Health & Safety

PREPARATION

Choose clothing and equipment carefully, and make sure you have adequate food, water, and shelter available. Carry a basic first-aid kit that can treat scrapes, blisters, sprains, and aches. Always carry first-aid information with you and make sure someone in your group has first-aid training. Make sure you purify water from all backcountry sources. 

SANITATION

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Don’t expect flush toilets on the A.T. Most A.T. shelters have privies, but often you will need to "go in the woods." Proper disposal of human (and pet) waste is not only a courtesy to other hikers, but is a vital Leave No Trace practice for maintaining healthy water supplies in the backcountry and an enjoyable hiking experience for others. No one should venture onto the A.T. without a trowel or wide tent stake, used for digging a 6"-8" deep "cathole" to bury waste. Bury feces at least two hundred feet or eighty paces away from water, trails, or shelters. Use a stick to mix dirt with your waste, which hastens decomposition and discourages animals from digging it up. Used toilet paper should either be buried in your cathole or carried out in a sealed plastic bag. Hygiene products such as sanitary napkins should always be carried out. Use soap and water; hand sanitizers kill some germs but are not as effective against norovirus.  

Showers
Showers are rarely available right on the Appalachian Trail. Hikers usually shower at places of lodging in towns; less common are campgrounds with shower facilities. To bathe in the backcountry, carry water 200 feet from the water source in a container, and rinse or wash yourself away from streams, springs, and ponds.

Blisters
Blisters are one of the most common ailments suffered by hikers. Break in new boots before you begin your hike. Always keep your feet dry while hiking. When you stop for breaks, take your shoes and socks off to air out your feet; change socks. Don't wait for a blister to develop. As soon as you feel any discomfort, place adhesive tape, duct tape, moleskin, or a blister-care product over areas of developing soreness.

Norovirus
This highly contagious virus causes your stomach and/or intestines to become inflamed, which leads to stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Norovirus is transmitted by contact with an infected person, contaminated food or water, or contaminated surfaces. The virus has a 12-48 hour incubation period and lasts 24-60 hours. Infected hikers may be contagious for 3 days to 2 weeks after recovery. Outbreaks occur more often where people share facilities for sleeping, dining, showering, and toileting; the virus can spread rapidly in crowded shelters and hostels; sanitation is key for avoiding and spreading norovirus. Take the following steps to prevent contracting and spreading the illness:


WEATHER

Walking in the open means you will be susceptible to sudden changes in weather, and traveling on foot means that it may be hard to find shelter quickly. Pay attention to the changing skies. Sudden spells of "off-season" cold weather, hail, and even snow are common along many parts of the Trail. Winter-like weather often occurs in late spring or early fall in the southern Appalachians, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. In the northern Appalachians, it can snow during any month of the year. Hypothermia, lightning, and heat exhaustion are all legitimate concerns. Don't let the fear of them ruin your hike, but take sensible precautions. 

Hypothermia
A cold rain can be the most dangerous weather for hikers, because it can cause hypothermia (or "exposure") even when conditions are well above freezing. Hypothermia occurs when wind and rain chill the body so that its core temperature drops; death occurs if the condition is not treated in time. Avoid hypothermia by dressing in layers of synthetic clothing, eating well, staying hydrated, and knowing when to take refuge in a warm sleeping bag and tent or shelter. Cotton clothing, such as blue jeans, tends to chill you when it gets wet from rain or sweat, increasing your risk of hypothermia. Natural wool and artificial fibers such as nylon, polyester, and polypropylene all do a much better job of insulating your body in cold, wet weather. Remember that when the wind blows its "chill" effect can make you much colder than the temperature would lead you to suspect, especially if you're sweaty or wet.

