My biggest fears while backpacking - how things have changed with experience

After months of hiking the AT over the last two years I've grown out of and learned to cope with a lot my initial fears. I'm going to talk about some of the things that have scared me on my hike and how I've dealt with them. I hope this is helpful for you if you have some fears about attempting a long hike on a trail like the AT.

Choking while eating alone

I've often thought about what could go wrong when you are out hiking alone, and choking on your food is one that people probably don't think of a lot. Even if you were just home alone on a normal day, choking with no one around to help you would be terrifying. I was an EMT for three years, and have responded to choking incidents before. I have experienced choking myself as well, and it can be hard to think clearly when you suddenly can't breathe. Knowing what to do when you are choking is very important.

It is worth learning to help others who are choking, as you will probably have the occasion to use the skill at some point. You can also effect self-rescue if you have to, using a rock, stump, man made shelter features, or hiking gear to help you apply more force to your gut during your attempts.

Focusing on prevention is definitely the absolute best thing you can do for yourself when you are eating alone on trail. Chew very thoroughly and focus on swallowing your food correctly. It sounds a little stupid to say, but it's absolutely possible to die from choking.


When I started northbound my main concern was getting attacked by a black bear. After having a number of bear encounters since starting, my bear worries no longer keep me up at night when I'm camping alone. Knowing and following established guidelines for bear safety makes the whole of the issue less worrisome. The Shenandoah National Park primer on bear safety is particularly good and comprehensive. My kit is somewhat limited in terms of bear safety in that I don't have dedicated sleeping clothes, but with my no-cook hiking strategy I'm less worried about the scent of my food permeating my clothing and gear. I try to be very careful to avoid spilling, smearing, or wiping anything that might be interesting to a bear on my clothing.

Should I carry pepper spray?

I have considered adding a small canister of pepper spray to my kit for added piece of mind, though in two years I've never felt a real need or desire to use it. If I were more worried about my personal safety in towns or at trail heads then I would definitely carry pepper spray. It should be noted that I'm an almost six-foot white male and very confident in my ability to defend myself though.

General personal safety

Confidence and a lower-likelihood of being bothered by another person shouldn't make you complacent. I make it a point to avoid camping alone where people can easily find and access my campsite. I avoid camping within a few miles of a trail head and where there is a lot of trash and broken glass showing that locals hang around frequently. When camping in towns, as is often allowed in the friendlier trail-town's green spaces I make it a point to sleep in a group with other hikers or avoid being spotted where I'm going to be sleeping. The latter is what I call "stealth" camping, though the term has been appropriated to mean "camping anywhere that isn't an established campsite". I stealth camp where I feel it is necessary to make sure that I'm as safe as possible from anybody bothering me while I'm sleeping. Knowing that I'm really hard to find has let me sleep comfortably in a couple places where I would otherwise have been worried that someone would come and bother me or try to steal something from me during the night.

Getting lost

My family's concern that I would get lost had rubbed off on me a little before I started my hike, but I grew out of this fear pretty quickly. I'm always careful to pay attention to my surroundings, but as it turns out following well established hiking trails is pretty easy. The one exception to this has been hiking with significant snow on the ground, which can make it easy to lose the trail if no one has walked it ahead of you. Constantly keeping an eye out for landmarks and looking behind you every so often will do a lot to make sure that getting turned around doesn't mean you get lost. If I haven't seen a blaze for the trail that I'm supposed on in a while I keep a sharp lookout for another one and think about back-tracking to verify that I'm still on the correct path. Looking behind you every once in a while can help you catch trail blazes that are meant for hikers going the other direction, which will also tell you that you are on the right track.

Snow problems

When there is enough snow on the ground to obscure the trail, you may have to stop at each blaze and scan ahead until you find the next blaze. If you can't see the next blaze, you will have to strike out in what appears to be the most likely direction to continue making progress down the trail. If you do not find another blaze within a few minutes, however, it can be very dangerous to continue on blindly and you should instead backtrack to the last known blaze and try again.

Injuries and the danger of losing focus

When hiking alone, I make it my number one priority to pay attention to what I am doing and what is going on around me to avoid getting injured. Any injury that affects my ability to continue hiking could prove very serious if I am far from help and have only spotty cellphone service to rely on in emergencies. It can be easy to 'zone out' a little bit, losing focus on the act of walking and possible obstructions on the path ahead of you, when you are walking for more than a few hours per day. Putting such a strong focus on paying attention has made me feel better about the potential for getting hurt, though there are some more dangerous spots throughout the trail where an injury is more likely.

