These guidelines are simply that, guidelines. It is highly
recommended that you research for yourself the various risks you may
encounter during your hiking activities and how to deal with them.
DX Hiker is no authority, medical or otherwise. It is your
responsibility to find out how to protect yourself and what steps
should be taken in an emergency.
By far, the plant that has the most potential negative impact on
your hiking experience is poison ivy and oak.
Some people are particularly sensitive to this plant, while others
are hardly bothered. There are a lot of myths about poison oak, and
the best advice is just to stay away from it. Some new products are
on the market, including a soap that neutralizes the effect of the
poison oak oil. The trick is knowing you've made contact with the
plant, then washing the oil off quickly with cool water (hot water
is thought to spread the oil). If you stay on the trail while you
hike, the chances of encountering poison oak drop dramatically. Most
people I know have made contact with poison oak off the trails,
either using the bushes as a bathroom, or bushwhacking through
brush. Even if you stay out of the bushes, it may be a good idea to
bring a small bar or tube of soap (Burt's Bees makes a poison ivy
soap that works on poison oak) with you, and remember to wash any
exposed area of skin as soon as possible after exposure. If you hike
with a dog who likes to explore off the trail, keep the dog off car
seats and away from your skin until you can give the dog a good wash
- canine to human contact is a common source of poison oak rash.
As far as animals go, it's been repeatedly said that the most
dangerous creature you're prone to encounter hiking is the
tick. These tiny arachnids can carry
Lyme Disease. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants makes it more
difficult for ticks to latch on to you, and if your clothes are
light colored it's easier to spot a tick. Typically, ticks hang out
in grassland, but they can be almost anywhere. Once a tick hops on
board a human it will usually head for a warm crease (armpits,
behind the knee, etc.), and then bite. If you find a tick in the
process of biting you, use tweezers to carefully pull the tick out.
Try to get the entire tick out without squeezing so hard that the
tick body crushes. Once you get the tick out, you can have the tick
(and yourself) tested for disease. Contact your health professional
for details of where to bring the dead tick for testing. Otherwise,
check yourself for symptoms, which can start a few days after a
bite. The most prominent symptom is a bulls-eye rash. If unchecked,
Lyme Disease can cause chronic fatigue, joint pain, headache, and
other more serious complications. For more info, visit the Center
for Disease Control's website (see links, below).
There are other problem arachnids to watch out for, like
black widow and brown recluse spiders.
A bite from either of these can be fatal, and a doctor should be
located as soon as possible. Spiders, like snakes, generally will
not seek you out, but bite in self defense when disturbed. Stay away
from spider hangouts like woodpiles and unoccupied buildings.
Bees can be a problem, especially the
aggressive Yellow Jacket wasp. Watch
out for yellow jackets nesting near trails. If you see one yellow
jacket, chances are there are more nearby, and you should leave the
Rattlesnakes and Copperheads live
throughout this area, but are most commonly spotted in dry, rocky,
or exposed zones during the warmest months of the year. The standard
"rules" for hiking in rattlesnake territory are:
Do not put your hands (or feet) where you can't see them, i.e.
the top of a rock outcrop or in a log pile.
Be extra cautious in hot weather, as snakes are more active.
Scan the trail continuously as you hike.
from running ahead on trails. Bites to children are more severe
than to adults.
Avoid tall grass where you can't see your feet (or a potential
Should you encounter a snake, once it is aware of you, its body
language will reveal its mood. A coiled rattler is primed for a
strike, while a stretched rattler is more sanguine (although snakes
have been reported to "lunge"). If the snake is within striking
distance, you should probably stand motionless and wait for the
snake to calm down and move. Small, slow steps backward are also an
option. If you're out of immediate range, you could either skirt the
snake, or wait for the snake to move. Some people believe tapping
the ground with a stick (from a safe distance, rather than in the
snake's face) will encourage the snake to move on.
Do not injure or kill a snake. They are an essential part of our
ecosystem. Also, educate yourself about rattlesnakes and
copperheads. If you happen to get bitten, follow this protocol:
Try to stay calm (which seems impossible, but the toxin is
spread through your blood, and the faster your heart beats, the
faster it is dispersed).
Take a few minutes and call for help. You could call the
nearest ranger station (this is another good reason to carry maps,
as there are commonly phone numbers on them), or a nearby
hospital. Rattlesnake serum is not always available at every
hospital, and it's best to find a hospital with a confirmed
supply. Rangers can assist you in getting back to the trailhead,
and can arrange emergency medical transport.
If you don't have a phone, or if the phone doesn't work in your
location, assess the situation. If you're alone, you'll have to
hike out by yourself. If you've got company, either send the other
person back to the trailhead and/or emergency phone, or have the
person help you walk back.
Forget the old stories of cutting the bite area and sucking the
venom out. There are snake bite extraction kits available at
outdoor stores, but they are perhaps best suited to remote
attacks, where hiking back to the trailhead is not practical.
Unless you're deep in the backcountry, don't waste time trying to
get the venom out; put your energy into making your way to a
What to do if you are on a backpacking trip, more than one day
from help and out of cell phone range? Advise varies, but people
have survived by simply staying put and waiting the bite out. A
healthy adult may be able to process the venom out of his/her
system. Keep the bit limb lower than the heart, remove restrictive
clothing and/or jewelry, and wash the bite area with soap and
water. Hopefully you would have a suction extractor, which should
be used within 15 minutes.
Coyotes, Bears, large Cats, and wild or feral
Pigs... It's important to remember that any wild animal can
react in an unpredictable or menacing way. Keep a safe distance from
any wild animal and report any aggressive animal behavior to the
appropriate agency. Search the Internet for more information on how
to react to an encounter with these large mammals.