The woods may be lovely, dark and deep, but they are also full of dangers, dangers that might spell certain death for an unwary prepper.
Considering how many preppers espouse running off to the woods to live off the land and rough it for a few days when bugging out, one should best make sure that they are not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
There are many threats in the forests of the world, some are hostile wildlife, some are terrain hazards, and still others are ones that you carry with you.
You don’t necessarily need to be afraid if you are traveling into the woods, but you must be prepared, with your eyes wide open, constantly on the lookout.
An injury or mishap that might not be too serious in the middle of civilization could be a death sentence when you are far, far away from other people, and help in the shade of the forest canopy.
Hopefully, this article will give you a leg-up on what dangers await you so that you do not have to discover them the exciting way, which is in the middle of a largely unknown forest with the sun getting very low in the sky.
Table of Contents
Woodland Travel is Always Risky
You will not find every threat on the list of dangerous things that await you present in every single forest or every country around the world. There is simply too much variation between biomes and ecosystems.
But, chances are you will find a significant representation of at least several of them present in every, single forest around the globe. A few threats are endemic to being inside a forest itself, threats that aren’t necessarily present elsewhere.
Every forest, no matter where it is, will have its own specific terrain hazards and challenges that await, its own selection of dangerous organisms and toxic plants.
And no matter what forest you enter and how far you go a few threats will always come from within, and those are the ones you have to be super careful of; it is easy for them to sneak up on you.
Seasoned outdoorsmen will tell you that any given forest in a region has its own sort of tempo and characteristics. The rolling mountainside forests in the Smoky Mountains region do not look or feel very much like the ones in the Pacific Northwest.
There’s a great variety in terrain and plant life between those two woodland areas. Nonetheless, they each have significant dangers associated with them that are virtually interchangeable.
See to it when you are reading over the list of dangers below that you do not dismiss or discount one just because it is not explicitly present in your area
You never know what the situation might be where you could wind-up confronted with it elsewhere, or even close to home against all odds.
10 Dangers to Watch Out for in the Woods
10. Dangerous Mammals
You have likely known since you were a child that the woods are home to all kinds of majestic and, occasionally, very dangerous mammals.
Bears of all kinds, moose, mountain lions; each of these impressive specimens is more than capable of killing you if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time or you are just unlucky.
Knowing what regions these creatures inhabit in abundance and what their capabilities are as well as their signs is key if you want to avoid crossing one in a bad mood.
Some of the most dangerous woodland mammals in North America include:
- Bears – Polar bears lead the pack in lethality and attacks on humans, but all varieties of brown and black bears are more than capable of killing you, and have increasingly more contact with humans as the years go by.
- Deer – Common whitetail deer are responsible for a fair amount of human casualties each year, usually hunters, and not just by causing car wrecks when they freeze in the road! While majestic and gentle looking, those antlers are not for show!
- Moose – These jumbo deer are known for their bad tempers, especially during mating season, and when they have young nearby. They easily weigh over 1,000 pounds and males have impressively broad antlers.
- Wolves – Wolves have been the recipients of a positive PR campaign in recent years, and they are not much to worry about near civilization, but if you wind up lost and hurt or exhausted in their territory you will have a problem.
- Cougars / Mountain Lions – The largest feline in North America, and an especially gifted hunter. Attacks on humans are rare, but highly dangerous.
Most of us in North America are the most familiar with bears. There are two common varieties of North American bear, the smaller black bear and the larger brown, or grizzly, bear.
Lucky for us, preppers, no matter where you are and what you are doing out in the woods, bears are pretty rare compared to their historic numbers.
However, certain places have many more bears than others, especially mountainous areas in the west and northwest (brown bears) or the forests of the greater eastern seaboard and south (black bears).
Bear attacks on humans are fairly rare and deaths resulting from an attack are rarer still but they all have a couple of defining characteristics in common: people got too close to the bear without the bear knowing they were there!
Rousing a bear from slumber, coming between a mother sow and her cubs or surprising a bear working over a carcass is a great way to get charged and mauled.
Mountain lions, more properly called cougars, are the largest felines in the western hemisphere, with a range reaching all the way from Canada down to the Andes Mountains in South America.
