Wildlife concerns


No National Scenic Trail offers wildlife in sheer quantity like the Florida Trail, but there is potential on the PCT to see large, majestic animals like elk, deer, black bear, mountain goats, bobcat, and mountain lions, as well as marmots, rock pikas, pine martens, foxes, squirrels, scorpions, snakes, desert toads, bald eagles, hawks, hummingbirds, grouse, chickadees, jays, and quail. Only a few of these animals pose potential problems for thru-hikers though, and they are discussed below.


Marmots

photo by Mike Ruso
photo by Mike Ruso

Your greatest animal foe on the PCT is not the bear, it's the marmot. This big rodent is related to squirrels but lives mostly above treeline in the Sierras. Often spotted resting on the top of boulders where the rock's heat helps them digest food, they eye you as you walk past them on the Trail. They also communicate with ear-piercing whistles, often as a warning to others and their young that you are approaching.

 

When camping near or above treeline, the marmot will come after your food, even if it is in your pack. If you leave your pack unattended for just a little while to say, go dig a cathole, it may get marmotized.

 

Of course, you will have a bear canister for at least part of your time in the Sierras. But let's be real. Not everything fits inside a bear can. If you leave town with a week's worth of food, it just won't fit, and you certainly can't squeeze your toiletries in there too. Whatever doesn't fit in the canister is vulnerable to marmots. How to store your food is discussed in detail on the food gear and storage page.


Squirrels, Chipmunks, Rats, & Mice

California ground squirrel
California ground squirrel

Rats, mice, and other rodents are a problem for two reasons: they threaten your food, and they carry disease. Fortunately for PCT hikers, the absence of shelters along the Trail mitigates these two problems.

 

Appalachian Trail shelters are home to lots of mice and rats. Usually invisible until nightfall, they ransack any food or toiletries not properly hung. Bags are chewed apart, the food ruined. The rodents nest in or near the shelters, and their urine and droppings carry diseases. In 1993 an AT thru-hiker from Australia was diagnosed with hantavirus. The CDC concluded that "the patient's infection probably was acquired along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia." In 2012 there was an outbreak on the AT that caused at least one hiker to be hospitalized.

 

The west is historically where the hantavirus has been found. Its appearance in the east was a surprise. However, without shelters on the PCT hikers do not congregate in large groups at single locations where their crumbs and trash feed populations of mice and rats. Also, no one is sleeping in structures where rodents are feeding and nesting. Instead, campsites are spread out along the Trail, and often there is room for just a few tents. Rodents populations are not as concentrated, and so the threat of hantavirus is pretty small. 

 

That said, the desert is filled with rodents, as everyone who night-hikes discovers. Since it's the desert, there are no trees to hang a bear bag from, and your food is vulnerable to rodents. If you keep food in your tent you run the risk of having a rodent chew through your very expensive tent in the middle of the night to nibble a 50-cent granola bar. Strategies to keep your food safe in the desert are discussed on the food gear & storage page.


Venomous Snakes

photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson via Wikipedia
photo by Clinton & Charles Robertson via Wikipedia

The southwestern US is filled with rattlesnakes, and you are likely to see one on the first day of your hike. For some reason, many hikers report rattlesnakes on the opening 16-mile stretch between the terminus and Hauser Creek. On the PCT you can cross paths with at least eight species of venomous snake:

 

Western Diamondback, Sidewinder, Speckled Rattlesnake, Red Diamond Rattlesnake, Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, Great Basin Rattlesnake, the Mojave rattlesnake, aka the Mojave Green Snake, and the northern Pacific rattlesnake (north of the Sierras).

 

The California Herps website has a gallery of snake photos to help with identification, but if you are close enough to ID a rattlesnake, you're too close. Back east, people have to contend with the confusion between coral snakes and king snakes, but there is no mistaking a rattler. They usually see you and start rattling before you see them.

 

When you walk up on a rattlesnake here's what to do:

  • Stop and back away from it
  • If it is sitting on or just to the side of the trail, get past it by bushwacking around it. Be sure to give it a very wide berth.
  • If you can't bushwack because of the terrain or dense brush, you just have to wait for the snake to leave.

 

What Not To Do

Do not try to scare the snake away or move it yourself. Shouting at it won't help since snakes do not have ears and it can't hear you. Throwing rocks at it will not get it to move, only make it angry. Do not try to pick it up and toss it with your trekking pole. If you are close enough to reach it with your trekking pole, it can strike you.

