I Once Saw A Bear’s Ass…

…And it was not what I expected. I mean, it’s not like I expected it to be a sculpted work of art. But…I was kinda, sorta, secretly hoping it would be soft and cuddly, and maybe even do a cute little side-to-side wiggle when it walked. Instead, it looked like two overly large Virginia smoked hams fighting over the remote control. It was not a pretty sight.

You’re wondering where I’m going with this story, aren’t you? Bears. Or rather, “Aren’t you afraid of bears?” It’s an oft asked follow-up question upon learning I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail. Rightfully so, I might add. The truth is, I have seen exactly 3 bears on the AT in the many years I have hiked on the trail. All three times, I only caught a glimpse of their butts as they ran off into the woods. I respect bears but I’m not afraid of being eaten by one. Besides, I’m pretty sure I have GMO’s in my body which probably alters my flavor profile. I’m more rump roast and less filet mignon.

Before I incur the wrath of the internet, please know I have a healthy respect for bears and am educated on bear safety and prevention. However, I personally feel there are heaps of other “that’s gonna be a bad day” events out there ready to end my thru hike. Let’s have a looksie at six things that could end my hike quicker than a bear putting Sriracha on my sleeping bag and eating me like a burrito…

6. Hantavirus. Hanta who? This was the virus du jour 20 years ago as it made it’s prominent debut in the early 90’s. It’s also the number 2 reason I no longer sleep in the shelters themselves. This airborne transmitted virus comes from the droppings, saliva, and feces of rodents. Anyone who’s ever slept in a shelter more than once has probably felt a mouse scurry across their face at 2am. I got a two-fer once at Rutherford shelter in NJ when I awoke to a mouse doing the Macarena on my forehead with another nibbling at my socks…while I was in my sleeping bag.

5. Rattlesnakes! Rattlesnakes inherently want to be left alone, hence their rattling. It’s their lazy way of saying, “Bro- please don’t step on me.” It’s not so much the act of being bitten as it is the cascading effect of seeing one. Imagine if you will, you’re happily hiking along a beautiful stretch of trail. The sun is out. Birds are swooping down to wish you a merry day. Life is good. Until…you suddenly hear the tail of a rattlesnake shake and come to life. Maybe you suddenly stop and assess where this little bugger is? Or maybe you jump back, lose your balance, flail your arms, and the next thing you know your arm looks like an al dente lasagna noodle and you have an golfball size lump on your head.

4. Nasty hands. Let’s pretend Dirty Joe takes a dump in the woods and doesn’t wash his hands afterwards. At the shelter he offers up some homemade trail mix. Or maybe he uses the community pen when signing the trail register? You come along and touch what Dirty Joe touched. Congratulations. You just earned a day (or two) off from hiking because you’re doubled over with liquid coming out of both ends. (Oops! TMI?)

3. Rocks and Roots. No…not the hipster, PBR drinking, banjo playing rock trio from your local coffee shop. I’m being literal here. Actual rocks and roots. I have followed hundreds of blogs and journals over the years, and it is always a punch to the gut when a hiker’s adventure ends because of a freaking exposed root. There was one hiker I followed from his prep in 2013 to his hike in 2014. Over a year of reading his excitement and joy and then three weeks into his hike, he tripped over a rock and broke his leg. And just like that, it’s over. I can’t even imagine what that feels like.

2. Lyme Disease. Oh man, this seems to be more prevalent every year and not just on the AT but everywhere! The ticks can be so small, even a thorough tick check in all the cracks and crevices may turn up nothing. This weighs on my mind every time I lace up the boots and head out.

1. The Mind Game. I have said to my friends, “What happens if I’m 345 miles into my hike and I don’t feel like hiking anymore?” The Appalachian Trail has a strong romantic pull towards it that we tend to overlook the realistic fact that we have to make forward progress (usually in increments of 15-20 miles a day), every. single. day. I mean, this could really happen! I don’t want it to, but the mind can be your worst enemy. Luckily, I know a guy named Zach Davis who has written a best selling book on the mental game of completing an AT Thru Hike.  You can buy it here.  Tell him Tom sent you. 🙂

Honorable Mentions 

  • When missing your sweetie is too much to handle and texting from the backcountry doesn’t curb those feelings
  • Insufficient funds- too many brewskis in the beginning of the trip and not enough for ramen in Maine
  • Being drugged and kidnapped from Don’s Diner in Tennessee, then waking up in the cargo hold of a Turkish transport ship and learning you were sold to a Greek shipping tycoon who plans to sell you to the Russians as a Siberian sex slave. Let’s be honest…if you make it out of this situation alive, you’re autobiographical movie at best is an Oscar winner starring Matt Damon. At worst, it’s the Lifetime movie of the week starring Antonio Sabato, Jr.

