Out on the trail, I regularly run into two kinds of hikers: those who are hoping to have some animal encounters, and those who decidedly are not. I fall somewhere in between. I enjoy seeing wildlife on the trail, even potentially dangerous animals. However, I prefer these encounters to be from a safe distance, and I prefer not to be taken by surprise. Of course, that’s not always possible. Which is why you need to know how to behave around wildlife.
Animal attacks on hikers are rare, although they get a lot of attention when they happen. You’re more likely to die in a car crash than from an attack by a wild animal. Nevertheless, you should do some research before you head out on a trail so you know what animals you may encounter. And keep in mind that even generally innocuous critters like deer, grouse and chipmunks can behave aggressively, depending on the circumstances.
When I was trekking along the Superior Hiking Trail one June, a mama grouse charged at me repeatedly because her babies were nearby. That same trip, a groundhog – perhaps rabid – would not let me pass, hissing and gnashing its long, brown teeth at me. During a hike in Big Bend National Park, a galloping stag nearly ran into me when I rounded a curve on the edge of a cliff. For the next minute or so, it kept racing away from me, then back toward me, as it tried to figure out how to get past me without falling off the cliff. It eventually managed to scramble past along the sloping rock on the opposite side of the cliff edge.
Remember, those are mild-mannered animals. Our hiking trails pass through land that’s home to more dangerous creatures like the alligators and black panthers found along the Florida Trail, and the rattlesnakes and Gila monsters of the Arizona Trail.
To help you safely navigate the woods, plains, prairies and swamps, here’s an introductory guide to safe wildlife meet-ups.
General Rules for Animal Encounters
Before we look at specific critters, here are some basic precautions regarding animal encounters.
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- Don’t get too close. Animals don’t like it when you invade their territory.
- Don’t feed them. Human food isn’t part of a wild bird or animal’s regular diet, and may be harmful. Plus, if everyone regularly feeds animals in a given locale, they become used to it and may start ransacking backpacks and tents in search of “people food.”
- Never touch an animal. Yes, some people actually try to do this! Touching a wild animal may result in a bite, sting, scratch or worse. And petting a baby may bring on the wrath of its protective mama, who is likely nearby.
- Never attempt to interact with an animal. Don’t try to scare, provoke or coax an animal toward you. Wildlife can be quietly observed and photographed, but always should be left alone.
- Avoid hiking at dawn or dusk. Many animals are most active at these times, so stay off the trail if you can.
- Properly store anything with a scent. At camp, safely stash food, trash, cookware, toiletries, etc. in your car or a bear vault, sack or bag. If you don’t, you may attract unwanted visitors.
- Don’t wear headphones. It’s important to be aware of the sounds around you, which can indicate anything from a looming storm to a chuffing bear. If you must listen to music or a podcast while you hike, leave one ear uncovered.
- Make noise. Animals don’t like being surprised. If you’re hiking with others, you’re probably making enough noise for wildlife to hear you. But if you’re solo, occasionally create sound by yelling, singing or blasting tunes. Many people believe wearing bear bells is helpful, but studies are inconclusive as to their effectiveness. Most experts believe your voice is the best noisemaker.
Encountering Black Bears vs. Grizzlies
Hikers in the U.S. may encounter one of two types of bears: black bears and grizzly bears. Both black bears and grizzlies range in color from blonde to black. But black bears are smaller than grizzlies and have a straight back and facial profile. Grizzlies are larger and sport a shoulder hump, concave facial profile and small, round ears.
Like most wild animal encounters, both grizzlies and black bears will generally leave you alone if they become aware of your presence. But never get anywhere near their cubs, as the mother is almost always nearby and will be quite protective. Yellowstone National Park recommends staying at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears if you spot them.
Grizzlies and black bears interact differently with humans, so it’s important to know which one you’ve just met. A general rule of thumb regarding how to handle an actual attack is enshrined in this saying: If it’s black, fight back. If it’s brown, lay down. Here’s what you need to know.
How to Handle Black Bear Encounters
Black bears can be found in at least 40 of the 50 states and most of Canada. While you’d expect to find them in places like the Upper Midwest, New England and the Pacific Northwest, they also live in southern states. I encountered many on the Florida Trail, for example. If you spot a black bear …
- Back away slowly.
- Get your bear spray ready.
- Pick up any food you have out and carry it with you.
