Backcountry Science: Hiking and Snakes and Bears – Oh My!

Spring has come to the mountains, which means that hundreds of folks both inside and outside the region are hitting the trails and getting into the woods. At the same time, though, much of the region’s wildlife is also getting out and about. Within the past few weeks, for example, two of our region’s most fascinating but misunderstood creatures – bears and snakes – have been in the news across the mountains.

Spend enough time in the woods in our region, and you’re bound to run into a bear or snake eventually. There’s just no way around it. So, what do you do when that happens? Report it? Enjoy the encounter and go on your way? Run away terrified? Unfortunately, misinformation and fear often rules public perceptions of these creatures, and it can be tough to sort fact from fiction. That’s why this iteration of our Backcountry Science series will delve into each of these creatures, including what they’re doing in the woods – and why they’re doing it – as well as what you should do when you encounter one during a hike.

Bears

Bears are easily one of many hikers’ worst fears when it comes to possible wildlife encounters in the woods. Bears are large, powerful, and actually can present a danger in rare cases – so a small amount of hesitation about bear encounters is a healthy one. On the whole, though, there’s nothing to be to overly afraid of when it comes to bears in the Appalachians.

The sole bear species in the eastern U.S. is the Black Bear (Ursus americanus), a moderately-sized species compared to other bears worldwide and weighing in at an average weight just shy of 250 pounds (many individuals can weigh several hundreds pounds more). Contrary to popular myth, black bears are NOT fearsome predators but instead are omnivores, meaning they eat a combination of plant- and animal-based material. Upwards of 80-90% of a bear’s diet, in fact, comes from vegetation rather than meat, and bears in our region often feast on nuts, berries, and new plant shoots, depending on the season. Insects, fish, and carrion make up most of their meat-based diet.

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Don’t rely on movie posters for an accurate portrayal of black bears…

The upshot of all of this is that the bear you might run into during a hike is not looking at you as a prey item at all. Rather, most food-related run-ins between hikers and bears happen due to the food hikers are carrying, either unsecured food in a backpack or smells left over on wrappers or utensils. Bears need a huge caloric intake to maintain an appropriate body weight, so any food item can be important – even trash and food remnants in a daypack or tent. A simple fix to avoid problems with bears is to therefore make sure that all of your food on the trail is stored in airtight containers such as Ziploc bags or Tupperware containers. If camping, make sure that any “smellables” are also not stored in or close to your tent. (As a side note, this same rule applies at home. If you have a bear trolling your neighborhood, chances are it’s due to the trash you or your neighbors are leaving outside.)

Even with careful planning, though, you’re still likely to run across a bear eventually if you hike enough miles on the trail. This is most likely to occur in the spring and fall months (when bears are most active seasonally) and during early morning or late evening hours (when most activity occurs during the day). Most of these encounters occur as bears are foraging, and many bears don’t even notice when a hiker is nearby. If you see a bear and it doesn’t notice you or change its behavior, the best plan is to simply keep on your way or give it a wide berth. Your best course of action if the bear approaches is not to run – especially since bears can reach 30 mph at full speed  – but to make plenty of noise and make yourself look as large as possible. Bear “deterrents,” including pepper spray, can also be effective in the very rare chance a bear becomes aggressive. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has some excellent advice, including more details on what to do if you see a bear and a rundown of several bear myths.

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This is how 99% of bear encounters on the trail end: with a bear high-tailing it the other way. This individual was encountered on the Appalachian Trail near Burkes Garden, Virginia.

What about bear attacks? While some violent encounters between bears and humans have happened in our region before, these are incredibly rare and have occurred in some cases after bears are unnecessarily provoked by humans. In other rare cases, hikers that have done nothing wrong at all have been attacked by bears that have become previously “acclimatized” to humans through intentional feeding or scavenging on improperly stored trash. This means that the best defense against bear problems begins at home, even through things as simple as proper trash storage. If left alone and respected, bears pose virtually no threat at all, especially compared to other creatures in the woods. Which brings us to…

Snakes

The southern and central Appalachian Mountains have more snakes than you might expect, up to 10-15 species in certain areas. But out of this snake diversity, only two species are both venomous and large enough to potentially cause real harm through a bite: the Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) and Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Both of these species can and will bite if provoked, but the key phrase there is “if provoked.” Much like bears, none of our regional snakes view humans as prey and, in fact, view humans as a possible predator instead. If left alone, both of these species are 100% harmless.