These majestic big cats are the fourth largest feline predator in the world, and are infamous for their stealthiness and stalking skills.
Everyone who spends a lot of time outdoors knows somebody who has a story to tell about being stalked from cover by one of these slender predators.
Mountain lion attacks are even rarer than bear attacks but are no less ferocious and dangerous; most survivors will report never even knowing the cat was there before it was upon them, since they notoriously strike from ambush.
And then you have moose. Moose are the largest deer species on Earth, stand taller than a man at the shoulder and males sport impressively broad, sharp and stout antlers more than capable of skewering you.
Moose are not thought to be particularly aggressive, but you should consider the statistics: they attack humans more than bears and wolves combined, and are responsible for more casualties in North America than any other wild animal.
Especially during mating season, male moose can get aggressive thanks to the raging hormones trying to find a girlfriend, and females will become aggressive at any time if they feel their calves are threatened.
No matter what kind of moose is bearing down on you, you’ll have up to 1,500 lbs of goring, trampling fury to deal with.
It is in your best interest to learn the habitats, behaviors and signs of all of these animals if you plan on venturing deep into the woods.
A widowmaker is a little bit of forest parlance for detached or badly loosened branches, or even whole trees that have lost their moorings, and are tangled up overhead by other branches.
These insidious hazards can fall at any time, be at just from the wind, from other branches giving way, when an animal disturbs them or just for no reason at all.
These are always a serious threat in old growth forests where fungal infections can usually weaken large branches enough to see them snap off and hang precariously overhead for a long time until finally coming down.
Just imagine it: you are walking along through the woods, and with no warning and with barely any noise, a massive branch comes down upon you, striking you and if you are lucky only badly wounding you.
But now you are trapped deep in the forest with broken bones, significant blunt trauma, and no way to treat the injury. Do you have the know-how and the grit to make it all the way back, or push on to your destination?
This is assuming of, course, that you survived at all, since the power contained in a large branch that is falling from a significant height can easily kill you upon impact.
It is for this reason that you must take care whenever you are traveling through the forest, even along well-known and well-trod paths, and double your caution after any major wind event in the area.
You will rarely have any significant time to react to a falling widowmaker, but you definitely won’t be able to get out of the way if it crushes you while you sleep.
Always inspect any trees that you are preparing to camp beneath, and be double-sure that there are no branches or smaller trees tangled up in them just waiting to plummet to earth.
8. Steep Drops
Steep hills, drop-offs and sheer cliffs are just a few of the hazards that you are likely to encounter traversing the forests of the world.
Well-traveled trails, especially, will often be bordered on at least one side by a drop-off, winding as they do along slopes to avoid sharp ascents and descents.
You should never take these drop offs for granted even when moving along trails that you are very comfortable with, as all it takes is a loose bit of soil or rock, one misplaced step or a single slip and you will be sent hurtling, tumbling over the edge.
Falls of this nature have accounted for hundreds of confirmed deaths in the past decade just in national parks alone; that does not take into account falls of this type happening elsewhere. Injuries resulting from steep falls number in the thousands.
You don’t have to be one of them so long as you are careful, and respect the terrain you are in.
Falling down a steep incline is bad enough on its own, being very likely to result in blunt force trauma, concussions, sprains and broken bones.
But falling down the same slope that is studded with essentially immovable trees is far worse still since you are likely to strike one with terrible impact.
Even a comparatively minor fall down a slope is going to put you in a major bind as far as your survival chances.
Many hikers and outdoorsmen take a slip or tumble down a steep incline, only to find they cannot make their way back up again to the trail.
Trying to navigate their way out of the valley they are in they wind up lost or in a worse situation. Also, you need not assume you will not be injured by the incident oh, and now you’ll be racing both of the clock and also the pain and effect of your injury.
It rarely fails that when traveling in a group there’s someone that cannot resist the allure of clowning around or even horse-playing near the edge of a steep slope or a sheer drop off.
I highly suggest you cut people like that loose; no one needs that kind of needless risk in their life and if you dare the devil don’t be surprised when he calls your hand.