Being unable to call for help

Cellphone reception has pretty good on trail, especially on higher ridge-lines and mountains near towns. The quality of cell reception I've seen so far, though, is nowhere near reliable enough to rely on for emergency communication. Carrying a GPS personal locator beacon with an SOS function has made me feel much better when hiking alone. It's comforting to know that you've got a much more reliable backup to use to call for help if you need it. I usually end up sending my SOS beacon home when I have a group of other hikers to hike with for a long time, but I've been rethinking this practice since it doesn't weigh enough to be a burden on its own. From now on when I'm with a group I'll probably just leave it off and save the batteries for when I need it instead of checking in every night at my camp site when I'm heading to bed and every morning when I'm heading out like I do when I'm alone.

Dangerous Weather

A fear of truly bad weather, though situational, is the one fear that has not really diminished in my last two years of hiking. Every time I head into a town to resupply on food supplies I make it a point to take screen shots and mental notes of the weather forecast. Where weather looks particularly bad, I usually decide to stay in town. The scary thing is that weather reports have often been under-representative of the severity of the weather I've faced. Severe weather warnings are often issued within 24 hours of the weather system's approach, which means you might be on trail with no means of getting an update when the severity of the storm is made known to the public.

Strong winds are always a potential danger in the woods. There are many heavy, dead branches caught up in trees that can be blown down by strong winds. Whole trees, even, can be knocked down by strong winds. These threats are referred to as "Deadfall" and are very serious. Many people have been killed from falling limbs. Even smaller branches can really hurt when they fall from high up in the trees above the trail. The larger pieces of deadfall are often called "widow-makers", and setting up camp underneath them is one of the most foolish and dangerous things hikers do with alarming frequency. It's worth nothing that deadfall isn't only a problem for camp, and that you can be injured or killed while walking during the day when the wind is strong enough. Always look up for deadfall.

Vague weather forecasts

The weather report will often say "Thunderstorms Tuesday" or something, but this doesn't necessarily tell you that trees are going to get blown down around your campsite. A thunderstorm is often just a thunderstorm, and can even be enjoyable when the weather is warm and you've laid down to fall asleep for the night and can listen to the rumbling thunder.

Every so often, though, you get caught out in what I've thought of as 'end of the world thunderstorms'. One night at Plum-Orchard shelter (I think in NC) we quit hiking early to ensure that we had a man-made shelter for the night. We had been given a warning by another hiker that the storm rolling in later in the day would be very severe. Several large trees fell that night, and the thunder sounded like it might rip the ground open. Without that warning we might have been caught out camping away from a trail shelter, and been at risk from the storm.

Keep in mind that you are often at a significantly higher altitude on hiking trails than you would be in town. The weather reports for the nearest towns can be way off temperature-wise, for example, because of the altitude difference. It's a good practice to always assume the weather will be more extreme at altitude in the mountains.

Dodge potential hazards

After that experience I've decided to stay in town a number of times. On the east coast, when really bad weather is on its way you'll see it on the radar and hear reports of it having affected communities further west. If you don't pay attention to it though, the weather will sneak up on you. Off the top of my head I can tell you that two snowstorms on the NC/TN border in March, one normal thunderstorm in central Maine in June (where I knew that I would be summiting a higher mountain when I left town), and a tornado warning a trail buddy and I were told about as we came down down out of the Grayson Highlands (we would have never known since it was such a beautiful day) have kept me in town.

Whenever there's a chance of rain or thunderstorms and I'm on trail I plan to use a trail shelter for the night. Normal bad weather isn't usually enough to keep long distance hikers off trail, and we end up dealing with a lot of rain. I just don't think it's worth getting all my shelter equipment wet when there's an easy way to avoid it. On the AT shelters can be found fairly frequently. These man-made structures offer a great deal of security in bad weather conditions, though it should be noted that you should always look around the shelter campsite area to ensure that no dead trees are around that could fall on the shelter. It's better to spend the night away from a shelter with a dead tree looming over it nearby and find a safer campsite. This, along with the potential for very full shelters, sketchy people at shelters, and changes in circumstances is why having the ability to camp is so important even where you know shelters are going to be available. Never count on being able to shelter-hop.