All content copyright © 2010-2018 Frank Revelo, United States copyright office registration number TX-7931345
Ticks are definitely a problem in certain areas of Europe in the spring, which is when I normally travel in Europe. I protect myself by inspecting my legs every few minutes while walking through high grass. Ticks are also found in certain areas of Southern California in spring, especially near scrub oak trees. I have never found a tick on my body in the High Sierras, nor in Oregon, Washington, Maine or New Hampshire. According to American Lyme Disease Foundation, nymph tick season in the northeast United States peaks during May and June, then diminishes to negligible levels by October. Adult tick season peaks during October, with possible additional activity in the winter and early spring if it isn't too cold. My own experience is that a southbound hiker on the Appalachian Trail, who starts in Maine in July and who passes through prime tick territory (Vermont through Northern Virginia) in the months of September through October will encounter no ticks, neither nymphs nor adults. Ticks are definitely not a problem when maximum daily temperature is below 45°F/7°C.
In general, I seldom encounter ticks, in either Europe or along the Pacific Crest or Appalachian trails in the United States, where there are only evergreen trees. For whatever reason, ticks seem to live mainly where there are deciduous trees, especially oaks. I seem to have gotten quite good at sensing when I am in tick territory, and when there are ticks crawling on me, perhaps because this is the aspect of nature that I pay closest attention to. I typically find a dozen or so ticks crawling on me per year, but almost never get bitten by ticks anymore.
In making campsites in areas known to be infested with ticks, it is best to find a patch of ground with short grass which has been sun-baked during the day, since ticks cannot tolerate either too much ultraviolet radiation or too much heat or too much dryness (I am not sure which). Make sure you are at least 10 feet (3 meters) from the nearest places where ticks could be hiding (especially under scrub vegetation and piles of leaves), since 10 feet is about the maximum a tick can travel.
Supposedly, treating clothing with permethrin can help protect from ticks, as well as from early-season mosquitoes. My own experience was that permethrin didn't do much to deter mosquitoes and so I am skeptical about its efficacy against ticks. Also, one study I read indicated that a weak treatment of permethrin (and even treatments which are strong initially will become weak in time due to exposure to sunlight and oxygen or due to laundering) will cause ticks to bite in more quickly than they would with no treatment, without killing the ticks. Whether this is good or bad is debatable. Ticks that bite in quickly on the legs will be easier to find than those that climb up and bite in on the head. On the other hand, ticks that bite in slowly can often be found before they bite in. I don't bother with permethrin treatment anymore myself.
If you sleep without a bugbivy, be prepared for bugs crawling over you in the night. Ants are everywhere and spiders and other crawling creatures (slugs in wet areas, dung beetles, other insects) are also very common. I'm not sure if tarantula spiders will crawl over a sleeping human at night, but there are definitely lots of tarantulas crawling around the desert in the winter. I've never encountered scorpions while winter bicycle touring in the Mojave, but they are known to be common in the desert. Maybe they hibernate in the winter.
Beekeepers in Europe sometimes inadvertently setup hives near trails, for bees to make honey from wildflowers in the mountains. When attacked, run, since bees become less aggressive the farther they are from the hive. I am not highly allergic to bee poison, so for me the only consequence of the few dozen stings I received during my only attack (in Spain) was pain and swelling lasting a few days.
Those who are highly allergic to bee poison should reconsider the idea of hiking in the warm months (bees are inactive when it is cold). Otherwise, whenever in bee territory, wear a headnet and enough clothes to cover most of the body, since bees tend to attack the head first and it is easier to spot and brush away bees from the lower arms and legs than from the head. Hiking with a partner and carrying appropriate first-aid gear for allergic reactions would also be advisable.
Wasps, yellow jackets, hornets and African bees are all more dangerous than regular European honey bees. Avoid them.