Lightning
The odds of being struck by lightning are low, but an open ridge is no place to be during a thunderstorm. If a storm is coming, immediately leave exposed areas. Boulders, rocky overhangs, and shallow caves offer no protection from lightning, which may actually flow through them along the ground after a strike. Tents and convertible automobiles are no good, either. Sheltering in hard-roofed automobiles or large buildings is best, although they are rarely available to the hiker. Avoid tall structures, such as ski lifts, flagpoles, power line towers, and the tallest trees, solitary rocks, or open hilltops. If you cannot enter a building or car, take shelter in a group of smaller trees or in the forest. Avoid clearings. If caught in the open, crouch down on a pad, or roll into a ball. If you are in water, get out. Disperse groups, so that not everyone is struck by a single bolt. Do not hold a potential lightning rod, such as a fishing pole or metal hiking pole. 

Heat
Dry hot summers are surprisingly common along the Trail, particularly in the Virginias and the mid-Atlantic. Water may be scarce on humid days, sweat does not evaporate well, and many hikers face the danger of heat stroke and heat exhaustion if they haven't taken proper precautions. The best measures against heat emergencies are wearing a hat and sunscreen, staying well hydrated as you walk, and drinking plenty of water in camp. 
The following are the most common types of heat problems: 

  • Sunburn - occurs rapidly and can be quite severe at higher elevations; hikers in the Virginias and southern Appalachians are often surprised by bad sunburn in spring, when no leaves are on the trees. 
  • Heat cramps - are usually caused by strenuous activity in high heat and humidity, when sweating depletes salt levels in blood and tissues. 
  • Heat exhaustion - occurs when the body's heat-regulating system breaks down. A victim may have heat cramps, sweat heavily, have cold, moist skin, and a face that is flushed, then pale. 
  • Heat stroke - is life-threatening and occurs when the body's system of sweating fails to cool a person adequately. Body temperature can rise to 106 degrees or higher.  

RIVER AND STREAM CROSSINGS

Fording streams and rivers may be the most dangerous challenge hikers confront. River crossings can be deceptively hazardous. Even a very shallow, swiftly flowing body of water can pack enough force to knock you off your feet. Use caution and common sense. Carry a map and compass and know how to use them. If a section of the Appalachian Trail is closed or presents a serious safety hazard, hikers may take an alternate route or skip those sections entirely and still be eligible to receive 2,000-miler status. Read our Safety Tips for Fording Streams and Rivers article for advice.

Wildlife

Lyme Disease Sign Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases
Ticks, which carry Lyme disease and other serious illnesses, are a risk on any hike. The northeastern United States, from Maryland to Massachusetts, has the highest concentration of reported cases of Lyme disease. Although Lyme disease is the most common, there are six tick borne illnesses present on the A.T. For more information about tick borne illnesses and symptoms, go to www.cdc.gov/ticks/diseases/.

The characteristic “bulls eye” rash sometimes occurs with Lyme disease, but not always. Symptoms that may indicate tick-borne illnesses and a need for medical attention include; fever, chills, headache, and muscle aches. Most humans are infected by nymphs, which are about the size of a poppy seed and difficult to see. Check yourself for ticks daily. When hiking in prime tick habitat, (grassy, brushy, or woodland areas) your chances of being bitten by a tick can be decreased by taking these precautions: 

  • Use insect repellent that contains 20 to 30 percent DEET on exposed skin
  • Treat clothing with permethrin (kills ticks on contact)
  • Wear light colored clothing; ticks can most easily be spotted against a light color
  • Perform daily tick checks; removing an embedded tick within 24 hours reduces risk of illness
  • Avoid tick-infested areas if possible, especially in May, June, and July
  • Once inside, put clothes in the dryer on high heat for 60 minutes to kill any remaining ticks

Removing embedded ticks:

  • DO NOT use matches, kerosene, or other substances on tick
  • Use tweezers to grasp tick as close to skin as possible
  • Pull away from skin using a steady, upward motion
  • Disinfect site with soap and water, rubbing alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide
  • Record date and location of tick bite

