Dangers of Hiking the Appalachian Trail This Summer Can Be Managed - Be Prepared

John M. Dabbs

Military Search and Rescue making a forest insertionY S/Unsplash

Managing the dangers of hiking the AT

Each year we hear of park rangers and national guard helicopters saving lost or injured in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Just a short run north along the Appalachians, the same stories involve the local rescue teams from Cartier County Rescue Squad and Highlands Emergency Air Rescue Transport. There are some dangers when hiking to be mitigated in the mountains

Hiking can be a solo-sport, or activity... but for safety reasons, it's better to have someone hiking with you. I have gained much experience and expertise in safety and survival in the mountains and wilderness over the years. It has reinforced my opinion that I knew what I was doing - or so I thought. There are some things to be aware of when hiking in the mountains. I'll cover some of the issues and how to address them in this article.

Dangerous people

Family members tend to weary of others they meet and want to warn you of the creepy people who are out hiking in the mountains just to find someone and prey upon them. Murders are very uncommon on the Appalachian Trail. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, it is estimated roughly 3 million people hike a portion of the trail every year. On average, there has only been one murder every four years since 1974. This means there is currently less than a . 00003% chance of being murdered on the AT.

Personal safety from people

  • To keep would-be attackers at bay, keep some pepper spray close to you. I've never had to use it, but it can provide peace of mind - especially for solo hikers. Also, be careful of who you accept rides from. I wouldn't hitch-hike and take a ride from just anyone. Trust your gut instincts before accepting a ride or favor from people.
  • It's also a good idea not to follow other solo hikers. No matter how good your intentions, you could come across as being the creepy one yourself (just sayin').


Bears have been active in the past few years. Use caution especially in early spring when the mother bears are becoming active with their cubs. Bears have been known to frequent areas where people leave their trash or store and cook their food improperly, making it a draw for an easy meal. This also means they can come looking for your food, thinking you'll likely have the same bad habits.

Bears, snakes, and other wildlife won't be looking to eat you. Don't worry about being eaten. They will, however, likely wait until you are sleeping and try to get to your food. Do not keep any food in your tent, in your hammock, or close to your campsite. Always hang it properly from a tree. Coyotes and bears are generally afraid of people and will try to avoid them. People kill many more of them each year than they kill humans.

Rattlesnake on Holston MountainJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Snakes are not as afraid of humans. They don't want to be bothered and will strike if you bother them. They will generally be found lying on a path or trail, or sunning themselves on a rock and will take their time moving out of the way. Don't be a wise guy and try to pick up the snake, or move it with a stick - that can make them mad, and often leads to people getting bit.

Personal safety from wildlife

  • If you spot a bear, snake, or other animals (no matter how cute), leave it alone and back off without bothering it. Remember that taking pictures isn't your first priority - move to a safe distance before attempting any photo shoots.
  • Use bear hangs and bear boxes at shelters. You don't want bears or other wildlife to come sniffing around you looking for food at night.
  • If you're hiking in known bear or snake country, be cautious and aware of your surroundings. Watch where you step, and look ahead at where you are going. Not all snakes give warning of their presence, even rattlesnakes don't always rattle. Take your headphones or earbuds out and listen to the world of nature around you while you hike.

Creepy-crawlies and smaller pests

Most hikers suffer from the smaller things lurking around the trails and mountains. Not only are bugs flying, crawling, and moving all around you while you walk - they are present in your sleep. Gnats fly in your hair and threaten to invade your body every time you breathe, and mosquitos are ready to feast on your body at the first opportunity. You'll also find spiders ready to bite, ticks ready to suck blood, and other organisms ready to invade your system if you dare drink the water or eat without being really clean.

Personal safety from insects, arachnids, and parasites

  • Use bug spray to keep ticks and mosquitos away. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when weather permits to help keep pests at bay. Use people-friendly sprays and solutions, as overtreating yourself with chemicals can end up being worse for you than the pests. When possible, use a natural bug repellant like citronella.
  • Remember to purify your drinking water, either by boiling, using a filter, or chemical purification drops. This will reduce your likelihood of getting sick from drinking the water.
  • Keep some Benadryl on hand, should you develop a reaction to any bites or stings, and conduct a tick-check every night - and remove any ticks found safely. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are real and are no fun at all.

Land of the lost

Many people become lost every year in the forest. The Carter County Rescue Squad conducts several search and rescue missions each year looking for lost hikers. To the novice, everything looks the same when hiking in unfamiliar territory, and it is difficult to get your bearings. Most people lose their way when they get off the trail.

The AT is well marked with a single white blaze along the trail, with a double white blaze where the trail changes direction. If you stick to the footpath, you'll likely not have any issues at all. There are similarly marked side paths to water and other facilities.

Staying found

  • When hiking, always look around as you hike and be aware of your surroundings. Notice the trees, bushes, flowers, turns, rocks, and so forth. If you wander from the trail - don't go far. You'll want to stick to the paths anyway if you are following the old adage "Leave No Trace."
  • If you must depart from the trail, leave a bight colored item to help you find the trail, such as your backpack, a bag, scarf, etc.. - if you must, use sheets of toilet paper and retrieve them when retracing your steps.
  • If you have a GPS or can download maps to your phone, learn how to do this and use them. It can work if you get into a bind.

Be mindful

Use your head, and be prepared. Know your limitations, and keep your cell phone charged. There is often cell service in many areas of the AT these days, and your phone can be an ally if you have the means to charge it in the backcountry.

Learn first aid and keep a proper first aid kit with you, extra clothing, and extra food and water when you hike. Take your time and have fun. The whole point of getting out and about is to enjoy yourself and unwind. If you prepare, you can do exactly that.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Bristol, TN

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