The simplest protection is clothing: headnet, long sleeves, long pants. Shirt and pants should be of tightly woven fabric, such as supplex nylon, since mosquitoes can bite through loosely woven fabric, such as cotton t-shirts. Some people additionally cover the hands, but I have not found this necessary. While walking, the hands move enough to keep most of the mosquitoes away and the few mosquitoes that do land on the hands can be easily swatted away before biting. While stopped, I just tuck my hands into my pockets or under my shirt. If wearing clothing seems too hot, then perhaps you should pick a different time of year or different region to go hiking, one with either less mosquitoes or less heat.
Some people suggest permethrin treatment will drive off mosquitoes within a few feet of the treated clothing, but I didn't find this to be the case. That is, despite treating my fur felt hat and supplex nylon shirt with permethrin, mosquitoes continued to land on my face, so that I had to use a headnet.
It has been so long since I used DEET that I can't comment on its effectiveness. I know that I detest the smell of DEET and that I am reluctant to get my clothing and sleeping quilt dirty with DEET smell, and that is sufficient reason not to use DEET for me.
I normally bring a headnet regardless of the conditions I expect, since there are sometimes clouds of flying bugs (not necessarily mosquitoes) even in the desert or when it is cold or other situations where bugs would not be expected. My primary concern with these bugs is that they can get into the ears and then get stuck there. There are also reports that sand flies in some areas of North America and Europe are starting to carry the very dangerous Leishmaniasis parasite.
Always be prepared for mosquitoes or other flying bugs in hotel rooms. My bugbivy could be used in such a situation, especially if used with a support to keep the netting if the face. The bugbivy could also be used without a support, though it would be less comfortable that way, especially if it was hot.
Do not underestimate the damage that mice and other rodents can do to gear, whether in search of food or of salt from perspiration—they are truly the most dangerous of the vertebrates. The simplest and otherwise best protection is to avoid established campsites, where the mice have come to associate humans with food. Remember, you can always just camp on the trail, assuming you are setting up camp at dusk and leaving early in the morning, so lack of flat spots in the mountains should not force you to use established campsites. Mice that are unaccustomed to humans tend to avoid us. I have never had problems myself with mice while stealth camping. Mice can carry hantavirus in their feces, which is another reason to avoid established campsites and shelters. Note that mice can and do invade the metal bear boxes installed in some campgrounds. They don't need much of an opening to squeeze through, so consider yourself warned.
Marmots are naturally bolder than mice, because they live at high altitudes and face fewer predators. If they are accustomed to humans, then they become especially bold. Marmots are normally more interested in salt than food, but that doesn't make them less dangerous. One of the places where salt accumulates is the shoulder straps of a backpack and the way to extract salt from the straps is to chew them—think carefully about that. The best protection from marmots is to avoid camping where they are present, and especially where they might be accustomed to humans and devoid of fear, such as in national parks. It is easy to know when marmots are present, since they announce their presence with shrill whistles (intended to alert other marmots) when they see a hiker approaching.
Porcupines are also naturally bold, due to their protective spines. And like marmots, they are more interested in salt than food. Porcupines are common in the northeast of the United States, such as along the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and Maine. Many are the hikers in this area who have awoken in the morning to find their boots or shoes ruined because porcupines chewed them up in search of salt.
Raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, etc are another possible unwanted guests when camping in places where they have lost their natural fear of humans. As with mice, the main problem is gnawing through and thus ruining gear in a search for food. Some of these animals may also carry diseases.
Birds can be attracted to anything brightly colored, which they will sometimes snatch up and fly away with, then perhaps drop so that it catches on the branches of a tall tree. So be careful of leaving gear or food in the open that is lightweight enough that birds can fly with it in their beaks.
Everyone has probably read warnings about black bears stealing food. I've never encountered a black bear in camp yet, partly because I normally stealth camp, preferably in areas that are unattractive to black bears (such as at high altitudes where there is little food available), and partly because I carry my food in either a bear canister or dry sack, both of which are waterproof and thus also greatly reduce transmission of smells.
