Wildlife Safety: Tips for Encountering Wild Animals on the Trail
When you’re on a hike, there’s a chance you might encounter wild animals on the trail. Do you know what to do to stay safe? These wildlife safety tips for hikers offers tips on what you can do to reduce your chances of stumbling across dangerous animals on your hike. You’ll also learn what to do if you encounter specific animals on your hike.
Wildlife Safety Tips for Hikers
When some people head out on an adventure, they dream of seeing wild animals: black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains, moose in Maine, and bison in Yellowstone.
Of course, they’re often more interested in seeing these animals from the safety of a car. They’re NOT all that interested in coming face to face with these animals on a hiking trail.
If this is a fear that’s keeping you from hiking, this post can help. We’ll go over some general wildlife safety tips that can help you reduce your chances of unexpectedly coming across wildlife on the trail. We’ll also take a look at how you should deal with specific animals you might run into on your hike.
Related: Hiking for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started
It’s important to note these wildlife safety tips are not guaranteed. Wild animals are just that: wild. They’re also unpredictable.
The advice in this post comes from talking with rangers at different parks across the country and research I’ve done as I’ve prepared for hikes. Whenever you’re hiking in a new area, you should always ask local rangers about wildlife before you hit the trail and take their advice.
General Wildlife Safety Tips
Whether you’re concerned about running into potentially dangerous animals, such as bears or mountain lions, or less-threatening ones, like raccoons or deer, these tips can help you reduce wildlife encounters.
Most animals naturally want to steer clear of humans. Making noise while you hike can alert animals to your presence so they can sneak away before you reach them. If you’re hiking in a group, talk to each other as you hike. If you’re hiking alone, you can strike your trekking poles together, clap your hands, or shout “Hey bear!” every few minutes.
Related: 5 Trail Etiquette Rules You Never Want to Break
Give Animals Space
Most animals won’t attack unless they feel threatened. One of the best ways to prevent wildlife attacks is to stay a safe distance away from them. A good rule of thumb is to stay 100 yards away from predators and 25 yards away from all other animals.
If you come across a wild animal on the trail, you should always remain calm. Always walk away, never run. Running signals “prey” to predators and could entice them to attack.
Pay Attention to Your Surroundings
As you’re hiking, look for animal tracks and droppings on the trail. This will tell you what types of animals might be in the area. You can pick up an animal tracks guide if you’re interested in brushing up on what different prints look like.
Follow Leave No Trace Principles
Many wildlife encounters occur because animals start to associate humans with food. Whenever you’re hiking or camping, make sure you always follow the Leave No Trace principles and clean up after yourself.
Handling Encounters With Specific Wildlife
While the goal is always to prevent encounters with animals, you never know what can happen on the trail. The following wildlife safety tips will help you know what to do if you have an encounter or are attacked by certain animals.
How to respond to a bear encounter depends entirely on whether you’re dealing with a black bear or a grizzly bear, so it’s important to be able to tell them apart. Since both bears can range in color from blonde to brown to black, you can’t really use their shade to tell the difference.
Black bears live throughout most of the U.S. They have a straight facial profile and no shoulder hump. Grizzlies live mainly in Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and western Canada. They have a visible shoulder hump, a concave facial profile, and small rounded ears.
How to Prevent Bear Encounters
- Make a lot of noise as you hike.
- Look for signs of bear activity and leave if you see fresh prints or droppings.
- Carry Counter Assault bear spray, know how to use it, and keep it somewhere that’s easy to access. (Keep in mind that airlines do not allow you to fly with bear spray, even in your checked luggage. Also, note that it’s illegal to possess bear spray in some areas, such as Yosemite National Park.)
What to Do if You See a Black Bear
- Never approach the bear.
- If you see cubs, be especially cautious. Mother bears are extremely protective of their young.
- If you see the bear before it sees you, keep your eyes on it and back away slowly.
