While it may seem to outsiders like a walk in the park, backpacking is serious business. It requires real survival skills and it places humans back in the food chain; backpackers expose themselves to the very real dangers of the wilderness. However, given our of years of intellectual and technological development, we have developed strategies for avoiding many of the dangers of rural adventures. Hike at your own risk!
Bears: Food Safety
When traveling in the backcountry, or even near towns in certain areas such as the Sierras, bears pose a very real threat—particularly given how used to humans they have become. Before you travel, do a bit of research to find out if you will be in bear country. If you will be traveling through lands potentially occupied by these hulking beasts, food awareness is key. When you go to bed for the night, you will want to keep all food, including food waste, and good-smelling items, such as lotions, sunscreen, deodorant, and toothpaste in a bear-safe container, such as a bear can or bear bag, and hang it at least 100 feet from where you will be sleeping.
Bears: Avoiding and Addressing an Encounter
While hiking, you should make noise or wear bear bells to warn bears of your presence to avoid an encounter, though the effectiveness of bear bells is debated. You can further protect yourself from curious or starving bears by carrying a can of bear spray while you hike and keeping it handy in your tent. This is a highly effective means of warding off a would-be attack at close range. If you encounter a bear at some distance, and/or you do not have bear spray, assess the situation, slowly retreat while keeping your eyes on the bear (but not eye contact), and if it stalks, approaches, or charges you, attempt to climb a tree and/or prepare to fight back. However, if the bear is a grizzly, playing dead has also been proven effective in deescalating the situation or reducing the damage.
Wolves: Addressing Encounters and Food Safety
While much less common, wolf populations have been rising in the United States, so an encounter could happen. Just as with bears, being aware of and protecting your food is important for avoiding wolves. If you encounter a wolf in the wild, whatever you do, don’t run. Also, do not make eye contact, but do not show fear. If you can find a rock face to back against, do so, and try to scare them off by making yourself look big, make a lot of noise, and throw stones. If they attack, cover your head and face.
Rodents: More Food Safety
A very real danger in the wilderness is starvation, so it is important to keep your food safe. Rodents, such as mice, squirrels, and even larger animals, such as raccoons, will try to steal your food if given the opportunity. Hanging your food up in a bear can is also effective for protecting it against pests if sealed properly.
Rodents: Avoiding Disease
When people think of animal-human communicable diseases, they often think of rabies. Of course, avoid approaching animals in the wild, but if you do get bitten, wash the wound with soap and water as soon as possible. Then, if you have it, rinse the wound with alcohol or iodine and head straight to the nearest hospital for treatment.
However, another disease lurks in backcountry wildlife. Believe it or not, the bubonic plague is alive and well and exists in the United States. It is, just as during the dark ages, transmitted by rodents through their feces, bodily fluids (dead or alive), and the fleas they carry. While backpacking, avoid all dead animal carcasses and try to stay away from rodents as much as possible. Thankfully, we can now treat bubonic plague with antibiotics, but they should be administered within 24 hours of the first sign of symptoms, so if you feel like you have a flu coming on while hiking and you know you were recently exposed to rodent droppings or were bit by a rodent, head straight to the hospital.