re allergic to bees and wasps, be sure to take an Epi-pen with you, and some Benadryl (Diphenhydramine). I have a moderate allergy to wasp stings, and developed a “cankle” which I had to continue hiking on until I could make it to town. The swelling and discomfort could have been slightly prevented if I packed Benadryl with me. Generally though, the rest are just nuisances you’ll have to deal with. I lost track of how many gnats and flies died after dive bombing my eyeballs or from flying up my nose.
All of the above could possibly be things to be concerned about, but the reality is, you won’t have any problems so long as you use common sense and trust your instincts. If all of it still has you worried, it’s okay. Once you get out there and are surrounded by fellow hikers, your anxieties will diminish some. Just don’t let anyone talk you out of your hike. I’m telling you, even if you don’t complete your planned hike, hiking the Appalachian Trail will be one of the most incredible and life changing experiences. And if you stick through it, you won’t regret it!
PS: Please, for the love of God, leave your gun at home. It scares away most of your potential trail friendships, and you won’t be needing it.
PPS: Plus it’s kinda illegal in most sections even with those fancy permits.