Wildlife Safety: Tips for Wild Animal Encounters on the Trail

black bear near trees
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Observing wildlife from a distance in its natural habitat is an exciting part of spending time outdoors. Seeing bison and elk roaming the plains or mountain goats scaling rocky peaks is one reason why many people decide to visit national parks and other natural areas. However, there are times when wildlife encounters are not so ideal. Some of these experiences can be frightening, like stumbling upon a bear and her cubs or hearing the unmistakable rattle of a snake when hiking on a backcountry trail. Knowing essential wildlife safety tips about what to do when you encounter wild animals will help keep you, others in your group, and the animals safe. In this post, we’ll provide you with guidance about what to do when you come across various wild animals on the trail, including rodents, racoons, bears, mountain lions, snakes, moose, elk, bison, wolves, and coyotes. We’ll also share tips on reducing your chances of an unwanted wildlife encounter.

General Wildlife Safety Tips

Before we get to the advice for specific animals, let’s go over a few basics about encountering any kind of animal in the wild. As the saying goes, prevention is often the best medicine. Follow the guidelines below to help reduce your chances of an unwanted animal encounter, and stay safe if you do bump into wildlife.

Remain calm and avoid running away from an animal. Sudden movements can spook animals and make them feel threatened, increasing the chances of an attack. Running away can send a message to predators that you are prey, causing them to chase you. Except for moose and elk encounters, you should not run away from a wild animal. Panicked running also increases the likelihood that you’ll trip and potentially hurt yourself.

Keep your distance. Most wild animals don’t attack unless provoked or threatened in some way. Do not approach or try to pet the animal, and give them plenty of space to reduce the chances of an attack or aggressive behavior. The United States National Park Service recommends keeping a distance of at least 25 yards (23 meters) from most animals and at least 100 yards (91 meters) from predators, including wolves and bears. If you notice the animals reacting to your presence, it’s a good indication that you are too close.

Never feed wild animals and dispose of all waste properly. Feeding wild animals changes their natural behavior and can cause them to lose their fear of humans or become aggressive. By avoiding giving them food, you are protecting the animal and yourself. It’s also important to properly store your food and dispose of waste. Wash dishes and cook food away from your campsite and use wildlife-resistant trash containers and food storage containers to prevent the smells from attracting animals. Use unscented soap whenever possible.

Familiarize yourself with the types of animals in a particular area and local rules and regulations before every hike. Each area is different regarding what animals you might encounter and requirements for dealing with them. Wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements vary from one place to the next, so make sure to plan ahead and come prepared.

Stay aware and observant. Keep an eye out for tracks, droppings, and claw or antler markings on trees, which could alert you that an animal is nearby. Avoid hiking or trail running with headphones since it prevents you from hearing what’s going on around you.

Make noise while hiking. Surprising an animal is more likely to make it feel threatened. If you’re in an area with bears or other potentially dangerous animals, make some noise while you’re hiking to alert them of your presence. You can do this by talking or singing loudly, clapping your hands, shouting a short phrase every couple of minutes, or wearing a bear bell (please note that experts say these bells are less effective than other methods). It’s also a good idea to make noise before rounding any blind corners.

Never separate a mother from her young. Most animals are very protective of their young. Make sure to avoid getting in the middle of them to reduce the mother’s chances of becoming aggressive.

Let a ranger or wildlife management organization know if you have a close call with an animal or see anything unusual. Letting them know about any strange animal behavior, a sick or dead animal, and any close encounters is vital. That way, the rangers can take any required action to help the animal and protect other people.

Hike in groups when possible. Hiking with others is a good idea for a lot of reasons, including protecting yourself from wildlife. By walking in a group, it’s easier to make noise to warn animals of your presence and make yourselves look larger to scare the animals off.

Avoid hiking at night, as well as at dawn and dusk. Many animals are most active these times of day, including bears, mountain lions, and moose. Hiking during the day when the animals are less active will decrease your chances of an unwanted encounter.

Keep children and pets close to you. Small children and pets are more likely to be seen as prey by animals. Keep them in sight at all times, and make sure to move small children behind you if you do see predatory wildlife.

