Anyone who spends time outdoors enjoying nature knows that they share the space with other animals and critters. Many are amusing, most are harmless, a few require some caution, and a very small percentage could present life-threatening risks.
Which dangerous animals are you most likely to encounter? Here are a few of the top ones, sorted by overall risk. All numbers are based on USA-specific data.
More Dangerous Than You Might Think
30,000 cases of Lyme disease each year
If we were to tell you that the most dangerous animal on your hiking trail is also one of the smallest, you would probably be surprised. Deer ticks, aka Blacklegged ticks, are abundant and actually pretty dangerous throughout much of North America.
Deer ticks can cause Lyme disease, which can have unpredictable effects on the human body. Symptoms can range anywhere from a fever to a red rash and muscle aches to a sudden allergy to red meat.
Not every deer tick carries Lyme, but on some parts of the country a surprising proportion do. They transmit the disease through a bite (there is some debate on how long the tick has to be attached to transmit). In some cases, the wrong bite triggers chronic Lyme disease which can cause difficulties for years. You are going to be most likely to encounter deer ticks in the Northeast or Great Lakes areas, but their range is expanding and cases of Lyme crop up all over the country.
The best way to defend yourself? Use a good tick repellent any time you are out in tick-likely areas. Stay on the trailsas best you can. If you are going to go in higher grass or brush, be extra certain that you have repellent. You should also be checking for ticks frequently, especially when your trip is done. Look behind your ears, under your armpits, and your scalp. You should also have someone check your back if possible.
Don’t forget to treat and examine your dog, too. Ticks will hitch a ride on anything they can.
Rats and Mice
15,000 diseases and bites each year
Rats and mice can make wonderful pets for some, while other people jump to high ground when they’re spotted. The wild variants, however, can pose a serious health risk for people spending lots of time outdoors. Don’t underestimate what kinds of diseases a tiny little mouse can carry.
While there are 15,000 cases of rodent injuries and illnesses in humans each year, it’s not entirely clear how many of that number occurs outdoors or while camping or hiking.
The bigger problem with rodents like rats and mice is that they carry diseases, including the plague! The diseases are not only present in the animals themselves, but in the droppings they leave behind. Rats and mice can be responsible for spreading Hantavirus, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, salmonella, rate bite fever, and others.
Ever since the stories of hantavirus being found inside some of the sleeper cabins at Yosemite National Park, we have been a little more cautious about our activities in areas where we see rat or mouse droppings.
8,000 bites per year (and 5 deaths)
Many people are naturally afraid of snakes, which adds to the fear factor of seeing one at your campsite or just ahead of you on the trail.
Fortunately for us Northerners, most of the poisonous snakes in the US are located in the South. However, the good old rattlesnake is happy to live in the Northern US — with the Timber Rattlesnake’s range extending up into New England and the Great Lakes region. The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake enjoys some of our favorite areas further to the West.
The South has its share of poisonous snakes. Texas and Florida lead the USA in the number of venomous snake bites each year. Cottonmouths (also known as a water moccasin) and Coral Snakes are two examples of venomous snakes found in the South and Southeast United States, especially in places like the Everglades. Further West, Texas is home to 15 species of poisonous snakes. So if you are enjoying hiking on isolated dirt trails or exploring the good fishing lakes in Texas, be sure to keep an eye on the ground.
Copperheads, common in the Eastern United States, are some of the most common culprits of venomous snake bites, but fortunately their venom is hardly ever fatal. It doesn’t mean the bites are trivial, though!
The best solution for preventing a snake bite is wearing the proper attire. A solid pair of hiking boots that are difficult for a snake to bite through will do wonders if you’re attacked. Wearing longer socks and long pants is not a bad idea either if you are in a snake-prone area. Most accidental snake bites occur around or below the ankle. And a whopping 57% of all reported snake bites occur when someone is handling the snake — So definitely don’t pick it up if you see one!
If you are camping in an area known to be a favorite of venomous snakes, be sure your tent floor and door seals off well, or even consider a roof top tent to elevate you away from the ground.
3,000 illness cases per year
Mosquito-borne illnesses impact at least 3,000 people per year in the United States. It’s possible this is an underestimate, because so many of the illnesses might resemble a flu or cold. It’s important to note though: many of the afflicted are in the South and Western US.
West Nile Virus is probably the most well known and most transmitted, but mosquitos can also carry Encephalitis, Dengue, and Zika. We’re all familiar with getting bit by mosquitos (we had them, too), and while these illnesses are not particularly lethal, its best to not get them in the first place.
The best way for a hiker or camper to steer clear of mosquitoes is to wear a good mosquito repellent, and we also love wearing bug-repelling clothing when we are outside in the summer. It really works, and we find the garments to be lightweight, highly-breathable, and super comfortable. They protect against UV rays too, so you might be able to get by with a little less sunscreen.
Less-Frequent Animal Risks
Raccoons and Skunks
While there are reports of more than 1,000 raccoon and skunk injuries in humans each year, the numbers are relatively low.
But make no mistake: raccoons and skunks are equipped with claws, fangs. Skunks also come with that nasty spray, and they can definitely do some damage. But unless you are bitten by a rabid one, they probably are just more startling than they are dangerous.
Raccoons and skunks account for 2 of the top 3 causes of rabies in any given year (the other being bats), so they definitely have the ability to inject some damage even though they are much smaller than the typical human.
If you do see a raccoon or skunk acting oddly, steer clear. If you are attacked, seek medial assistance immediately as a vaccine is needed. Once symptoms for rabies appear, it has a nearly 100% fatality rate. Always keep your pets up to date on their rabies shots, too, and take them to the vet if they come in contact with wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, or foxes.
Bears probably get the most press in North America in terms of striking fear into campers, hunters, and hikers, but on average there are only a dozen or so documented bear attacks in the US each year.
Black bears, by far the most common species, are not very aggressive. They rarely attack, and when they do it is usually because someone has them cornered, is close to a cub, or is with a dog. If you ever come in contact with a black bear, back away slowly. Do not play dead if you are attacked by a black bear. Try to escape. If not possible, fight back.
Grizzly bears are much more dangerous, but still rare. If you encounter one, do not run. Back away slowly and avoid direct eye contact. If you are attacked by a brown bear, play dead! Keep your pack on as it may provide you some protection. Fighting back usually lowers the intensity of the attack, but if the bear is unrelenting, you may have to fight back.
If you’re hiking on trails or in areas where bears live, make sure to always bring bear spray and use it if you are attacked. Do not attempt to climb a tree if running from a bear — they can climb better than you. Always keep an eye out.
Bees actually cause about 50 deaths a year — nearly all in people with specific bee allergies.
The numbers of bee, wasp, and hornet stings cannot be tracked, of course. For most, they will usually only involve a few minutes of discomfort. If you’re unsure if you have an allergy, talk to an allergist to have a panel done. If you are allergic, you will want to carry an EpiPen with you.