animals


You won't see as many animals as you'd hoped.

We are disappointed to report that the AT is a terrible place for wildlife viewing. This is a consequence of the AT's success. With so many people hiking the trail so regularly, animals avoid it. Even those animals that do venture close will hear, see, or smell you long before you could spot them and they disappear into the forest. The most you can expect to see on a daily basis are song birds, chipmunks and squirrels. Occasionally you might spot a wild turkey, snake, or deer. Your best chances for seeing deer and bear are in Shenandoah National Park.  


Bears

photo by Diginatur via Wikipedia
photo by Diginatur via Wikipedia

To the annoyance of many people, the original cover for Bill Bryson's memoir A Walk in the Woods featured the famously dangerous and aggressive brown bear. There are no brown bears in the eastern states however, and they are extinct in much of their historic range in the west.

 

The only bear species along the AT is the common black bear. A shy animal, they stay away from the heavy traffic of the AT. The only place you are likely to see one is in Shenandoah National Park. Because the park is so narrow, it is as if wildlife has been squeezed up against the Trail. Deer wander freely into campsites there, and bear are regularly spotted trailside.

 

That said, you should take the usual precaution of hanging a bear bag each night all along the trail. Best practices for bear bag hanging are described on the food gear & storage page.


Maine's Red Squirrels

photo by Gilles Gonthier via Wikipedia
photo by Gilles Gonthier via Wikipedia

Your most surprising antagonist on the AT is the aggressive, bold, and territorial red squirrel (amiasciurus hudsonicus). While their range technically extends as far south as Maryland, along the AT we have only consistently seen them in Maine.

 

The medium-sized squirrel is incredibly territorial, and defends his year-round territory against every intruder, including hikers. A squirrel will run right up to the edge of the trail and bark at you until you step out of his territory a few feet down the trail. But then you enter another squirrel's territory, and that one runs toward the trail, barking furiously until you leave, and so on.

 

That boldness extends to taking your food. Thru-hikers discover that after 5 months bear-of bagging without problems, suddenly hanging their food is not enough defense. Red squirrels are smart and daring enough to get to your food bag when other squirrels can't. Sleeping with your food is also no protection. So determined to reach your food and so brave, red squirrels will chew through your tent while you sleep. This is why on the food gear & storage page we recommend carrying an Ursack while in Maine.


Other Rodents

Rats and mice are a problem for two reasons: they threaten your food, and they carry disease.

 

Rodents live in and around every shelter on the AT. Enough crumbs fall to the ground to attract and keep them there. When staying at shelters, always to be sure to hang your food and smellables at night or use an Ursack. Anything left out overnight will be nibbled at. It is also wise to leave your backpack open at night (not tightly zipped or cinched up), so that if a rodent wants to investigate inside it will not have to chew through it. Rodents seem particularly attracted to toilet paper, and tear it to shreds. Maybe it makes a good bedding material for their nests. All TP should be hung with your food.

 

You may find mice & rat traps at shelters, sometimes with dead rodents in them. We have even seen buckets half-filled with water used as traps. Peanut butter was smeared on the inside surface to attract them, the rats fell into the bucket, and unable to climb out, they drowned. It was gross. While we recognize the problem of rat infestation, we aren't sure traps are the best way to solve it. Dead bodies are as much as health hazard as live rodents.

Hantavirus?

In his memoir A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson infamously claimed that hantavirus had been found in rodent dropping at AT shelters. A frightening possibility since a severe infection leads to Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), which is fatal 38% of the time. This has provoked more anger within the thru-hiking community than perhaps anything else Bryson wrote. We have seen thru-hikers deriding Bryson, calling him a liar, an idiot, or worse. Some hikers have seemed so angry about the subject, it was as if Bryson had insulted them personally.

 

Unfortunately, Bryson was right. According to the CDC, the first known case of hantavirus in the Eastern US was an AT thru-hiker, an Australian man who started his thru-hike in April of 1993. The CDC writes, "the patient's infection probably was acquired along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia."

 

In 2013 there was an outbreak of the virus on the Trail. A thru-hiker sponsored by Warrior Hike became so ill, he had to have his appendix removed. In response to the outbreak, the ATC posted warning signs at shelters & privies.

 

The virus is carried by deer mice, cotton rats, rice rats and the white-footed mouse. The rodents shed the virus in their urine, droppings, and saliva, and when their nesting materials or droppings get stirred up, tiny particles become airborne. Infection happens if we breathe in those particles. More information about symptoms and treatment is on the Health Problems page


Rattlesnakes

photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson via Wikipedia
photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson via Wikipedia

Rattlers usually see you and start rattling before you see them. When you walk up on a rattlesnake here's what to do:

  • Stop and back away from it
  • If it is sitting on or just to the side of the trail, get past it by bushwacking around it. Be sure to give it a very wide berth.
  • If you can't bushwack because of the terrain or dense brush, you just have to wait for the snake to leave.

 

What Not To Do

Do not try to scare the snake away or move it yourself. Shouting at it won't help since snakes do not have ears and it can't hear you. Throwing rocks at it will not get it to move, only make it angry. Do not try to pick it up and toss it with your trekking pole. If you are close enough to reach it with your trekking pole, it can strike you.

 

Snake Bite Treatment

Do not bring a "snake bite kit" or a reverse-pressure suction device like the Sawyer Extractor. Kits are based on the "cut and suck + tourniquet" method that has been resoundingly rejected by doctors and suction devices do nothing. There is a lot of nonsense on the web about field treatment of snake bites, especially in forums and blogs. Rather than read blogs or websites, including this one, we encourage you to visit your local library and check out the most recent edition of the Brady Emergency Care and Transportation of the Sick and Injured, a textbook for EMTs written by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. You will find that the snake bite medical protocol is to:

  • keep calm and get away from the snake safely
  • call 911 if possible
  • lie down with the affected limb lower than your heart
  • keep the limb immobilized
  • remove any rings, bracelets, boots, et cetera before swelling begins
  • treat for shock and preserve body heat
  • wash bite with soap and water
  • if you have to walk out to reach the nearest source of help (which is likely) sit calmly for 20-30 minutes, then walk calmly and avoid unnecessary exertion
  • have someone else carry your pack if possible — if you are alone, do not leave your pack behind, since it contains everything that will keep you alive
  • get to a facility with anti-venom

 

At the climax of The Yearling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the main character's father is bit by a rattle snake. To save his father, the boy kills his pet deer, cuts out its liver, and places the liver on the snake bite. The liver then soaks up all the venom and the father is saved. If that sounds like ridiculous nonsense, that's because it is — and so is everything else you ever been told about snake bite treatment:

 

  • DO NOT cut the bite
  • DO NOT apply a tourniquet
  • DO NOT try to suck out the venom with your mouth
  • DO NOT try to suck out the venom with a suction device
  • DO NOT apply cold or ice packs to the bite or affected limb

Cows

photo by Mike Ruso
photo by Mike Ruso

The most dangerous animals you're likely to come across on the AT are not bears but cows.

 

In Virginia the trail traverses a lot of private ranch land. Cows are a skittish animal, and their skittishness combined with their incredible size makes them dangerous.

 

Females with calves will run away from you before you get too close, then stop, turn around, and stare at you. Bulls do not run but freeze and stare. We have found that as long as we keep eye contact with a bull it will not move closer to us, but if we turn our backs it will. So if we turn a corner and find ourselves uncomfortably close to a bull, we maintain eye contact until we are far enough away that the bull loses interest and starts grazing again.