All kinds of snakes inhabit the forests of the world, and most of them are not dangerous to humans, at least more than incidentally. However, mixed in among these non-threatening snakes are venomous ones that can inflict debilitating, or even fatal bites.
Counted among their kind in North America are a variety of rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. Elsewhere in the world cobras, mambas and various other vipers make their homes.
In North America you can expect to run afoul of the following venomous snakes while in or near the woods:
- Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake – The largest venomous snake in North America, and one of the deadliest. Venom is hemorrhagic and lethal without treatment. Snake is known for injecting way more venom than needed to do the job, worsening your chances. Contrary to popular belief it will not always issue a warning buzz with its tail.
- Western Diamondback Rattlesnake – The smaller and slightly less lethal cousin to the eastern diamondback above. Venom is not quite as toxic, but causes severe muscle degradation and internal bleeding. It is easy to lose a limb to this guy, and is known for aggression and massive injections of venom.
- Water Moccasin – The infamous cottonmouth. A semi-aquatic snake known for speed and aggression. Often gives a threat indicator by raising to strike position, opening its mouth and hissing loudly. Can occupy fresh- or salt water and is usually found near swamps and marshes.
- Copperhead – A smaller venomous snake, the copperhead makes use of excellent camouflage and staying really, really still when threatened, increasing your chances of accidentally running afoul of it. Often strikes defensively without envenomating, and venom is not nearly as potent as rattlers’.
The danger of a venomous snake bite in the woods is comparatively high against other places, mostly because the snakes are so well adapted to their environment, and usually enjoy excellent camouflage.
Additionally, the typical way that people travel and move through the environment often means the hapless person will not even know the snake is there before making contact with it, almost always resulting in a bite and very often in envenomation.
While it is true that some snakes display dramatic and attention-getting threat postures like the rattlesnake’s infamous warning buzz that tells the rest of the animal kingdom to back off, they will not always engage in this posturing.
Some snakes, like the copperhead which is a type of pit viper, enjoy extraordinarily good camouflage among the leaves and detritus on a typical forest floor and, to make matters worse, instinctively hold very still in position when they feel threatened, meaning you’re even less likely to spot them than other venomous snakes.
Other times you may encounter a snake sunning itself on an overhead branch that you carelessly reach up to grab and steady yourself only to give the blithely unaware reptile a good squeeze, frightening it into biting you.
Flipping over a rock to clear your campsite or make yourself a comfortable stool could likewise reveal and surprise a snake in its home, and startled snakes typically react with anger.
Any envenomation by a snake is dangerous and warrants hospital level medical care, sadly something that will be unavailable while you are way out in the woods.
Any first-aid intervention for a venomous snake bite is only good for slowing the spread of the venom in the victim.
Trying to suck out the venom by mouth or with a device, or cutting open the bite site to try to drain the venom is a fool’s errand and likely to make the situation worse.
Considering that most venomous snakes have hemorrhagic or neurotoxic venom that will incapacitate well before it kills you, if you are very far out you might be in a lot of trouble…
6. Toxic Plants
If you have the skills and the knowledge, you will find that nature furnishes many of the things that we need to survive, and included among that bounty are nutritious and medicinal plants.
But as with so many other things, nature will not suffer the fool to live, and will never reward trust. Mixed in among all the many edible plants that are found in nature is a gallery of toxic ones, some of them incredibly so.
Eating the wrong plant may see you get very uncomfortable with a variety of symptoms, or it might see the darkness closing in on you, your last moments racked by organ failure, convulsions and searing pain.
Just a few of the beautiful but deadly plants that await the unwary:
- Manchineel – A flowering fruit tree native to Florida and the Caribbean, the entire tree down to the roots is extremely toxic, so much so that even rainwater dripping from it will causing blistering of the skin on contact.
- Oleander – A beautiful and common flowering shrub. Very common and highly poisonous. Incidental contact is enough to cause symptoms in children, but repeated contact or handling is enough to affect adults.
- Water Hemlock – A delicate and prolific plant, grows near water. Horrifically poisonous, ingestion causes seizures, coma and organ failure.
- Monkshood – A beautiful but sinister flower; toxin is absorbed through skin and cause asphyxiation.
