Wildlife along the Appalachian Trail
You’re going to do some hiking on the AT. Whether you’re a thru-hiker, LASHer, weekend warrior, or day hiker, odds are you will encounter some wildlife. To be fair, we are invading their homes…
So, you might be wondering: What animals will you come across? How do you handle wildlife encounters? Which animals should you be wary of? And what to do when things take a bad turn (for wildlife or yourself)?
While I am a wildlife veterinary technician, former wildlife research technician, and wildlife enthusiast (hence the trail name Wildlife), I will note that I am not a veterinarian or professional wildlife biologist, so any information or advice that I give must be taken with a grain of salt.
Animals You May Encounter
There are many mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians, and insects/arachnids you can see and hear along the journey. Below are lists of the animals I encountered, followed by a list of some that I didn’t get to interact with, but you possible could!
- Black Bear
- White-tailed Deer
- Eastern Cottontail
- Eastern Grey Squirrel
- Red Squirrel
- Eastern Chipmunk
- White-footed Mouse
- Meadow Vole
- Big Brown Bat
- Grayson Highland Ponies
- American Crow
- Blue Jay
- Common Merganser
- Common Loon
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Great Blue Heron
- Pileated Woodpecker
- Downy Woodpecker
- Black-capped Chickadee
- Spruce Grouse (I’m pretty sure, see picture below)
- Turkey Vulture
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Eastern Screech Owl (heard)
- Barred Owl
- Northern Cardinal
- American Robin
- Red-breasted Nuthatch
- Eastern Bluebird
- Wild Turkey
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird
- Many more not identified
- Black rat snake
- Garter Snake
- Five-lined Skink
- Painted Turtle
- Red Eft
- Northern Red Salamander
- American Toad
- Praying Mantis
- Monarch Butterfly
- Deer Fly
- yellow butterfly/look up other butterflies (brownish redish one too), blue one
- Stick bug
- Stink bug
- Marbled Orb Weaver
- Carolina Wolf Spider
- Brown Recluse or Yellow Sac Spider (technically not seen, but was bitten and had a nasty wound that needed antibiotics)
- Many more not mentioned
- And several others above already noted as seen/heard (e.g. Black Bear, White-footed Mouse, White-tailed Deer)
Ones I missed out on
- Moose (I only observed feces)
- Coyote (I only observed feces)
- Red Fox
- Gray Fox
- Virginia Opossum (NOT POSSUM)
- American Mink
- Woodchuck (aka Groundhog)
- Striped Skunk
- Northern Flying Squirrel
- Eastern Red Bat
- Wild Boar
- Bald Eagle
- Black Vulture
- Peregrine Falcon
- American Woodcock
- Wood Duck (and many more duck species)
- Northern Bobwhite
- Timber Rattlesnake
- Northern Copperhead
- Spotted Salamander
- Brook Trout (especially if you are a fisher)
- Deer Tick
- Dog Tick
- Black Widow
Handling Wildlife Encounters
Leave No Trace on Respecting Wildlife
- Observe wildlife from a distance without following or approaching them.
- Never feed wildlife, and protect your food by storing it properly (i.e. bear canisters and bags, which also help for animals other than bears).
- Control your pets.
- Be sensitive and try to avoid wildlife during certain times, such as breeding or raising young.
- A more detailed description can be found at https://lnt.org/learn/principle-6.