Brown Fox Wildlife Encounter

Handling Encounters with Specific Animals

Now that you know the basic wildlife safety tips, let’s go over specific instructions about what to do if you encounter one of the following animals.

Rodents

Rodents are known for posing a nuisance to hikers and backpackers by gnawing through gear and getting into food, but they are also responsible for a large number of wildlife-related injuries and illnesses among humans.

In the US alone, rodents cause around 16,000 injuries to humans each year. Around 4,000 of those injuries are caused by mice, around 5,000 by rats, and around 3,000 by squirrels. Zoonotic diseases, including salmonellosis and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, are also a major concern with rodents. As a result, rodents pose more of a danger to humans than any other animal on this list. Even though mice and squirrels might look cute, don’t forget that they are still wild animals.

To protect yourself from injury and illness related to rodent encounters, take the following precautions:

  • Avoid sleeping anywhere you see rodent droppings, urine, or other evidence of rodent activity.
  • Do not touch or attempt to feed the animals if you see them.
  • Keep food, trash, and other scented items away from rodents and other animals. Never store these items inside your tent and do not leave them unattended. Use wildlife-resistant storage containers, such as a bear canister, a bear bag, or metal food lockers. If you’re using a wildlife-resistant food bag, you can hang it from a tree or pole.
  • Consult your physician or another medical professional if you are concerned about potential exposure to a rodent-borne disease or have symptoms of illness. Consult a veterinarian if you are concerned about a pet’s potential exposure.
  • Stay home if you feel ill. Humans are more susceptible to infection and disease when their immune systems are weakened.
  • If hiking with pets, make sure they are up to date on all vaccines prior to hitting the trails and do not let them get too close to wildlife or carcasses.
  • Practice good hand washing hygiene and thoroughly disinfect hands, utensils, equipment, and working surfaces if you suspect any contamination with soil, urine, or feces.
  • For activities like drinking, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, and preparing food, use only water from a designated potable source, or use bottled, treated, or boiled water.
  • If you don’t have access to potable water sources, come prepared with a water purification and filtration system. Filter your water and then boil it to kill potential bacteria, viruses, and parasites. If the water is clear after filtration, boil it for at least one minute. If it’s cloudy or has any type of debris after filtration, boil it for at least five minutes.

Squirrel on Tree Branch

Raccoons, Foxes, Skunks, Opossums, Bats and Other Small Animals

Small animals like racoons, foxes, skunks, opossums, and bats are also statistically more dangerous than the large animals in this article. Racoons and bats cause the highest number of injuries per year, followed by foxes and skunks. The biggest concerns with these types of animals are bites, rabies, and other diseases.

In the United States, racoons, skunks, foxes, and bats are primary carriers of rabies. Outside of the US, rabies is still common in dogs. Consider getting a rabies vaccine if you are traveling to an area where it is prevalent, since rabid animals are more likely to behave aggressively.

Regardless of where you’re hiking, make sure you know the signs of a rabid animal, which include aggression, strange behavior, excessive salivation or drooling, staggering or appearing wobbly, paralysis, and seizures. If you see an animal behaving strangely or exhibiting these signs, call a park ranger or other wildlife management organization immediately.

The same advice for dealing with rodents applies to other small animals. Keep your distance, do not try to pet or feed the animals, and keep food, trash, and other scented items away from them.

Wild Racoon

Snakes

Most snakes are not confrontational unless disturbed. Many species are not venomous and therefore of minimal safety concern. However, venomous snakes can pose a very serious threat to hikers and trail runners.

In the US, the most dangerous snakes to watch out for include rattlesnakes, water moccasins (also called cottonmouth snakes), copperheads, and coral snakes, while Europe has venomous vipers. Before hitting the trails, check to see if there are any venomous snakes in the area you’re visiting and plan accordingly.

Snake bites most often occur when hikers are careless or distracted. If there are poisonous snakes in the area, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with the snakes’ appearance and characteristics, as well as typical habitats. That way, you’ll know what to watch out for when you’re hiking. Keep an eye out on the trail ahead of you, and watch where you step. Snakes can easily look like tree roots or branches on the trail, so it’s important to look closely.