- If the bear is coming toward you, make a lot of noise, make yourself look larger, and throw rocks or sticks at it to scare it away.
- If you have food, secure it in a bear canister or bring it with you. Only drop the food for the bear as a last resort.
- If the bear starts acting aggressively by snorting, huffing, or slapping the ground with its paw, get your bear spray out and take off the safety lock.
What to Do if a Black Bear Attacks
- Do not play dead.
- Fight back with any object you can use.
- Aim for the eyes and nose when punching.
What to Do if You See a Grizzly Bear
- Do not appear like a threat. Don’t make eye contact, talk in a quiet voice, stay calm, and back up slowly.
- Have your bear spray ready, but do not turn and run.
What to Do if a Grizzly Bear Attacks
- Activate your bear spray when the grizzly is about 30 feet away from you. Aim for just below the head, so when it lowers its head to charge, it will run through the cloud of bear spray.
- Once you activate the bear spray, you still don’t want to run away and look like prey. Back away slowly and keep your eye on the bear.
- If you don’t have bear spray or it fails, play dead. Lie flat on your stomach, use your hands to cover the back of your neck, and keep your backpack between you and bear.
- If you get rolled over, keep rolling so you end up back on your stomach.
Although you can find snakes throughout the U.S., they’re almost all harmless. The four species of venomous snakes found in the United States are rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths/water moccasins, and coral snakes.
How to Prevent Snake Encounters
- Make noise to alert the snake of your presence.
- Hike with trekking poles. The poles hit the ground first, and your feet hit the ground second.
- Scan the trail ahead so you can stop in advance if you see a snake.
- Always look where you’re putting your hands when you’re climbing rocks.
- If you like to listen to music while hiking, consider leaving one earpiece out and keeping the volume low so you can listen for rattling warning sounds.
What to Do if You See a Snake
- Stop moving, stay calm, and slowly back away.
- Look for another way around that gives the snake plenty of space. Remember, snakes can strike out at least half their own length, but it’s hard to see just how long they are when they’re curled up.
What to Do if You’re Bitten by a Snake
- Try to identify what type of snake bit you. This will be helpful if you need to seek medical treatment.
- Stay calm and try to keep your heart rate down. Activity can increase the venom absorption.
- Wash the bite gently with soap and water.
- Don’t elevate the wound. Instead, keep the bite below the heart and try to immobilize the area.
- Call 911 or go to the nearest hospital to seek medical treatment.
If I’m being completely honest, out of all the wild animals on this list, ticks concern me the most. Most wildlife do what they can to avoid coming into contact with humans. Not ticks. They can also transmit all types of diseases that can wreak havoc on your body, such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and ehrlichiosis.
How to Prevent Tick Encounters
- Stay on the trail. Ticks like to hang out in shaded, grassy areas.
- Wear pants and long sleeves. The less exposed skin, the better.
- Tuck your shirt into your pants, and tuck your pants into your socks.
- While gaiters are often used to keep mud out when hiking in the rain, they can also add another level of protection against ticks.
- Wear light colors. Not only do lighter colors seem to attract fewer ticks, but they also make it easier to spot any that might get on you.
- Consider treating your clothing and gear with permethrin and using a picaridin insect repellent. (As an added bonus, picaridin also repels mosquitoes.)
- Ticks don’t burrow immediately, so make sure you check for them frequently during your hike.
- Keep dogs leashed when hiking with them. Also consider asking your vet about tick prevention medications.
Related: Must-Have Gear to Make Hiking With Dogs Safer and Easier
What to Do if You’re Bitten by a Tick
- Use an alcohol wipe or antiseptic to clean the area around the tick.
- Use tweezers or your fingers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible.
- Pull straight up. Don’t twist or yank. You don’t want to leave any of the tick’s body parts under the skin.
- If parts do remain under the skin, pinch the skin up to scrape everything away. You can also use a sterilized needle to dig parts out.
