A large mountain ram watches me in the Rocky Mountains near the Canadian border.

Getting lost remains one of the greatest dangers in the wilderness.  Trees and other surrounding DO start to look alike.  Get a map of your area and learn how to use a compass.  Each one in the group should carry a good whistle.  Three blasts of the whistle should be returned by those in camp to guide a lost person back to camp.  Continue using the whistle until the lone hiker returns.

I confess some of my best hiking trips were solo affairs.   There is something spiritual about being totally alone in the wilderness.  I don't advise you to do it unless you are familiar with hiking skills and navigation.  Night in the wilderness is very special if you are alone but it is also dangerous.  Many predators are night feeders.  You will be amazed at the shear number of stars that are visible with no artificial light.  Wilderness night sounds also reward the solo hiker. 

The wilderness can be a dangerous place...and it can be safer than a city street. It probably has a lot to do with what you choose to do in any given situation. Duh! I would beg everyone to study a good medical guide for wilderness living. I devour everything written on the subject of health and safety by Buck Tilton (of Backpacker Magazine) and William Forgey. Both men are M.D.'s. I would go so far as to advise you to carry your favorite "first aid" manual with your first aid kit. Each person should carry their own first aid kit tailored to their specific needs. If you take prescription medicine (especially, life sustaining medicine) you might wish to carry more than double the amount you think you'll need in TWO SEPARATE PLACES. I wear a second smallish pack in front when I hike. It carries everything I would need to survive in the event I lost my pack or got lost and separated from camp and companions.

My small "front" pack contains:

One of my prescription containers
A wide mouth water bottle
A small bottle of water purification tablets
A sm. aluminized plastic emergency blanket
My compass & topo map
My camera
Some trail food
A sm. first aid kit with moleskin, aspirin etc.
Bug spray (with Deet)

This pack is a virtual survival kit. Along with the knife I wear, it can be used very effectively. The bottle and tablets are obvious as to use as are most of the items. The small emergency blanket takes up about as much space as a wallet and is very useful at retaining body heat in cold weather survival. It can also be used as a solar still although the effectiveness of such a device is marginal at best.

Of course animals present a danger. Even the smallest rodents can carry diseases. The large predators are an obvious danger. There is no doubt that traveling alone is dangerous. I used to backpack alone on occasion and found it to be an almost mystical experience. It was also probably pretty stupid as wilderness risks are multiplied when trekking alone. There is safety in numbers. The old mountain men and grizzled fur trappers often worked alone and learned to "read sign." They could tell a great deal by the very condition of animal tracks, markings and scat. When it comes to dangerous animals you need to also learn to "read sign." Click READING SIGN
for some tips on this skill.

There is much debate over how to deal with animal danger. Certainly traveling in a group has got to be a help. I've heard it said that mountain lions are intimidated in the face of a group of people. Surely a group of people armed with walking sticks and knives would be a formidable adversary for an attacking cougar. The same group would be far less likely to intimidate a mother grizzly protecting her cubs. Some advocate making a lot of noise as your group travels in areas known to have dangerous predators. The tiny bear bells sold in souvenir shops would seem to be of little value. If you choose to follow the "make noise" approach harmonicas, whistles and similar items would seem more appropriate. Some backpackers choose to carry firearms. This is against the law in some locations but this is a judgment call. I am an animal lover to an extreme but I would have no trouble acquitting a person who saved his life (or his family) from a bear attack by using an illegally carried firearm. Here's the problem though...carrying a weapon may give you a false sense of security and lead you to ignore dangers and safe practices. Armed hikers have been found killed by bears. Remember, this is an animal that can exceed 600 pounds but still run forty yards much faster than the fastest human sprinter. This animal is capable of stealthy attacks. Rounding a corner and coming face to face with a startled mother bear will leave you a fraction of a second to draw and accurately fire your weapon. Speaking of weaponry, I would prefer a grenade or a 50 cal. machine gun. In the event these aren't available in your local sporting goods shop, the .44 magnum is the choice of many people. This might not be enough "gun" but certainly nothing less is probably worth carrying. As with most things, prevention is the best medicine.

