Craziest Things I’ve Experienced While Backpacking

Spending months at a time hiking a trail is a recipe for some wild stories. Between the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail, I racked up a heap of these I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Some of these events were life-threatening. Others are downright hilarious. Below is a chronological feed of short stories, including tales of bizarre sleeping situations, spine-chilling bear encounters, sharing trails with hunters, near-death experiences, hiking through charred forest, contending with unruly densities of mosquitos, and even chasing a deer that stole my trekking pole.

Sleeping On a Steep Hill

While Backpacking

Back in my rookie days of hiking, before I even considered downloading the popular guide app Guthook, stealth camping was a precarious endeavor. When my friend and I were in Maine, we noticed how many unmarked stealth sites there were. With a few hours left of daylight, we decided to push on past the Full Goose shelter to get some more miles in, hoping to find one of these sites along the way. We would have to stop before the Mahoosuc Notch, however, the slowest-going mile of the whole trail. We would not have time for it.

After a mile or two of not seeing any sites, we began to fret. The notch was not far away, and the trail between us and the notorious boulder field was a pure descent. We stopped and assessed our options. Hiking to the start of the notch would do us no good. It was best we slowed down and looked for the clearest plots of tent-sized ground we could find. Flat was no longer an option.

I posted next to a tree on the underside. The left side of my tent hovered over the soil below it. The right side rested against the tree. After several awakenings followed by attempts to push myself off the tree, I gave up. The tree was my spooning partner (thanks, gravity). Ironically, we came to find there was an established campsite with ample room directly next to the southern terminus of the notch. Go figure.

Coyotes Feasting Next to My Tent

While Backpacking

In New York, tented not far from the southwestern shore of Canopus Lake in Fahnestock State Park, a pack of coyotes made a fresh kill less than a football field’s distance from me and my friend. The chirping of crickets was abruptly squelched by the sound of these elusive killers’ soul-haunting songs. They yipped and howled, summoning one dog after the next to come feast. We listened as they ripped the flesh off the kill, one piece at a time. Leaves scrunched and sticks snapped as the canines scurried. After a few minutes the noise diminished.

Stove Explosion

While Backpacking

Only one night after the coyote incident, I found myself on fire. My friend and I had never had a problem with our stoves prior, but on this night when I went to light the pocket rocket, a massive plume of flames with black smoke rising from it emerged. I quickly put it out, unscathed. Then I tried the stove again, this time being sure to only crank the lever to the minimal extent. Again it exploded. My instinct outweighed reason, and I threw the stove. It landed underneath my tent fly.

“No!” I screamed as I dove towards it, swiping the stove away. I fell onto the edge of the fly and forced it down, ripping stakes out of the ground on the opposite side.  

“You’re on fire!” my friend said eagerly. I saw the flames in my peripheral vision. My torso was enshrouded in fire. I writhed in panic. Sticks and shrubs scratched and poked me as I rolled onto them. Finally, the flame was extinguished. That was the last time I ever tried cooking on a trail.

While Backpacking
Notorious New York Bear Cookie

The encounter I had with Cookie at the Fingerboard shelter in the Hudson Valley of New York may be the most cinematic happening of all. Less than twenty-four hours after I was dropped off alone on the trail and saw my first group of bears of the whole trip, I was stalked by another one of these notorious predators. I emerged from my tent in the morning, and until I looked up from behind the tree I scouted to pee behind, it was just like any other. 

Cookie stood no more than ten feet from me; she sported a bulky collar that’s placement could have only been facilitated through tranquilization. I seemed to be the first to notice her. The other campers had yet to react. I abided the bear-encounter protocol, exaggerating my stature by hoisting my arms over my head and bellowing. Cookie thought little of it.

She circled my campsite, assuring I remained the center point of her scavenge. As I continued to try to scare off the predator, others at the shelter joined in on the efforts. Hikers at a distance rolled rocks toward the bear, trying to spook her. It made little difference.

The bear finally strayed from my site, only to return moments later. After a few more circuits she presumed on the downhill path to sites farther away. She startled those of the campers whom were still sleeping and vanished into the distance. A hiker who saw the encounter from a distance called the New York forest rangers. A man in uniform with a shotgun strapped to his chest showed up ten to fifteen minutes after the bear wandered off. We described the bear and what had happened.