- Use another alcohol wipe or antiseptic to clean the area after you finish.
Mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas, or the Florida panther depending on where you are in the country, are found throughout most of the western United States and Canada. They’re occasionally spotted in eastern states and provinces as well.
Related: How to Signal for Help With an Emergency Whistle
How to Prevent Mountain Lion Encounters
- Make noise while you’re hiking. Mountain lions are incredibly shy and secretive animals.
- If you see fresh tracks, droppings, or claw marks on a tree, turn around and head back.
- Keep dogs on a leash.
What to Do if You See a Mountain Lion
- Never approach a mountain lion.
- Stop and don’t run.
- Talk firmly, make a lot of noise, maintain eye contact, and slowly back away.
- Make yourself appear larger. If you’re hiking in a group, stand together.
- If you’re hiking with kids, pick them up, keep them behind you, or put them in the middle of the group.
- If the mountain lion starts to act aggressively, shout and throw things at it.
What to Do if You’re Attacked by a Mountain Lion
- Fight back.
- Stay on your feet and be as aggressive as possible.
- If you have bear spray, use it.
- Use anything you can get your hands on to fight back, such as rocks, sticks, backpacks, or water bottles.
Moose are found throughout much of northern North America, including Canada, Alaska, northern New England, the Rocky Mountains, and the northern parts of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Since they only eat plants and they look pretty darn adorable, a lot of people underestimate just how dangerous moose can be. While they generally aren’t aggressive, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened.
Mothers are also incredibly protective of their young. And since both male and female moose are BIG animals, these attacks can do a lot of harm.
How to Prevent Moose Encounters
- Moose are hulking big animals, so you’ll often see them before they see you.
- Keep an eye on your surroundings if you know you’re in an area where moose are often present.
What to Do if You See a Moose
- If the moose doesn’t see you, stay quiet and slowly back away.
- If the moose does see you, talk softly, give the animal plenty of space, and slowly back away.
- Keep dogs close to you and quiet.
- Don’t act aggressively.
- Watch out for signs of aggression from the moose, such as flattened ears, raised hair on its back and shoulders, grunting, huffing, and stomping.
What to Do if You’re Attacked by a Moose
- If a moose charges, try to put a large object between you and the moose. Get behind a rock, climb a tree, or even hide behind a tree.
- If you can’t hide anywhere, run. Moose aren’t predators, so they usually won’t chase you for very long.
- Don’t fight back. This might make the moose attack even more.
- If you get knocked down, curl up in a ball and use your hands to protect your head and neck.
Elk are primarily found in mountainous areas of western North America. There’s also a herd in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Related: 10 Must-Do Hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Like moose, most people don’t consider elk much of a threat. However, since males can weigh around 700 pounds and females can weigh about 500 pounds, an attack from one of these animals can do some serious damage.
How to Prevent Elk Encounters
- Be aware of your surroundings so you can keep your distance if you spot an elk.
- Elk are more aggressive during mating season, which is in the fall. If you’re hiking in elk territory during this season, give them even more space than you normally would.
Related: 50 Amazing Fall Hikes in the U.S. (One in Every State!)
What to Do if You See an Elk
- Keep your distance.
- Do not touch or go near calves.
- If an elk approaches you, slowly back away.
- Make sure they have plenty of space so they don’t feel cornered or threatened.
What to Do if You’re Attacked by an Elk
- If an elk charges, don’t turn your back to it.
- Try to find protection behind a large object, such as a tree or boulder.
- Make sure you protect your head and neck.
Mountain goats live in the mountainous regions of northwest North America, including in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta.
Although they’re typically shy animals and attacks by mountain goats are incredibly rare, they have started to associate humans as a source of minerals through sweat and urine. Once that happens, they start to follow people too closely.
How to Prevent Mountain Goat Encounters
- Help prevent mountain goats from associating humans as a source of minerals by never letting them lick sweat-soaked gear and never urinating within 50 yards of a hiking trail.
