Trail Shelters and the Hantavirus Threat, by Zac T.

There are a number of fantastic hiking trail systems within the U.S. The
Appalachian Trail alongside the East Coast, the Continental Divide through the
Rockies, and the Pacific Crest along the West Coast immediately come to mind,
just to name a few. And if you’ve ever spent a considerable amount of time
backpacking through one of these trail systems, you’ve probably passed a
prepared shelter or two.

Your typical trail shelter is essentially three walls and a roof, meant to
really just get you out of the wind and rain. Should you be placed in a
survival situation and opt to go bug out in the woods, wouldn’t a trail
shelter make the perfect home base? It’s already built, they’re typically
built near a running water source, they’re certainly secluded, and many of
them even come with an outhouse!

Who wouldn’t want to grab one of these great shelters as quickly as they

Unfortunately, there’s also a downside to trail shelters. As I mentioned,
they’re really nothing more than three walls and a roof, and though that may
do a good job of protecting you from the elements, they do a very poor job of
protecting you from critters and creepy crawlies. In reality, shelters tend to
be notorious places for woodland animals to congregate thanks to the ready
supply of food and trash that irresponsible backpackers leave behind.

From my own anecdotal experience, I can personally attest to this fact.
I’ve spent many a a night sleeping in the woods, and have yet to have a
favorable experience with sleeping in a trail shelter. When sleeping in a tent,
I have privacy, I am ensured that I’m not sharing my living space, and I know
that I’m not laying down in filth. When sleeping in shelters, I’ve been
attacked by an army of baby skunks, have felt mice repeatedly run across my
legs, watched bats fly two feet from my face, been woken to black bears looking
for free grub a few feet away, have had to deal with other people’s trash,
and have listened to the sweet melody of mosquitoes nibbling on my ears all
night long.

It’s honestly not a pleasant experience.

However, the most dangerous part of the journey is not the animals or bugs,
it’s the viruses that they can leave behind. In particular, hantavirus.

Hantavirus is an especially nasty little virus that is carried by some
genera of rodents, with mice and rats being the main culprits. Early symptoms
include fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, and dizziness. As the infection
progresses, eventually the lungs begin to fill with fluid and the patient will
have difficulty breathing. If not treated quickly enough, death can occur as
the patient slowly suffocates to death.[1]

With readily available medical treatment, the risk of serious complications
or death is greatly diminished. However, we are discussing a survival
situation! Superior medical treatment isn’t going to be available during this
type of situation, so you need to ensure that you know about hantavirus.

Within the U.S., deer mice, white-footed mice, rice rats, and cotton rats
are the predominant carriers of the virus, depositing infectious material every
time that they pee or poop. Humans become infected by breathing in aerosolized
particles of hantavirus, by being bitten by an infected rodent, or by touching
droppings, urine, or nesting materials and then touching their eyes, nose, or

Unfortunately, mice and rat droppings, urine, and nesting materials are very
often part of the home décor at most trail shelters. Should you decide to
claim one of these shelters during a survival situation, odds are that you’re
going to do what you can to clean the place up a bit to make it more like home.
However, sweeping can readily spread hantavirus particles throughout the air
that you’re breathing. Even if you decide not to clean out the cabin, I can
virtually guarantee you that there are going to be mice that have made
residence there, and considering the fact that all it takes is one mess up to
become infected, staying in a shelter overnight quickly become unappealing.

“But don’t people sleep in shelters all the time?” you ask.

Yes, they do. I’ve done it too. But this doesn’t mean that this is the
best idea. Currently, hantavirus within the US has a case fatality rate of
approximately 38%, and backpackers are at an increased risk of catching the
disease.[1] Why? Because they have a
greater risk of being in contact with mice and rats, and typically that happens
from time spent in infested trail shelters.