“Yup. That was Cookie,” he said.

Writing this post intrigued me to do some research. I found two articles on Cookie, one from 2014 and the other from last year. She’s apparently quite the nuisance in Herriman State park, and environmentalists are desperately trying to avoid the necessity of lethal intervention. You can read about Cookie here:

https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/rockland/2020/07/14/harriman-state-park-ny-what-happen-cookie-bear/5438960002/

The Shenandoah Bear Thief

While Backpacking

From Official Boot Camp for Stoners Manuscript:

“Dammit boys,” said Flapjack. “Outta chew.” He flicked the empty tin and stuffed it back into his sack. We were at a spacious stealth-site that I had spotted on the east side of the trail. We sipped down a few tallboys that we had picked up at a wayside a couple miles back and ate our dinners before settling into our inevitable postprandial comas. I unzipped my tent to make my final entry as Flapjack tested a couple trees to hang his food. He was unsuccessful.

This was a task my friend and I never took upon ourselves to do, and perhaps should have. If there was a bear box, or designated metal boxes to protect food from these predators, we would both use it, but there were no bear boxes at these unofficial sites only formed by years of past hikers scoping out the same flat and unvegetated plot. Flapjack was finally able to get the rope over a low-hanging branch.

“Guess that will have to do,” he said. The bag was only seven or eight feet above the ground. I pictured how easy it would be for a bear to stand up under the stuff sack and manipulate it down. He kicked his shoes off and hopped into his hammock. “I mean hey. At least if a bear gets it, I’ll have an excuse to go into town and get more tobacco.”

My watch read 7:52 a.m. when I caught the first peep of daylight. I heard scuffling. I assumed it was Flapjack. Inside always woke after me.

“What the freak?” said Flapjack. I yawned as I swung my legs out my tent door. Flapjack stood in dismay, gaping. “No fucking way.” I popped my head out and saw him holding only a rope. There was no bag in sight. “It actually happened. But there’s no nothin’. No food scraps. No wrappers. No remnants of the bag. Nothin’.” He and I began shuffling around the site, searching for any remains. A large, black moving figure caught my eye. It was no more than twenty feet away.

“Welp,” I said, pointing at it. Flapjack looked over. “There’s the bear.” It was no bigger than the one I saw at the Fingerboard Shelter. I could see my Inside Out’s feet and arms hitting the walls of his tent. He opened the door and plopped out.

“Where?!” he said, looking more exulted than frightened. I pointed. He stared. It ambled towards us and then away then back towards our site again. We made noise in attempt to spook it. I clapped loudly. 

“Get out of here ya dumb ol’ bear! Get!” yelled Flapjack. A sinking feeling set into my gut as the bear’s behavior so sinisterly mirrored that of the one which nagged me in New York. It continued foraging until it was out of sight and did not reappear. What bothered me so much was I felt our presence made no difference, as if the bear had its route and was going to presume regardless of what we did or what noise we made. At least this time if I was going to have to fight, I was not going to have to do it alone. 

“Well that’s one way to finally see one,” said Inside. 

“Chu-yah,” I replied with a breath of relief. 

“I bet you she came in the middle of the night. Took my food. Downed it maybe a mile away. Was back this morning for more. Dang gon’ boys. I told you they were everywhere,” said Flapjack. A few miles down the trail was a gap where U.S Highway 33 crossed a road that led into the community of Elkton five or six miles west. We hitched a ride into the town and Flapjack picked up a sum of impromptu food from a gas station. Sure enough, he got his tobacco.

Getting Followed by Hunting Dogs

While Backpacking

Though it’s less than four percent of the trail, Georgia will remain one of the more memorable sections of the AT for me. It was steep as hell. That’s one detail surely not to slip my recollection, but there were also hunters with questionable ethics.

They were hunting for bears. I didn’t ask them (I have no interest in hunting). The northbound hiker who tied one of these lost dogs to a tree did. On occasion I would pass the hunters. They were normally in groups of three or more, sporting bright-orange jackets, staticky radios, and shotguns that were strapped to their chests. None of these dogs were close to their owners.