The Leave No Trace principle on respecting wildlife outlined above is straightforward and definitely the core set of rules to follow. What I would add to this list mostly concerns particular species of concern and special situations discussed in the next sections. However, I will mention here, that wildlife want nothing to do with you, accept the few who want your food, but even they only want the food and will scurry away if you make your presence known or make it known that you know they are there and shoo them away. Therefore, with all wildlife, if you just make some noise and/or make yourself visible but give them their space, you will ensure both their and your safety. That being said…
Animals To Be Wary Of
Several critters that inhabit the Appalachian trail have particular concerns associated with them. Here’s what you’re working with:
- Venomous snakes (NOT POISONOUS- venom refers to an injected toxin, poison is used for topical, ingested or inhaled toxins)
- Timber Rattlesnake
- Northern Copperhead
- Water Moccasin (aka Cottonmouth)
- Venomous spiders
- Black Widow
- Brown Recluse
- Broad-faced Sac Spider
- Yellow Sac Spider
- Ticks (technically an arachnid, not an insect, but grouped here because they both are small and transmit diseases)
- Rabies Vectors
- Bats (Big and Little Brown)
- Other Mammals
- Black Bears
Preventing and Dealing with Negative Encounters
With all of the species above, there are particular things to be concerned about, some more obvious than others, and particular ways to prevent any negative interactions. Taking care of incidences follows each type of animals description
First, know what each species looks like and where they like to hang out. Timber rattlesnakes love to sun themselves on rocks or logs, so naturally, many people come across them in PA. Other times, they are sprawled out across the trail. However, they are known as the “gentleman of venomous snakes.” They warn you that their there and tend not to be aggressive. Sometimes people step directly over them, and it isn’t until after that they hear the rattle and realize this. You can see them in all states, except Maine.
Copperheads will similarly sun themselves, but they also spend a lot of their time on the forest floor, where they camouflage best. In addition to sunning themselves on top of logs (and this goes for rattlesnakes, too), they also lay out where the log meets the ground and spaces between rocks. A good trick to avoid encounters here is to use your trekking pole. Stick it into a gap in the rocks you’re stepping over or on the other side of a log you’re about to step over. Copperheads are thought to be more aggressive than timber rattlesnake, but this varies. In Massachusetts, a researcher I worked with said they were fairly docile. Massachusetts is the northern boundary of their distribution.
Water moccasins are a snake I never want to come across. The other two, sure, they are cool to see, but not this one. Cottonmouths are infamously aggressive. Luckily, seeing them along the trail is rare. As their name indicates, these snakes like to hang out near water and are most active in the heat of summer. However, they only inhabit the southern states all the way up through West Virginia, so most NoBos and Sobos will be out of these states during peak season.
With all of these snakes, just don’t be an idiot and get all up in their grill. The majority of snake bites occur on hands because people reach out towards the snake. Don’t be that person. Respect them and give the snake his or her space.
If you are bitten by a snake, immediately call 911 for help or use your GPS device that may have a panic button. Another resource is the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center hotline (1-800-222-1222). Try to identify or be able to describe the snake that bit you, but do not try to grab it. Luckily, deaths by rattlesnake or copperhead bites are rare. There are several things you do NOT want to do, including applying a tourniquet, trying to suck out the venom, and applying ice. You do want to remove jewelry or gear that could constrict blood flow, remain calm, keep the area with the bite at or below heart level, clean but do not flush wound and cover with a dry dressing. Look out for symptoms, such as swelling, skin color changes, and dizziness, and keep track of their progression. Recruit help from others if possible. You will need to get to a hospital as soon as possible.
Similarly to the snakes, to prevent bad encounters, it is best to know what the spiders look like and where they like to hang out. However, even though it is good to know what they look like, often you don’t even see them or notice that you’ve been bitten. Additionally, people tend to avoid all spiders I know from personal experience, as I acquired a venomous spider bite during my journey. Therefore, focus on where they like to hide. Black Widows are known as the “outhouse spider” because, you guessed it, they like to hang out in outhouses, or dark spaces in general. This goes for the other species as well. Brown Recluses lurk among piles of rocks, sticks, or logs, so be careful when collecting wood or grabbing another log for a fire. The two Sac Spiders can be found in similar places. Just be careful with these dark spaces. Be wary when you go to use the privy, don’t reach into piles of wood, take pieces from the top, don’t reach into small dark spaces in general.
