Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hiking Hazards in Arkansas

While Arkansas is blessed with great trails, it also has an abundance of animals and plants that can ruin your day in the wilderness (and the following week).  I try to do an annual backpacking trip and when I go in the summer, I avoid Arkansas and flee to the mountains of California, Washington, or Colorado where you can wade through thick vegetation without the fear of stepping on venomous snakes or emerging covered in hundreds of ticks or invisible chiggers.

If you are thinking about hiking or backpacking in Arkansas in June, July, or August; my first piece of advice is don't do it and maybe try a float instead.  If you decide to go anyways (or want to be prepared for hikes in the spring and fall) be sure to learn how to avoid the hazards described below:

1.  Poison Ivy - This nasty plant causes an itchy, often bubbly, rash on a significant portion of the population.  The rash often takes a day or more to show up and is quite unpleasant.  It is found in almost every county of the state and loves to grow in and along trails.  Closely related Poison Oak looks similar and contains the same rash causing oil.  It is found in about half the counties in the state.  Look for vines or slightly woody/small shrubs with shiny leaves-of-three (let them be!).  The photo below shows poison ivy in the late spring.  The leaves can get a bit darker later in the year and white berries form on the vine in the fall/winter.  For more on how to identify these species click here.  Interestingly enough, poison ivy looks a lot like young Box Elder saplings, though the arrangement of the stems is different.

Young Poison Ivy Plant in Fayetteville
Poison Ivy with a Better Background
 2. Ticks - These small arachnids blanket the wilds of Arkansas from late spring to fall.  I'm not saying you can't get them other times of the year, but you are essentially guaranteed to get them if you brush up against any vegetation in the summer.  Though they may not enjoy attaching to humans as much as adults do; seed (larvae/baby) ticks add a special psychological horror to the experience when you realize that the dust/dirt on your leg/arm is actually hundreds or thousands of tiny blood-seeking arachnids.  My personal experience is that ticks and seed ticks are at their worst in July and August which is why I usually stick to floating or swimming for my outdoors fun then, unless I'm trying to finish up a book. Tick-borne illnesses are on the rise and can be quite serious.  I recommend wearing long, light colored pants and light-weight long-sleeved shirts if you decide to tempt fate and spraying your boots, ankles, waistline, etc with bug spray.  If you can handle extra warmth and breaking fashion laws, it helps to tuck your pants into your socks.  Companies also make clothing impregnated with permethrin if that concept doesn't make you nervous. Always do a thorough tick check as soon as you get home (or whenever you take a break).

3. Chiggers - Chiggers are horrible.  I'm willing to bet the vast majority of people who've encountered these tiny mites would rank them as the worst item on this list.  If you're unlucky enough to have been bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake then maybe that's worse; I (and 99.999% of Americans) wouldn't know.  The problem with chiggers is you can't see them and I don't really think you can feel them until they are long gone and the agony has begun.  Chiggers leave your ankles, waistline, or any other area where clothes hug your skin, covered in dozens of incredibly itchy bites that are an intense experience for 2-3 days and can take weeks to disappear.  Prevention tips are similar to those listed above for ticks.

4.  Venomous snakes -  I hesitated to include this in the list since venomous snake bites are extremely rare compare to cases of heat stroke, tick-borne illnesses, chigger attacks, and poison ivy rashes.  That said, Arkansas is home to multiple species of venomous snakes and they are most active in the summer and fall.  I spend a fair amount of time outdoors and have never been bitten by a snake, but I do know someone who has been, so a little caution can't hurt.  The best way to avoid being bitten it to watch where you are stepping and where you are putting your hands.  Wearing boots and/or sturdy gators can help protect you as well.  It should be obvious, but poking or otherwise messing with a venomous snake you've encountered is a bad idea.

5.  Heat - Heat coupled with extreme humidity (i.e. summer in Arkansas) makes it difficult for your body to cool itself.  Be sure to carry plenty of water and take plenty of breaks when hiking or backpacking in the summer in Arkansas.  Given this and all the hazards discussed above, doesn't a nice float on the Buffalo or a cool spring fed stream sound better?

Click here for more information on floats in Arkansas.
Here are some pieces I wrote on swimming holes in Arkansas.


  1. How about early May?

    1. I don't know if you'll get this reply, but the ticks and poison ivy are already out in April! Things are worse in August, but still around now.