The Plott Hounds traipsed the trail freely. The antennas hoisted from their bulky collars were the only things tethering them to the wide-jawed hunters. They seemed to stick to the trail, and people. One followed me for two miles. Each dog was equally emaciated, and this may be an understatement. I don’t know how these canines mustered their drive. They looked cadaverous. They would eat when they found a bear, I assumed.

Sure enough, the dog was tied to a tree next to a dirt road. It looked lost, thirsty, hungry, tired, and hopeless. I felt awful. I rummaged through my food to see what I could give it. I had some trail mix to spare. The dog happily accepted my offer. A jeep rolled up in a cloud of dry dirt. A man with a bulbous stomach struggled to get out of the driver’s seat, and with no hesitation, untied the dog from the tree and guided him into the back of the Ford and into a covey of other malnourished dogs.

“So what happens when the collars die?” I asked. 

“It happens,” he said. 

I try to not lecture others on morals, but if the stipulation of possibly leaving your dog abandoned to fend for itself in a dense forest for the slim chance of catching a prize game is worth it to you, you are heartless.

Falling on a Rock Slide

While Backpacking

The ridge walk around Apache Peak is unequivocally the most perilous trail I’ve ever walked on. Not only were there ominous snow chutes where one misstep could cost a hiker their life, but a notorious rock slide with a rope for navigation also stood to be circumvented.

I grabbed the rope and pulled it tight, making sure there was no slack. A few boulders stood in front of a safer trail. I pulled back firmly on the rope and took steps onto the first rock. My foot slipped, and I plummeted several feet down the slide.

If I were to live, it would only be by the generosity of a deity. I caught myself for a second, grasping a loose hold of a knob. Rocks of all sorts slid down the steep slide as I tried to find footing. I had lost the rope, but it was still in reach. I extended my hand and squeezed it, pulling myself up one precarious step after the next, trying desperately not to look down. Cautiously I scrambled over the remaining rocks. Next time, I would be more careful.

The Counterculture Commune

While Backpacking

Though a hippie getaway is not my go-to vacation, I was glad I experienced this one. The Deep Creek Hot Springs, 300 miles into the PCT, is a marvel for most hikers. Several tubs with natural hot water abut a prominent gorge, attracting tourists and outdoorsmen from far and wide. The site is known to be a party scene, but because of the miles visitors have to hike to reach the springs, hauling alcohol is not ideal. This leads other drugs to be the primary socializer, drugs like hallucinogenic mushrooms, acid, and marijuana. Oh—and nudism is the norm.

Pressured by the circle of hikers that accompanied me, I spent a full day at the springs. In this time, I met some of the most eccentric and unconventional people of my life. Some were lackadaisical. Others were boisterous. I floated from tub to tub, meeting an array of people from different walks of my life.

A hiker I knew opted to DJ. To my aversion, an inebriated camper threw his equipment into the creek. I would say it was because of his dislike of the music, something that was expressed, but that would allow the illusion of him being a rational person, someone he was not on that day. We advocated for our friend, who wished to remain non-confrontational.

Getting Stuck in a Posthole

While Backpacking

After a few days in the Sierra, postholing was a new occupation. Take a step, sink, retract, take another step. This was the formula. On the descent of Glen Pass, I went to retract on one of these steps, and to my horror, I was stuck. A couple of hard tugs to follow were to no avail. My foot had slid underneath a rock, and the hole gave me no room to wiggle out. I tried not to panic as I used my pole to scrape out snow. It did not work.

After about a minute of being stuck, I realized I had limited time before frostbite and hypothermia would come to seal my fate. Miraculously, in an otherwise desolate park, a hiker approached from behind.

“Just relax man,” he said. “We’ll get you out.” 

In unison, I tugged my leg as he pulled my backpack. On the third repetition, I was free. We hiked the rest of the way to camp together. His name was Michael. He was a U.S. soldier, and he may be the only reason I’m alive today.

The Sierra Bear

While Backpacking

I was camping alone one night in a low canyon of The Sierra. I sat on a rock, devouring my tuna wrap and peanut-butter dinner. I faced the trail, which was no more than thirty feet from me. To the north, the trail was hidden by a bush. To the south, it connected to a nearby stream. A Cinnamon Bear came walking down the trail southbound from behind the bush. It saw me. Looked me in the eyes. It ejected a jarring huff and sprinted over a hill to the west. It was the biggest bear I had ever seen. I estimate that it exceeded 400 pounds.

