As we learned from the absurd questions asked of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, people are mostly interested in hikers’ thoughts on the “scary things” out in the wilderness.
Basically: bears, mountain lions, and murders.
Why people are so fixated on bears and murders? The last (and only) recorded death from a wild bear in California, Oregon, or Washington? A four-year-old girl in 1974. The last hiker killed by a mountain lion on the PCT? Never. The last time a person was murdered on the PCT? Also, never.
The idea that hikers should be afraid of bears, mountain lions, and murders is irrational to the point that engaging is simply a waste of time. That’s right, you just wasted an entire minute of your life.
But this is America, we have to be afraid of something. You’re right, anonymous reader, we do. And so now I present to you seventeen things scarier than bears on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Bolts of electricity from the sky: the scariest thing on the Pacific Crest Trail, bar none. When it comes to “things that pucker your butthole”, the wrath of Zeus shits all over bears and cougars. It won’t matter if you are walking along an exposed ridge, fleeing down into a valley, or just sitting in your tent – all activities are terrifying in a thunderstorm. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) website, “you are not safe anywhere outside” during a thunderstorm. Lightning strikes without prejudice, and if you get caught in a storm, in the middle of the wilderness, miles from shelter, then you will know its fury. Watch me being scared of lighting on the PCT here.
2. Unmarked Trail Junctions
The Pacific Crest Trail is relatively well-marked, but occasionally hikers encounter unmarked trail junctions. Even with maps, these junctions can sometimes be difficult to decipher. If you are lucky, a hiker ahead of you will have marked the correct path with an arrow or cairn, but sometimes it falls onto you to decide the way to Canada (or Mexico). The miles following said junctions are always incredibly frightening. “Did I choose correctly? Is that water source ahead? If I am off-trail, that means no trail magic!” Eventually, you will stumble across a trail marker or a landmark and regain your confidence (or not and you will be forced to turn around). Despite my only having chosen the incorrect trail three or four times, I was always 100% convinced that I had wandered off trail following unmarked junctions.
You will make a lot of new critter friends on the Pacific Crest Trail, but perhaps the most loathed of your newfound company will be the bees. I had never been stung by a bee before hiking the PCT; now I have been stung by four (and that number is small compared to many of my PCT friends). In Northern California and parts of Oregon, the bee population was not happy to have hikers around. Stopping for lunch in bee territory is a truly regrettable decision. I ate many a meal whilst walking as a result of being driven from my lunch spot by the bees. The worst part? The bees wait to appear until you stop hiking. Cheeky bastards.
A word that hikers learn quickly on the Pacific Crest Trail, giardia can take down even the most seasoned of hikers. Whether or not you can properly pronounce it, the symptoms are the same: diarrhea, flatulence, greasy stool that can float (difficult to diagnose when pooping in a hole), abdominal cramps, upset stomach, and nausea. This experience is terrible when at home, in bed, with a readily available toilet. In the wilderness, the agony endured by those unfortunate enough to come down with the parasite is something I do not dare imagine (likely akin to slowly pulling out your toenails with pliers).
5. The Sun and Dehydration
Drink a lot of water, and shade yourself from the sun. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. What sounds like two simple tasks can quickly become problematic (and even deadly) on the Pacific Crest Trail. Triple-digit temperatures, high altitudes, long waterless stretches, and extreme physical exertion all make keeping hydrated a constant battle. Knowing nothing of the statistics, I would wager that more hikers die from sunstroke and dehydration each year than from all the other items on this list combined. However, the sun is a silent killer, and therefore, it is not as scary – which explains why it falls so far down the list.
6. Poisonous Plants
Yes, plants are scarier than animals. The Pacific Crest Trail is home to a number of poisonous plants that can cripple hikers bold enough to even come into contact with them. In Southern California hikers do battle with the infamous Poodle Dog Bush (remember, you cannot smoke it). Then, in the lower elevations of Northern California, hikers contend with a poison oak-enveloped trail. Sure, avoiding a couple of plants here and there is no problem, but sometimes the trail is literally overgrown with these plants, and avoiding them for miles on end can prove mentally and physically exhausting. Just accept that you might end up itchy (and don’t touch your eyes or genitals).
7. Butt Chafe
In the realm of conversation topics, the Pacific Crest Trail’s social faux pas are few and far between. That being said, chafe, and more specifically butt chafe, is scarier than any bear or mountain lion could ever be. I witnessed many a strong hiker taken down as a result of bleeding butt cheeks. Butt chafe can strike at any moment, and no matter how well you think you wiped, it can (and will) still find a way to ruin days of hiking for you. The one and the only cure for butt chafe? Sleep. Good luck out there.
Despite bicycles being forbidden on the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, some people believe themselves to be above the law (me, for example). These people ignore the PCT’s prohibition of bikes and endanger not only themselves but hikers as well (that guy who almost hit me in Big Bear, for example). Hikers, expecting only to encounter fellow hikers and equestrians, can quickly be taken out by bikers flying around corners or barreling down descents. I typically hike with music blasting in both my ears (usually J-Pop) because why would I listen for bicyclists who were not supposed to be on the trail in the first place? If you encounter bikers on the trail and can avoid being hit while doing so, then do the polite thing and refuse to yield.
