There’s getting close to nature, and then there’s getting infested by nature.
Spend enough time in backcountry trail shelters and, sooner or later, you’ll probably get to experience the latter.
That’s because if there’s anything that likes a lean-to or Adirondack better than a tired, boot-worn, hungry hiker, it’s an opportunistic mouse.
Not every shelter has them. And not every shelter has them all the time.
But they’re out there, and the more popular and more heavily used a shelter is, the more likely mice are to frequent it.
Two types of mice in particular are common.
First, there’s the ubiquitous deer mouse. They rank as the most widely distributed mouse around anywhere.
Stay in one of the main trail shelters around and you may encounter a deer mouse.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
“Deer mice occur throughout most of North America and are abundant in most areas,” says the U.S. Forest Service. “Deer mice are distributed from Quebec and New Brunswick west to Yukon Territory and southeast Alaska; south to Baja California and through the Sierra Madre to southern Mexico; south in central Texas to the Gulf of Mexico; and south in the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia.”
Second, there’s the white-footed mouse. It looks a lot like a deer mouse, but its range is smaller, although not by a lot. They live in the eastern two-thirds of the United States.
Both are usually 7 inches or less in length, counting their tail, and weighing less than half a pound.
But boy can they be a pain.
They have the potential to spread disease, for one thing.
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, or HPS for short, is something that impacts men, women and children. It’s contracted by breathing in or coming in contact with infected mouse droppings or urine.
Symptoms, which include fever, fatigue and muscle aches, can take one to five weeks after exposure to manifest themselves. It caused the death of several people in Yellowstone a few yeas ago.
Still, fear of the disease is not reason enough to stay away from the outdoors or shelters. Most people probably don’t even know what it is. Fewer still have ever been affected by it.
But it is something to be aware of.
“While HPS is a very rare disease, cases have occurred in all regions of the United States except for Alaska and Hawaii,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The more likely, and more immediate, problem with mice in backcountry shelters is that they’re greedy little guys. Really greedy.
Trail shelters are great on backpacking trips, but sometimes contain mice.
Photo: Everybody Adventures
You’ve seen signs, probably, on trailheads and in campgrounds, warning you not to feed bears or leave food where bears might find it.
Well, mice are just as voracious. If they weighed 500 pounds, they’d be hell on wheels, too.
So if you’re going to stay in a shelter, it pays to think about the mice that may be sharing your space.
Here are some tips for dealing with them.
At home, the Centers for Disease Control recommend cleaning up mouse droppings with rubber gloves, bleach and the like. You’re not going to have that on the trail.
But many shelters have brooms. They’re OK, so long as used correctly.
Wet things down a bit before sweeping if possible, before or after running if through your filter, to minimize dust. Either way, avoid breathing in whatever dirt gets kicked up.
Mice and other rodents are attracted to food. So – just as you might when there are bears around – cook somewhere other than where you’ll be sleeping.
Set up your stove on a stump or log outside the shelter, for example. Then, if you have a chance of clothes, put them on before going to bed, securing the things that smell of dinner in your pack.
Pack food away
If you’re in bear country, you’re already suspending your food at night in a bear bag or putting it in a bear-proof canister. Be sure to hide it from mice, too.
Some shelters have what they call “mouse mobiles.” They’re basically a piece of rope hung from the shelter roof, with some kind of pan in the middle. You hang your food bag or pack on a knot below the pan.
The idea is that mice can’t get around it and into your food.
Leave zippers open
Mice don’t let something like a zippered backpack pocket or coat pocket keep them from getting at food they think is inside. And there’s not a lot worse than waking up to find a mouse has chewed a hole through your pack to get at what’s inside.
So if you must leave your pack on the ground, leave zippers open. If a mouse really wants in, he can get in and out without damaging anything.
Separate your trash
Remember we said mice are greedy? They’ll go after the smallest of crumbs.
Tuck an empty wrapper from a granola bar or candy bar in a pocket sometime and see if a mouse finds it. Spoiler alert: they will. So put anything that even smells of food aside, away from where you’ll be sleeping.
At home, the best way to keep mice out of food is to store it in sealable containers. Those aren’t usually trail friendly.
But there are companies that make rodent-proof bags for hikers. Grubpack bags are one popular example. Get bags for everyone on the trip or one larger common bag that can store everyone’s food together overnight.
None of that guarantees you won’t encounter mice.
But there’s nothing that says you won’t be dealing with mosquitoes or ticks or bears or raccoons either. It’s called nature, after all. And hiking and backpacking are wonderful ways to explore it.
So get out there and have fun, but be smart about it.
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