It’s also a good idea to hike with a walking stick or trekking poles. Since the stick or poles strike the ground first, it will alert the snake before your foot reaches that location, and it may slither away or warn you with a rattle. The poles can also be used to push away grasses or other vegetation covering the trail to get a better view.

If hiking in snake country, wear long pants, gaiters, and boots or shoes to protect your feet and lower legs, the areas where most bites occur. While these articles of clothing won’t prevent a bite, they can help lessen the amount of venom that reaches your body.

What to do if you encounter a snake:

  • Stay calm and stop moving when you see the snake. Try to get a good look at it to determine if it’s venomous or not. If you are not sure what kind of snake it is, take note of its appearance and remember what it looks like in case it bites you.
  • Back away as slowly as possible and seek an alternative path that allows you to give the snake plenty of space.
  • Most snakes can strike a distance equal to half of their own length. Keep in mind that if a snake is coiled up, it may be difficult to tell how long it is. As a precaution, give the snake at least two or even three times that amount of space.

What to do if a snake bites you:

  • If you have determined the snake is not venomous, treat the bite as a local wound and contact a physician to see if you require antibiotics or a tetanus booster shot.
  • If you have determined the snake is venomous or you are not sure, stay calm.
  • Check to see if the bite broke the skin. If not, it’s unlikely that you have any venom in your body. However, it’s still a good idea to wash the area.
  • If the bite did break the skin, wash the wound with soap and avoid moving around too much. Stay as still and relaxed as possible to keep your heart rate low and slow the absorption of venom.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet, cut the wound, or attempt to suck out the venom. These methods have been shown to be ineffective and can actually make the bite worse.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number for assistance. If you do not have cell service or another way of reaching someone, hike out to an area where you can get or call for help. If possible, have someone help carry you to limit your exertion as much as possible.
  • Get yourself to a hospital as soon as possible for evaluation by medical professionals.
  • If you are in the backcountry and far away from a trailhead, it’s best to stay where you are and use an emergency communication device to call for help. See our wilderness first aid article for additional advice on treating a snake bite, as well as other ailments.

Rattlesnake behind a tree

Bears

Black bears are found throughout the US and Canada and as far south as northern Mexico. They are most common in Alaska, the Appalachian Mountain Range, the northeastern US, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and Canada. Grizzly bears are less widespread than black bears, with their main habitats being western Canada and the states of Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington in the US.

Knowing how to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear is a crucial first step in staying safe during a bear encounter since the safety advice varies slightly between the two species. Black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare. Although grizzly attacks are also unusual, grizzlies are more likely to charge and injure humans, especially female bears who are protecting their young.

For either bear, it’s wise to carry bear spray and know how to use it. Keep it in an easily accessible place and have the spray ready when you see a bear in case you need to use it. Always keep your distance and retreat slowly and calmly to give the bear plenty of space. Keep an eye on the bear and never approach it. Be especially careful if you notice any cubs.

What to do if you encounter a black bear:

  • Directly stand and face the bear. Try to make yourself look as big as possible by raising and spreading your arms.
  • Make noise using anything you have that’s loud, including pots and pans or your trekking poles, and throw objects in the bear’s direction (not directly at it) to scare it off.
  • Secure any food you have in a bear canister and take it with you while moving away. If the bear pursues you and is obviously interested in the food, it’s okay to leave the food and continue backing away as a last resort.
  • If the bear approaches you, use your bear spray. The spray is most effective if used when the bear is charging towards you within 25-30 feet (7.5-9 meters).
  • If a black bear attacks you, do not play dead. Instead, fight back with your fists, sticks, rocks, or anything else you can find. Try to punch the bear in the eyes and nose.

What to do if you encounter a grizzly bear:

  • With grizzly bears, it’s very important that you don’t appear as a threat. Remain calm, back away slowly (as long as the bear is not approaching you), and avoid eye contact.
  • Do not run if the bear charges or approaches you. You must stand your ground.
  • Speak in a soft, friendly voice and prepare your bear spray.
  • Use your bear spray if the bear charges towards you within 25-30 feet (7.5-9 meters).
  • Keep an eye on the bear without making direct eye contact to observe the animal’s body language. If its ears are flat and its head is low, the bear is likely preparing to attack.
  • If the bear attacks you, play dead by lying flat on your stomach and covering the back of your neck with your hands. If you have a backpack, make sure it’s between you and the bear.
  • Keep rolling back on your stomach if the bear turns you over.