What to Do if You See a Mountain Goat
- Give the mountain goat plenty of space.
- If it approaches you, slowly back away.
- If the mountain goat continues to move toward you, make loud noises or throw rocks near it to scare it away.
What to Do if You’re Attacked by a Mountain Goat
- Avoid contact with the sharp horns.
- Use boulders or trees as cover.
- If necessary, use whatever you can get your hands on to hit back.
At one time, bison roamed throughout much of North America. Sadly, their population is now contained mostly in western states such as Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Even though they appear docile, all you need to do is watch one video of bison slamming their giant heads together to understand the kind of damage they can inflict. Add in the fact that bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds AND run up to 40 mph, and it’s easy to see why you should give these animals plenty of space if you encounter them in the wild.
How to Prevent Bison Encounters
- Pay attention to your surroundings.
- Never approach bison.
- Do not harass bison calves.
What to Do if You See a Bison
- Leave plenty of space between you and the bison.
- Do not try to scare the bison away.
- Wait for the bison to leave or walk around them leaving plenty of room.
- Watch out for warning signs that bison are upset, including snorting, pawing at the ground, raising their tails, and tossing their heads.
What to Do if You’re Attacked by a Bison
- Try to find protection behind a larger item, such as a tree or boulder.
- Protect your head and neck.
- Move away from the area as soon as possible.
Wolves and Coyotes
Although wolf populations remain very low, they can be found in western parts of Canada and the United States. Coyotes, on the other hand, can be found in nearly every part of the country.
Wolves have a substantial fear of humans. Since they can often hear or smell us coming from miles away, they’ll usually flee before we ever see them, and encounters on the trail are very rare. Coyotes are more inquisitive, but they still tend to shy away from encounters.
Both animals like to hunt in packs, so it helps to keep an eye on your surroundings when you hike.
Related: 10 Survival Gear Items Every Hiker Should Carry
How to Prevent Wolf and Coyote Encounters
- Keep dogs on a leash or within close sight of you when you hike.
- Look out for fresh tracks, droppings, digs, and carcasses.
- Make noise when hiking to warn the animals you’re coming.
What to Do if You See a Wolf or Coyote
- Wolves and coyotes can sometimes view dogs as competition or unwelcome visitors in their territory. Keep pets close to you and pick up small dogs.
- Keep children beside you.
- Leave plenty of space so the wolf or coyote can easily escape.
- Maintain eye contact, stand tall, and never turn your back on the animal.
- If possible, slowly back away.
- If the wolf or coyote starts to approach, shout, clap your hands, or throw things you can easily get your hands on without bending down.
What to Do if You’re Attacked by a Wolf or Coyote
- Do not run.
- Fight back. Yell loudly while throwing rocks and sticks.
- If you’re carrying bear spray, use it.
As someone who often hikes in Florida, alligator safety is something I have to keep in mind when I’m near water. Alligators can also be found in Louisiana; the southern parts of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama; coastal North and South Carolina; East Texas; the southern tip of Arkansas; and the southeast part of Oklahoma.
How to Prevent Alligator Encounters
- Be very vigilant when close to water.
- Never allow children or pets to swim or play in water.
- While most alligator bites occur in water, keep in mind that they can lunge several feet onto the shoreline.
- Although alligators prefer living in freshwater, they can swim in brackish water and saltwater as well.
What to Do if You See an Alligator
- Keep your distance and give alligators their space.
- Never feed or harass them.
What to Do if You’re Attacked by an Alligator
- Fight back.
- Hit and kick the alligator. Aim for the eyes.
- Make as much noise and commotion as possible.
Important Wildlife Safety Tips for Hikers
Don’t let the fear of wild animal encounters keep you from getting outside and hiking. Instead, learn about the different animals you might encounter on your adventure and use these wildlife safety tips to ensure everyone has a safe hike.
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