To make matters worse, many edible or helpful plants have toxic lookalikes that require a sharp eye and intricate knowledge in order to discern the good from the bad. Many of them are beautiful, and can still make you ill with a touch alone.
Oleander produces beautiful pink or white flowers, but significant handling or ingestion can disrupt your heart function.
Water hemlock, also known as poison hemlock, is the most poisonous plant in North America and ingestion results in terrible seizures, coma and death.
Monkshood produces mournful looking purple flowers but even extensive handling can result in asphyxiation due to the absorption of alkaloid aconite through the skin. Some dangerous lookalikes will not kill you but will only make you wish you were dead.
Hydrangeas are often mistaken for other edible flowers used in salads and teas, but ingestion will cause copious sweating and cramping, blotchy, itchy skin and violent vomiting. Excessive consumption can put you in a coma.
Foxglove is another pretty perennial that can cause heart palpitations, diarrhea and violent cramping. Anthurium is a large and dramatic flower that causes blistering of the mouth and intense skin soreness.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention all the varieties of poison ivy, oak and sumac that most of us have had encounters with growing up or even as adults that can cause ferocious skin irritation and itching or even severe blistering that makes you vulnerable to infection.
Remind yourself that what is an annoyance in the middle of society might be life-threatening and its implications when you’re in the deep corners of the world.
5. Poison Mushrooms
Any outdoorsman who is experienced will tell you that the picking and eating of wild mushrooms without expert knowledge of what you are about to put in your mouth is like playing Russian Roulette.
Wild, edible mushrooms are a boon to a prepper who’s trying to make a go of it deep in the woods, either surviving for a period of time or merely supplementing what food stores they have brought with them.
Mushrooms contain ample amounts of calories, minerals and proteins, but a great many mushrooms contain dangerous or even positively lethal toxins that will spell certain doom if you make a mistake in your classification when out mushroom hunting.
Many of the deadliest mushrooms contain the potent toxin amanitin, found in abundance in such famously fatal fungi as the Death Cap and Destroying Angel. The much smaller but no less hideous Deadly Galerina is another fungus chock full of the toxin.
Those who have eaten these mushrooms can expect symptoms to kick in anywhere from 6 hours to a full day after ingestion, and can look forward to intense nausea, violent, spasmodic vomiting, severe cramping and bloody diarrhea.
Curiously, oftentimes symptoms will seem to recede for a time, usually after a day or two as the victim begins to feel better. Don’t be fooled; death from organ failure is usually not far behind this momentary respite.
Some mushrooms are not directly lethal if eaten but are no less problematic and can cause severe difficulty in survival due to second and third order effects, principally brought on by gastrointestinal irritation.
If you were laid low by severe vomiting and relentless diarrhea it is an easy thing for your body’s fluid levels and electrolytes to drop dangerously low. Aside from incapacitating you, this can lead to organ failure from dehydration and electrolyte shock.
To further complicate matters, some mushrooms retain their toxic properties whether or not they are cooked or eaten raw, where others may be rendered safe to eat, if unpalatable, if they are cooked well enough.
Unless you are absolutely, positively sure of what fungus you are harvesting and how it is best prepared, stay away from wild mushroom foraging as an option when you’re in the woods.
4. Swarming Insects
Chances are you do not need to be told to stay away from any kind of stinging, swarming insect hive. At least I don’t want you to risk it unless you are a beekeeper!
Almost all of us have faced the fiery, shooting, searing, painful retribution inflicted upon us by bees, wasps and hornets when we got a little too close to their nest or we just caught them in a bad mood.
For the majority of us this is a painful lesson in humility, and nothing more. A few of us are allergic, however, and might risk anaphylactic shock which can be life-threatening.
Nonetheless, unless you were really oblivious to the environment around your home most of these hives won’t get too big where you can’t deal with them yourself with a little shot of foaming insect killer.
Expect to run into the following in the woods:
- Yellowjackets – These yellow and black wasps are notoriously aggressive, and build compact paper nests above or below ground. Compared to other wasps and bees these little SOBs are most likely to sting you with no provocation and they can sting repeatedly and rapidly.