Most people do not even realize they’ve been bitten, such as myself, but others feel a sting or a little pain. Symptoms can include rash, pain, itching at bite site, nausea, vomiting, headache, and fever. Death is extremely rare in adults. Therefore, when bitten, simply wash the site with soap and water, apply a cool compress or ice pack if possible, use ibuprofen or aspirin for pain relief, and call the doctor/seek medical treatment if necessary. To figure out if you need further medical attention, monitor your symptoms. Note if they’ve gotten worse or if you experience new symptoms. With rashes, a trick to use is to outline the rash with a pen, and you’ll know it’s getting worse if the rash extends outside of the lines. A doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or even a tetanus booster.
The “insects,” ticks and mosquitos are grouped together because they both act as vectors, transmitting zoonotic diseases. Both are each a double whammy because they are parasitic and feed on your blood, which is why they transmit diseases so well. I’m being repetitive here, but again, know the bugs you’re looking for, especially the different species of ticks, and it is good to know where they like to hang out and where they like to hide out on your body.
Mosquitos thrive in hot, humid areas with stagnant water. Most Nobos hit the wave in NJ/NY, and for me, a Sobo, mosquito alley occurred in MA. Ticks, dog, deer, and lone star, love tall grasses, so fields are plentiful with ticks. Once they find you, they like to inhabit the moist, warm places on your body. Often they are buried in your hair, armpit, or even your crotch. Be sure to check your back, too. As for prevention for both mosquitos and ticks, I recommend bug spray if you’re willing to carry it. Also, treat your clothes and gear with Permethrin spray. Lastly, try to do tick checks daily, or if not daily, every few days/when you get a shower. Have a friend check your back for you. If you have a dog- please check your dog!
If you get bitten by an insect, the next step is to look out for any symptoms that you are carrying a zoonotic disease. These diseases include West Nile virus and Zika virus transmitted by mosquitos and Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever transmitted by ticks. Most of these have similar symptoms to look out for, such as headache, fever, chill, rashes, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and confusion. If you begin to notice these symptoms be sure to seek medical attention.
The types of species that carry rabies are raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, bats, weasel species and relatives, canines, and felines. Therefore, do not approach these species! Many people say to look out for a crazed animal foaming from the mouth. I would say, just avoid them all together, but do be extra weary if they appear extremely aggressive, lethargic, or demonstrate neurologic disorder. Wildlife should run away from you quickly, so if they aren’t, it can be a red flag. If you come across an animal that you are especially concerned about, you can try to contact the local enforcement, similarly to with an injured animal.
Rabies Vector Bites
Rabies is a zoonotic viral disease that is fatal to animals that are susceptible, including us and our dogs. There have been few cases of humans surviving rabies, and although its transmission to humans in the US is very rare, any slight chance of being infected is taken very seriously. It is transmitted via saliva, and unfortunately, the only way to test an animal is post-mortem. If one of these animals bites or scratches you or one of your pets, it is best to get that animal tested. Additionally, bats spit, so even without a bite, a bat found in your home (or shelter) should be brought in for testing. Someone in Maine even drowned a raccoon in a puddle in the woods after she was attacked.
If a rabies suspect bites or scratches you or your pet, then you definitely need to contact a doctor. Immediately rinse your wound out with water and soap as much as possible and continue to follow directions given to you by your doctor.
Rodents are a nuisance animal more than anything. They will do anything within their power to get your food and destroy your expensive gear in the process. To prevent this CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF! Try not to overuse spaces, like shelters and campsites. Store your food properly, including bear bagging it at night. And please, for Pete’s sake, don’t feed them. Yes, I did see someone deliberately feeding a vole and a mouse.
If you do have any issues with rodents, you may just have to clean up the mess and get away from that space. You might have to buy new gear or rethink your food storage strategy. If you catch a rodent in the act, you can scare them off, but know that they will come back if you don’t move or make adjustments.
