8 Wilderness Rules That Are Actually Myths

Not everything you learned about nature is true. Go ahead and forget these eight misconceptions.
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Not everything you learned about nature is true. Go ahead and forget these eight misconceptions.

Good luck navigating by moss here. (Photo by Nicolas Raymond/Flickr)

The things we learn when we’re young stick with us, for better or for worse. It’s easy to fall back on those common nature sayings when we find ourselves in a pinch. Unfortunately, a lot of of those beliefs—think “you can get water by cutting a hole in a cactus”—just aren’t true. Learn to separate the good stuff from the chaff to keep yourself out of a dangerous situation.

Myth: Moss grows predominantly on the north side of trees.

Reality: The sun travels overhead and slightly to the south in the Northern Hemisphere. Moss flourishes in shady areas, so it follows that the northern side of a tree would be the best environment for it. But in the Southern Hemisphere, the sun’s arc is slightly to the north, making the southern side prime real estate for moss.

But even in North America, this rule doesn’t always hold up. A number of different factors affect how and where these small flowerless plants thrive. For instance, nearby vegetation or hills can cast shadows on a side of the tree and encourage moss growth regardless of direction. Additionally, since moss flourishes in damp areas, the amount of moisture in a region’s climate is another factor: Moss often grows on all sides of a tree in humid environments, and doesn’t grow at all in arid climes.

Myth: All black and blue berries are safe to eat.

Reality: A common rule of thumb for foragers is that nearly all white and yellow berries are toxic, about 50 percent of red berries are poisonous, and most blue and black berries are safe to eat. As a guideline, this isn’t bad—but it’s not good enough to keep you safe.

The key word here is “most”, not all, and consuming a black or blue berry without knowing what specific kind of berry could prove fatal. For example, pokeberries and the blue berries of Virginia Creepers are lethal.

There is a wild berry edibility test you can use to test if a berry is edible, but this isn’t foolproof either. The only way to stay safe: Don’t eat any berry that you can’t positively identify.

Myth: Running water is potable water.

Reality: Even the fastest, clearest running stream could be home to waterborne illnesses. A decaying animal corpse near a stream or an animal defecating in a river is a sure fire way for parasites, such as giardia and cryptosporidium, to enter that crystal-clear current.

It’s true that running water is less likely to have parasites than stagnant water, but just because the water is surging doesn’t mean it is safe. If you have the time, it is best to filter the water with a UV light or chlorine dioxide tablets. However, if you are lost and in a survival mode, it’s best to take your chances and hydrate.

Myth: Bears are only active at dawn and dusk.

Reality: Both black and brown bears can be active at any time during the day—and even at night, although this is rare. Bears in general are crepuscular animals, or most active at twilight hours, but that just means they do most of their feeding and foraging at those times. They are still predominately awake the most of the day. It’s not uncommon for hikers to encounter bears even at high noon.

If you do come into contact with a bear while on the trail, stay calm, avert eye contact, and slowly back away. Do not run, as this may incite the bear to come closer or attack.

Myth: You can start a fire by banging any two rocks together.

Reality: Starting a fire without matches is a lot harder than it looks in the movies. First of all, you’ll need to find the right kind of rock; flint or quartz is your best bet. Second of all, you’ll need to create a groove in the hand stone (the one you’re holding still) in order to preserve the spark long enough to be transported to your tinder bundle.

The bottom line: Unless you’re a bushcraft master, you’re better off bringing matches with you every time you hit the trail.

Myth: Venomous snakes have triangular heads.

Reality: There’s no need to be afraid of most snakes. They slithery reptiles are everywhere, and the vast majority of them aren’t venomous. But spotting the ones that are can be tricky.

Since both venomous and non-venomous snakes have patterns, stripes, and come in both bright and neutral colors, a snake’s looks aren’t the best method of calculating its threat. And while a common rule of thumb holds that snakes with triangular heads are venomous, and those with round heads aren’t, that’s a misconception.

This fallacy comes from the fact that pit vipers—the most common class of venomous snake in North America— have a head that is roughly the shape of an isosceles triangle. Yet, other venomous snakes such as cobras and coral snakes have rounds heads. To further confuse things, many innocuous snakes make their heads appear more triangular when threatened as a method of defense; they are trying to make their predator think they are venomous, according to wildlife ecologist David A. Steen, Ph. D.

The good news: Most victims get bit while intentionally handling a snake. So keep your hands to yourself, and you’ll most likely be fine.

Myth: Garlic repels mosquitoes.

Reality: Female mosquitoes (the only ones that bite) choose their “victims” by smell and sight, and many people claim that garlic, either eaten or rubbed on the skin, keeps mosquitoes at bay. But the truth is, there is little evidence to back up this vampiric claim. And a 2005 study by scientists from the University of Connecticut Health Center proved that the “pungent” claim held no weight.

The biggest lure for mosquitoes is actually body heat and a strong output of carbon dioxide—making a huffing and puffing, sweaty hiker a prime target for bites. So, don’t lather on the garlic. You’ll scare away more friends than mosquitoes. DEET is still the most effective mosquito repellant, hands down.

Myth: Dead or dormant poison ivy can’t hurt you.

Reality: Everyone knows the saying: “Leaves of three, let it be.” That’s no myth. But come winter, when the plant goes dormant and drops its leaves, it’s easy to forget about poison ivy. But don’t think you’re safe.

Urushiol, the oil in poison ivy that prompts allergic reactions when in contact with skin, remains active for several years after the plant dies. Furthermore, the urushiol is not just in the leaves of the plant, but is also present in the roots and stems.

So how do you pinpoint poison ivy when there are no leaves? Luckily, this toxic plant produces aerial roots, making the vines appear “hairy”—a handy sign for shoulder-season hikers.