Thinking about…risks of hiking the Appalachian Trail

English: Two campers with gear hiking through ...

Two campers with gear hiking through Bear Mountain State Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I stumbled out of the woods at Bear Mountain State Park in New York.  I was parched and exhausted.  The spring some miles back was dry and my complete attention was fixed on the first thing I saw – a water fountain!  Disregarding two people, I lurched forward and spent what seemed like five minutes gurgling, slopping, and slurping enough water to distend my belly.  Finally sated, I stopped, wiped my brow, and shed my backpack.  I looked at the two people I had until now ignored.

The man looked precisely like novelist Tom Wolfe.  He was dressed like Tom Wolfe.  Completely in white.  White haiut.  White shirt and white jacket.  White slacks.  White – patent-leather shoes!  Beside him sat his lady-friend.  She, too, was in bridal white, right down to the bleached handkerchief she had just plopped down on the rock upon which she sat, no doubt to shield her pristine dress from becoming soiled.  They fixed me with a stare and gaping mouths.  I walked over.

“Where have you come from?” the woman began.  “Georgia,” I gasped.  “You mean you…walked here from Georgia?”  I nodded.  Her eyes grew wide, as did her male companion.  The silence was thicker than the humidity around us.  I was waiting.  Waiting for “the question,” which came sooner than I ever expected it to.

“You mean,” she continued, “…I mean…aren’t you afraid of bears and snakes??”  I smiled.  I had to resist the urge to snap my fingers.  Instead, I calmly explained what I felt were the real risks of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and bears and snakes are far down the list.  Seeing their confusion and genuine disbelief I bid them a good afternoon and shouldered my back, disappearing into the woods.

High controversy and debate sometimes surround the issue of what are the real risks in undertaking a long-distance hike along the Appalachian Trail.  That there are real risks is undeniable.  It remains to sort out which are foremost and which are of lesser concern.  It surprises many that the cliché “bear and snake” risk is not as pronounced as believed.

Each hiker will have their own personal list, based on their anxieties and expectations, and sometimes bears are the most feared and dreaded.  Perhaps it might be a fear of coiled reptiles lying in wait behind logs which cross the trail.  Wildlife is abundant along the A.T., and one is certain to meet some of the fauna there; that’s part of the draw of the trail.  But the potential harm wildlife encounters pales in comparison to other possibilities.

Here’s my list, in order of perceived potential risk:

Lightning 2

Lightning 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hypothermia (exposure); being caught in violent storms; lightning strikes; having a serious fall; suffering sunburn or heat stroke or exhaustion; crossing highways; fording streams and rivers; Lyme disease; rabid animals; insect bites; spiders; hornets; wasps; black bear encounters; venomous snakes; poison oak and poison ivy; stomach ailments; norovirus; contaminated water; crime.

Everyone will have a different experience on the trail.  For me, I had a nerve-rattling encounter with hypothermia while backpacking in the Maine wilderness.  I was also laid up at Speck Pond shelter in Maine for three days with a severe case of giardia.  After a third day, I managed to hike to Gorham, NH and get attention.  I had a black bear visit at a state park in Pennsylvania, but managed to deter him getting my food and gear; still, it was pretty close.  I dodged lightning in New Hampshire, but there were no close strikes.  Still, that shot adrenaline through my veins and I’ve never walked so fast with fifty pounds!  I was spiked by a hornet in Maine, which also sent me jogging down the trail to avoid further stings.  Falls?  Too many to count, but none serious.

The list above is based on the greater likelihood of an event, and not on melodramatic or perceived actual hazard.  This does not mean you will not see a snake or bear.  What it means is you are less likely to be harmed by them than being caught in an exposure situation high in the mountains or being struck by lightning.






Filed under The Appalachian Trail

3 responses to “Thinking about…risks of hiking the Appalachian Trail

  1. Hypothermia and lightning…those are my real fears, too – even though snakes and bears are fun to write about.

  2. You are so right. Most animals are more frightened of you than you should be of them. It’s the actual hike itself and the toll it takes on you; that’s the real danger.

  3. Reblogged this on Write in Front of Me and commented:

    Sunday, April 1st, is the “traditional start date” for those backpacking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Though times have changed, and many have already set out toward Katahdin, it felt nostalgically appropriate to mark flashback Friday with this archival post. Enjoy! And be safe out there!

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