 

Snake Bite Treatment

Do not bring a "snake bite kit" or a reverse-pressure suction device like the Sawyer Extractor. Kits are based on the "cut and suck + tourniquet" method that has been resoundingly rejected by doctors. Suction devices do nothing! There is a lot of nonsense on the web about field treatment of snake bites, especially in forums and blogs. Rather than read blogs or websites, including this one, we encourage you to visit your local library and check out the most recent edition of the Brady Emergency Care and Transportation of the Sick and Injured, a textbook for EMTs written by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. You will find that the snake bite medical protocol is to:

  • keep calm and get away from the snake safely
  • call 911 if possible
  • lie down with the affected limb lower than your heart
  • keep the limb immobilized
  • remove any rings, bracelets, boots, et cetera before swelling begins
  • treat for shock and preserve body heat
  • wash bite with soap and water
  • if you have to walk out to reach the nearest source of help (which is likely) sit calmly for 20-30 minutes, then walk calmly and avoid unnecessary exertion
  • have someone else carry your pack if possible — if you are alone, do not leave your pack behind, since it contains everything that will keep you alive
  • get to a facility with anti-venom

At the climax of The Yearling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the main character's father is bit by a rattle snake. To save his father, the boy kills his pet deer, cuts out its liver, and places the liver on the snake bite. The liver then soaks up all the venom and the father is saved. If that sounds like ridiculous nonsense, that's because it is — and so is everything else you ever been told about snake bite treatment:

  • DO NOT cut the bite
  • DO NOT apply a tourniquet
  • DO NOT try to suck out the venom with your mouth
  • DO NOT try to suck out the venom with a suction device
  • DO NOT apply cold or ice packs to the bite or affected limb

Cowboy Camping?

The question of rattlesnakes on the PCT comes up frequently in questions and conversations about cowboy camping. Mild temperatures, little precipitation, and an absence of mosquitoes make hikers want to sleep on the ground, under the stars, like the cowboys did. It is a beautiful experience, but one that is attached to anxiety about critters in the dark.

 

Frankly, you do run the risk of waking up to the sight of a rattlesnake when cowboy camping. Accepting that fact will keep you calm if it happens. However the odds of any harm coming to you seem low. We have not been able to track down confirmed instances of someone waking up to a snake in their sleeping bag, though that is a persistent urban legend.


Black Bears

photo by Diginatur via Wikipedia
photo by Diginatur via Wikipedia

The official state mammal of California is the brown (grizzly) bear. One appears on the state flag and John Muir wrote about brown bears taking sheep in his memoir My First Summer in the Sierra. However, brown bears no longer exist in California.

 

Instead, the only bear you might encounter on the PCT is the black bear, which confusingly is not always black. Their coats range through shades of brown, cinnamon, gold, and even red. They gain a massive amount of weight in order to hibernate, so much so that a fat, cinnamon-colored black bear might be mistaken for a grizzly.

 

California's Two black bear sub-species have an estimated combined population between 25,000 and 30,000. Surprisingly, bears can even be found in the desert before Kennedy Meadows. With limited water sources in the desert, they visit the same springs as hikers. In 2015, thru-hikers reported almost daily encounters with a bear at Joshua Tree Spring who swam in the trough and ignored the hikers camped nearby.

 

Black bears are shy and skittish. If one does come into camp, it will usually run away if you shout at it. In Yosemite National Park, however, bears were allowed to eat from garbage cans throughout the 60s and 70s, and visitors even fed them by hand from their car windows. That doesn't happen today, but in a popular, high-trafficked place like Yosemite, bear encounters are more common than any other place on the trail. Unfortunately for the bears, the Park Service kills any bear that confronts a camper over food, regardless of whether the animal attacks or injures someone.

 

Protecting your food from bears is more complicated on the PCT than any other trail. Bear bagging simply isn't enough, and usually isn't possible anyway for want of suitable branches. A detailed discussion of how to protect your food from bears in on the food gear & storage page.


Mountain Lions

photo via Wikipedia
photo via Wikipedia

California's mountain lion population is estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 animals, rebounding since voters banned hunting in a 1990 referendum.  According to the State of California Department of Fish & Game, there have been 15 mountain lion attacks on humans in California since 1986, and only 3 were fatal. That's one fatal attack every decade, in a state with 38 million people, the most populous state in the US. As far as we can tell, none of the 15 attacks were on PCT hikers.

 

Rumors about Attacks

In 2014, a bizarre and inflammatory mountain lion warning was posted on a tree near the Mission Creek campsite (mile 240). It's author, calling himself a wildlife biologist, claimed Cal Fish & Game was covering up a rash of mountain lion attacks in order to hide its mismanagement of the mule deer population, a bizarre conspiracy he expands upon in his self-published book: The Cost of Being Green Before Green was Cool. The 79-year old T.J. Elsbury however, is not a wildlife biologist. He does not hold a PhD of any kind, and by his own admission has a long history of confrontation with government officials. We feel Mr. Elsbury has no credibility and we do not believe his conspiracy theory, but his "warning" has become a PCT urban legend with a life of its own and it needed to be addressed.


Cows

photo by Mike Ruso
photo by Mike Ruso

In southern California the trail occasionally traverses private ranch land or national forest lands with grazing leases. Cows are a skittish animal, and their skittishness combined with their incredible size makes them dangerous.

 

Maintain Eye Contact

Females with calves will run away from you before you get too close, then stop, turn around, and stare at you. Bulls do not run but freeze and stare. We have found that as long as we keep eye contact with a bull it will not move closer to us, but if we turn our backs it will. So if we turn a corner and find ourselves uncomfortably close to a bull, we maintain eye contact until we are far enough away that the bull loses interest and starts grazing again.