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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof Hike: Where the Wild Things Are (and Aren't)

Why you don't need to worry about snakes, spiders, and bears...and what you should worry about instead

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Some of Prof. Hike's pals didn't realize this photo was faked. (J. Stevenson)
Photo by profhike_bears_445x260
Some of Prof. Hike's pals didn't realize this photo was faked. (J. Stevenson)
Most wildlife you'll encounter will be cute, cuddly, and have fuzzy ears. (JS)
Most wildlife you'll encounter will be cute, cuddly, and have fuzzy ears. (JS)


Two years ago, Prof. Hike’s wife talked to a 42-year-old man who claimed to have been attacked by two mountain lions. The man said he wounded one with a rifle shot and bloodied the second one with a knife after it pounced on him from a tree. Did this assault occur in Colorado? Nope. Montana? Not even close. It happened in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles from where I live.
 
For several days after the attack, the local newspaper printed front-page stories about the encounter, warning that dangerous cougars could be prowling Lancaster’s Amish countryside. In fact, the victim was an Amish farmer, and according to my wife, his prodigious gray beard protected his neck and chest from scratches that covered the rest of his torso. Local wildlife experts, however, dismissed the farmer’s story, claiming that mountain lions vanished from Lancaster over a century ago. A few wild cats or escaped pets might lurk in the mountains of West Virginia and western North Carolina, they said, but not here in Pennsylvania. They concluded the perpetrators must have been bobcats, feral dogs, or a hoax. But what if you were planning a hike when you read about this attack? Would you stay home, take extra precautions, or hire this knife-wielding Amish “Rambo” to protect you?
 
Keep calm and carry on
The great counterweight to the lure of the outdoors is the fear of the unknown. What if it rains? What if I fall off a cliff and break my tibia? What if I get eaten by a mama grizzly?
 
Here’s the truth. Most hikers spend too much time and energy worrying about scary—but low-percentage—threats like bears, cougars, and poisonous snakes, and not enough time concerning themselves with dull but common dangers like germs, blisters, and hypothermia. To confirm this theory, take the following test. How many times have you been mauled by a bear or bitten by a rattlesnake? OK, now compare that figure with the number of times you’ve twisted your ankle, developed a blister, or lost part of a meal to a marauding rodent. The reason that hikers worry about the wrong things is partially the fault of this magazine. Adding the words “When Grizzlies Attack!” to the cover sells more newsstand copies, even if the average reader’s chance of having a stand-off with a bear is about the same as finding buried treasure while digging a cat-hole.
 
My advice isn’t to ignore macro threats like bears and rattlesnakes, but to drop them further down the fret list. Obviously, if you’re hiking in an active black bear area, take sensible precautions like making noise, bear-bagging your food, and avoiding dense berry thickets. But don’t obsess so much on bears that you break your ankle running away from what you thought was an angry grizzly but turned out to be your partner returning from the latrine. It all comes back to the most important outdoor skill anyone can practice: good ’ol common sense.
 
I know that ignoring the hype can be difficult and sometimes less fun. On hikes with my wife, I’m guilty of pointing to cliffs looming above the trail and saying, “Hey, that’s a great hiding place for a mountain lion.” And, a few minutes later, remarking, “Did you know that cougars can leap 20 feet and aim for the neck to sever the spinal cord?” Needless to say, my wife doesn’t appreciate my wildlife lessons. So here’s my advice. First, don’t scare your wife, husband, significant other, or kids with stories about the ninja-like stalking abilities of mountain lions. And second, prioritize your outdoor worries according to these two lists.  
 
Pay more attention to these…
  • Kill germs by washing your hands with soap or using a hand sanitizer after going to the bathroom and before eating and drinking.
  • Prevent germs from spreading by pouring trail mix into your hand rather than reaching into a bag.
  • Reduce insect bites by applying a DEET-based repellant at dusk, wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants, and avoiding dark-colored clothing, especially blue.
  • Rodents chew through 150-denier nylon like butter—so never leave food or snacks in your tent or pack unattended.
  • Keep your dog leashed or under voice control.
  • Avoid injuries by being hydrated and well-fed before hiking on slippery or tricky terrain. 
 
