Natural Hazards


 A Few Things for Trackers to be Aware of When in the Outdoors

  Most of us who spend time outdoors have encountered one or more of these in our travels. The plants and animals that can cause us difficulty vary by region. The ones pictured here are found on the west coast. These are good to be aware of, but fear of them should not limit you or cause you to stop going outdoors! It's always best to be armed with knowledge of the local plants and animals though.  


Poison Oak

Poison oak is a plant with three leaflets per leaf. The leaves can vary in outline. They can be wavy-edged, jagged-edged or smooth-edged. They lack hairs and the surface is usually shiny in appearance. Poison oak can grow as a bush, a vine, or a small plant. In early spring and late fall, the leaves can be red. The usual summer appearance is green.

The scientific name of Toxicodendron diversilobum identifies this plant quite well. "Toxico" refers to the toxic nature of the leaves. "Dendron" means "tree." "Divers-" refers to the diversity of leaf shape and outline. "Lobum" means leaf.

The leaves and stems of this plant contain an oil called urushiol. When this oil contacts your skin, it causes an allergic reaction. You can get mild itching, or a severe rash. It all depends upon your sensitivity to the urushiol oil.

Poison oak
                      with wavy edged leaves. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                      Cabrera 2008.

Poison oak plant with wavy-edged leaves. The "three leaves per stem" appearance will help you differentiate this plant from similar appearing ones.

Poison oak
                      with smooth edged leaves. Photo copyright by Kim
                      A. Cabrera 2008.

This poison oak plant has leaves with smooth edges. This illustrates how apt the name "diversilobum" really is for this species.

                    oak rash on my hand. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2005.

This is what the poison oak rash looks like when it reaches the blistering stage. Poison oak rash varies in severity depending on several factors. Your own sensitivity to the urushiol oil, the amount of skin exposed to the oil, how soon you washed off the oil after exposure, and if you spread the oil by scratching. You cannot get the rash by being exposed to someone else's blisters. Nor can you spread the rash on your own skin by scratching the rash. The oil is the only thing that can spread the infection. However, since it is invisible, you should make sure to wash any skin that may have been exposed as soon as you return from the field. Use cool water, because hot water causes your pores to open, which can allow the oil to get deeper into the skin. 

                      oak rash on my inner arm. Photo copyright by Kim
                      A. Cabrera 2004.

This is a poison oak rash on the inner arm. The rash lasts about two weeks. The first few days are the worst time, with itching and blistering. As the reaction begins to slow, the rash will heal. Hot water applied directly to the rash helps release histamines and allows you to get some relief from the itching for a couple hours. There are many commercially available creams and treatments for poison oak. I manage to get a poison oak rash about half a dozen times a year, even though I am very careful outdoors. It's just one of those things you sort of expect will happen if you are outside enough. :)

Poison oak berries. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2008.
Poison oak produces white berries such as these. These help you identify the plant in the absence of leaves.
Poison oak berries. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2008.
In late fall and early winter, there may not be any leaves on the stems, but you will likely see berries.
Poison oak red leaves at the end of summer.
                    Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
The leaves are green all summer, then begin to turn red.
                    oak red leaves at the end of summer. Photo copyright
                    by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
In the fall, the leaves fall off the plants after turning red.
Poison oak leaves turning red at the end of
                    summer. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
Leaves beginning to turn red in late summer.
                    oak red leaves at the end of summer. Photo copyright
                    by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
The leaves can still cause a reaction at this stage.
Poison oak shiny red and green leaves in early
                    spring. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
In early spring, the leaves appear red, then turn green. Shiny leaves like this can cause a reaction.
Tick. Photo
                    copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Ticks are found in leaf litter and many areas off-trail, where trackers like to go. All species of tick do not carry Lyme disease, but it is best to check yourself for ticks after each excursion into the field anyway. The tick above is a "dog tick." The deer tick is known to carry Lyme disease.

Tick on a
                    miner's lettuce leaf. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2008.

Ticks can hide in many places. This dog tick was on the back of a miner's lettuce leaf. If I had brushed against the plant as I walked by, the tick would likely have gotten a free ride!

Tick on my
                      skin. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.
A dog tick on my skin. This one caught onto me when I was walking through tall grass.
Wasps and Bees
                    wasp nest. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Yellowjacket wasps make above-ground nests like this out of paper they make themselves from natural materials. They chew up leaves and make a pulp, which they then use in the construction of their elaborate nests. Inside there is a structure that looks like a honeycomb. Wasps will defend their nests from any perceived threats, so be careful around them.

Yellowjacket wasp nest in tan oak tree. Photo
                    copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2002.

This yellowjacket wasp nest was built at the end of a branch on a tan oak tree. Yellowjacket wasps can become very aggressive if their nests are disturbed. Unwary people who stumble into their nests can be stung many times before they realize what happened.

Yellowjacket wasp sting on my elbow. Photo
                    copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This is the beginning of swelling following a yellowjacket wasp sting. I didn't even see the wasp that got under the sleeve of my shirt. I didn't know it was there until it stung me near my elbow. The photo was taken moments after the sting. The skin shows some swelling beginning and redness spreading from the area. Ice is a good treatment for it. If you are allergic to stings, you should carry an "epi-pen" with you. These self-injecting pen-sized devices can save your life if you are allergic and go into anaphylactic shock from a sting.