- Bald-faced Hornet – Chunky, smooth and pale, these medium sized hornets are only aggressive near their nest and associated territory, and forage far afield for food. Their stings are especially potent, and will swell and cause pain for more than a day.
- Paper Wasp – Sporting an obviously threatening red and yellow livery, paper wasps are comparatively docile compared to their yellow jacket cousins but will vigorously defend their nests which are shaped like paper umbrellas well up off the ground beneath overhead cover.
- Honey Bees – These helpful insects are important pollenizers that build nests, not hives, and can install them in all kinds of unique and out of the way places that are bound to be a painful surprise when you least expect it. Assuming you are not dealing with the far more aggressive and tenacious “killer” bee variety, if you give their nest a wide berth you’ll be okay. Bees can only sting once, but that is little consolation when a hundred more are right behind that suicidal attack.
That will not be the case in the deep woods, where insects have little to fear from mankind and few other natural predators, or at least predators that can wipe out their nest wholesale. Instead, it grows, and grows, and grows.
The result for any species, be it bee, wasp or hornet, is a nest that can reach impressive dimensions, and house a truly frightening amount of stinging, swarming insects from which you have no defense against once they become enraged.
If you are deep inside a forest, and have the misfortune to provoke an attack from a hive of insects you could be in big trouble.
Many swarms can scramble from their hives surprisingly quickly, and if you are unlucky enough to puncture or break open the nest they can get out even faster and will be looking for blood.
Even a healthy adult who is not allergic to any of the above venoms can be quickly overcome by the sheer amount of stings that will be piled on. This can lead to life-threatening complications, including anaphylaxis if you are not already allergic.
Stings to the face, eyes and throat can hamper your breathing even if you get away relatively unscathed.
The pain and swelling attendant with any insect sting can also cause cramping, hampering your ability to navigate and work.
What in normal times within the bounds of civilization might be merely inconvenient (and even a little bit funny in hindsight) takes on a terrifying and deadly connotation while you are deep in the woods.
You must pay attention using all of your senses when you are in the woods especially in the spring, summer and fall when insects are most active.
Listen for the droning buzz of swarming insects, and look for hazy movement that could indicate a cloud of the little critters.
Also pay particular attention to where you put your feet, since certain species like yellow jackets and a variety of hornets are known to nest in the ground and under stumps and fallen branches.
Literally kicking the lid off a football sized nest of yellow jackets will be a singularly terrible experience.
3. Dangerous Footing – Slick Surfaces, Water Crossings and More
Most forests almost have a reassuring aura about them, at least when it comes to walking through them. Solid rock and soil that is run deep with ancient roots seems to suggest a stability and permanence that most environments simply lack.
While it is true that traveling through your average forest is not quite as demanding an environment as scaling a mountain or crossing a treacherous desert, you must still be on guard and paying constant attention to where you are placing your feet lest you take a tumble.
In reality a forest contains all kinds of hazards for those that are traveling on foot. The shade and humidity provided by the average forest means all kinds of surfaces from rocks to fallen trees will become slick with dew and condensation.
Anyone, and I mean anyone who has been out hiking or just rambling in the woods for any length of time can tell you about a half dozen or more serious slips they have taken. If they are lucky that’s all they have been, with a tweaked knee or jammed finger, a painful reminder to pay attention.
But if you are unlucky, you’ll be facing a serious slip and fall in an environment where the ground is uneven and oftentimes covered with logs, branches and rocks of all sizes.
Any of them are perfect for snagging and breaking a limb or just dashing your head open on.
Once again what is a serious accident while you’re in your own home or in town takes on life-threatening significance in the deep country, and that goes triple if you are traveling alone.
There are plenty of other ways to get tripped up in the woods, too. Moss is almost always slippery, and will make any surface that it is growing on treacherous.
Dirt, leaves and falling twigs and small sticks can cover up animal burrows, ditches created by water, erosion or animals and other pitfalls that are perfect for breaking an ankle.
Many rocks can wind up covered by algae or other primordial slimes that are slicker than a greased pig in all conditions.