Pay less Attention to these…
 
Bears
Ranging in color from midnight black to cinnamon brown, black bears are found in all states except these 10: North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Hawaii. The five states home to grizzly bears are Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and of course, Alaska. Grizzlies occasionally show up in Colorado, but the last bear was killed there in 1979. And even though California’s state flag features a grizzly bear, none have been sighted in the state since 1922.
 
Mountain lions & cougars
You need to head west to encounter these reclusive big cats, which weigh between 100 to 200 pounds and stretch eight feet from nose to tail. Several thousand mountain lions prowl California, Oregon, Colorado, and other Rocky Mountain states. As you head east, their populations diminish. The easternmost breeding groups are found in western Texas, New Mexico, South Dakota’s Black Hills, and North Dakota’s Badlands. Young male cougars, however, range farther than females, and several have been spotted or killed in Iowa, western Oklahoma, Michigan, and even the suburbs of Chicago.

But what about Lancaster, Pennsylvania? The website for the Eastern Cougar Foundation, a big cat advocacy organization based in Harman, West Virginia, reports that cougars haven’t established east of the Mississippi yet: “Since the ECF’s inception in 1998, years of fielding, following up, and soliciting evidence from such reports have failed to produce a single cougar confirmation.” And if your naïve friends ever forward an email showing photos of a cougar on a wooden patio deck in Iowa, New York, or Pennsylvania—it’s a hoax, too
 
Venomous snakes
Like cougars (and most bears), snakes aren’t interested in posing for a Facebook snapshot. All these cold-blooded (literally) reptiles desire is a sunny rock, a cozy hole in the ground, and a juicy mouse for dinner. What they don’t want is to be bothered by you. That’s why most newspaper articles about snakebites include the phrase, “The victim was bitten when he tried to pick up the snake.” Duh. Don’t harass any snake, even if you think it’s harmless. Making a close examination isn’t always smart, but the majority of venomous snakes sport a flat, triangular head, color bands, elliptical pupils, and a tail rattle. The main exception is the red-yellow-black banded coral snake, which has a blunt head and round pupils. Most harmless snakes sport solid colors and round pupils. 
 
Deadly spiders
Arachnophobia is real, but the danger posed by spiders is often inflated. Only three spider species—brown recluse, black widow, and hobo—are dangerous to humans. Their bites are often extremely painful and cause tissue damage, but are only lethal to the very young and old. Plus, their ranges and habitats are more restrictive than most people realize. Brown recluse spiders hide out in the Midwest and South, while hobo spiders stick to the West. Black widows exist throughout the United States, but they tend to build webs in structures and wood piles. The majority of spiders hikers will spot are harmless and timid, preferring to snack on mosquitoes rather than injecting you with venom.
 
Next week I’ll take a break from the gloom and doom to cover 10 items of hiking and camping gear you should never own.
 
—Jason Stevenson
 


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READERS COMMENTS

Jeff
Jun 03, 2011

Wow ... People still are here more worried about the things that happened once or twice...
I have been backpacking for 41 years and no matter how hard I try to get the opertunity to see a Bear or a Mount. Lion in the wild.. I have yet to do so. Oh yea.. I do have a very long list of cuts, broken bones, illnesses, and wounds that I ended up with- education will easy the fears.

Daniel Medina
Jan 24, 2011

Prepare for the worst and when the worst happens it won't catch you too off-guard.

From experience...
-I once (2008) had a cougar come next to our campsite and kill an animal when I took my mom (we both saw it) on her first and thus last backpacking trip in WV.

-I have had black bears in my campsite (Del Water Gap) and food stolen (I did hang the food) from black bears at Jack River Falls (GA) Georgia.

-I have had a few encounters with water moccasins (NJ), one rattler in MD and copper heads in TN.

-I have encountered black widows, one scorpion (Mexico), a barracuda 3 feet from my face while snorkeling, wild dogs while doing rescue work after Hurricane Katrina.