Paper wasp entering underground nest. Photo
                    copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This is another kind of wasp. The paper wasp builds underground nests. Watch for wasps flying into and out of small holes like this one. This nest was at a summer camp. Notice the stick broken off in the hole? A child decided to try to plug the wasp nest hole and got stung for his efforts. Don't go near these nests and don't stick things into the entrances! There are sprays designed to be used on these nests if one needs to be removed. Paper wasps can be very aggressive in defending their nests.


Honey bees are well-known for their sting. If you know that you are sensitive to the sting, it is best to carry an "epi-pen" with you while outdoors. Bee stings can cause anaphylactic shock and death in those who are allergic. The epinephrine in an epi-pen can help stop the reaction and can save your life.

Bears, Mountain Lions, and Coyotes

Bears, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, and bobcats all get a bad reputation from a few isolated incidents. Your chances of actually being attacked by one of these animals are less than your chances of being struck by lightning. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions though. Always be aware of which of these predators live in the area where you will be tracking.

Mountain Lion

Generally, these animals are active mornings and evenings, the times when their prey are most active. However, they can be about any time of day. If you encounter a cougar, don't run! You can stimulate the animal's instinct to chase. Instead, slowly back away, while maintaining eye contact with the cat. Try to make yourself look bigger by standing up tall and opening your jacket. Don't bend over to pick anything up. If you are bending over, you take on the outline of a four-legged animal, which means prey to a hungry cougar. People have driven off cougars by throwing rocks and shouting. Cougars normally hunt deer. Deer are their main prey species, but they also hunt small mammals. The few isolated attacks on humans make big news and get lots of headlines, which feeds a sort of "cougar paranoia." Your chances of even seeing a cougar are remote because they are naturally reclusive and stealthy. Seeing their tracks is thus a treat. Be cautious in mountain lion habitat, but don't let the media hysteria over cougars keep you from enjoying the outdoors.

Black Bear

Generally, black bears are not extremely aggressive. Bears that have been conditioned to getting food from people, such as from raiding garbage cans, can become more aggressive than wild bears who have a natural wariness of humans. This is because they become habituated. They learn from experience that they can spend time around humans and not be hassled. Thus, if someone tries to intervene between a bear and a dumpster food source, there can be trouble. Wild bears, who do not have the extensive human contact experience, are usually more prone to running away at the sight of a human. However, in your travels outdoors, how do you tell which bear is which? Of course, you can't. Thus it's best to be respectful around bears and let them go their way. If you meet one on a trail, give the bear room to get away and try not to make it feel cornered. It should leave on its own. A bear might get curious, however, and attempt to approach you. If so, you can make loud noises, throw rocks at it, bang on pots and pans if you are in a campsite. Do anything to make it feel unwelcome. Don't ever try to take food from a bear though. If one gets into your campsite and refuses to be driven off, you should back off and get help from park staff. The bears that exhibit this sort of behavior have learned it over time and do not act the way bears that haven't been conditioned would act. They can be unpredictable. If you are in a campground with bear problems, you should take every precaution to properly store your food so you don't attract bears. Wild black bears have a diet that is 90 percent vegetable matter. They are omnivores and can eat just about anything, but their natural diet includes a low percentage of meat. Dietary preferences depend on the season and availability of certain food types.

Black bears learn quickly and respond to "re-education" attempts by humans. I used these techniques to educate a local bear about dumpsters. I used an air horn, slingshot, and pots and pans to make it feel very unwelcome whenever it came near the dumpster. The dumpster was replaced with a bear-resistant model. The camp where I work installed bear-proof food containers for the campsites as well. These are the sort of re-education measures that bears respond well to. If you properly store food and waste, you will limit negative encounters with bears. Understanding, respect, and learning about their behavior are the best ways to get along with bears in the outdoors.


Coyotes are known to live in areas very close to humans, even adapting to life in major cities. Coyotes are intelligent and quick to adapt. They have been known to hunt domestic pets, and there have been isolated attacks on humans. Coyotes are opportunistic and will live well in the city or in the wild. If you live in coyote habitat, make sure you keep pet foods indoors at night and have tight-fitting lids for garbage cans. Don't leave out anything that will attract a coyote. Coyotes in the wild tend to avoid humans. If you do encounter a coyote on a trail, give it room to depart and try not to make it feel cornered. They aren't usually extremely aggressive toward humans. The ones I have encountered on trails have all turned around and run away. The one that didn't was one that was content to feed on apples in an old orchard and ignore me. If you feel threatened by a coyote, use the same techniques as you would for a mountain lion.

                    skinned newt underwater in summer. This is the
                    non-breeding form. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera

The rough-skinned newt is poisonous to humans and animals. The only predator that can eat the rough-skinned newt is the garter snake, which has developed a tolerance for the poison in the newt's skin. People who have eaten these newts have died. A small amount of the poison can sicken or kill an adult human. If you handle newts, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Some people have reported contact dermatitis from handling these newts, although this varies with individual sensitivity.

                      skinned newt warning predators. Photo copyright by
                      Kim A. Cabrera 2006.

The rough-skinned newt uses its bold orange coloring as a warning to predators. It's a warning best heeded, as their skin is very poisonous. This newt has the long, flattened tail and smooth skin of the breeding form.


Mosquitoes can carry the West Nile virus. When you are outdoors, use insect repellent with DEET in it. Mosquitoes are a fact of life when you are camping or hiking, so make sure to bring the repellent whenever you go out.

Mosquito. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera
A mosquito preparing to bite my leg!



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Updated: March 25, 2018.