- If the bear moves toward you, draw yourself up large by raising your arms and trekking poles. Make a lot of noise and throw objects at the bear to scare it off.
- Toss the food at the bear if that seems to be its interest.
- If the bear attacks, use your bear spray, aiming at the face/eyes, and fight with rocks, sticks, your trekking poles, etc. If it still comes after you, aim punches at its eyes and nose.
How to Handle Grizzly Bear Encounters
- Back away slowly. Do not make eye contact.
- Get your bear spray ready.
- The bear may try a bluff charge, which involves bounding around while making a huffing sound. Its ears will be up. Talk to the bear in a soothing, friendly tone. Do NOT turn and run, or it will see you as prey. If the bear retreats after a bluff charge, continue backing up.
- If the grizzly is about to attack, its ears will flatten against its head, which will be lowered. Now is the time to use your bear spray, which research shows is extremely effective. Know your spray’s range; products may have a 5- to 35-foot (1.5 – 10.7 m) spray range. You don’t want to spray too early.
- If you don’t have bear spray or it doesn’t deter the animal, play dead. Lay on your stomach, covering the back of your neck with your hands and protecting your face with your elbows. Place your backpack between you and the bear, if possible. If the bear rolls you over, try to get back onto your stomach.
- Don’t get up too early if the bear leaves. It may still be around and attack again. So play dead longer than you think is necessary.
How to Handle Snake Encounters
Snakes encounters can be tricky, since there are so many different kinds of snake and not all of them are venomous. And while rattlesnakes are easy to identify due to their signature rattle, others are not – especially if you don’t hail from snake territory, like me. But whether or not you stumble upon a venomous or nonvenomous snake, here’s what you should do.
- Back away slowly and quietly. Give the snake plenty of space and stay calm.
- If the snake doesn’t slither away, hike around it, giving it a wide berth.
- If you’re bitten:
- Stay calm. Lots of activity may cause the venom to move through your body more quickly.
- Clean the wound with soap.
- Get off the trail and to a medical facility as quickly as you can.
How to Handle Deer or Elk Encounters
When it comes to animal encounters, deer and elk aren’t too threatening. But as I noted in my example above, they can be, depending on the circumstance. If you spot a deer or elk …
- Give it space and back away, if necessary.
- If a deer charges, run away or climb a tree or other tall object. For an elk, duck behind a tree, boulder or other large object.
- If you can’t run away from a deer, play dead.
- If you can’t escape the elk and it knocks you down, get back up and keep running.
How to Handle Moose Encounters
Moose can be dangerous because they’re not as afraid of humans as deer are. They’re also quite a bit larger. Their most dangerous feature is their hooves, not their antlers. If you run into a moose …
- Give it space, especially if it has a baby nearby.
- Consider changing directions, especially if it appears nervous by your presence.
- Speak to it quietly and softly as you move away slowly.
- A moose preparing to attack typically exhibits certain signs, such as laying back its ears, raising its hair, tossing its head, urinating, smacking its lips, clicking its teeth and/or lowering its head.
- If a moose charges, run and hide behind a large tree or boulder. A charge is often a bluff.
- If it knocks you down, curl up in a ball with your hands wrapped around your head to protect your noggin and vital organs, as the moose may kick or stomp on you.
- Don’t get up until the moose moves far away.
How to Handle Cougar Encounters
Cougars, also called mountain lions, panthers and pumas, are pretty scary. But the good news is they’re secretive animals that aren’t often seen in the wild. And if they spot you first, they’ll generally disappear. Still, when you’re in cougar country – generally the American and Canadian West and Florida – avoid hiking after dark, when they’re most active. And if you do run into a cougar …
- Stop immediately. Running can make you appear as prey and trigger its instinct to chase and attack.
- Face the cougar and draw yourself up large. You want to appear as a threatening predator, not prey. Raise your arms and trekking poles, or even swing a jacket or other object above your head.
- Slowly back away, making loud noises or speaking firmly. Do not crouch down or run.
- If the cougar moves toward you or appears aggressive, shout and throw things at it. You want to appear dangerous.
- If the cougar attacks, fight back as aggressively as you can, using anything and everything you have: sticks, rocks, your water bottles or backpack, etc.
- If you have bear spray, use that first, aiming at the cat’s face.
While all of this may sound ominous, remember that attacks by wild animals are rare. You’re far more likely to be in an auto accident or suffer some other dire fate than being attacked on the trail. Still, being prepared is the best offense.