-Many of my personal friends have encountered wild boar on the trail and bush (big problem in TN/GA).

Statistically most people in their lifetime will never see or experienced half the animal dangers that I have witnessed. Most of my dangerous encounters were in the "Wild" far away from your typical camp-grounds. *The more common dangers one will face will be pesky mosquitoes, Ticks (Lime Disease), getting lost (bring a map & compass), hypothermia, the occasional inebriated camper and getting injured (fall, scrap, stove burn, etc).
Statistically your most dangerous encounter will be man. Take a conceal carry weapon (CCW) permit class, educate yourself and use trial/street smarts.

In Conclusion:
As a hiking leader, Pathfinder/Boy Scout leader, parent or any person concerned about their own safety and others, isn't it always better to be prepared than under-prepared? Safety gear, knowledge and extra preparations may weigh more but when you need it you will be glad you carried that extra pound. Just don't let a rare "what if" encounter discourage you and others from having a good time in God's wild creation.

Daniel Medina
Jan 24, 2011

Prepare for the worst and when the worst happens it won't catch you too off-guard.

From experience...
-I once (2008) had a cougar come next to our campsite and kill an animal when I took my mom (both saw it) on her first and thus last backpacking trip in WV.

-I have had black bears in my campsite (Del Water Gap)and food stolen (I did hang the food)from black bears at Jack River Falls (GA) Georgia.

-I have had a few encounters with water moccasins (NJ), one rattler in MD and copper heads in TN.

-I have encountered black widows, one scorpion (Mexico), a barracuda 3 feet from my face while snorkeling, wild dogs while doing rescue work after Hurricane Katrina.

-Many of my personal friends have encountered wild bore (big problem in TN/GA).

Statistically most people in their lifetime will never see or experienced half the animal dangers that I have witnessed. Most of my dangerous encounters were in the "Wild" far away from your typical camp-grounds. *The more common dangers one will face will be pesky mosquitoes, Ticks (Lime Disease), getting lost (bring a map & compass), hypothermia, the occasional inebriated camper and getting injured (fall, scrap, stove burn, etc).
Statistically your most dangerous encounter will be man. Take a conceal carry weapon (CCW) permit class, educate yourself and use trial/street smarts.

In Conclusion:
As a hiking leader, Pathfinder/Boy Scout leader, parent or any person concerned about their own safety and others, isn't it always better to be prepared than under-prepared? Safety gear, knowledge and extra preparations may weigh more but when you need it you will be glad you carried that extra pound. Just don't let a rare "what if" encounter discourage you and others from having a good time in God's wild creation.

DrPatrick
Jan 23, 2011

In regards to coral snakes, I think it is helpful to describe them in a little more detail. The red-yellow-black color pattern is not exactly what you should be looking for in the US. There is a mnemonic that states "red on yellow, kills a fellow" and "red on black, venom lack". This applies well to the coral snakes found here in the US. The pattern is essentially that of a black and yellow snake with red applied to the yellow band giving the pattern of black-yellow-red-yellow-black. These are coral snakes that you should be able to identify from a distance and avoid. The coral snakes found south of the US-Mexico border are unfortunately more varied. It would be best to avoid any snake with black, yellow, and red color variations in Mexico or farther south. I'm an emergency physician and avid backpacker and just wanted to add some clarity. This was a good article. Well done! I agree with most of the rest of the article's information, especially the advice to stay a safe distance away from these snakes and to especially never try and pick one up.

Bill Byrd
Dec 13, 2010

Sounds like common sense is the order of the day to me.
Being prepared is not the same as being scared.

I follow an old rule of sorts
Plan for the worse-- Hope for the best-- Deal with whatever happens.

Sean
Dec 13, 2010

As one reader has already mentioned, the eastern-most population of cougars is in southern Florida. These cougars, or Florida Panthers, are endangered with less than 100 individuals in the population (http://www.defenders.org/wildlife_and_habitat/wildlife/panther.php). There are no recorded attacks on humans by cougars in Florida. Additionally, one reader mentioned a black bear attack in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. This was an incident induced by the hiker who attempted to get as close as possible to the bear to get pictures. There are no known resident black bear in Red River Gorge, and this bear was a young male in search of a female during the breeding season.

