11 True Trail Terrors

Backpacking can be an anxiety-inducing experience for some folks. Common fears include bear encounters, lightning strikes, snowstorms, contracting giardia, getting lost, camping alone, and pooping outside. Scary, sure—but here are the things that should really strike fear in your trail-loving heart.

The Ghost of Poops Past

This particular horror takes two nightmarish forms. In one, you unsheathe your digging implement of choice and begin to excavate a small tomb for an impending, um, deposit, only to begin unearthing the dirty white skeletal remains of…used toilet paper. The alternate, yet equally terrifying version occurs upon picking up a rock, only to discover an insidious secret: the petrified remains of someone else’s turd.

The Twilight Zone

Do you know where you can find the real “dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity?” It is the stupidly massive distance, usually uphill and probably shadeless, between your current location and wherever you last saw your missing hat / tent stakes / trekking poles / stove / sunglasses / hiking partner / sanity.

Summit Goblins

In mountain ranges across the world, there exists a being more dastardly than the devil itself: the summit goblin. This evil creature acts as an alpine siren, luring you to the peak or pass ahead, only to produce a cleverly hidden and slightly higher peak or pass just in front of it—and then another in front of that, and another in front of that. If you listen closely, it’s possible that you’ll hear a hint of delirious laughter floating in the air as you forge ahead. Or maybe that’s just your hiking partner complaining about how much they hate false summits.

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Hiss of Doom

The otherworldly caterwaul of a mountain lion piercing the dead of night? The hungry growl of a bear poking around the rather insubstantial fabric of your tent while looking for a handout? Nerve-wracking, yes, but neither of these sounds compare to what is surely the most terrifying of all to any slumbering backpacker: the slow, haunting hiss escaping from a microscopic, impossible-to-locate thus impossible-to-fix hole in your inflatable sleeping pad.

Pee Sprites

At precisely 3am, you will feel a soft pressure low on your abdomen, which you will ignore, because it is very cold outside and you are in a semi-catatonic state. After some time, however, the feeling grows more urgent and sleeping on your stomach becomes impossible, which you will also ignore—sort of. After even more time, your legs instinctively cross and squeeze tighter and tighter as you roll from side to side until first light, when you finally cave in to the relentless taunting of the pee sprite, like, four hours after it first woke you up.

Electronic Tricks

Imagine this: a long weekend or even a week of backpacking bliss, spent deep in the backcountry, far removed from the spoils of civilization. Ahhhh…relaxing, right? Until you pull out your phone to take a photo of the sublime sunset on your first evening only to realize that you never put the damn thing on airplane mode, so you’re already at 20% battery life thanks to your phone’s vain search for a signal over the past ten hours.

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Toxic Spills

Sure, it sucks when you forget to lock your reservoir valve, or when you get sweaty sunblock in your eyes, or when pee backspray hits your dirt-caked leg to form a sort of putrid mud mask, but the most toxic spill of all? When you twist off your bear canister lid only to discover that its contents are coated in a slick of exploded olive oil or a bloodbath of leaked hot sauce.

The Spine-Chilling Squat

Many people experience poop anxiety in the outdoors, but that sense of dread is pushed to the max when you realize that the perfectly angled fallen log throne you’ve so carefully chosen—and that you’re currently squatting against in mid-action—is actually in full view of a group just below on the trail. The only thing worse? Finding perfect cover…in a patch of poison oak. Shivers.

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Campsite Ghouls

At precisely one hour past hiker midnight, you’re awoken by a loud crash: the campsite ghouls have arrived, and they do not care that you must restore your mind and body for tomorrow’s twenty-mile, 5,000-foot-gain day. Instead, they will proceed to loudly rustle through their backpacks and set up their tent two feet away from yours—just close enough so that when they finally do lay on their very noisy ultralight sleeping pads, it sounds like they’re snoring directly into your waiting ear.

Hunger Games

There is perhaps no more bone-chilling occurrence than reaching into your backpack to scrounge for a snack only to realize that you’re down to one thick, bland, inedible energy bar—you know, the one that’s there “in case of emergency.” Or when you realize that you’ve only packed oatmeal for breakfast. Or penalty potatoes for dinner. Or realizing that your only fuel canister for the entire trip is sitting on the kitchen canister back home. Or arriving back into town after a long hike just as the pizza parlor closes. The horror.


I mean—after all, as they say, “cotton kills.”

Photos by Shawnté Salabert—except the top photo. ;)