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This Northern Copperhead was encountered basking at an overlook at Virginia and Kentucky’s Breaks Interstate Park…and peacefully shared the view with several groups of hikers.

The fact that Copperheads and Timber Rattlers have venom generates a ton of fear among humans, but why exactly are these snakes venomous? Both species have venom not as a defensive mechanism against humans but for the sole purpose of immobilizing prey, most commonly small mammals such as rodents. Humans can become envenomated, however, if a member of these species bites out of self-defense. Fortunately, though, both of our venomous species only bite out of a last resort. If disturbed, both species will instead hunker down and rely on camouflage against the forest floor, flee the area, or – in the case of the Timber Rattlesnake – noisily vibrate its tail. Virtually all snake bites occur when humans take things past this level, either intentionally provoking snakes or trying to kill them. If you see a snake and it’s changing its behavior, use common sense and give it a wide berth; chances are, it only wants to get the heck out of dodge.

What happens if you do get bitten by a venomous snake, though? In some cases, nothing at all. So-called “dry” bites occur when a venomous snake fails to inject venom. In these cases, the bite may hurt but not cause any other side-effects at all. Even when venom is injected, though, the outcome is rarely as bad as local myths suggest. While a bite from a Timber Rattler or Copperhead will make your life less than enjoyable and does need urgent medical attention, it’s likely not going to kill you. This is mostly a myth perpetuated by local legends, not based in scientific fact. Fatal snakebites in our region instead occur most commonly when a bite victim has an allergic reaction to the snake venom and goes into anaphylactic shock (much like an allergic reaction to bee sting), not directly due to the venom itself. Again, though, these impacts are really nothing to worry about at all as long as you pay attention and give any snakes you see a wide berth.

The other larger snakes you might find on the trail – water snakes, rat snakes, and corn snakes, to name a few – are also virtually harmless and will respond much the same way as a venomous snake. The most major difference between these species and a venomous snake, in fact, is the presence of venom; there aren’t many differences in how these snakes behave around humans in the woods at all. Venomous snakes are no more aggressive than nonvenomous species, and you’re likely to find them in the same areas. While it is true that snakes can remain unnoticed in vegetation and get accidentally stepped on in rare cases, a little awareness goes a long way: never put your hands or feet anywhere that you can’t see. Follow that simple rule, and there’s really no need to worry about snakes in the woods.

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Up close and personal with a harmless Black Racer in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

Lastly, don’t buy into the myths and hype that surround snakes. Get your wildlife info from a reliable source, and be skeptical of what you hear from friends and on social media when it comes to wild animals. No snake in Appalachia will ever “chase” a human, and young snakes pose no more of a threat than mature ones. Most of what hikers view as “baby copperheads,” in fact, are actually smaller species of snakes that pose literally no threat at all to humans and eat mostly insects. In that same vein, many nonvenomous and harmless species of snakes have markings or patterning down their backs…meaning that the “copperhead” you or your friend saw on the trail probably wasn’t a copperhead at all. Familiarize yourself with our regional snakes and how they look, and remember that the fastest way to put yourself in harm’s way with any snake you find on the trail is to try and kill it. Simply leave the snake as you found it and give it a wide berth – there’s literally no other need for panic on the trail.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve read the above info and still have a fear of bears, snakes, or other wildlife, don’t worry – that means you’re absolutely normal. It’s natural to have a fear of some wild animals, but what matters is what you do with that fear. Turning it into a healthy respect for wildlife instead of panic goes a long way for both you and the animal. The below resources provide some additional info on the species mentioned above.

  • The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – an area with many black bears and humans together in the same places – has some added info and background on black bears here.
  • The American Hiking Society has some tips for reducing your chance of snakebites on the trail.
  • What should you do in the (very, very) unlikely event that a venomous snakebite occurs?  The Virginia Herpetological Society has some great info here.
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