Crossing any but the shallowest or slowest rivers is often one of the singularly most dangerous things that any person will have to do out in the woods, oftentimes turning into disaster after being enticed across a fallen tree that looks like a tempting bridge, but is in actuality a moss and slime coated death trap.
Lastly, even the most regular, easy going trail is a far sight more challenging to navigate than the perfectly level, perfectly smooth hard surfaces of your home, the sidewalk or the grocery store. It is easy to trip or slip while you are in the woods.
It is an ugly thing to consider, but you won’t be entirely safe from the threat other people pose even in the deep, dark forest. It is possible that, wherever you go, you won’t be the only person out there. Maybe someone followed you.
Maybe someone was already there, trying to get away from the world, trying to hide, or just someone who didn’t fit in with the rest of society. If you are out for a hike on a marked trail chances are you’ll just be passing other hikers.
If you run into anyone else when you are truly off the beaten path, though, you must be cautious.
There have been plenty of anecdotal and official stories of hikers, travelers and outdoorsmen running into all sorts of strange, deranged and unsavory characters while they are out in nature for all kinds of purposes.
Believe it or not, robberies are a fairly common occurrence on marked trails.
You’re also disproportionately likely to run into someone who is more than willing to take advantage of the seclusion, lack of surveillance, and lack of witnesses to commit violent acts to someone else while you’re out there.
Especially in the middle of an SHTF event that might see other people like yourself, or not entirely like yourself, skittering off into the woods to ride things out, meeting a person who is desperate, scared and willing to do anything to survive could put you and yours in severe jeopardy, especially if you are well-equipped and they are not.
Ultimately, as with any other time and in any other place on the globe you can never turn your back on someone who is not completely within your circle of trust, and nowhere is that more important than out in the middle of nowhere, where there is no chance- no chance at all- of the cavalry riding to your rescue.
Of all the varied killers that you might encounter in the woods, of all the things that might hurt you or lead you to disaster the most insidious, and far and away the most lethal is the one you carry with you all the time: overconfidence.
Call it hubris, ego, cockiness or anything else, believing that you are too good or too experienced to make a mistake or screw up, believing that the route is too easy or that you have traveled it enough times to know it like the back of your hand is the most certain and swiftest route to injury and death that exists in the woods.
You cannot fool the forest, you cannot trick it. You will only be tricking yourself if you believe that you are the one who is too good to mess up, or too confident to get hurt while you’re out in the woods.
There are two demons that will stalk you into the woods, closing in on you as you proceed deeper and deeper into the gloom beneath the canopy. These demons are twins and go forth as a duo wherever they travel.
Their names are Complacency and Ignorance. Both are demons of your own making, and are the bastard sons of Overconfidence.
Complacency is the voice that whispers you don’t need to follow protocol. You don’t need to be that safe. You’ll easily circumnavigate that quick detour.
Go on and make that short climb or that short hop, you can do it. You can pick up the pace a little bit; you still have plenty of light left to see with. And on and on.
Complacency is what happens when you know better, but you choose not to or omit doing better. Complacency is especially dangerous because it only afflicts those who have the experience, skills and know-how to make, consciously, the correct choices while they are in the woods.
Ignorance is altogether different, but no less dangerous and, oftentimes, deadly. Ignorance is the voice that fills in the blanks. Ignorance is the blithe lack of awareness regarding the danger of a given situation, a given path, a certain plant or mushroom, or where a dozing rattler might be hiding.
Ignorance can be chased away with training, with study, with experience, but once you do that, there is always the chance that you might make a seat at the table for complacency…
It is absolutely imperative that you never get “too big for your britches” as a prepper or as an outdoorsman. The moment you start thinking you are too good to mess up, get lost or get hurt is the day when it assuredly happens.
Only iron discipline and a dogged adherence to your plan and safety procedures while in the woods will ensure you make it back out again.
The woods can be your best friend or your worst nightmare in an emergency situation or even on a pleasure outing, depending on whether or not you know where the risks and the dangers lie.
Heading into the deep forests of the world without the proper preparation and knowledge is tantamount to suicide; you will probably never come out.
But heading out with a complete understanding what you must avoid, what you must watch out for and what you must be careful of will ensure that not only can you survive your passage in the woods but thrive in it.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.