Snakes are a different issue. By nature, American venomous snakes cannot look upon humans as prey. Remember snakes cannot chew...they swallow victims whole. For snakes other creatures fall into two categories: potential animals to eat and animals to be avoided. Only in bad movies do snakes pursue human victims. In real life they can actually sense the size of approaching animals (it is believed pit vipers have an almost infrared sensing ability to gauge the size of other creatures). If an animal represents danger the snake will lie still and rely on its camouflage for protection. If disturbed they will flee if possible and will usually only strike if they feel immediate threat...such as a huge human hand or foot suddenly appearing before them. There world is one of reflex reaction so common sense tells us to look before we step or reach. I personally use my walking stick to probe questionable areas. And it is a good idea to listen. Obviously rattlesnakes sometimes make a loud rattling/buzzing sound but other snakes will often vibrate their tails in the dried vegetation in a sound very much similar to a rattler. The majority of people bitten by venomous snakes are struck on the hands and feet...areas we can protect with common sense and boots. (about 10-12 people die each year in the US due to snakebite--many of them while attempting to handle snakes,) Read and follow the advice in the first aid books for dealing with snake bite, or for that matter, the bite of any animal. I carry a snake bite extractor kit but its use is very controversial among the experts. In the event of snakebite there is no substitute for finding emergency medical treatment...quickly. Observing snakes from a distance can be an enjoyable experience. They are valuable in the natural world as rodent killers. Some are quite interesting. The Hog nosed snake is known for its instinct of playing (and smelling) dead when it is cornered by a potential enemy. It lacks both the fangs and venom to be dangerous but like many snakes it will sometimes fake being dangerous by striking and assuming an aggressive stance. Camouflage and escape remain the main defense of all snakes.

Please treat all animals as wild creatures. Do not try to feed or touch any animal. Even harmless looking Bison and antlered animals can become frightened and charge. People have been killed by such animals. Most parks have laws to protect the animals and Federal Law protects many birds including hawks, eagles and owls.


The strangest experience I've had was backpacking in the Never Summer Mountains in Colorado.  True to its name, it was summer and I had to pitch my tent on snow.  Knowing the destination, I had added a second emergency blanket to my supplies.  Wrapped in emergency blankets and a sleeping bag, I awoke sweating and I ended the extra blanket experiment.

The only venomous snake I encountered was a copperhead in Red River Gorge in Kentucky.  He (or she) was very interested in avoiding this human creature that was too big to swallow. 

I was gorging myself on wild blueberries in Upper Peninsula Michigan (Hemingway Country) when it dawned on me blueberries were a favorite treat for black bears.  I spent several days on a solo hike in that area.  I hadn't seen a human all week and I realized I wasn't all that much of a hermit.  I ran into a ranger who was on his way to a beaver dam that was causing problems.  I talked his ear off before he could tear himself away.

I was treated kind of bad (or so I thought) upon entering Canada to  backpack.  I guess I raised red flags when I honestly said my destination would be determined by weather and other conditions  I was traveling alone and in those days I looked more like Willie Nelson than Ozzie or Ricky Nelson.  My attitude was closer to Eldridge Cleaver than Ward Cleaver.  Asked how much money I carried, a search of my wallet revealed I was off by  an honest 3 dollars or so.   They allowed me to enter and I quickly learned that border guards were edgy because the day before some idiot had been stopped and he jumped out of his car and stabbed a guard.  In retrospect, their treatment of me was understandable.

Another time in  Canada I came back to where I'd  left my car in a provincial park and decided to sleep my last  night without a tent on the banks of Lake Superior.  In the morning I noticed a sign telling people how to fillet fish.  I was thinking it was a very helpful thing and then I read on that  it was helpful because fish needed to be cleaned to remove the parts where mercury could be stored.  It was a sad welcome back to the "civilized" world.  I did get a great sunset photo over the lake.  Sleeping within earshot of the Lake Superior waves is priceless and I've done it more than once.

I will never live down the day I called to my wife to bring the binoculars because I thought there was a Yellowstone grizzly far off in the distance. Alas I had spotted a lone buffalo (bison) but my over exuberance about anything is greeted by  my wife's reminder of the "bearffallo" I once discovered.

In Glacier Park my wife and I once saw 7 bears in one day (from a safe location...our car.)  A mother grizzly led 3 (!) cubs high up on the slope of a mountain.  We saw a large and lone grizzly and two black bears later.  The cause?  A fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness burned  and animals were on the move.

The greatest experience I ever had in the wilderness was a hike with my wife in the High Sierra.