Let me give you an example:

My buddy and I had hiked 17+ miles one day, and were absolutely exhausted.
We didn’t make camp until twilight, and by that point, all we wanted to do
was just lay down and rest. Setting up our tents was too much work, so we opted
to just sleep in the shelter instead. We didn’t know that the place was
infested with mice.

It was terrible.

There were mice nibbling on clothing behind my head, running across the
rafters, tramping across our chests, and pitter-pattering their way across the
floor all night. One particularly mischievous little fellow somehow managed to
find his way down the rope where we had hung their bag, and then proceeded to
play with a noisy candy wrapper all night long.

Yes, we made it through without getting hantavirus, but we most certainly
played the odds that night. I don’t want to do that again. Had we retired in
the wrong spot, had we swatted at the wrong mouse, had we placed our hand on
the wrong spot on the floor and then rubbed our eyes, then we could easily have
been infected. That’s all it would have taken. Fortunately, we made it out
fine. Still very sleepy, but fine.

Unfortunately, others have not had the same outcome.

Back in 2012, a group of hikers were trekking through Yosemite National
Park. 10 visitors were infected, and 3 of those 10 actually died from
hantavirus. The majority of those infected are believed to have contracted the
virus while staying at the Signature Tent Cabins. One other patient probably
was exposed to the virus while staying at the High Sierra Camps.[2]

Hantavirus infection does happen, and you have no way of knowing which
shelter is infested with it, and which is not until after the fact. You have to
take preventative steps with this virus.

So, what can you do to prevent hantavirus infection while bugging out?

Well, the first and easiest thing that you can do is to prevent your
exposure to the virus. You can do this by avoiding rodent-infested
areas, and in this case, that’s trail shelters.

Personally, I just don’t believe that they’re worth the risk. Sure,
they’re already there and readily available, but that convenience comes at a
cost. You’d be much better off just packing a tent out with you and staying
in that. Should it absolutely come down to the wire, and I had no other source
of shelter and was about to freeze to death I’d have no problem with staying
in a shelter, but there’s a risk-versus-rewards analysis that you need to
perform in your head here.

Secondly, protect your food supply from rodents. On the trail, I do this by
hanging every bit of food that I’ve got in a bear bag at least 20 feet off
the ground. Anything else that potentially smells like food goes up there too,
such as toothpaste, soap, and the like. Mice are incredibly smart, and will
find a way to gain access to your food supply if you are not careful, and when
they do, they’ll be depositing all kinds of nasty little germs all over your

Third, if you absolutely must clean out a rodent-infested area, there are a
few precautions that you should take. NEVER use a broom. Brooms aerosolize
infectious material. The same thing applies to vacuums. If you need to clean
out an area where rodents are present use a wet mop or towels moistened with
disinfectant.[3, 4] Next, make sure that you’re wearing some form of latex gloves when cleaning out areas contaminated with urine, nesting, or fecal material. I’d wear some form of respiratory protection as well, such as a N95 mask, just to be on the safe side.

If you don’t have these items, then I honestly would look into considering
other shelter options. Do you have a tent or tarp with you? Can you build some
form of shelter for yourself out in the woods somewhere that hasn’t been
infested with rodents? Be creative with your shelter options in this scenario.
Where there is a will, there is a way, and there’s nothing like a survival
situation to bring out one’s creative side.

In Conclusion

With hantavirus being a very elusive and mysterious visitor, you need to
think twice about where you are finding your shelter overnight. Though you may
live close to a great trail system, you have no way of knowing which trail
shelter is a tomb, and which is not. Be responsible with your prepping. Don’t
willfully lead your family into a place where their lives are at stake. Even if
it’s just yourself, there are still people out there who love you, and would
miss you terribly should something happen. I understand that sometimes risks
have to be made, but make sure that they are at least reasonable risks.

Odds are that you already have some form of bug-out bag. Why not include
some form of shelter in it, even if it’s just a tarp and rope. The extra
weight is well worth the benefit, and just might save your life.





[4] Heymann D. Control of Communicable Diseases Manual (20th ed.). p. 248.

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