The bears and porcupines that make up the “other mammals” category are in this section for similar reasons to the rodents. You may think that you have to worry about bear attacks, but these are extremmmmeeelyyyy rare. Mostly, they want nothing to do with you except to eat your food. To prevent negative interactions here, simply store your food properly and clean up after yourself. With bears, be aware of any campsite or shelter closures or warnings for certain sections of trail. You can check this on the ATC’s official trail updates webpage. If you run into bears or porcupines along the trail, just make a lot of noise, and this will scare them off. Every time I ran into a bear, I yelled or banged my trekking poles together, and the bears took off in the opposite direction. Black bears are not aggressive. Just don’t be that person who tries to sneak up on one for a good photo. You are putting yourself and the bear at risk.
Other Mammal Issues
If you are attacked by a black bear, do not play dead. Make yourself big and try to retreat to a safe place. If necessary, fight back using any object available. If you are hurt or injured, call for help immediately, try to clean out any wounds, and bandage them if possible. Recruit help from others.
Coming Across Injured, Sick and “Orphaned” Wildlife
There is a chance that you can run into wildlife in any or all of these categories. You may panic- what should you do?! As a veterinary technician at a wildlife hospital and rehabilitation center, I have several suggestions.
First, let nature run its course. Animals get sick, injured, and orphaned, if not caused by humans, it is just something that happens. Maybe they’ll become a meal to another animal in need. Additionally, if you think an animal is orphaned, it is most likely not (unless you can confirm the parent is dead). Otherwise, parents leave their young unattended most of the time. With orphan situations, I’d always just leave it be. We see kidnapping far too often where I work.
Second, you can try to do something to help. Please DO NOT try to handle the animal. It will try to bite, scratch, stab, so grabbing them yourself can lead to you getting hurt, which just makes the situation worse. Also, every state varies on its wildlife policies. However, in every state it is illegal to rehabilitate wildlife without some sort of permit or license, so there is no sense in you directly coming into contact with the animal. Instead, my best recommendation is to contact the local law/environmental enforcement, whether that be an animal control officer, a park ranger, or the state division of fish and wildlife, report your location and your concern, and continue on your way.
A Favor to Ask: RODENTICIDE WARNING
At Hostels or other stops along the trail, you may see boxes similar to the one pictured below. You may even have them in your home. These contain rodenticide baits to kill mice and rats. Unfortunately, that’s not all they kill. Now, I know were are hiker trash, and hiker trash attracts these animals, but death by rodenticide is brutal and impacts the environment negatively.
Rodenticide contains an anticoagulant. Vitamin K is depleted in the body, and the victim has a long slow death from bleeding out internally. Since death is not instantaneous, the rodents leave the bait box and slowly grow weaker as the toxin takes affect. What does that make them? An easy meal for the hawks, owls, foxes, etc. Similarly to DDT, we see bioaccumulation up the food chain. In California, more than 85% of tested mountain lions, bobcats, and fishers tested positive for toxic rat poison. At the wildlife center I work at, the numbers are probably similar if not higher for birds of prey. So not only are the rodents dying from rodenticide toxicosis, the predators are, too.
So what am I asking? Well first, if you have these in your homes, stop using them. But, what I want from you is to keep your eyes peeled for these at hostels. If you see these baits, please say something. After all, shouldn’t these places be pro-environment and conservation. You can always start with, “Hey I read this article on The Trek that mentioned rodenticide baits are bad for the environment….” You can offer them an alternative. The most humane way to get rid of rodents, besides using a haverhart trap and releasing them elsewhere, is to use snap traps. This may shock some of you, but the death is nearly instantaneous, minimizing the pain and suffering. Also, there is no poison involved. Nothing that could travel up the food chain and kill other species. If places are worried about the snap traps having a bad effect aesthetically, have them cut a cardboard box with an opening to conceal the traps.
The wildlife and I appreciate your help!
Hopefully you will get to see some wildlife along your adventures, but remember to be safe and respectful. Humans are animals, too, so look after your fellow creatures.
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