Jeff Spradling
Nov 04, 2010

I have to chime in here. Although I agree with the Professor to an extent, I've come up on two rattlesnakes this year, both in areas where they are endangered (Ohio and Kentucky). I almost stepped on one of them. Last year I stepped right over a copperhead without seeing it before my hiking partner screamed, "SNAKE"! This year a hiker was stalked and mauled by a black bear in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. My point is, the danger is real, regardless of the statistics, so being weary may very well keep you alive.

Ryan
Oct 30, 2010

Comparing bird poo to hypothermia is ridiculous. The thing to keep in mind isn't just how common an event is, but also how severe the consequences are. Bird poo on one's car isn't a very severe consequence. Hypothermia can kill you, just like a bear can--and the hypothermia is far more likely to stalk you than a bear will. I'd even worry more about a heart attack than a bear attack--I've never met anyone who's been attacked by a bear, but I know several people who've found bodies of heart attack victims on the trail. An aspirin is more likely to save a life than bear mace will.

GBates
Oct 30, 2010

The Snopes link is just wrong: mountain lions can be found all over North America. One game warden's assertion that "we haven't seen one around here in two years," means nothing. Snakes, too- don't be afraid, but always watch where you sit and put your hands. I went to sit down on a log by Bright Angel creek in Gr. Canyon a few years ago- fatigued from my hike- and nearly sat on a copperhead. Could have been a really bad day...

Jake
Oct 29, 2010

One note about Spiders:
Went camping in Northern California (county park just west of San Francisco) with my girlfriend last year. This campground was equipped with food storage containers. As I was setting up the tent, she was going to unload the food and place it in the storage container. She lets out a bit of a shriek and says there are spiders in the storage container. Using a VERY long stick, I cleaned out the storage container of its denizens (2 female Black Widows and 3 males). I didn't tell her exactly what they were, but was VERY glad she didn't stick her hand inside to clean it out. Bottomline, a Black Widow isn't likely to hurt you as long as you LOOK first before you stick your hand inside an enclosed space.

Jake
Oct 29, 2010

One note about Spiders:
Went camping in Northern California (county park just west of San Francisco) with my girlfriend last year. This campground was equipped with food storage containers. As I was setting up the tent, she was going to unload the food and place it in the storage container. She lets out a bit of a shriek and says there are spiders in the storage container. Using a VERY long stick, I cleaned out the storage container of its denizens (2 female Black Widows and 3 males). I didn't tell her exactly what they were, but was VERY glad she didn't stick her hand inside to clean it out. Bottomline, a Black Widow isn't likely to hurt you as long as you LOOK first before you stick your hand inside an enclosed space.

Dick w
Oct 29, 2010

You tell a true tail, Prof. Hike. In my 40 yrs of experience I have found that most of the true dangers in the great outdoor fall into the category of the truly mundane. On my solo hikes my mantra’s don’t consist of “Lions and Tigers and Bears—Oh my!” but more like “Don’t Fall, Don’t Fall”. In recent years, the most dangerous animals that I've encounterd, except for misadjusted humans, have been under-supervised dogs, along with their human escort, on or off their leash, roaming the trails ready to attack and maim anything or anyone that does not meet the dogs’ household standards. Leave them at home, along with your bear bells and hand guns. If you would worry more about clean water, warm cloths and a minimally bruised and broken body, the more enjoyable your trip will be.

