3 Actual Threats on the Appalachian Trail (And How You Can Protect Yourself)

The sun sets in the west, water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit, and this dress is blue and black.  These are but a few unescapable facts of life.  Another such reality is the reaction one receives after announcing their intentions to walk from Georgia to Maine, which can be summarized along the lines of:

Are you f*cking crazy?!  What about bears, rattlesnakes, and deranged, inbred hillbillies?”

Anyone who’s done any amount of research into thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail already knows the above “threats” are minimal at best.  Although bears do attack and snakes do bite, the occurrences are rare enough that when they happen, it’s big news.  Similarly, people have been captured by twisted hillbillies, but mostly only in fictional movies starring Burt Reynolds.  My best advice is to not provoke wild animals, hang your food at night, and avoid being a movie character set in the southern Appalachias 40 years ago.  If you can do that, you should be alright.

For those who are afraid of the above scenarios, I sure hope you are terrified of cheeseburgers, driving, and sitting for more than 5 hours per day, because these are far more likely to kill you.  If you’re able to drive-through a Wendy’s without sustaining a panic attack, then the thought of a black bear going berserk shouldn’t keep you up at night.

That isn’t to say that the Appalachian Trail, and long-distance backpacking in general, are without real risks.  But the things you should protect yourself against fall into a different Venn circle than that of mom’s concerns.  These dangers are presented below:

1) Deer Ticks

Lyme disease is less a threat to your life (although it can be lethal) than it is to its quality.  Deer ticks present a perfect storm of risks to AT thru-hikers.  First and foremost, of the 14 states with the highest occurrence of Lyme Disease, the Appalachian Trail travels through 10 of them.  Just look at this map.  If that doesn’t instill a healthy fear into someone considering hiking the Appalachian Trail, then I suggest for this person to read up on Lyme disease.  To make matters worse, the early-stage symptoms of this horrific, central nervous system attacking bacteria are disturbingly similar to the symptoms of long-distance backpacking, namely muscle / joint pain and exhaustion.

In 2013, there were more than 27,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease with another ~9,000 probable incidents.  One of our 2014 bloggers and thru-hikers Bennett Travers shares her experiences with Lyme Disease here.  Simply put, Lyme disease presents the biggest threat to anyone considering thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

How you can protect yourself: There are ways you can drastically reduce the likelihood of contracting Lyme disease. The first being to check yourself.  Every. Damn. Day.  A tick needs to be attached for more than 36 hours for there to be any meaningful risk.  Secondly, wear pants, a long sleeve shirt, and spray each with Permethrin.  The thru-hikers I’ve talked to who’ve followed this protocol report far fewer occurrences with deer ticks.

2) Hypothermia

Defined as “a decrease in the core body temperature to a level at which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired,” (source: Medicine for Mountaineering), Hypothermia is caused by cold temperatures, inadequate clothing and equipment, wetness, fatigue, exhaustion, and dehydration.  All of these conditions are all but guaranteed for thru-hikers, save one: proper clothing and equipment. And it is this exception that is solely responsible for protecting hikers in these high-risk environments.

On average, hypothermia claims 1,300 lives per year.  A properly equipped hiker will not be one of them.

How you can protect yourself:  Do your research.  Wear only wool or synthetic fabrics (never cotton).  Always keep a dry set of clothes for shelter.  Ensure your sleeping bag is warm enough for the environment.  Keep both in something completely waterproof (we like Sea to Summit’s Ultra Sil Dry Sacs).  Stay well fed and hydrated.  Be cognizant that hypothermia can occur in conditions even as warm as 60-degrees.

3) Depression

Arguably the 2nd biggest risk (after Lyme disease) is the difficulty a thru-hiker will experience adjusting back to their pre-hike world.  I cover post-AT depression at length in Appalachian Trials, but the CliffsNotes version goes like this:

Thru-hiking strips life down to its most basic form- and although hikers sustain off fried food, ice cream, and highly-processed grain + chemicals for a half year, hands down, it’s still a much healthier lifestyle.  Adventuring is an addiction, depression is merely a withdrawal symptom.

How you can protect yourself:  The simple answer is to keep adventuring.  For most, however, their after-AT finances leave them incapable of hitting up Cafe Rio, let alone a cafe in Rio.  Others have obligations that require their reentry into the rat race.  If this is the case, remember your trail lessons.  Exercise feels great and is important to your health.  Same goes for being in nature.  Adventuring is more satisfying than a new pair of jeans, prioritize your savings accordingly. Goals give a sense of purpose- set some, make them massive, and assign deadlines.

In summation: the biggest risk in life is not taking any.  If the Appalachian Trail, backpacking, or any other adventure is in your heart, don’t let the threats (actual or perceived) prevent you from fulfilling your dreams.

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Comments 10

  • A J MacDonald Jr : Mar 2nd

    I wonder how many hikers who read this article will wear pants and long sleeve shirts? I always wear pants and long sleeve shirts for better protection.

    Reply
  • Frogmonkey : Mar 3rd

    I wore shorts and a tank top the whole time I hiked as soon as it got warm. Two ticks got me. One I pulled out as it was nuzzling down into my flesh, and the second I pulled off less than 12 hours later. I sprayed all my clothes and gear with permethrin, and for the most part that, and a careful whole body check every night kept me Lyme free. I overheat so easily that I think wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt during my hike would have made me seriously think about quitting, so it’s a risk I’m glad I took. Now the post-trail depression, that one got me good! But like Zach said, after spending some time outdoors and making new adventure plans I’m doing alright again.

    Reply
  • gottanewname : Mar 4th

    For those going through post-hike depression: don’t hesitate to seek professional help if it gets too bad. Readjustment is all about attitude, but sometimes it takes a pro to help us re-acclimate to the “real world.”

    Reply
  • Cooter : Nov 26th

    A long time ago, when we went out to the field for weeks, we would wear dog collars around the top of our boots to keep pest off us. Does anyone do that anymore?

    Reply
  • michael : Feb 12th

    I have ptsd and severe panic disorder. But I love walking. I want to thru hike and at times I am excited about it. I am in great shape physically and half family support for drops. I am worried that I will be in the middle of nowhere and then have an attack. It is difficult to breathe and I would freak out. All my life I have been to scared to venture out. I want to live.

    Reply
    • Bob- Bad Daddy Wanderer : Oct 12th

      Michael-
      I plan to go. Feb 2017 NOBO from Springer. Find yourself a mate to trust and go for it. Live your life brother.

      Reply
    • Troll (it's just a nickname) : Jul 18th

      I’m not a medical professional, so take this with a grain of salt. If you have PTSD and an anxiety disorder, talk to a professional therapist about your dream/plan. They can probably help you to prepare internally, just like gear reviews and articles like this help externally. Consider hiking on short distances and doing overnights until you’re comfortable and confident. Also, hike with someone who knows about your condition and work out coping strategies with them. Hope it helps.

      Reply
  • Jan Delavega : Apr 11th

    Please, I couldn’t get past inbred deranged hillbilly. Plus the fact that up you used a picture of an obviously mentally challenged child on your blog. I have traveled all over the world and I am from Tennessee and I can ASSURE you the kind of people you are alluding to can be found all over the world so if you are that worried just stay home.

    Reply
    • Zach : Apr 11th

      Clearly you couldn’t, because if you had, you would’ve realized you missed the point of the article. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply

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