Wild Animals and Hiking: What to do When you Encounter an Unexpected Guest

For many of us, the mountains are our home away from home. It’s where we go to clear our minds and appreciate the simplicity and comfort that the trails often provide. The trails can supply us with beautiful experiences that allow us to feel more connected to ourselves, and nature while benefiting our mental and physical health. However, we are not the only ones occupying these trails. From seasoned backpackers to weekend trekkers, the idea of encountering wildlife can be nerve-wracking and may prevent some from making it out the door… But this does not need to be the case! 

In this article, we are going to discuss some of the animals that are commonly found on the trails with us, and what you need to know if you run into one of them. 

Wild Animal Safety Tips For Hiking and Backpacking

Mountain Lion

You may be wondering, what do mountain lions do for our biological community — why are they important? Well, a robust presence of mountain lions indicates a healthy ecosystem. These cougars play a vital role in controlling herbivore populations to prevent overgrazing. By always keeping deer on the move, they limit the spread of disease and provide a food source for many other species. This regulation ensures that the habitat can support its population of animals.

Where can they be found?

Mountain lions typically reside in the western United States and are most commonly found in Colorado and California. You can expect to see them in rocky canyons or mountainous terrain.

When are you most likely to see them?

They usually feed between dusk and dawn and are most active in the winter season. Though they can be seen year-round, they have a prominent hunting season September through December — this is when deer are in their rut and let their guards down. It is also easier to see mountain lions and their tracks in the snow compared to warmer seasons. 

Are they common to see?

Human encounters with a mountain lion are pretty rare, and attacks even more so. Nevertheless, they aren’t impossible. 

Signs of mountain lion activity include seeing a dead animal carcass (especially if it is fresh), seeing recent scat with hair in it, or claw marks on the nearby trees.

What should you do if you see a mountain lion?

  • Stay calm.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Do not approach it. Slowly retreat without turning your back to the cougar — make sure you stay facing forward.
  • Do not try to run or you will trigger its instinct to chase. 
  • Stay large! Open up your coat or put your backpack over your head to look as big and intimidating as possible. If you have a child, pick them up so they don’t panic and run. Try to do this without bending over — it is important to stay big! By bending or crouching over you are perceived as a four-legged animal and are now considered fair game, but when you stand upright mountain lions won’t recognize you as prey. 
  • Use a strong and loud voice while you talk.

How does a mountain lion warn you?

If you are being stalked by a mountain lion, you may see them hovering around 50 yards behind you. You can tell that they perceive you as a threat when they intently stare at you with their ears turned back. They may hiss and show their teeth, or twitch their hind legs as though they are getting ready to jump. Do not take your eyes off of them! If the cougar leaves but looks like they are tucking themselves into the trees to hide, but it doesn’t seem like they have left, you should get ready to defend yourself.

What should you do if it attacks?

  • If you have bear spray (or pepper spray), use it. Mountain lions have extremely sensitive noses and will retreat quickly with that type of irritant.
  • Throw rocks or sticks (or whatever is around you) near the mountain lion to try and scare it off.
  • Yell. Like a teenager at a Jonas Brothers concert, try to be as loud as possible. Make sure you stay as tall as you can to look and sound intimidating. 
  • Use your backpack to protect yourself – consider it a shield.
  • Fight back with anything and everything. Typically, mountain lions try to kill their prey by biting the head or neck, stay as upright as possible and protect this area. 

Report mountain lion behavior to the local forest ranger station or visitor center.  If you have cell service and the situation is urgent, call 911.

Rattlesnake 

While many people aren’t super fond of the reptilian, rattlesnakes play a major role in controlling small mammal populations which are often hosts to ticks! Many rodents can carry ticks who transmit Lyme disease, a very serious bacterial infection. Luckily, we have snakes to help limit the spread of disease, and keep these small rodents from eating your crops!

Where can they be found?

They can be found in every state, though rattlesnakes are most common in Southwest regions. Arizona has been found to have the most rattlesnakes. You can expect to see them on dry rocky trails or coiled in tall grass, but they can also be found in, under, or around large rocks and logs.  

When are you most likely to see them?

Rattlesnakes favor warm dry temperatures and are more likely to be present when the temperature is between 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit. This means they usually migrate away from their hibernation burrows around May and stick around until September. Of course, this varies year-to-year, but this is when you are most likely to see one. 

Are they common to see?

It depends on the region, but they can be fairly common on trails. Because snakes are cold-blooded, they are often found on warm, exposed, rocky terrain. However, if it is too hot and dry, they can also be seen in tall brush near water or hiding out in other animal burrows.

What should you do if you see a rattle snake?

  • Don’t panic, rattlesnake want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. 
  • Leave it alone, don’t try to move it with a stick or poke at it. 
  • A general rule of thumb is to give a snake 1/3 its body length for striking distance, but you probably don’t want to test that theory. It’s better to give the snake plenty of space and just go around, or find another trail to get through. 

What should you do if you get bit?

