In the northern hemisphere we are one month into the warmer of the two intermediate seasons, the one we call spring, and the wild world around us is coming back to life. The earth is tilting back in the other direction and the sun's path around the globe is climbing further north each day warming the earth. From the drab browns, tans, and grays of winter new colors appear, and the air is once again alive with the buzz of insects and the calls of birds. As you venture back into the forest for those day hikes and pre-summer-vacation camping trips, here are a few tips that may help your time in the woods be more enjoyable.
In temperate zones spring is a wet season. Those same rains that help all of the new plants spring forth, and bring the forest back to life, can cause a a few problems for the newer outdoor enthusiasts. It is a good idea to plan for having to start fires under wet conditions. Whether it be a home-made chemical tinder material like petroleum jelly soaked cotton, or one of the more advanced fire starting systems available commercially today, it will be good to have a tinder material on hand than can be ignited in a damp environment and will burn regardless of humidity levels. Also important items such as first aid supplies should be carried in water proof containers.
Bees, wasps, and hornets are not usually aggressive unless they feel threatened. Unfortunately though, even if you have no intentions of harming them, if you are afraid of bees they will sense that fear and they will perceive it as a threat. I suppose their line of thinking, in their small brains, is that you wouldn't be afraid if you weren't thinking of harming them. It is also important to note, for those who are allergic to bees, that their colors often serve as camouflage for them in the flowers they frequent, to help them hide from the birds that will eat them. Simply touching the flowers with parts of your body can be perceived as a threat as well. It is a good idea to pay attention to the details of your environment, you are never actually alone in the woods, there will be living creatures all around you.
Another noteworthy thing is that not all flying insects that look like bees are. There are a good many flies in the world which have evolved as such to mimic bees as a form of camouflage, and as a visual deterrent to would be predators. They will look, sound, and act like bees, but in fact they have no stingers and no venom. Once again this is where a little research, and paying attention to small details, can be very helpful. It can keep you from experiencing unnecessary panic attacks, or from inadvertently injuring your self in flight from a danger that does not exist. All bees have two pairs of wings, while flies have only one pair.
In general I have noticed that spiders in webs across trails will cause some people serious distress. I have seen people just stop where they were and sit down on an old log without even looking, and refuse to go further until the trail was cleared of spiders. I have seen camping trips suddenly canceled over an abundance of Orb Weavers in an area, for fear of suffering a severe spider bite, and I have watched as people ran face first into trees and literally beat themselves about the face and head because they walked through an unnoticed web. While yes there are a couple of web building spiders that can be out in the open that present a serious danger, Black Widows will build their webs around and under rain flies. The fact is that the most dangerous spiders we have do not build large vertical webs out in the open between trees the way the Argiopes and other Orb Weavers do. The most poisonous spiders we have are much more reclusive in their habits. In North America the most dangerous spiders are more likely to be found among rotten logs, in brush piles, leaf litter, paper bark, and crevices in stones. So the need for caution is far greater when gathering fuel and tinder for fires, and in gathering materials for fie pits, then during the hike in.
In the warm season the snakes come out of hibernation and are once again active in their hunt for prey. Unlike Australia where they may have four types of snakes that cannot kill you, here in North America we only have four types that can: Rattlesnakes, Copper Heads, Cottonmouth Water Moccasins, and the Coral Snake. For the most part none of these snakes are aggressive toward humans as they know we are too big for them to eat, and we are bigger so there is a greater chance of us injuring them. Rattlesnakes will warn you of their presence, provided their rattles haven't been amputated, and in most cases heeding that warning and not getting any closer will prevent any problems. Copperheads are said to be aggressive, but it has been my experience that they are not so much aggressive as they really don't care for being the first one to back away. I have had several coil up and stand their ground when I encountered them on the trail, however I have never had one come at me or go out of their way to attack. Cottonmouths also seem to have a reputation for being aggressive because they have been known to get into anchored or slow moving boats on the river. From what I have seen, I suspect that it's more likely in these cases that they are just looking to escape the cool water and warm in the sun. Coral Snakes, while the most deadly of the snakes we have here, avoid populated areas and in most cases flee when faced with human contact. They also have some colorful look-a-likes, so remember the phrase “red on yellow can kill a fellow”. In some cases circumstances can lead to snakes being more dangerous some times than they are at others though. One such circumstance is when they are getting ready to shed their skin and the protective scales over their eyes turn opaque. This limits their vision and can cause them to be more apprehensive or more defensive than usual. Or they may have recently had an encounter with a predator, and be in a particularly bad mood at the moment. So it pays to treat them with respect at all times.
So when you are out on the trail, remember to take care and pay attention to your surroundings. Most injuries occur from a failure to take proper precautions or a failure to pay attention to the environment. Remember, even if there is not another person with you, you are never alone in the woods.
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Brian Griffin is an author, photographer, wilderness and survival skills teacher, knife enthusiast, outdoor gear researcher and product development consultant. He has a decades-long history of using and developing outdoor related tools and gear.