Brown Bear and Cub

Mountain Lions

Also known as cougars or pumas, mountain lions tend to be elusive and are very rarely seen in the wild. They are mostly found in the Western US and Canada, but there is also a small population of mountain lions in southwest Florida (this is a cougar subspecies called the Florida panther). These creatures roam from sea level up to around 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in elevation and are found in diverse ecosystems, including coastal forests, deserts, wetlands, and mountain habitats.

Mountain lions are territorial and cover a wide range, so you’ll likely only encounter them in large wilderness areas. Since mountain lions are nocturnal and most active at night, hikers in cougar country should avoid hiking after dark to minimize their risk of a run-in. When mountain lions encounter humans, they usually retreat – attacks are exceedingly rare.

What to do if you encounter a mountain lion:

  • Stop moving immediately. Do not approach the animal and do not run away.
  • Make yourself appear larger using your arms and a coat if you have one. If you see a tree stump, log, or something else to stand on, doing so can help you look even bigger.
  • Do not crouch down or bend over – the smaller you appear, the more likely it is that the mountain lion will see you as prey.
  • Maintain direct eye contact with the cougar and face towards it.
  • Place any small children behind you or in the middle of the group if you’re hiking with others.
  • Back away slowly and talk to the cougar in a firm but calm voice.
  • If it doesn’t back down or tries to approach you, throw objects in the cougar’s direction (not directly at it) to deter it from coming closer. The goal is to warn the animal that you are not prey and could pose a danger to it. If that doesn’t work and the mountain lion continues to move towards you, then you can begin throwing things at it, but try to avoid its head.
  • If the mountain lion attacks you, fight back. Stay on your feet if possible and use whatever you can find to fend off the animal. This could be sticks, rocks, trekking poles, water bottles, your bare hands, or anything else you have with you.
  • When mountain lions attack, they usually try to bite the neck or head, so make sure to face the animal and protect these areas. If you have a backpack, you can try to use it as a shield.

Mountain Lion on Rock

Moose

While moose may not have a frightening reputation like some of the animals in this post, they injure more people than bears and wolves combined. Moose are found throughout Canada and Alaska, in the Rocky Mountains, and in the northern regions of the US from Washington to Maine.

Since the animals are not typically aggressive, seeing a moose is usually a very exciting experience. However, it’s important to be aware of the potential dangers and know how to respond if you do have an unexpected encounter with a moose.

Moose are crepuscular animals and most active at dawn and dusk. Moose will defend themselves when they feel threatened. They are incredibly protective of their offspring and are therefore the most aggressive when females are raising their calves in the early summer.

What to do if you encounter a moose:

  • Since moose are enormous (a bull can weigh up to 1,500 pounds/680kg), you’ll likely spot the animals before they notice you. If that’s the case, remain quiet and try to move away slowly so that the moose does not detect you. It’s essential to give them plenty of space.
  • If the moose does happen to see you, talk to it in a calm, soft voice so that it knows where you are and doesn’t feel threatened. Move away slowly.
  • Look for signs that the moose is agitated and may become aggressive. These include raised hair on its shoulders and back, laid back ears, stomping, and grunting. If you see these signs, you should prepare for a potential attack.
  • If the moose charges you, get behind a boulder or a tree to protect yourself. These charges are often a bluff, but it’s best to be on the safe side and find protection. If you can quickly and safely climb a tree, that’s also a good option. Just make sure to go high enough so the moose can’t reach you.
  • If you can’t hide anywhere or climb something, run. Moose are one of the exceptions to the running rule – since moose usually don’t chase very far, you may be able to outrun them.
  • If the moose reaches you and knocks you over, don’t fight back. Instead, curl your body up into a ball and wrap your arms and hands around your head for protection. Try not to move until the moose leaves and you have enough time to get to safety.