Rabies 
Cases of rabies have been reported in foxes, raccoons, and other small animals. Although instances of hikers being bitten are rare, any animal bite is a serious concern. More information is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hantavirus 
One case of the rare but dangerous rodent-borne disease hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) has been reported on the A.T. In 1993, an A.T. thru-hiker contracted hantavirus as he hiked through Virginia. He became quite ill but did recover and completed his hike the next year; investigators were unable to pinpoint the exact location of infection. Precautionary measures for hikers: Air out a closed, mice-infested structure for an hour before occupying it. Avoid sleeping on mouse droppings (use a mat or tent) or handling mice. Treat your water, and wash hands. More information is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Park Service Public Health Program.

Spider bites 
A few hikers have reported bites of recluse-type spiders that required them to leave the Trail and seek medical care. Spiders are not aggressive, but may bite when trapped or touched. Be careful around wood piles and other dark, dry places. Shake out footwear and clothing before putting them on. Wash any bites with soap and water. Symptoms of a recluse spider bite include redness, intense pain, and a blister at the bite site that becomes ulcerated. Some people develop a fever or rash. More information is available at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/spiders/

Black Bears 
black bearBlack bears live along many parts of the Trail and are particularly common in Georgia, the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. While attacks on humans are rare, a startled bear may react aggressively. The best way to avoid an encounter while you are hiking is to make noise by whistling, talking, etc., to give the bear a chance to move away before you get close enough to make it feel threatened. If you encounter a bear and it does not move away, you should back off, speaking calmly and firmly, and avoid making eye contact. Do not run or "play dead" even if a bear makes a "bluff charge." The best defense against bears in camp is preparing and storing food properly: 

  • Cook and eat your meals 200 feet away from your tent or shelter, so food odors do not linger. 
  • Hang your food, cookware, toothpaste, personal hygiene items, and even water bottles (if you use drink mixes in them) in a sturdy bag from a strong tree branch at least ten feet off the ground and 200 feet from your campsite. Make sure the bag is at least six feet from both the trunk of the tree and any substantial branches -- including the branch from which the bag is hung. Black bears are crafty climbers and good reachers. 
  • Bear canisters can provide an effective alternative to hanging food bags. 
  • Where bear boxes, poles, or cable systems are provided, use them. Never leave trash in bear boxes. 
  • Never feed the bears or leave food behind for them. That simply increases the risks to you and the hikers who follow behind you. 
  • A bear that enters a campsite or cooking area should be considered predatory. Yelling, making loud noises, throwing rocks, may frighten it away, however, you should be prepared to fight back if necessary. 
  • If you are actually attacked by a bear, you should fight for all you are worth with anything at hand – rocks, sticks, fists. 


Snakes
Poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes are widespread along the Trail in warm weather, but they are generally passive. Please don't kill them! Watch where you step and where you put your hands. Snakes are active at night in hot weather, so use a flashlight and wear shoes.

Snake bites are rare, and bites from poisonous snakes do not always contain venom. Very few people die from snakebites in the U.S. If you are bitten by a snake you believe to be venomous, try to remain calm. Call 911 and seek medical treatment as quickly as possible. In the backcountry, this may mean walking out to a trailhead instead of waiting for emergency personnel to reach you. Wash the wound with soap and water. Do not apply ice. Do not apply a tourniquet. Remove rings or other jewelry that could function as a tourniquet if swelling occurs. Do not use a “cut and suck” method to try and remove venom. More information is available from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and emedicinehealth.com.


