From the very worst to the most stinky, here are five things you want to avoid at all costs and what to do if you get into them:
Despite what you’ve heard, rattlesnakes rarely attack unprovoked. In fact, they’re pretty docile. They rattle when they’re scared; it’s their way of telling you to back off. Of course, if you accidentally startle one (like stepping on it), it’s highly likely they’ll bite. But keep in mind that approximately one-third of all rattlesnake bites are “dry bites,” which means no venom is injected. Consider those bites a warning. Now, poke them hard with a stick or try to shoot at one, and you’re likely to end up face to face with a provoked and pissed off the snake that will almost certainly unload a lot of venom, and also strike several times. The one to really watch out for: the Mojave green rattlesnake, which releases the most toxic venom of all the rattlers in the U.S.
What to do: The best way to avoid getting bit in the backcountry is to stick to trails (rattlers will avoid areas where humans frequent) and watch where you put your hands and feet, especially on trails at night or near piles of rocks during daylight (they often sun themselves on rock ledges or hide out under them). Rattlesnakes tend to avoid wide-open spaces because the exposure makes them more vulnerable to predators, and won’t purposely strike just because they sense you. But should you get bit, go ahead and scream (get the fear out of your system because soon you will have to make some decisions). Once you’ve let off this primal steam, take a breath and try to be calm. If you have a bottle of water (as you should), hit the wound with a heavy stream, and drink some of it, too. If you are near an urgent care center (and a cell tower), call an ambulance or have someone take you there. Do not apply ice or cold packs to the bite, and keep the area bit below your heart. Just in case you’re a victim of one of that 25% of venomous bites, you’ll need to get moving toward treatment.
If you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’ll, unfortunately, need to chill a bit. After you calm down, rest for 20 to 30 minutes to encourage the venom to localize at the site of the bite. Then get up and slowly hike out; overexertion can stimulate venom spreading. Suctioning seldom helps, but if you have a venom suction kit and someone to apply it, give it a try after allowing the venom to localize. NEVER try to suck it out my mouth. Also, don’t tie a tourniquet on the limb on which the bite is located. Also, take note: if you don’t feel severe continual throbbing pain at the wound, there’s a likelihood the bite is non-venomous. Remember, most rattlesnake fatalities result from a provoked reptile. If it was an accidental encounter, you may have only gotten that proverbial warning.
Note: All this advice was culled from Brady’s Emergency Care for the Sick and Injured, the standard training and procedures manual for Emergency Medical Technicians.
Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac. Leaves of three, beware of me. All of these infuriating botanicals, with no apparent excuse for existence, excrete an oil called urushiol. It’s in the leaves, the stems and the roots—even when it’s dead. When this oil comes into contact with skin, clothing or socks, it’s quickly absorbed (and can remain indefinitely on clothing and footwear and even the handles of a trekking pole). It can also end up in your dog’s fur and be passed to you that way. Strangely, it’s usually not the first encounter that’s the worse; increased sensitivity to urushiol develops from repeated exposure.
No matter, contact with any of these can produce the most intense itch you’ve ever experienced. Thankfully, itching it won’t spread the oil since it’s immediately absorbed into the skin, but it could lead to infection. So be careful. Blisters typically appear 12 to 72 hours after contact, and the skin begins to harden into a leathery patch within a few weeks. Some people also experience a systemic inflammatory reaction that causes joint pain and even trouble breathing. In either case, expect to lose a lot of sleep while you wake to repeated and involuntary bouts of relentless scratching.
What to do: If you know what it looks like (look these herbs up and memorize them) and can find jewelweed or gumweed (Grindelia) near the poisonous plant, pick it and crush it, and immediately apply it to the spot that came into contact with your skin. As soon as you can, wash the spot with a grease-cutting soap (add lemon juice to your usual dish soap). Then use a compress of either coffee (which contains anti-inflammatory chlorogenic acid) or witch hazel. Follow that—before the blisters have a chance to erupt—with a gumweed or jewelweed tincture. Both are remarkably fast and effective at stopping a rash or blisters from ever erupting. If you’re past that point and are already blistering, apply one of the tinctures and then try plasters made with rhubarb stem, baking powder, salicylic acid (smashed aspirins), calamine (a zinc and iron blend) or colloidal oatmeal. Repeat as needed.