Many bears have become accustomed to campers sleeping in huts or established campgrounds, and to campers who cook and thus create tantalizing food smells, as well as to day-hikers who leave food in cars, and have learned to act boldly around these humans. Whereas they are seldom accustomed to lone hikers sleeping far away from huts and established campgrounds who produce no food smells (because food storred in opsaks rather than regular plastic bags). Their natural attitude towards such hikers is the same as the natural attitude of hikers towards them—they view these hikers as a potential threat rather than a potential source of food—and hence they keep their distance. This is especially true where bears are hunted, such as along the Appalachian trail. I heard many bears while hiking the southern Appalachian trail and all ran away when I tapped the end of my sheath knife (which I kept in my bugbivy in case of an attack) against my drinking cup. Metal against metal is a sound that only humans can produce and naturally tends to frighten bears. I've frequently heard bears while camping along the Pacific Crest Trail, but they have never bothered me, though I'm pretty sure they were aware of my presence.
Black bears do sometimes attack humans in a predatory fashion, which is an excellent reason for carrying a hiking stick. As discussed elsewhere, the proper technique for self-defense is to jam the stick into the charging animal's face. A hiking stick jammed into the eye, nose or throat is almost certain to send a black bear into retreat, though perhaps not a grizzly bear. I don't hike in grizzly territory myself. To reduce the likelihood of attacks by any type of bear at night, sleep under a tarp or at least in a bivy of some sort with mosquito netting, rather than cowboy-style. And as noted already, just in case a bear boldly attacks me while I am under a tarp, I sleep with my sheath knife inside my bugbivy.
NEVER get between a mother bear and her cub: nothing will deter her from attacking if this happens.
Mountain lions are normally very cautious around humans, but they have been known to attack. Since their attack is lightning quick, designed to kill before the prey knows what hit them, it is best to deter attack in the first place, as opposed to planning a defense. Wear a wide-brim hat and backpack, so as to make yourself look larger and make it harder for the animal to see the neck, which is where it likes to strike. Don't run, which arouses predatory impulses in all felines. Carry a hiking stick. If confronted with a mountain lion, stare it in the eyes, wave your stick and don't give ground (or back off slowly if it is a mother with a baby nearby). If the animal attacks, push the stick at its face, same as with a bear. Always sleep under a tarp or at least in a bivy with mosquito netting, never cowboy-style. Mountain lions are almost certainly too cautious to investigate what is under a tarp or netting of a bivy. Whereas a hungry mountain lion might risk attacking a solitary human sleeping under the stars with his or her neck exposed. When taking rest breaks or otherwise sitting, especially if alone and especially in the early morning or early evening when mountain lions normally hunt, position your back towards vegetation, so you will be able to hear any beast approaching from the rear, before it has a chance to attack. (See here for description of a mountain lion attack on a lone hiker sleeping without a tarp or other shelter overhead.)
Dogs are a menace everywhere, but they normally have great respect for sticks. As with mountain lions and bears, proper technique is not to swat the dog's head, but to jam the sharp point at the dog's face. A dog that sees a stick aimed at its mouth will almost always have the sense to back off. If not, the stick should kill the dog upon being rammed down its throat.
If a pitbull or other dog with strong jaw muscles latches onto a person, the way to get it to release is to ram a object up the dogs anus: stick, screwdriver, use your fingers if nothing else available. Make sure the dog is held securely by the neck before doing this, because after releasing what it was biting before, it will immediately try to bite down the person penetrating its anus.
There have been rumors of coyotes in California attacking children, but they shouldn't be a problem for adults carrying a stick. Unless rabies infected, coyotes will almost certainly not be a problem wherever they are hunted, whether legally hunted or illegally shot by ranchers.
Wolves are present in parts of Spain, but they tend to be on the small side and wary of humans. The few times I've seen wolves in northwest Spain, they fled upon detecting my presence.
Rabies is endemic to all sorts of wild animal species in North America. If any animal approaches in a strange way, fend it off with your stick. There was a notice outside the visitor's center in Mojave National Preserve in November 2013 about a bat that landed on a man's neck during the day, which was later caught and determined to have rabies. Rabid bats is another reason to sleep with a bugbivy at night, even when there are no mosquitoes to worry about.
