The Ohio outdoors is relatively tame, but there are still hazards that pose a danger to hikers and others who enjoy the outdoors. This is a continuation of my prior article; Hazards of the Ohio Outdoors: Part 1. I’ll discuss additional hazards and how to avoid them.
Weather can pose a hazard to hikers. The most severe weather you’re likely to find in Ohio is a tornado. Fortunately, tornadoes effect a relatively small area, so your chances of encountering one during a hike is low. If you are in the open and have sighted a tornado, you should seek a ditch or other low area, lie down and protect your head with your hands.
A more common danger is wind storms and thunderstorms. We were hiking at Stroud’s Run when I heard the sound of thunder in the distance. You can calculate how far away a thunderstorm is, by the following simple formula:
distance in miles =
time (seconds) between lightning flash and thunder / 5
Thus, if I see a flash and count 45 seconds and then hear thunder, the storm is 45/5 or 9 miles away. At Strouds Run, I was timing the storm and could tell it was getting closer. We decided it was unwise to be on a ridge-line holding aluminum hiking poles during a thunderstorm, so we turned around. We were back at our car just as the storm hit. The National Weather Service says the best way of dealing with a thunderstorm while outdoors is to do what we did – get to your vehicle. If you can’t do that, avoid high ground, trees, water, and metal objects (like fences).
A related danger is wind. Other than a tornado, you are unlikely to be swept off your feet by a wind storm. But the wind storm might drop a large branch or even a tree on you! We were hiking between on the Buckeye Trail near Cedar Falls when a front came though accompanied by high winds and rain. We ducked into a nearby recess cave to wait out the wind storm. We could hear trees and branches crashing in the distance. After about twenty minutes the wind dropped off though it was still raining. We continued a half mile to our car. The trail was covered with twigs, leaves, and some places larger branches and and even trees had fallen. You don’t want to be in a forested area during a wind storm. In particular, you don’t want to be on a forested ridge-line, which will take the brunt of high winds. If you are on a ridge-line with relatively gentle slopes (no cliffs!) seek the side away (protected from) the wind.
Of course the best way to deal with weather hazards is to avoid them altogether. Check the weather forecast before you go. I like to look at the hourly forecast and Doppler weather radar on one of the weather forecasting sites on the web, such as:
On the go, or on a camping trip, you can check these sites via a SmartPhone. Alternately, you can get a small portable radio that picks up NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts. I have a small one that easily fits in a backpack. I’ve used it on camping trips to get weather reports in areas with no cell service.
One more weather danger to be aware of is flooding. When I was in college, I went camping with a group of friends. One group arrived early to set up the camp site. The rest of us arrived after dark and they’d already set-up tents in a relatively flat area. It started raining later that night and we discovered the flat area was a dry stream bed. Nobody was hurt, but we ended up having to tear down a very wet camp site and leave in the early hours of the morning.
Occasionally you’ll read about campers having to be evacuated from camp sites in gorges and valleys when a local river floods. Be aware of bodies of water, terrain, and weather forecasts when situating your camp site.
Plant & Fungus Hazards
Ohio has two common plants that can cause skin rashes (or worse if you’re allergic) on contact: poison ivy and poison sumac. We’ve written an article with information about these plants which you can find here. Learn to recognize and avoid these plants.
The other hazard is poisoning by ingestion. Most people don’t go around eating forest vegetation. Not so with fungi – some state forests permit mushroom hunting. In particular, morel mushrooms are highly prized. The problem is that some mushrooms will make you very sick and a few will make you very dead. If you choose to collect wild mushrooms, make certain you can distinguish tasty mushrooms from deadly ones. Or do like I do – confine your mushroom hunting to the aisles of the supermarket.
A new species of invasive plant has appeared in Ohio; the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). So far, it is only found in northeast Ohio near the Pennsylvania border. The plant’s sap is a phototoxin, When skin is exposed to the sap, in the presence of sunlight, it can cause inflammation, and even severe blistering. If it contacts the eyes, it can result in permanent blindness. The casual hiker is not at great risk to exposure, but anyone working in forests, or clearing fields should be aware of this new hazard. I’ve provided links below, with more information and photos to help identify Giant Hogweed.
The most hazardous critters in the state are the smallest ones. Ticks and mosquitoes can carry deadly diseases. Ticks carry a number of diseases including the potentially debilitating Lyme disease. We wrote an article about ticks in Ohio here. Mosquitoes can transmit diseases such as West Nile Virus and encephalitis – which have caused deaths in Ohio.
We wear chemical repellents when we go hiking. DEET will repel both mosquitoes and ticks. We’ve found the regular grade DEET is not effective against some mosquitoes and have switched to much higher concentrations (available in local and on-line outdoors stores). We have experimented with treating clothing with Permethrin, particularly socks. In theory, Permethrin will kill ticks on contact. Finally, always do a tick inspection when you return from the woods. Removing a tick quickly reduces your odds of contracting a nasty disease.
Ohio has a number of venomous spiders. In particular the black widow (Latrodectus variolus) and the brown recluse(Loxosceles reclusa) pose hazards to humans. The formers bite can produce pain and muscle spasms. The latter can inflict bites that destroy surrounding tissue.
The brown recluse is relatively shy, and found near buildings. This spider is a web builder and may bite if disturbed or threatened. Similarly, the black widow is often found near abandoned buildings, as well as under rocks, and logs. Avoid these spiders and if bitten, seek medical treatment.