What really needs to be said about this worthless insect? They live in forests and grasslands, and in oleander bushes in desert landscapes. In any case, they can be more than a nuisance. If you get nailed, keep an eye out for tick-borne diseases. They will produce symptoms that include swollen lymph nodes, fever, weakness, headache, stiff neck, muscle or joint aches and a rash. Ticks carrying Lyme disease will leave behind a red spot (target) with an expanding concentric red ring around it where ever they feed on your body. Ticks carrying Rocky Mountain spotted fever leave behind small red bumps (which will show up on the wrists and ankles). Texas Lone Star tick bites can even leave you allergic to most meat for life (alpha-gal allergy). When a person with the alpha-gal antibody eats mammalian meat, the meat triggers a severe release of histamine.
What to do: If you should end up with a tick on you, remove it. There are dozens of ways to do this—a quick internet search will show you, but a good one is to pour tea tree oil or cooking oil over it. As the oil begins to smother the bugger, it will begin to back up and extract itself; use a pair of tweezers to help it along, hopefully, head intact. Thoroughly clean the area where it burrowed in, and place a drop of tea tree oil on that spot to prevent infection. If you start to swell, feel deep pain, have difficulty breathing or experience uncoordinated movements and general weakness after a bite, you may be having an allergic reaction. Get to a doctor immediately. No matter what, after a bite, the tick should be sealed in a jar and delivered to your doctor’s clinic to determine whether it is carrying a disease.
A prolific perennial plant that has been used as food and medicine for centuries, stinging nettles are particularly beneficial for combatting seasonal allergies when taken as an herbal supplement. But in its natural state, the herb has hairs called trichomes lining its leaves and stems that are highly irritating to pests and predators, and bare human skin. The resulting inflammatory reaction that results from contact can produce a temporary burning “pins and needles” like sensation.
What to do: If you brush up against this plant and happen to be carrying a water bottle, immediately flush your flesh with water. No water? Use saliva (which contain nettle-busting enzymes). Spit and rub. Otherwise, look around for certain plants that typically grow near nettle, including dock leaf, broadleaf plantain, spotted jewelweed or gumweed (slice the stems and rub on your skin), and ferns (rub the spore side of the fern on your skin). Other topical remedies, once you arrive back home, include a paste of baking soda and water, or apply cortisone cream, calamine lotion or milk of magnesia. But try washing it first with soap and water before applying topicals. Usually, that will take care of it.
Note: If you’re allergic to bees you may be allergic to stinging nettles. Left untreated, a severe inflammatory reaction could lead to anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.
According to the Mayo Clinic, skunks are among the most common carriers of rabies, but it’s rare to get close enough to worry about that. A bigger concern is the putrid smell that will stick to you or your dog like none other. It’s how they defend themselves. While it’s fairly easy for humans to avoid getting sprayed, our canine companion’s curiosity and predator drive can also be their worst enemy.
What to do: Keep your pet outdoors and get someone to run to the store for rubber gloves, a bottle of enzymes (pet stain and odor remover), a couple bottles of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), a box of baking soda and some dishwashing or laundry soap. Mix a quart of the H2O2, a half-cup of baking soda, a couple of teaspoons of dish soap and a half-cup of enzymes in a bucket and stir. Put on the rubber gloves and begin rubbing the works into a lather on your dog’s fur. Work it in, then hang on to your dog so he doesn’t shake it all off, and let the ingredients do their job breaking down the skunk oil. Rinse thoroughly and repeat as needed. The same ingredient blend works well on humans too, thankfully.