POISONOUS PLANTS

Poison Ivy
poison ivyPoison ivy grows along many parts of the A.T., and can cause considerable discomfort. (It does not grow at the highest elevations of the South and is sparse in northern New England.) Learning to recognize it is the best way to avoid contact. The leaves are in clusters of three, the end leaf with a longer stalk and pointed tip. Poison ivy is most often seen as a vine trailing near the ground or climbing  trees, sometimes with a thick, hairy stalk. The vine can send out horizontal “limbs” from a large vine that at first glance appear to be the lowest branches of the tree. If you have touched poison ivy, wash immediately with strong soap (but not with one containing added oil) and cold water. If a rash develops in the next few days, over-the-counter products from a pharmacy can minimize discomfort. It usually takes several days for the blisters to disappear. Do not scratch. If blisters become serious or the rash spreads to the eyes, see a doctor. More information is available from the National Park Service Public Health Program. 


EMERGENCIES

In an emergency, call 911 (If you have a phone and can get a signal).  Tell the dispatcher you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, and provide your location (include name and approximate distance of nearest town and nearest road if possible).  A.T. maps and guidebooks often list other numbers in case 911 does not work.

Know your cell phone’s capability. Cell phone reception on the A.T. is often unpredictable and varies significantly with service providers. Mobile phone companies have on-line maps showing their area of coverage. Reception is best on ridgelines or peaks and may be poor or non-existent in gaps, hollows, and valleys. Trail shelters and campsites are often located in such areas. Remote areas such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina, Mt. Rogers National Recreation area in southwest Virginia, and Maine in particular are areas you may not find service for extended periods. Keep in mind you’ll need to conserve your batteries; be sure to tell folks back home in advance you may not be able to call as frequently as you may back home.

If you don't have a phone or can't get a signal, the standard call for distress consists of three short calls, audible or visible, repeated at regular intervals. A whistle, which should be a standard piece of gear for any hiker, is particularly good for audible signals. Visible signals may include, in daytime, light flashed with a mirror or smoke puffs, and, at night, a flashlight or three small bright fires. Anyone recognizing such a signal should acknowledge with two calls—if possible by the same method—then go to the distressed person to determine the nature of the emergency. Arrange for additional aid, if necessary. 

Carry a map so you can describe your location. In an emergency, assistance may be delayed if you cannot describe your location in detail. A map will help you describe surrounding landmarks to rescuers or law enforcement (who are often unfamiliar with the A.T.), show access points and routes, and provide you with the names of the nearest town and the county in which you are located.

Don't panic. Most of the A.T. is well-enough traveled during times of popular use that, if you are injured, you can expect to be found. However, if an area is remote and the weather is bad, fewer hikers will be on the Trail, especially after dark. As a rule, keep your pack with you, and, even in an emergency, don't leave marked trails and try to “bushwhack” out—you will be harder to find and are more likely to encounter dangerous terrain. If you must leave the Trail, study the guidebook or map carefully for the nearest place where people are likely to be and attempt to move in that direction. If it is necessary to leave a heavy pack behind, be sure to take essentials, in case your rescue is delayed.. Afterwards, when everyone is safe and accounted for, follow up by filing an incident report with ATC. 


CRIME

The Appalachian Trail is safer than many cities in America, and you are likely safer on the A.T. than in an automobile on your way to the trailhead. Although the A.T. is generally known for being a very friendly place and one where acts of kindness are common, it is not immune from crime. Situational awareness is one of your best defenses against crime. Be aware of what you are doing, where you are, and to whom you are talking. Remember to trust your gut—it’s usually right, even when your brain can’t explain why. Other tips include the following:

Don’t hike alone. You are safest with a group; neither a single partner nor a dog is a guarantee of safety.  Be creative. If in doubt, move on; try to connect with another group of hikers. Always pay attention to your instincts about other people.

Leave your hiking plans with someone at home and check in frequently. Establish a time you will check in upon completion of your trip, as well as a procedure to follow if you fail to check in. Be sure your contacts and your family know your “trail name” if you have one. On short hikes, provide them with the number of the land-managing agency for the area of your hike. On extended hikes, provide ATC’s number, (304) 535-6331. Long-distance hikers should check in regularly back home, and be mindful that any deviation from a set pattern will likely cause anxiety and possibly an unnecessary search. 

