Trail Hazards

This is one of the biggest:

Yep. Good ‘ol poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). It usually grows as a large shrub. It can change color depending on the time of year. Green for most of the year, and red in the fall. During the winter, the branches are bare. It’s not so bad then – unless you happen to break one and get the urushiol oils on you. A lot can stain clothes black. Some people are blessed with an immunity. If you know you’ve been in it, you generally have 3 – 4 hours to wipe down with alcohol to remove the oils.

It’s actually, if you can recognize it and avoid touching it, a beautiful plant. There are also lookalikes such as blackberry (it has thorns, where poison oak does not).



and “squaw bush” (Rhus trilobata).



Another plant hazard, Stinging Nettle. I took this picture after this particular specimen got me (I know what it looks like, I just wasn’t paying attention). SN have tiny spines with just enough toxin to give you a good case of localized pain. Warning: don’t shower until you get the nettles off, or you’ll spread it – you Don’t want that. As I was near a stream, I immediately rubbed my skin with sandy/muddy water, which greatly lessened the effect. The plant is edible though, so long as you boil the needles away.

The other common hazard are ticks*. It was claimed on National Geographic’s Ultimate Animal Countdown that ticks would be the last survivor on earth because of their extreme durability. They certainly are tough little customers. The real baddie though for us is the

Western Black-Legged tick

Western Black-Legged tick

which can transmit Lyme Disease. They are quite small.

If hiking in tick country, it’s a good idea to put the ends of your pants in your socks, and tuck in your shirt. Also wearing light colored clothing makes them more visible. Still, even if bitten, it takes at least a full day for them to transmit disease. So when you get home after a hike the first thing you should do is thoroughly check yourself and your dog over. Ticks can attach anywhere, but they seem to prefer the back of the head at the base of the scalp, so check for any unknown bumps. You can sometimes feel the bite as either a tiny itch or bite. If you discover one attached, it is important that you remove the entire tick, as the head can be left behind, and not squeeze the abdomen either, but as close to your skin as possible.

Not really a hazard, but a real annoyance, are the tiny biting flies known as midges, or “no-see-ums”. These guys hang around areas with water, and they can be relentless. There are other small flies that can be bothersome too, but midges leave red, very itchy, welts that can last a week or more. Thus, it’s a good idea to carry a face net in your pack just in case. You can find these in sporting goods stores.

After poison oak (or ivy if you live in the east) and ticks, might come: dehydration from lack of electrolyte replacement (bring an electrolyte supplement – available at health food stores – or Gatorade; getting lost (a tip from my book – Always watch where you’re going. Always find landmarks. Always know the way back); having an accident (don’t); hypothermia (stay warm), and heat exhaustion / stroke (related to dehydration. Also, bring a broad brimmed hat). Animal attack, such as from a bear or snake are, of course, possible too, but not very likely (despite what Field & Stream would have you believe), especially if you use common sense.

Here’s a hazard you should be aware of: quick sand. I don’t mean the kind you see in old movies where someone walking along a jungle path, suddenly falls into an unseen sand pit and goes down. I mean walking along in seemingly dried or drying (from the top, that is) lake beds or river banks. The thing is, the ground might look perfectly stable, and be dry, even cracked on the surface. But it’s not uncommon for it to actually be saturated below the surface. Step on it and you could go down fast. It’s happened to me. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

See that bank among the edge? Don’t step there unless you’ve got a rope attached securely and can pull yourself out. The thing is, with erosion, silt has been accumulating there on the bottom for a long time. It can be soft and deep. The one I went down in had no visible water on the surface at all! Here’s a pic I snapped after extracting myself.

Quicksand escape

Quicksand escape

Here, our dog, Mustard tries to get out of one (not to worry, he made it):

Mustard Stuck!

Mustard Stuck!

The way to get out is not to thrash about in panic, but to spread your torso and arms as broadly as you can onto the surface in front of you, then slowly pull your legs up behind you. If you can grab onto something solid in front of you, all the better. Once on the surface, don’t try to stand, but drag yourself along. Note: this is not to say that all, or even most dried river banks are hazardous. They aren’t. Just be alert.

Hopefully I haven’t dissuaded you from the trail. Like I always say, it all comes with the package. Using proper care will prevent most incidents and ensure you an enjoyable jaunt in the woods!

*Ticpic obtained via Google Images.

See also my posts, Trail Tips and Trail Trivia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.