Hiking Through 24 Miles of Freshly Burnt Forest 

While Backpacking

In 2020, the Feather Fire charred twenty-four miles of the PCT south of Quincy. When I took on this section in June of 2021, no maintenance had been done yet. I ran into a crew that was scouting the damage, but that was the most progress of revitalization to happen. This required me to scamper up and over countless trees on steep ledges, blackening my body from head to toe in the process. Each step I took was one into ash and char. Few plants showed any signs of life. My walk through this section was dismal and somber. This year, fires reemerged in the area, expanding the burn even farther.

The Deer that Stole My Pole

While Backpacking

With the craze of backpacking sweeping the nation, more and more people are taking on trails. Some of these enthusiasts are well equipped and educated. Others, not so much. When hikers choose to feed a wild animal, they contribute to a perpetual pattern of human reliance that can ultimately lead the animal to lose its natural survival skills. In other words, it may be adorable to watch a deer eat out of your hand, but this act that may seem benevolent is actually detrimental.

With deer becoming increasingly accustomed to people, they become audacious. In this audacity, many of them have discovered an affinity for salt. And they’ll do anything to get it.

Some deer in northern California have learned to travel from one campsite to the next, searching for places where hikers have urinated. Once a spot is identified, they’ll chew on the dirt for hours, tonguing one clump of dirt after the next before spitting them out and scooping the next salt-absorbed pile. But pee is not their only fix. 

One afternoon not far from Seiad Valley, I stopped for a lunch break at a tent site. One of these tame deer circled the site in hope of getting its next salt lick, I could only assume. My gear was placed next to me, resting against the log I sat on. I thought little of the deer. After all, it was a harmless doe. This quickly changed when the deer deep-throated my pole handles. They were propped against a pine tree across the site. I hastened towards the mammal.

“No!” I screamed. 

It ran off, the poles hanging swiftly from its mouth. “This is it. This deer is going to run off with my poles,” I thought to myself. After a few cycles around the tree, the pole baskets caught on a rock, stripping the pole from its mouth. The slobber-drenched handles didn’t dry until the next day.

It may be notable to mention that the deer presumed to follow me three miles to camp, where it posted for the night and fed on the salt of my urine. On another occasion, a group of deer poked their heads under my tent-fly in the middle of the night, brushing up against the vinyl siding in their inquiry.

The Oregon Hell Mosquitos

While Backpacking
Result of not being able to clothe my lower leg

If asked, most PCT hikers could tell you about the most bug-ridden section they walked through without question as to where it was. For me, it was a ten-mile stretch just south of the junction to Elk Lake in Oregon. An otherwise flat and leisurely stretch, this was ten miles of bug hell. I laugh now when most people complain about mosquitos, something to which I’ll haughtily reply, “What mosquitos?” 

Here’s the deal (as Joe Biden would say): If you stripped a man of his clothes and threw him into this territory to fend for himself, I would give him no more than thirty-six hours to live. The shrouding of bites would lead to sepsis, which would surely lead to death. So, yes, these armies of mosquitoes were lethal. Because we did not know about the adversity ahead, we camped halfway into this hell.

The temperature exceeded eighty degrees, but we covered as much skin as possible. I had only shorts, so I drenched my lower legs in Deet. It did little. As soon as the tent was set up, I got in, shoes on. A downpour would have been easier to contend with.

It’s hard to describe how bugs can really be that bad. But trust me. They were bad, bad enough to not wish even my worst enemy to have to hike through that cesspool-infested forest. Never have I been motivated to hike faster. One thing I know for sure, after those two days in the mosquito-infested territory, is that we, humans, do not rule this world. Bugs do. And they can strip any brute of his sanity and strength.

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Published by Nicholas J. Devlin

I'm a freelance writer from western Massachusetts. Horror, comedy, and all the unholy things my parents told me to stay away from are my favorite. Oh and I like the outdoors. boomsplayground.com/ fulldarkfever.com

7 thoughts on “Craziest Things I’ve Experienced While Backpacking

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