Never Fear: The Phobias

Use this step-by-step guide to beat 7 common backcountry fears. Plus, ideal hikes for overcoming–or avoiding–the source of your scare.
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Use this step-by-step guide to beat 7 common backcountry fears. Plus, ideal hikes for overcoming–or avoiding–the source of your scare.

HEIGHTS | SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS | GETTING LOST | TIGHT SPACES | ALONE IN THE DARK | BEARS | LIGHTNING

HEIGHTS

Hiking the trail up to Yosemite’s Half Dome, Caryl Shaw’s dread grew with each step. She knew what was coming: a smooth granite slab so steep that it’s climbable only with the help of a thin cable bolted to the rock. Once there, Shaw’s stomach flip-flopped. “I really wanted to go up,” she remembers. “But I worried I’d get up there and freeze, and then I’d be in big trouble.” Shaw had made it more than seven miles, but she turned back 400 feet shy of the epic summit.

The Real Risk

Yosemite’s SAR crew responds to just five or six falling incidents each year—and the park gets 3.5 million annual visitors.

The 4-Step Fix

  • You don’t have to be on a knife-edge ridge to expose yourself to heights. The gains you make on ladders, balconies, and glass elevators (often found in hotel atriums) will help you on big-mountain scrambles.
  • Make your first summit attempt a group effort, advises George Gardner, a mountain guide at Wyoming’s Exum Mountain Guides with 30 years of experience talking clients through steep mountain terrain. “You feel this connection with everyone,” he says. “Unconsciously, you can’t really retreat [because of fear].”
  • If you freak near a sheer drop, bring yourself back to the moment by concentrating on your hands and feet, not the gaping chasm. Try Gardner’s “Figure Eights for the Eyes”: With your thumb a foot from your face, slowly trace a sideways eight in the air, following it with both eyes. This helps you see the entire visual field—including your rope, anchor, and the solid rock you’re standing on—and integrates your rational frontal lobe with your primitive back brain, he explains. “You can think and move at the same time.”
  • Paralyzed by the fear of slipping and tumbling down an icy slope? Practice safe snow-travel techniques, such as kicking steps on a steep pitch and self-arresting with an ice axe. Train with an experienced instructor before tackling advanced terrain.

The Big Test

Expect 4,000 feet of elevation gain, class IV scrambling, and a 30-foot rappel on the Maroon Bells Traverse—a baptism-by-fire test for vertigo. fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver

Safety Zone

On Olympic National Park’s Shipwreck Coast, hike the 8.7-mile section between Rialto Beach and Cedar Creek at low tide. You’ll skirt rocky coves and spy California sea lions, puffins, and hermit crabs—all while gaining exactly zero feet of elevation. nps.gov/olym

HEIGHTS | SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS | GETTING LOST | TIGHT SPACES | ALONE IN THE DARK | BEARS | LIGHTNING

SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS

If you quake at the thought of slithering and crawling creatures, you’re not alone. Recent research suggests that we’re biologically predisposed to the fear—an evolutionary throwback that likely helped protect our ancestors from dangerous wildlife. True, a small fraction of snake and spider species can be harmful, but we’ve moved past the Paleozoic: There’s no reason a fear of rattlers should keep you off the trail.

The Real Risk

Snakes and spiders each cause only five to 10 total deaths annually; scorpions, just one.

The 3-Step Fix

  • Fact: Despite what your pounding heart suggests, snakes and spiders are much more scared of you than the reverse. They want nothing to do with you. They’re not going to chase you. They’re not going to stalk you through camp. Reassure yourself by reading up on their behavior.
  • Minimize your risk of an unpleasant encounter by taking reasonable precautions. Don’t put your hands and feet in places you can’t see, and check your boots before putting them on. In the unlikely event that you’re bitten or stung, know the proper first aid.
  • To state the obvious: It’s not smart to top your exposure ladder with a cobra-handling session. Work up to holding a harmless creature—a tarantula, say, or a boa—at a zoo, nature center, or pet store.