Wildlife Safety Brown Moose

Elk

Like moose, elk can also attack humans when they feel threatened. Because elk are not predators, these attacks are rare. However, elk can be aggressive during the spring and fall when it’s their calving and mating seasons.

Elk are found primarily in mountainous areas in the western US and Canada, as well as parts of northern Europe and Central Asia. These large animals weigh up to 700 pounds (317 kilos) and should be given a wide berth.

What to do if you encounter elk:

  • Keep your distance. Maintain a distance of at least 50 yards (46 meters) when you see elk.
  • Watch for signs that the elk is agitated or becoming aggressive. For female elk protecting their calves, these signs include flattened ears, raised rump hair, grinding teeth, curled lips, kicking, and circling. For bull elk during rutting season, these signs include lowering their antlers, thrashing bushes, and pawing the ground.
  • Never separate a female from her calves or a bull elk from a female. Doing so increases the chances that elk will attack.
  • If the elk charges you or gets too close, act dominant and make yourself appear as large as possible.
  • Face the elk, maintain direct eye contact, and slowly move away.
  • As with moose, find protection behind a boulder, tree, or another large object. If there’s no place to hide, you can run away.
  • If the animal reaches you and happens to knock you down, do not play dead. Get up and try to move away.

Elk in the Mountains of Denver, Colorado

Bison

Bison don’t generally attack unless they are provoked, but they still can injure humans. In Yellowstone National Park, for example, bison have injured more people than any other wild animal. By staying a safe distance away and keeping your pets leashed, you can significantly reduce your chances of provoking an attack.

American bison inhabit western states including Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota and several provinces in western Canada. There are also small numbers of the related European bison in parts of Central Europe and the Caucasus. These animals are often found in open grasslands, including plains, prairies, and river valleys.

What to do if you encounter bison:

  • Give these large animals plenty of space to move freely. Never approach, chase, or try to scare them away. Some parks recommend staying at least 25 yards (23 meters) away from bison, while others suggest a minimum distance of 100 yards (91 meters).
  • Keep dogs on a leash so that they are close to you, as dogs may spook bison and cause them to attack.
  • Watch for signs of aggression, including pawing the ground, shaking their heads, raising their tails, snorting loudly, and making short, false charges.
  • If you see any of these warning signs, try to back away slowly to give them space and seek protection behind a tree or boulder in case the bison charges you. You can also climb a tree if possible. Despite their size, bison can run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour (64 km/h), so running away may not be an option.
  • If the bison attacks you, protect your neck and head and move away from the animal when possible. Do not fight back or try to scare the animal in any way.

Brown Bison in Yellowstone National Park

Wolves and Coyotes

Wolves are found in wilderness areas in North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia, while coyotes are found throughout North America – even in urban spaces. Wolf sightings are extremely rare in most areas, but coyote sightings are much more common. Although attacks from these animals are very unusual, it’s important to know what to do if you encounter one to protect yourself and the animal.

What to do if you encounter wolves or coyotes:

  • Do not run or turn your back on the animals since this triggers their predatory instincts.
  • Stand tall and make yourself look as large as possible.
  • Maintain eye contact and back away slowly. If you have pepper spray, get it ready in case you need to use it.
  • Keep dogs leashed and behind you if possible. Never try to break up a physical fight between a dog and a wolf or coyote, except from a distance with pepper spray.
  • If the wolf or coyote does not retreat, begin making noise, yelling, and throwing things at it while you continue to slowly back away. The goal is to convince the animal you are a potential threat and scare it off.
  • If it attacks you, fight back.

White Wolf in a National Park

Conclusion

Hiking, backpacking, trail running, and other outdoor activities all come with inherent risks, including close encounters with potentially dangerous wildlife. While seeing wild animals is one of the most exciting things about venturing into nature, respecting the animals and knowing how to behave around them is an essential skill all outdoor enthusiasts must learn. Familiarizing yourself with these wildlife safety protocols is a crucial step to keeping you, other outdoorsmen, and the wildlife you encounter safe.

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Wildlife Safety: Tips for Wild Animal Encounters on the Trail

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