It’s one of the most common fears people cite when asked what they’re most afraid of when contemplating spending time outdoors: animals. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Well, mostly mountain lions, bears, and snakes, but you get the picture. That said, those aren’t the only animals you should be cautious around when out and about in wilderness areas (don’t forget about bison, moose and alligators)! So if you want a quick cheat-sheet for what to do when you encounter a wild animal on the trail, we’ve got you covered. Read on for how to respond to the 8 most common animal encounters you’re likely to experience in the wild.
Yeah, yeah, we know. They top everyone’s list for the thing they’re most afraid will wander into their campsite in the middle of the night. But the chances of you being attacked by any kind of bear–black or grizzly–is extremely rare (only a few happen every year). And if you’re prepared and aware, you’re almost certain to escape completely unscathed. Oh, and if you want a hilarious video detailing the different reactions required between the two, check out this video we did. And a tip for all bear encounters: carry bear spray. Not bear bells (they don’t work). Not a gun (you’re twice as likely to be injured if you use a gun). Bear spray.
These guys are curious scaredy cats but brazen opportunists. So if one wanders too close, make some noise to scare it away, jump up and down, make yourself look big by waving your arms, and generally make the bear feel unwelcome. It will probably be on its way very quickly. In the unlikely event a black bear does attack, fight back, don’t run. Read more in this in-depth article I wrote on the subject.
Unlike black bears, it’s better for everyone if grizzlies don’t know you’re even there. So if it seems they haven’t noticed you, quietly turn around and be on your way. If they have noticed you, speak quietly to the bear and make yourself seem non-threatening while backing away slowly. If it charges, drop to the ground, protect your head and neck and curl into the fetal position and play dead, don’t run. If the bear thinks they’ve neutralized the threat (you), they’ll most likely leave you alone. But don’t get up to leave until the bear is out of sight. Read more about what to do in a grizzly encounter here.
Fun fact: it’s venomous, NOT poisonous. Poison is something your ingest; venom is something that’s injected. But correct word usage aside, snake are another common fear in the outdoors, especially in western regions where more venomous species can be found. If you do find a snake on the trail, keep your distance; a huuuuge percentage of snake bites occur because someone was purposefully messing with a snake. Don’t mess with a snake and your chances of avoiding getting bitten are slim.
If you do get bitten, don’t do any of the things you’ve heard you’re supposed to do. Don’t use a snakebite kit to “extract” the venom. Don’t cut the area and try to suck out the venom. Don’t shock yourself with a battery. Just get to a hospital and get some antivenom by any means necessary. It’s the only cure. Bonus points if you can identify the snake or snap a picture so doctors know what venom they’re dealing with. Read a more in-depth article I wrote about avoiding snake encounters here.
OK, so moose may not seem so scary as far as animal encounters go, but they’re huge and can do a significant amount of damage and far more people are injured every year by moose than bears. So do yourself a favor and keep your distance. Like, at least 50 feet of distance. And be extra careful during the fall (mating season) not to get in between a make and female who are doing their dance or between a momma and her calf during the spring and summer.
Get too close and a moose charges? Get moving. Quickly. And put something between you and the moose: a tree, fence, giant boulder, anything that blocks their path and makes you harder to see or get to. Then make your way far away before that huge creature turns its antlers into a plow. Want more deets? Check out this article.
Almost every year there are stories of people getting head-butted or thrown off trails by bison in Yellowstone. That’s almost always because people tried to get too close for a photo or some such and the bison got irritated. Don’t irritate a bison. So keep your distance (25 yards should do the trick) and keep yourself from getting caught up in those horns.
If one does charge…well, good luck. They travel fast (up to 35 mph) and are fairly bull-headed, so not much will dissuade them if you’ve annoyed them. So just stay back, give them plenty of room, and if you accidentally find yourself too close (say you round a corner and there’s a bison), back away slowly and pray it’s in a carefree mood. Read more about bison encounters in this article I wrote.
OK, so this animal encounter is another exceptionally regional one, but anyone who lives along the southern coast should know what to do around alligators. For starters, don’t swim near them or where they’re know to live. Alligators don’t tend to be aggressive like crocodiles, but they can be, so don’t mess around. Stay back, especially from a momma on a nest. Get too close and she’ll warn you with a hiss, but that will likely be your last warning before she snaps.
If one does lunge after you, run away quickly in a straight line. None of this zig-zag nonsense. Alligators are fast, even on land, but only for very short distances, so it shouldn’t take long to outrun one. If one latches onto you in the water, fight like your life depends on it–because it might. Punch it in the nose, the eyes, shove your arm down its throat, just give it a reason to let you go because you’re more trouble than you’re worth. Read about it in more detail in this article.
Headed to the ocean? Honestly, you don’t need to worry about sharks. Attacks are incredibly sensationalized, which makes them seem more common than they are, but they’re super rare (I wrote all about it in this article). But you can take extra precautions against getting bitten by leaving jewelry at home (shiny things may attract sharks because they look like fish scales). Menstruating? Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing that suggests that attracts sharks.
If you do get bitten, fight that shark like hell if it’s still holding on to you. Punch it in the gills or the nose, poke it in the eyes, just make sure it knows you’re not a fish. Then get out of the water asap.
Also known as a cougar or puma, mountain lion attacks are extremely rare. And often, you won’t seem them coming. They are just giant cats, after all; they’re very good at silent stalking. But that doesn’t mean you need to be afraid. Just be aware of your surroundings and know what to do if one pops out of the bushes nearby.
For starters, make yourself look big and scary by swinging your backpack over your head, waving your arms or trekking poles, and making lots of noise. If that doesn’t work and the cougar still advances, throw rocks or sticks to scare it away. And if it pounces, fight back using anything at your disposal. Oh, and keep small children and dogs close by–they look a lot more like prey than a grown human. Read more about cougar encounters here.
Tips for avoiding animal encounters
Naturally, there are a few tips and tricks for avoiding unwanted animal encounters.
- Sing or talk while you hike so animals know you’re coming. (Don’t listen to music on a speaker–that’s just annoying.)
- Don’t wear earbuds; they block out the sounds that may alert you to potential danger.
- Hike with a buddy. If you get into hot water, they can help.
- Always keep your distance from wild animals; the larger they are, the farther you should stay. Use the “rule of thumb:” Close one eye and stick your thumb out at arm’s length. If your thumb doesn’t cover the whole animal, you’re too close.
- Respect wildlife. Remember that you’re in their home now. They have even more right to be here than you do.
As always, be careful out there, but don’t let a fear of wildlife keep you from getting out there to explore. Wander on.
Alisha is a freelance outdoor journalist and photographer based in Ogden, UT. She loves backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and snowboarding (even though she’s terrible at it). She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com