The Big Test

Saguaro National Park is home to western hognose snakes, coral snakes, six kinds of rattlers, black widows, brown recluses, tarantulas, and scorpions—plus the gila monster, the country’s only venomous lizard. nps.gov/sagu

Safety Zone

The cool climate on Vermont’s Long Trail ensures that poisonous snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas stay far, far away. greenmountainclub.org

HEIGHTS | SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS | GETTING LOST | TIGHT SPACES | ALONE IN THE DARK | BEARS | LIGHTNING

GETTING LOST

The trail you’re following fades out. A storm obscures trail markers. A cairn is missing. Suddenly, you have no idea which way to go.

The Real Risk

Lost hikers are typically found quickly. At Yosemite, the vast majority of lost hikers are rescued within a few hours, says veteran SAR ranger John Dill—and at the Grand Canyon, rangers locate most hikers less than a mile from where they went missing.

The 4-Step Fix

  • Knowledge is your best defense. Take a course in reading topo maps, using a compass, and navigating with GPS.
  • Tricky trail junctions ahead? Get detailed beta from rangers so you’ll be prepared for any potential trouble spots on your itinerary.
  • Always leave word of your plans with friends and/or rangers. Though you probably won’t need it, just knowing that rescuers will be on the way if you run into trouble will help calm anxiety.
  • Still terrified? Learn navigation skills, then get deliberately lost with a guide. Find your way back and you’ll be confident you could do it alone.

The Big Test

The Maze District in Canyonlands National Park is like New York for navigators: If you can find your way here, you can find your way anywhere. nps.gov/cany

Safety Zone

On California’s Lost Coast, directions are simple: Hike south, keep the Pacific on your right. blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/arcata.html

HEIGHTS | SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS | GETTING LOST | TIGHT SPACES | ALONE IN THE DARK | BEARS | LIGHTNING

TIGHT SPACES

Sara Miller looked death in the face in Nevada’s Gypsum Cave—at least, that’s how it felt when the rookie spelunker reached a tight room deep underground. “It was like the walls were closing in and I was going to die,” she remembers. Miller bolted, leaving her husband behind; when he caught up outside, she was shaking uncontrollably.

The Real Risk

Claustrophobia might be the most irrational of the irrational outdoor fears: Closed-in areas themselves can’t hurt you. Rangers report that visitors occasionally freeze up in Carlsbad Caverns, but they always make it back out just fine.

The 4-Step Fix

  • Battle claustrophobia by first spending quality time in a small closet. When that’s tolerable, get in a large trunk.
  • When you’re ready to move on to canyons and caves, start with larger, more open spaces before tackling a tight squeeze.
  • Study a map of your route beforehand so you’ll feel confident you can find your way out.
  • Go with experienced companions or guides—knowing others are familiar with the route and can handle any problems will calm your fear.

The Big Test

On a trek from Arizona’s Buckskin Gulch through Paria Canyon—the longest continually narrow slot in the world—you can touch both 500-foot-high canyon walls at once. blm.gov/az/paria

Safety Zone

On the Wind Cave Canyon-East Bison Flats-Gobbler Pass trails, prairie grasses are the only features around, and there’s nothing but endless sky overhead. nps.gov/wica

HEIGHTS | SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS | GETTING LOST | TIGHT SPACES | ALONE IN THE DARK | BEARS | LIGHTNING

ALONE IN THE DARK

On Mandy Coleman’s first solo backpacking trip, she spent the night cowering in her tent, convinced every rustling leaf was a fierce animal or prowling human attacker. “It’s a fear of being in complete solitude, with no way to get help if something were to get you,” she explains. Unable to stand another night filled with imaginary horrors, Coleman doubled her daily mileage to hike out early.

The Real Risk

According to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, your odds of becoming a victim of violent crime in a national park are one in 708,000. In the United States overall, it’s one in 50.