Rattlesnakes are very common on the southern California section of the Pacific Crest Trail. I saw ten during my first hike there, including two Mojave Greens. Of these ten, two could easily have struck me had they wanted to. Case one was a rattlesnake resting under a low overhanging ledge beside the trail, which suddenly started buzzing when I stepped in front of that ledge, with my leg about 12" from the snake's head—I high stepped out of the way pronto. Case two occurred when I lay down to rest under a tree and then a while later noticed a rattlesnake curled up about 6" from my feet, silently watching me—naturally, I pulled my feet back quickly when I saw the snake. My impression at this point is that rattlesnakes will not bite if you don't step on them or otherwise touch them. So all you have to do to avoid being bitten is watch where you step and put other parts of your body. I'm not sure about other species of poisonous snakes in North America. Poisonous snakes in Europe are uncommon and very shy of humans. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend"—since snakes are the enemy of mice, and mice are the greatest enemy of humans among the vertebrates, snakes are our friends and should be left unharmed.
Skunks are similar to rattlesnakes—leave them alone and they will leave us alone. But skunks can be less patient than rattlesnakes. If they start their little skunk-dance (lifting their tail and stamping their hind feet), it is up to you to get out of the way and fast. My only encounter with a skunk was in the San Felipe desert of Southern California—a god-forsaken place for a mammal to be living, in my opinion—I backtracked when it started its dance, then waited until the skunk moved away. Skunks are present throughout the United States. It is worthwhile carrying Mirazyme to treat skunk smell, in case you get sprayed. If this doesn't work, the old-fashioned method is to soak all affected body parts and gear in tomato sauce.
Cattle are peaceable animals, so attack is unlikely if you walk around rather than through the herd. Other than for fighting bulls in Spain, bulls in Europe have been bred to be docile, though they might attack if you walk directly through the herd. The main danger is getting between a mother cow and her calf. Don't underestimate how fast a cow lying on the ground can stand up and start running at you if she feels her calf threatened.
Male moose, deer and other wild herbivores become extremely aggressive and might attack during the rutting season (autumn), if a hiker gets too close.
I see or hear these frequently on Europe. Sometimes, boar flee upon picking up my scent. Other times, it is obvious they are aware of my presence but are unconcerned by it. I have read reports of old males attacking humans in broad daylight just for looking at them the wrong way during rutting season (autumn). If a wild boar does attack, it will be difficult to drive it off with a knife or stick, especially the adult males, who are accustomed to fighting and suffering pain and are heavily armored with thick skin and fur. Boar are thus more like pit bulls and other fighting dogs (though immensely stronger) than black bear and cougars. That is, the harder you hit a wild boar or pit bull, the angrier they get. By contrast, black bears and especially cougars are very reluctant to suffer injury, so all you have to do is show that you are prepared to fight back and they should back off. Another danger comes from getting between a mother and her young: avoid this with any animal. Boar have surrounded my tarp several times while I was camped in Spain. Their horrible grunting sounds are frightening to listen to, but they eventually leave. Boars sense of smell is acute, so best to keep strong smelling foods, like cheese, in opsaks when camping, rather than just regular plastic bags. I've also seen wild boar while hiking in the Smokey Mountains in the United States. These are Russian boar that were introduced by hunters and have since become widespread in the area.
Peccaries or javalina is a species similar to boars/pigs, native to the Americas, supposedly common in the southwest of the United States, and also supposedly much more aggressive than wild boar. There have been reports of herds of peccarries attacking and killing humans in Bolivia. I have no experience with peccaries myself.
Poison oak and similar irritating plants can be a nuisance in some areas of the country, but the real danger is from falling trees and tree branches. Once I was sitting under a tall evergreen of some sort and a huge branch fell just a few feet away from me. It would have killed me had it fallen on top of my head. Another time, I was just lying down under my tarp when I heard a huge crash nearby. I looked out and there was a cloud of dust about 50 meters away where an old rotten tree had fallen and split into several pieces. And I frequently hear branches falling in the night while camping. I make a point now of looking up and examining the branches above me before sitting down underneath trees, and I also carefully examine all trees nearby before setting up my tarp, looking for branches or trees that might fall during the night.