MarkyMark
Oct 29, 2010

Hello Prof Hike. Just because something doesn't happen very often doesn't mean it can't happen. I guess I am one of those silly people who you say worry too much about scary threats, in particular bears. Now you put up this little test question - let me use that in another situation. How often have I injured myself in a head on car collision? Never. How often did I get whitish discharges of the avian type on my windshield? A lot. How often did I knock my head on the car frame while getting in? A few times. Conclusion: I should pay less attention to traffic safety because I have never been injured in an accident but more on bird poo? I think taking the "big" threats serious in the outdoors has a really high priority. Being scared I guess is one way of showing respect to these threats. I agree it's not the most efficient way but saying that one should be more concerned of spreading germs by sharing trailmix out of a bag is not right IMHO and does not help the people who need advice (your wife, me) in that regard. The outdoor cracks who know the rules and live them naturally on the trail don't need to read this article as it is old news to them. For me, someone who is just getting in to the outdoors, this is more important. And it sounds a bit like snobby advice. My being scared has ensured that I make sure that I am properly prepared, that I read up on safety measures, that I deal the right way with food etc. I think downplaying these threats is wrong. Respecting the threats and emphasizing how to deal with them properly should be the way to go. If you're scared, the best way is to do something about it. And of course you should know what to do about it learning it from Profs like you. Then I will go and worry about bird poo. And now lets all prepare for our next great outdoor experience! Pacific Northwest it's going to be this Sunday.

MarkyMark
Oct 29, 2010

Hello Prof Hike. Just because something doesn't happen very often doesn't mean it can't happen. I guess I am one of those silly people who you say worry too much about scary threats, in particular bears. Now you put up this little test question - let me use that in another situation. How often have I injured myself in a head on car collision? Never. How often did I get whitish discharges of the avian type on my windshield? A lot. How often did I knock my head on the car frame while getting in? A few times. Conclusion: I should pay less attention to traffic safety because I have never been injured in an accident but more on bird poo? I think taking the "big" threats serious in the outdoors has a really high priority. Being scared I guess is one way of showing respect to these threats. I agree it's not the most efficient way but saying that one should be more concerned of spreading germs by sharing trailmix out of a bag is not right IMHO and does not help the people who need advice (your wife, me) in that regard. The outdoor cracks who know the rules and live them naturally on the trail don't need to read this article as it is old news to them. For me, someone who is just getting in to the outdoors, this is more important. And it sounds a bit like snobby advice. My being scared has ensured that I make sure that I am properly prepared, that I read up on safety measures, that I deal the right way with food etc. I think downplaying these threats is wrong. Respecting the threats and emphasizing how to deal with them properly should be the way to go. If you're scared, the best way is to do something about it. And of course you should know what to do about it learning it from Profs like you. Then I will go and worry about bird poo. And now lets all prepare for our next great outdoor experience! Pacific Northwest it's going to be this Sunday.

sphelps
Oct 29, 2010

With regard to cougars, there is an active population in Florida in the Everglades (and I'm not talking about divorcees over 50). Historically, their range spanned from Texas east into Florida. Actually, a lot of the breeding population in SE Florida has been supplemented by bringing cougars from Texas over to Florida in recent years.

Duane Strosaker
Oct 29, 2010

I never worried about great white shark attacks in my sea kayak, until a 16-17 footer wrapped it's jaws halfway around my hull and held on for 10-15 seconds off Santa Barbara.

Argosinu
Oct 29, 2010

Rattlers need water and like to cool themselves in long grass. They do not flee from chain saws clearing trails.
Bears do not frighten me; they are easy to avoid and black bears can be punched in the nose. Snakes and cougars do concern me becasue they can bite before you see them. Bushwacking takes an edge in NE Washington, where cougars roam and snakes slither. Boots & gaiters protect legs, but climbing rocks could get interesting.

John Spartan
Oct 29, 2010

One glaring error: Referring to venomous snakes as poisonous is not correct. If one has eaten fried rattlesnake, their flesh is not poisonous, only the venom glands in their heads are, and simply beheading the dead snake removes the threat of poison ingestion. Get your facts straight.

MossPiglet
Oct 29, 2010

The most dangerous animal on the planet is : man. And I do mean man as in male humans. I feel safer in the woods then at home in southern Arizona, land of drug wars and easy guns. THe second most dangerous? Cars.

SSEJHILL
Oct 29, 2010

Jason -- good article ... I'm looking forward to the next one. I wouldn't doubt I'll have at least half of the items that I don't really need.

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