Be wary of strangers. Be friendly, but cautious. Don’t tell strangers your plans. Avoid people who act suspiciously, seem hostile, or are intoxicated. If you are by yourself and encounter a stranger who makes you feel uncomfortable, say you are with a group that is behind you. 

Don’t camp near roads.

Dress conservatively to avoid unwanted attention.

ATC discourages the carrying of firearms. Although carrying is now legal on National Park Service lands in states where they are allowed on state parklands, provided you have all the proper state and county permits, they could be turned against you or result in an accidental shooting, and they are extra weight most A.T. hikers find unnecessary.

Eliminate opportunities for theft. Don’t bring jewelry. Hide your money. If you must leave your pack, hide it, or leave it with someone trustworthy. Don’t leave valuables or equipment (especially in sight) in vehicles parked at Trailheads. More tips can be found on our Parking, Shuttles & Transportation page

Use the Trail registers (the notebooks stored at most shelters). If someone needs to locate you, or if a serious crime has been committed along the Trail, the first place authorities will look is in the registers. Sign in so that family back home will know it’s you (let them know if you have adopted a “trail name”). Women may want to use an initial for their first name and avoid “trail names” that suggest they are female. Leave a note, and report any suspicious activities.

Report any crime, harassment or suspicious person or activity to the local authorities and ATC. If 911 doesn’t work, police telephone numbers are found in ATC guidebooks and on ATC maps.

More in-depth guidelines for long-distance hikers can be found in our thru/section-hiking pages here.


HUNTING

Hunting regulations vary widely along the Appalachian Trail. Although the A.T. is a unit of the National Park system, it traverses many different types of public lands—including parks, forests, refuges, and game lands.

Hunting—with the proper state licenses—is PERMITTED along approximately 1,250 miles of the Appalachian Trail through national forest lands, national recreation areas, and on state forests and game lands. Although a concerted effort is made to identify land types on official A.T. maps, it is seldom easy while on the footpath in several states to determine which jurisdiction you are walking through, except at boundary signs. Both hikers and hunters are advised to “know before you go.”

Hunting is PROHIBITED along approximately 900 miles of the Trail through national parks (like Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains), most state parks, and on lands acquired by the National Park Service (NPS) exclusively for the Appalachian Trail and still under NPS administration—indicated on the outside edges by A.T. corridor boundary signs. Hikers should be aware that the protected corridor is often narrow, averaging about 1,000 feet wide.

Even in areas where hunting is prohibited, hunters on adjacent lands may not know that they are near the Trail. Hunters may inadvertently cross onto Trail lands or unknowingly fire toward the Trail.

TIPS FOR HIKERS

Know local hunting seasons — Specific dates for hunting seasons vary year to year and also by type of game hunted and weapon used. Small-game seasons (turkey, rabbit) stretch from fall through the end of May; large-game seasons (deer, bear, moose) generally occur October through January. Learn the regulations and hunting seasons for the areas where you will be hiking before you go. Hunting on Sundays is prohibited in some states. See our 2013-2014 Hunting Season Guide by State.

Wear blaze orange
—Wear a fluorescent or "blaze" orange hat and vest (and pack cover if backpacking), or hooded outerwear when hiking in fall, winter and spring. All fourteen states that the A.T. traverses require hunter education classes prior to issuance of licenses, which has led to a significant decrease in hunting-related accidents. Even though these safeguards have been put in place, both hikers and hunters need to do their part to prevent accidents. In late 2002 and early 2003, two A.T. hikers were shot and seriously injured in separate incidents by hunters who mistook them for deer. Neither hiker was wearing blaze orange, and neither hunter properly identified his target.

If you hike with a dog, it should also wear blaze orange visible from all sides. The ATC recommends that pets be leashed at all times while hiking.

On state game lands in Pennsylvania, all hunters and non-hunters are required to wear at least 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, chest and back combined, or a fluorescent orange hat, from Nov. 15–Dec.15 (except on Sundays). The orange material must be visible from all angles (360 degrees).