I could probably list another 15-20 more possible things that could derail a thru hike, but truth be told, those six points I listed usually cross my mind at least once on a backpacking trip.  Do you agree?  Leave a comment below!



Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 6

  • Zoë : Feb 8th

    Yes! The things we all should actually be worried about when hiking aren’t always the things our well-meaning acquaintances think we should be worried about. I’m terrified of Lyme Disease and Dirty Joe with the nasty hands. Not so much bears or moonshiners with sawed-off shotguns.

    • Tom Willard : Feb 8th

      Although…anything with moonshiner’s would make for a great story. :). Thanks for reading!

  • Greg : Feb 8th

    Great article! This show is about to start and I can’t wait!
    Thanks for sharing and great information!

  • Jessica : Feb 8th

    I’m planning for a hike from Georgia to PA on the AT starting in April and these are pretty much exactly the concerns I have. I can’t say bears don’t cross my mind from time to time, but I ran across a couple of them on the Colorado trail last summer and only caught a glimpse of their rear ends as they scurried away. Lyme disease, GI illnesses, and loneliness are probably my biggest fears. But I figure if I’m equal parts terrified and excited to do this thing it will more than likely be totally worth it. Also, I’m from Lancaster County! Hey, neighbor.

  • Bob Rogers : Feb 9th

    6/4) Hantavirus, Nerovirus, etc. unless I missed something in the latest greatest virus research out of the CDC, I’m not the least bit worried about mouses or Joes. If you are a germaphobe you probably live in a bubble and getting the mail is high adventure. That said, blowing out an ass gasket while it’s raining sideways IS NOT GOING TO BE FUN. Trying to use toilet paper in a downpour in the woods isn’t going to be a great deal of fun either. The trail isn’t supposed to be all unicorns, pixie dust and rainbows. How is a 6 month Disney ride life changing, an adventure or character building? Isn’t that why you hike the A.T. in the first place? 3 days of squirting from both ends isn’t likely to send you home.

    5) Rattlesnakes… pfft. You leave him alone and he will leave you alone. Most people don’t die from a rattlesnake bite so even worst case you’re fairly safe. Cotton mouths (water moccasins) on the other hand are nasty little aggressive assholes. They are as likely to come after you as retreat. If you don’t know snakes, it’s probably a black rat snake but better safe than sorry; leave it alone. For the record, moccasins are black with white bellies and white mouths. General rule of thumb; if it has a triangle head, it’s poisonous, leave it be.

    3) Roots, rocks, AND DOWNHILL SLOPES … knees do NOT like these things. My knees are 47 going on 67. I do not plan on packing knee braces. I do however plan on leaving the trail with them now that I give it some thought. I don’t foresee a sprain keeping me from finishing. It may delay that finish but not stop it. A broken leg may. Healing time for those is considerably longer.

    2) Lyme disease… not a lot of planning or prevention aside from daily checks there. Worry about what you can change and not about what you can’t.

    1) I’ve been addicted to the romance for a very long time now. I’ve done a fair amount of hiking and camping when compared to the average Joe. I have NOT done any really long distance, long time, nor shitty weather hiking/camping. I have camped in the rain, when hot, when cold, etc. but just not for a week straight much less months straight. I do want to do more shitty weather camping tho just to make sure I’m good with trying to wipe my ass in the rain.

    My biggest fear is failure to launch. Just divorced. I have a house I need to unload. It needs new flooring, it needs painting, it needs cleaned up, and when all of that is done, it needs selling. If I actually got off my ass, I could possibly get it done by April I suppose (money for flooring would the long pole). My daughter lives with me so I’d have to boot her. The ex-wife has our son living with her but only a 2 bedroom apartment. The daughter is also starting jr. college in the summer semester. The gf has a lease that is up in May. That would be good timing for a flip-flop or a SOBO. Doesn’t help with the daughter nor does a SOBO appeal that much to me; too much a traditionalist. So, looking at 2017 for a start date now. There is a lot of time between now and 2017. That’s a double edged sword tho. A lot of time to save money, get stuff done, etc. but it is also a lot of time for shit to go sideways. Shit going sideways is my biggest fear.

  • Mike : Apr 11th

    Hilarious article with great information!


What Do You Think?