This sign is at the beginning of the 100 Mile Wilderness, the notorious one hundred mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Monson, Maine to Katahdin:
Of the 2,000+ plus miles of the Appalachian Trail, this may be the most ominous sign, aside from perhaps the warning message scribbled hastily on paper and affixed to the outside of a disgusting privy. Aside from that, this is the most threatening message, and it clearly conveys that the 100 Mile Wilderness should not be trifled with.
Planning for the hike certainly promotes success. Be sure to check out our backpacking gear checklist for the 100 Mile Wilderness to make sure you have the right gear. However, even the most prepared backpackers are at Mother Nature’s whim in the wilderness, and here are five ways that she could kill you in the 100 Mile Wilderness
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1. Drowning in a River – There is a lot of water in the 100 Mile Wilderness. In the mountain valleys, you will find that there are several streams and rivers to cross. Keep in mind that what Maine folks call “streams”, we (at least in North Carolina) would likely call rivers. In the summer months, when the snow melts, water comes rushing from the mountains and turns “streams” into raging whitewater. Crossing these streams can kill you.
With forty pounds strapped to your back, if you get a foot trapped in some river rocks in waste deep water and then lose your balance and fall over, the white water could pin you to the river bottom as it rushes over you. Next thing you know, you’re doing pushups on the river bottom trying to get free. And before long you’re breathing cold mountain water.
You can reduce this drowning risk by unbuckling your backpack around water so that you can more easily slip out if needed.
For crossing the rivers, you also need to think through footwear. Injuring your barefoot on rocks would not be cool in the 100 Mile Wilderness. A pair of Crocs will get the job done and dry out quickly so that you can wear them around later that day at camp.
Whatever shoe you choose, make sure you can slip out of it quickly in case it gets stuck between rocks. Trying to untie a stuck shoe three feet under flowing water would be precarious.
Also, a pair of trekking poles can come in handy to keep balance. If you need a pair, check out this article from REI on choosing the right hiking poles.
2. Lightning Strike – Of course, death by lightning strike is rare. But I would bet money that the odds of being struck by lightning dramatically increase when you’re standing atop a mountain ridge line above tree line, when you are the tallest thing by five feet for one hundred yards in either direction.
I was nearly killed on an exposed ridge above Cloud Pond in the 100 Mile Wilderness. I had waited out the storm in the valley. It came and went, and I climbed onto the granite peak. The lightning strike blasted the rock, and it struck so close that it knocked me off my feet.
Don’t mess with lightning. If you’ve got thunderstorms in the area, which often happens in northern Maine in the summer, be cautious about crossing open ridges because, of course, lightning could kill you.
3. Falling- Hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness involves climbing steep mountains, crossing slippery swamps, and scrambling across boulders. Slips and falls are among the most common types of injuries. Falls often result in minor injuries and a little embarrassment, but on occasion a hiker might fall and sprain an ankle, break a bone, and, in some cases, die.
I met a highly experienced backpack in Maine (just outside of the 100 Mile Wilderness actually), and he had fallen forward on a steep decline down a creek bed and fractured his ankle. A seasoned hiker, he had already thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Though he dragged himself a quarter mile on a broken foot, he was discovered by another hiker and awfully embarrassed to eventually be carried out by wilderness rescue volunteers.
I tell you this brief aside to show that even experienced hikers fall. Accidents happen. Falls turn deadly though when head injuries are involved. Deaths caused by head injury have been reported on the Appalachian Trail, and unfortunately it’s hard to prevent such accidents. Gravity + Wet + Rocks + Fatigue + Backpack = increased risk of falling, so be careful out there.
As mentioned above, trekking poles can really come in handy for keeping and regaining balance on the trail. If you decide you need a pair, check out this article from REI on choosing the right hiking poles.
4. Exposure– The 100 Mile Wilderness, like the rest of Northern Maine, has basically two seasons: summer and winter. The winter is cold, like really cold, like -10F cold, which to me is absurdly cold. You’d never find me hiking in that weather, but hopefully if you are you are well prepared and experienced for winter camping.
On the other hand, the summers can be oppressively hot at one time and surprisingly cold at another. Hypothermia as a result of cold kills 1,500 people a year, and hyperthermia (occasionally manifested as heat stroke) kills hundreds more each year.
In the 100 Mile Wilderness, you will get wet. There’s no question about it. You’ll cross icy cold rivers of snow melt rushing from the mountains. You’ll be wet from sweat, or wet from the swamps. One way or another, you’re getting wet. In cold snaps, take extra precautions to keep a dry pair of clothes and dry sleeping bag. Should you get hypothermic, the dry clothing and sleeping bag could save your life.
To keep your sleeping bag dry, consider stuffing it in a lightweight dry bag. A heavy trash bag could certainly work as well, as long as you make sure it is folded correctly to keep water out.
Also, make sure you have a lightweight space blanket to keep you warm in a pinch.
If you’re in the 100 Mile Wilderness and it is oppressively hot, sweat will pour from every pore on your skin. Sweat will drip like a rain gutter from your chin.
Though water is prevalent in the 100 Mile Wilderness, I highly recommend carrying a large 100oz CamelBak because the ease of use and large capacity help encourage frequent water consumption.
Stay hydrated my friend, lest you wither in the sun.
5. Drowning in the Swamp – Drowning is a serious and often overlooked danger that can kill you while backpacking, so I figured I’d hit it twice. Here is another instance how drowning could play out. Through several trail sections in the 100 Mile Wilderness, you will find that the trail is blazed right through a swamp. In some places, there are hundreds and hundreds of yards on “bog bridges”, trees cut in half and laid flat face up, end to end as a foot bridge.
Imagine you’re walking along these slippery wooden bog bridges. You’re all alone in the beautiful green forest, whistling and walking along. You slip and fall and crash face first into the water and mud. Your backpack fills with water, and with water weighing 8 lbs/gallon, your forty pound pack suddenly weighs over a hundred. And, to your great misfortune, the backpack is cinched tightly to you by your sternum strap and waist belt. You’re squirming in the muddy water, trying to unclip your pack, but you’re pinned in the water and you drown.
Deaths on the Appalachian Trail are rare, but the 100 Mile Wilderness, with it’s challenging terrain and remoteness, can turn simple accidents and natural occurrences into life threatening situations, so be careful out there.
One last thing, as a reader pointed out, people have killed people on the Appalachian Trail. True, there have been a handful of murders on the Appalachian Trail over the decades. I focused this article on the Mother Nature aided possibilities for death on the Appalachian Trail, and specifically in the 100 Mile Wilderness. The 100 Mile Wilderness is remote, and some person would really have to go out of their way to murder a stranger out there in the remote wilderness. I suppose it could happen, but, as always, I do not encourage hikers to carry guns on the Appalachian Trail.