Avoid wearing white, red, and blue. Dress defensively to avoid being mistaken for game at a distance. White can be mistaken for the raised tail of a white-tailed deer. The bare head of male turkey during breeding season will have colors that alternate among red, white and blue.

Use extra caution at dawn and dusk. Hunting activity may increase at dawn and dusk, when animals are feeding and visibility is poor. Wear reflective vests or use a headlamp or flashlight for extra visibility.

Use extra caution near roads and in valleys—Be especially cautious within 1/2-mile of road crossings (both approaching and leaving) and in valley areas.

Be heard—Make sure you are heard before you are seen by whistling, singing, talking, etc., while you hike.

Avoid hunter interference—Hikers should be aware that interference or harassment of hunters in the lawful pursuit of game is a violation of law in all fourteen A.T. states. This includes interference or tampering with dogs used in the pursuit of game where allowed by law. Sportsmen are our partners in conservation—encounters between hunters and hikers are opportunities to raise the awareness of both groups.

Avoid deer firearm season
—Avoid areas where hunting is legal during deer firearm season, which varies by state, but typically occurs during parts of the months of October, November, December, and January. During those months, you may want to hike in one of the five national parks crossed by the A.T. (note that hunting is allowed in Delaware Gap National Recreation Area, another NPS unit):

HUNTERS: TAKE PRECAUTIONS TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF OTHERS AND YOURSELVES

Hunters: Follow all hunting regulations—See our 2013-2014 Hunting Season Guide by State. While some of the Appalachian Trail is open to hunting, in other areas it is strictly prohibited. Each of more than 90 land-management agencies has its own regulations, which contributes to the complexity of determining where one can lawfully hunt. It is the responsibility of the sportsman to know the landownership and boundaries for the area where he or she wishes to hunt and to contact the landowner regarding the rules and regulations governing hunting at that location.

The act of hunting and the discharging of weapons remains prohibited on National Park Service Lands managed by the Appalachian Trail Park Office.

The use of off-road vehicles, including ATVs, is prohibited along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.

Hunters: Be sure of your target—On National Forest lands in 2002 and 2003, two Appalachian Trail hikers were shot by hunters who thought they were shooting at deer. Both hikers suffered serious injuries; both hunters were prosecuted.

Hunters: Know where the Trail is—Appalachian Trail maps can be purchased from ATC and at local outfitters. Contact the nearest ATC office for more information. Those hunting in Pennsylvania, where land ownership boundaries can be especially confusing, are encouraged to contact the mid-Atlantic office for assistance in determining where hunting is permitted. The Trail is often located on the height of the land.

Hunting is prohibited on lands acquired by the National Park Service for the Trail—those exterior corridor boundaries are marked by yellow blazes and US Boundary signs. Do not shoot toward the Trail or the Trail corridor. Be aware that, although the protected NPS Trail corridor is marked with yellow blazes and U.S. Boundary signs, corridor-boundary monitors cannot post (and maintain) signs every year along all of the more than 1,200 miles of boundary where hunters might cross onto A.T. lands.

The Trail itself is marked with the familiar 2" x 6" vertical white rectangles painted on trees. Less familiar are the boundary blazes and signs on NPS corridor lands. Here, white 3" x 12" US Boundary signs are placed facing out from the boundary with A.T. lands behind them. Trees on (or within a few feet of) the boundary are blazed with irregular yellow paint marks. About 75 miles of the boundary of Pennsylvania State Game lands are marked with white paint, occasionally causing confusion with white A.T. blazes.

Hunters: Be alert for hikers and make your presence known to them—Many hikers are from urban or suburban areas and are unfamiliar with hunting. Hikers may not be aware of hunting seasons, or that they are in or near areas open to hunting. Hikers may not be wearing blaze orange. Please use appropriate caution.