The 4-Step Fix

  • Solo hiking is a golden opportunity for peaceful contemplation, but it demands know-how and preparation. Practice navigation skills and get training in wilderness first aid before going alone.
  • Build up to a solo trip: Go with a group, but hike alone during the day and rendezvous at your campsite. Also, try a night in your backyard.
  • Camp in a familiar, well-trafficked area the first few times you backpack solo.
  • More worried about the dark than anything else? Add time alone in a dark closet to your fear hierarchy list. When you venture out for real, choose a night with a full moon and pack a lantern.

The Big Test

In Capitol Reef’s Halls Creek Narrows—in winter—you’ll have one of the country’s darkest night skies all to yourself. nps.gov/care

Safety Zone

Camp under the midnight sun in Denali’s epic backcountry, where you can expect more than 20 hours of light on long summer days. nps.gov/dena

HEIGHTS | SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS | GETTING LOST | TIGHT SPACES | ALONE IN THE DARK | BEARS | LIGHTNING

BEARS

It took just one night in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to convince Robert Struckman never to take his young son backpacking in grizzly country again. Haunted by nightmares of an attack leaving his son "alone with this mangled thing that was his father and an angry bear nearby," Struckman has stuck to grizzly-free sites with his kids ever since.

The Real Risk

Your odds of being attacked by a bear in Yellowstone are 1 in 3 million (and there have been only five bear-related fatalities there since 1872). And you have a better chance of being crushed by a vending machine anywhere than killed by a bear in Glacier.

The 3-Step Fix

  • Knowing how to minimize the risk of an encounter where bears roam will make you feel in control. Hang your food and scented items, or use a bear canister; make noise when hiking near dense brush or rivers; avoid carcasses that a griz might defend.
  • Find out what to do in the unlikely event a bear does attack (play dead for a grizzly, fight back for a black bear). "That allays fears," says Outward Bound's Jayne Nucete. "Even if we do encounter a bear, we have a strategy."
  • Talk to rangers or fellow hikers who've run into bears without a catastrophe. It will reinforce the fact that simply seeing a bruin doesn't mean imminent disaster.

The Big Test

Black bears and grizzlies are frequently spied lumbering on the open hillsides near Yellowstone's Lamar River Trail. nps.gov/yell

Safety Zone

Head for the cacti and canyons of South Dakota's Badlands. The state hasn't recorded a single bear sighting–let alone attack–in 20 years. nps.gov/badl

HEIGHTS | SPIDERS, SNAKES, SCORPIONS | GETTING LOST | TIGHT SPACES | ALONE IN THE DARK | BEARS | LIGHTNING

LIGHTNING

Tara Calloway isn't proud of what her fear of storms made her do on Colorado's Mt. Princeton a few summers ago. When clouds began blowing in, Calloway panicked and sprinted for treeline, leaving her metal trekking poles–and two friends–on the summit. "They found me cowering next to a tree," she reports.

The Real Risk

Peak-packed Colorado averages 50,000 annual cloud-to-ground strikes, but just three fatalities per year–that's total, not just in the backcountry.

The 4-Step Fix

  • Depart for big peaks before dawn so you're off the summit before afternoon storms roll in. If you're caught in a thunderstorm, get below treeline, find a low spot away from tall trees, and crouch on your sleeping pad.
  • Focus on the drops hitting your tent, the smell of the rain, your own breath–anything to keep you in the moment instead of imagining yourself getting fried.
  • If you're in a sheltered spot but you still start to panic, distract yourself by singing, playing 20 Questions, or brewing some tea, advises Nucete. "Do something to get your mind off of the storm, because the storm is going to move on."

The Big Test

The Continental Divide Trail in Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness serves up alpine wildflowers, jagged peaks, and miles of storm-central hiking: Average elevation along the entire stretch is 12,000 feet. fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/

Safety Zone

Bag big summits without fear in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias–a park with 14 peaks above 14,000 feet, in a state that hasn't recorded a single lightning death in the past 50 years. nps.gov/wrst