Some caterpillars have stinging spines that are poisonous. The most poisonous of these are found in South America and can prove fatal. Ohio poisonous caterpillars will at worst create a painful skin rash. Which Ohio caterpillars are poisonous? There’s a link below listing Ohio stinging caterpillars, but I just avoid touching all caterpillars while hiking.
Ohio has three species of venomous snake – two varieties of rattlesnake and the northern copperhead. We also have the eastern hog-nosed snake which is non-venomous, but will try to convince predators that its a deadly venomous snake. Deb has a article (see below) with pictures and descriptions of all Ohio snakes.
Ohio venomous snakes are generally non-aggressive and prefer to flee if possible. Rattlesnakes will attempt to warn potential predators with their rattle. If the snake feels in immediate jeopardy (e.g. you’re about to step on it), it will strike.
If you hear a rattlesnake rattle while hiking, determine the location of the snake and step away. When hiking in an area with venomous snakes (southern Ohio – particularly Shawnee State Forest), you should:
- Be aware of your surroundings – watch / listen for snakes
- Take care when clambering on rocks – watch where you put your hands and feet
- When crossing a downed log, step on top of the log first, and then over, rather than just stepping over the log. If there is a snake under the log, this will put your foot farther away from the snake
- Carry a cell phone – in the event you need to call for help
If you are bitten, you will need to seek medical help and obtain anti-venom. If possible, visually identify the snake or take a picture of it. Do not try to capture or kill it – you could provoke another bite. Conventional wisdom now says suctioning out the poison is pointless and can cause more damage to the tissue. I’ve removed my snakebite kit from my backpack. Step by step directions for snake bite treatment can be found here and in the link below.
Finally, be aware that, on average eight snake bite deaths occur in the entire United States each year. The last snake bite death in Ohio occurred a decade ago, and that was someone who was keeping a venomous snake as a pet (not a good idea).
Should you pick up that cute raccoon that’s stumbling towards you in the woods? No! Unusual friendliness in a wild animal (approaching humans) and walking off balance are both possible symptoms of rabies. If you handle wild animals, you put yourself at risk of contracting rabies. The good news is rabies can be cured (if caught in time). The bad news is that you won’t enjoy the treatment (multiple shots with a big needle). Let wild things be wild – don’t go picking up wild animals in the outdoors.
By the early 20th century, large predators had been extirpated from Ohio. Since then a few have returned from surrounding states. Today we have coyotes and black bear. My family has encountered coyotes late at night while camping at Tar Hollow. Deb, our daughter Dee, and our 75 lb dog Penny encountered coyotes that had ventured into our camp site. The coyotes turned and left quickly. I was in the tent and slept through the whole encounter.
Black bear can be considerably more aggressive. Fortunately, they are still extremely rare in Ohio. Do not keep food (or garbage) in your tent. The smell can attract bears. In Ohio, it’s more likely to attract raccoons while you’re away from your tent – and you don’t want that either. Out west where bears are more common, people hang bags of food from trees (often with two ropes) or store them in special bear proof containers away from the camp site.
If you encounter a bear on the trail:
- Stay calm – do not run. Running away will signal the bear that you are prey
- Make noise to let the bear know you are there
- Raise you arms to appear bigger
- Back away slowly and leave the area
One last tip – don’t jump. Years ago if I was hiking and the trail continued over a four foot drop to a stream bank, I’d just jump down. I no longer do that, since reading a hiking site that pointed out the danger of straining or spraining an ankle. If you spent three hours hiking and then sprained your ankle, it will take you a lot longer than three hours to hobble back to your car. Now, I gently climb down the drop.
In summary, when you venture into the forest:
- Be mindful – be aware of your surroundings and evaluate risks. Military people call this “situational awareness”.
- Be prepared – be ready to deal with hazards – carry water, a first aid kit, and a cell phone
- Don’t panic – don’t let a few hazards (in many case rare occurrences) scare you out of the outdoors. Fresh air and exercise are good for you.
One of our readers e-mailed us concerning another common hazard. Here’s the scenario: you’re out hiking late and the sun sets before you get back to your car. It gets very dark in the forest at night, especially on a moonless (or cloudy) night. If you don’t have a flashlight you’ll be hard-pressed to find the trail back. If part of the trail is adjacent to a cliff edge, you could be looking at a dangerous situation. Plan your hike so you are finished before dark. But also, plan in case your original plans go wrong.
I carry a spare LED flashlight in my pack. It takes a single AA battery and is fairly bright. I use an AA lithium battery with it that has a very long shelf life. I also carry spare NiMH AA batteries for my cameras – which in a pinch, I could use in the flashlight. In addition, I carry a couple of chemical luminescent light sticks. Snap them, shake them and you’ve got light for eight hours. So far, I’ve not found myself on the trail after dark – but I’ve had a couple of close calls.
- Ohio.gov: Tornado Safety
- National Weather Service: Lightning Risk Reduction Outdoors
- ODNR: Common Spiders of Ohio (PDF)
- CDC: Venomous Spiders – guide to bite symptoms and treatment
- Field Biology in Southeastern Ohio: Stinging Slug Caterpillars, OUCH!!
- TrekOhio: Snake Species of Ohio at a Glance
- Treating rattlesnake bites in the field
- Jim McCormac: Encounter with Eastern Hog-nosed Snake
- Penn State ExtensionRabies — Wildlife Outreach Center — Describes behaviors that might be seen in animals with rabies
- U.S. Forest Service: Bears in Ohio & how to deal with a bear encounter
- OSU Extension Service: Giant Hogweed Fact Sheet
- Wikipedia: Heracleum mantegazzianum (Giant Hogweed)
- TrekOhio: Hiking with a SmartPhone