  • Get away from the snake and sit down for a minute to breathe and make a calm and collected plan. 
  • Most rattlesnake bites are “dry bites” which means they don’t actually inject you with any venom. But it is better to be safe and assume that it is poisonous and seek help immediately. 
  • Make sure you remove any restrictive articles around the bite as it will swell. 
  • Let the bite bleed, this allows some of the venom to be expelled and helps medical personnel identify which antivenin you might need. Don’t try to cut around the wound or make it bigger to suck the venom out. Trying to cut, restrict blood flow, or suck the venom out will only damage blood vessels and could lead to nerve damage and infection. If anything, cover it with a loose, non-restrictive bandage. 
  • Try to stay as still as possible and restrict movement to reduce blood flow. The more you move, the faster your blood flows, which means the venom is circulating in your system further and faster. If you are alone, hike out as calmly as you can and try to keep your heart rate down. 

How to prevent an encounter

  • Stay on the trail! Don’t walk through tall grass and bushes. Not only are you more likely to run into a rattlesnake, but you are also disrupting other habitats and ecosystems which can lead to erosion and other harmful consequences for the environment. 
  • Wear long pants and boots. This can can help block and protect your lower extremities from snake bites. (And ticks as a bonus!)
  • Listen for rattle warnings, that may sound similar to a maraca, and try to stay present on the trail. They don’t always rattle before they strike, so actively scan the path to make sure you don’t accidentally run into one! 

Poison Control Center/Poisonous Snake Bite Line (1-800-222-1222) available 24/7.

Black Bear 

Black bears play a significant role in preserving the ecological systems in which they inhabit. Not only do they spread more seeds than birds, but they also help to open up forest canopies which creates a larger biodiversity by letting in more light to the forest floor. Another important way they help to maintain their environment is when black bears try to fatten up for the winter, they will break open logs to look for larva and maggots. While this doesn’t sound too scrumptious, it certainly helps nutrients return to the soil. If you happen to run into one of these beautiful creatures rooting, here is what you need to know!

Where can they be found?

National Forests house the majority of black bears, though they can be found in almost every state. Not surprisingly, they are densely populated in Alaska (along with grizzlies). In the contiguous United States, California has the highest population with roughly 30,000 black bears.

When are you most likely to see them?

You are most likely to see a black bear between spring and autumn before hibernation when they are actively seeking out food. They are typically seen early in the morning or at dusk during the summertime when trails are more heavily trafficked. 

Are they common to see?

They are fairly common. With increased trail popularity, human to bear encounters are increasing every year, although very few result in conflict. 

What should you do if you see a black bear?

  • Black bears will typically leave the area if they can smell you or hear you. Remain calm and watchful if you see one from afar. If you are confronted by one, making loud noises in most cases will scare them off. 
  • If the bear is still hanging around, do not run, and do not try to climb a tree. I hate to break it to you, but they are a lot faster and way better at climbing than we are! Look as big as possible and shout sternly. 

How does a black bear warn you?

When the bear is stressed it will express what appears to be a yawn, although this isn’t because they are tired. They are upset and are warning you that they are very uncomfortable. Black bears will also pop their jaw, huff, and woof at you, and even slam their front paws down on the ground. The bear could also do what’s called a bluff charge, where they start to run towards you but then stop suddenly or move to the side. With their head and ears up and forward, bluff charges are meant to scare you off. Nevertheless, if the bear has shown signs of distress, you probably don’t want to be waiting around to find out if it is bluffing.

What should you do if it attacks?

Black bears are the most timid type of bears and aren’t typically aggressive towards humans. However, when an incident does occur it is usually because of a dog that may be seen as a threat – so keep your dogs leashed when in bear country!

If it charges, do NOT play dead with black bears. Try to seek shelter in a car or building, if this isn’t an option, focus on hitting the bear’s snout.

Things to prevent encounter

  • When you are in the backcountry, you need to be mindful of the food and garbage you carry with you. Bears have highly sensitive noses and can make their way to campsites or towards those who may be backpacking on the trails. Make sure you use bear-proof containers, double bag and store trash somewhere that the bear can’t get to, and overall keep your temporary living space clean. When black bears come to a campground it’s usually for the food they smell, not the people.
  • If hiking alone, make some noise every now and then just to let them know you are there. (Sometimes when I’m hiking, I’ll talk to the bears and tell them stories… Turns out they are great listeners!)
  • Lastly, there is bear spray. While this highly concentrated pepper spray can be very effective, it is not a substitute for taking all previously mentioned precautions, this is to be used in last resort situations.

Grizzly Bear

Yogi bear isn’t the only grizzly wandering around national parks! Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, and Denali National Park all house the majority of the grizzly bear population. These magnificent animals are considered to be a keystone species for their role in regulating elk and moose populations, as well as spreading seeds along their journey to help fertilize and keep their ecosystems healthy — very similar to black bears!

Where can they be found?