Mosquitos may not themselves be deadly, but they can certainly make you want to kill yourself. My time in the Sierra, when not spent marveling at indescribable beauty or bathing naked in mountain streams, was oftentimes spent fleeing from vicious swarms of mosquitos. Without exaggeration, I can say that there were times when if I dared to stop hiking for even a moment, hundreds of mosquitos would swarm around me – biting every inch of exposed skin. Fortunately, you can out-hike the mosquito swarms, but as soon as you stop for water, to make camp, or, god-forbid, to poop, they will be all over you. And what’s that? Your shirt is thin enough for them to bite through? Time to finally put that rain gear to use. You should probably have used Permethrin before heading out.
Cars? Yes, cars. The Pacific Crest Trail itself may be free of motor vehicles, but thanks to the occasional road walking adventure, the many highway crossings, and the number of hours hikers spend hitchhiking, there exist plenty of opportunities to be struck by a vehicle. As ironic as being hit by a car whilst hiking the PCT would be, it is a real possibility that hikers need to be aware of. And yes, PCT hikers have been killed by cars in the past.
11. Off-leash Dogs
You are just hiking down the trail, minding your own business, when all of a sudden: WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF! From around the next bend, an angry-looking dog comes charging at you barking its head off. The dog’s owner? Nowhere to be seen. You pucker your butthole (hopefully you don’t have butt chafe) and hope that this encounter will end well (i.e. you won’t have to stab a dog in the throat with your trekking pole).
This happens quite often on the PCT, and for reasons I fail to understand, people who have dogs that “don’t really get along with strangers” insist on keeping them off-leash whilst walking in the wilds. How many times did a bear bite me on the PCT? Zero. How many times by a dog? One. Point? Bears.
12. Man-made Hazards
Asbestos, high voltage cables, and unexploded military ordinances are just a few of the things hikers will have to contend with on the Pacific Crest Trail. Wait, did you say unexploded military ordinances? Like bombs? Yes, I did, and yes, like bombs. As if hikers didn’t have enough to look out for already, man’s encroachment upon the wilderness and the trail has made hiking the PCT more treacherous than nature intended. Watch your step out there, hiker trash.
13. The Boogie Man
If you are afraid of the dark now, just wait until your first night alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. No matter how confident you are during the day, once nightfall comes, the trail belongs to the darkness. The boogie man lurks at every campsite, and no matter where you try to hide, he will find you. He’s responsible for the howling wind, the unnerving noises in the bushes, and the mysteriously disappearing tent stakes. You are being watched.
On day one hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I came across the first of many rattlesnakes I would eventually meet along the trail. How many did I see? I stopped counting after the first twenty. Some hikers claimed to not see any snakes on the trail, but this does not translate to them not being seen by any snakes. You are lucky to see some bears, and you are a celebrity if you spot a mountain lion, but you will be the minority if you do not encounter any poisonous snakes along your way. Remember that they are just one of many desert murders.
The Pacific Crest Trail passes through many miles of land used for raising cattle. Giant, beastly, genetically enhanced cattle. Few things rattled me more during the night than the sound of some huge cow crying out in what I can only assume was sexual frustration, very near to my tent (everything sounds closer in the darkness). More than once I had sketchy encounters with cows refusing to move out of the trail, and more than once I was legitimately frightened that I would be run down by an angry bull. Cows may be big and dumb, but sometimes big and dumb can be a lethal combination (like that stupid red dog).
Hikers aim to enter the Sierra late and to pass through Washington early to miss yearly snowfalls, but the timing of many a thru-hike does not agree with the weather. Snow can make those unmarked trail junctions an impossible mystery, and can quickly cover hiker footprints or even the entire trail. Waking up to a campsite covered in snow can be terrifying in itself, and without the proper equipment, hikers can quickly become trapped out on the PCT. At least there will be plenty of time for constructing a massive snowman whilst awaiting snowmelt (or rescue).
Coming in last we have poop. Cow poop, dog poop, horse poop, hiker poop – it’s everywhere. Just accept it, you are going to come into physical contact with poop on the Pacific Crest Trail. It does not matter if you are stepping over cow pies in the middle of the trail, trying to find a barren piece of land to erect your tent, or searching for an unspoiled patch of earth to deposit your own feces into, you are going to come face to face with poop eventually. You might as well just embrace it.
But wait, where are bears, mountain lions, and murderers on the list? They aren’t on the list! Why? Obviously, you have not been paying attention.
Despite what is said here, the Pacific Crest Trail is not a scary place. What frightens people about the PCT and the wilderness is the unknown, but the unknown should instill excitement, not fear.
I felt safer in the wilderness than I have felt in many a city across the world. Times mugged on the PCT? Zero. Times mugged not on the PCT? One. It’s math, people.
Remember, you are the crazy people out in the wilderness.
Still not scared? Check out: 11 MORE Things Scarier Than Bears On The Pacific Crest Trail.
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