Grizzly bears can be found in the Northern Rocky Mountains, and often populate states like Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Alaska. This includes major National Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier. They like to hang out around streams and rivers, but can be found residing in alpine meadows, prairies, and forested/woody areas.

When are you most likely to see them?

Similar to black bears, they are seen most often between March and July, or just before and after hibernation.  

Are they common to see? 

It is very unlikely that you will encounter a grizzly bear, but of course, this is influenced by what state you are living in or visiting. The majority of grizzlies are located in Alaska, and a handful can be found in Montana. The remaining few are even more scarcely scattered throughout the other aforementioned states. 

What you should do if you see a grizzly bear?

If you see a grizzly bear avoid direct eye contact and stay calm. Grizzly bears are more aggressive than black bears and are not as easy to scare off. If you have bear spray, be ready to use it – but if the bear is not approaching, walk away slowly. Grizzly bears don’t want to attack, but they will when they are surprised or if they feel threatened. 

How does a grizzly bear warn you?

Similar to the warning signs that black bears display, grizzlies will pop their jaws, huff, and snort, sway their heads, and may slap the ground out of frustration. Grizzly bears may also show aggression by tucking their ears back and lowering their head; however, if they are about to charge their head and ears will be perched upright.

What should you do if it attacks?

  • Keep your backpack on and play dead – do NOT try to run or fight back.
  • Tuck your head and cover your neck while laying on your stomach to protect yourself. Try to curl your body up so that it stays small, but make note that you want to avoid rolling over onto your back to protect your vital organs. You can do this by spreading your legs out wide too help stabilize the position you are in.
  • You want to stay as quiet and as still as possible. Once the bear leaves the area, wait a few minutes before moving or getting up to leave to be sure that it is gone and no longer sees you as a threat. 

With any bear encounter, report it to local park authorities as soon as possible. Call 911 if a conflict with a bear occurs.

Moose

Believe it or not, moose have a natural talent for gardening! They contribute to their ecosystem by maintaining the plant population and chowing down on terrestrial and aquatic plants. While they may consume a variety of plants, you can tell if one has been in the area by checking the bark on the trees. You will find sharp and distinct markings etched onto smooth-barked trees. This is where a male moose (also known as a bull) has tried rubbing the velvet off of their antlers and this is one way that they mark their territory. The cambium layer of the tree also makes for a tasty snack during the cold winter months!

Where can they be found?

Moose have very warm insulating fur, so they are partial to the colder climates. That being said, you can expect to find them in lush, forested areas in the Northern region of the United States including many National Parks. 

When are you most likely to see them?

You are most likely to see a moose during dusk or dawn, although you certainly need to be careful when driving at night! They are most active during mating season in the fall but can be seen during the summers as well. 

Are they common to see?

Encountering a moose is rare, and often a special experience for those who get the opportunity. 

What should you do if you see a moose?

  • Do not approach it — talk calmly, and give the moose a sufficient amount of space. Moose are not afraid of people and have no problem charging.
  • Dogs can alarm the moose and trigger a reaction; therefore, they should be kept close and on a leash.
  • If there is a calf, make sure you aren’t standing between the cow (mama moose) and calf (baby moose) and that you give them both plenty of room. They typically aren’t aggressive creatures, so if you talk calmly and give them the space they need you should be able to continue on your hike.

How does a moose warn you?

When you encounter a moose and its behavior changes in any way, you are too close for comfort. If the hair is raised on their hump, they start smacking their lips, or their ears are tucked back, they are trying to express that they are stressed. The moose may further proceed to stomping their feet, throwing their head back, and grunting as a final warning before charging. The cows are very protective of their calves and have no problem running you down to defend and protect them.

What should you do if it charges?

  • Most moose charges are bluffs to warn you that it is scared and doesn’t want you that close. Don’t antagonize it and back away slowly, these creatures can weigh up to 1,500 lbs and you do not want to get caught underneath one.
  • When the moose starts to charge, run. Do no try to be aggressive or stand your ground. If possible, place something between you and the moose like a tree, building, fence or a large boulder. They won’t chase you for long, just enough to get you out of their territory or until they no longer feel threatened.
  • If the moose catches you, curl up into a tight ball and play dead. Protect your head and neck with your hands and stay as still as possible. The moose isn’t going to try to eat you, but it may stomp or trample you. They are only aggressive until they know that you are no longer a threat. Once the moose leaves, wait a few minutes before getting up and leaving to make sure that it has left and no longer sees you. 

Know before you go!

While all of this information may sound scary and intimidating, it is important to co-exist with these beautiful animals in their natural habitat and understand and consider their boundaries. By being respectful of their home, and aware of how these animals may perceive us, you can minimize the risk of conflict. While these encounters and incidents aren’t common, they shouldn’t be disregarded or seen as out of the question. Education is a very important tool to have in your hiking pocket, so be sure to study up on the animals, plants, and trails you are traveling on. To occupy the same spaces and encounter any of these species is a rare and special treat! Remain watchful and keep your distance, but don’t forget to admire all the aspects of nature, including those who inhabit it.