Staying Safe Around Creatures On The Hiking Trail

Everyone hopes they’ll see animals on a hike. It’s one of the highlights of the trip — well, mostly. Some of the things you’ll see out in the American wilderness are downright dangerous, and you should take active steps to not approach them — or ward them off. Other things? Well, you should never get near a wild animal, but it’s not going to hurt you. Much.

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Bears

There are three types of bears in America, and you need to carry bear bells, sing, or otherwise make loud noises on the trail to ward off each. Females with cubs are particularly dangerous, especially if you accidentally get between the two, so pay attention. If seen from a distance, enjoy the sight. If you hear a “chuffing” sound in the woods, you want to make a lot of noise and walk off briskly, but not run. If attacked, it depends on the species, so know what’s endemic to your area before you go out. Fight back against a black bear: hit, strike, yell.

Against a grizzly, or brown, bear, curl up in a ball, play dead, being sure to protect your head and neck.

If you ever get into a situation where you’re attacked by an polar bear, pray: they’re the only species of bear known to hunt humans and one of the largest terrestrial carnivores on earth. 

Mountain Lions

You probably won’t see one. You might see its scat (poop), or cached prey — the dead animals they store and will defend to the death if you mess with — so stay well away from any carcasses you find. If you do encounter a lion, stop, make yourself look as big as possible, and pick up any children. There are only, however, 25 fatal mountain lion attacks in North America on record, according to Wide Open Spaces, so you’ve got other things to worry about. 

Snakes

You’re not a herpetologist — so don’t act like one. Knock against every downed log to make sure no snake’s on the other side before you step over, and scan rocks for sunning snakes, especially near water. Assume every snake you see is venomous. Very few snakes you see will actually be venomous; however, you personally can’t tell the damned difference, so don’t pretend to. According to the University of Florida Wildlife-Johnson Lab, 7,000-8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year. A significant number of those bites come from people attempting to handle them.

Never pick up or mess with a wild snake. If someone in your party is bitten, don’t try to capture or kill the snake, but do try to snap a photo. Snakebite kits will hurt you — they will cause an infection and just make you bleed, not remove any possible venom. Remain calm, keep the bitten area clean and below your heart if at all possible, and seek medical attention as soon as you can. Basically: admire all snakes from a respectable distance. And no species in North America will chase you. 

[If you’re wondering what prompted this article…check out our Security Tips For Hikers.]

Raccoons

Raccoons are endemic to most of the US and Canada, barring a small part of the Southwestern desert and the colder parts of Canada. Your most likely interaction with them? When they try to steal your food at night, if you’re camping out. You have several options in the backcountry, according to REI: using provided metal bear boxes, hanging your food from a tree or pole, or using a bear bag or bear canister. If you see a raccoon during the day, be very wary: raccoons can carry rabies.

Moose

They’re adorably gangly and ridiculous looking, these largest members of the deer family. They’re also startlingly dangerous, especially mothers with calves. According to the Mother Nature Network, they attack more people annually than bears. “The best practice around moose is to go away around a moose. Assume every moose is a serial killer standing in the middle of the trail with a loaded gun,” Alaska state wildlife biologist Jesse Coltrane told CBS. 

Alligators

If you see one, you’re lucky — unless you’re in Florida, where they’re everywhere. Just keep out of their way. Don’t go swimming at night in known gator areas, because gators do most of their hunting at night. Keep your pets and kids away from the water: they look like McNuggets to gators — and especially don’t feed the darn things. According to Everglades Holiday Park, “An alligator cannot tell where the food ends and where the hand begins, and they will not feel remorseful for taking a bite of human flesh.”

Squirrels

You will see many squirrels. You will hear many squirrels. They will chitter and chatter and rush through the underbrush at great speeds, startling you and your companions. They’re good for a laugh. Don’t feed them, the same way you don’t feed any wildlife, and if they seem unafraid of you, be wary: any wildlife that shows no fear of humans could be showing the beginning signs of rabies. 

Mosquitoes

Endemic all the way up to nearly the North Pole, these bloodsuckers are more likely to kill you than anything else, with their blood-borne diseases. In the U.S. and Canada, we’ve eradicated malaria and yellow fever, but if you’re hiking in some parts of Mexico, many parts of the Caribbean, and Central and South America, malaria is a real and present danger. Mostly, however, these bloodsuckers will make you miserable unless you bring high-powered insect repellent: and yes, that means DEET. 

Blackflies

Like mosquitoes, these are endemic to certain northeastern states and deliver a nasty bite that begins itching viciously within the hour, and has a noticeable puncture in the middle. Locals say that wearing long sleeves and bug spray will protect you, and that the blackfly season traditionally lasts only from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day.

Birds

You’ll see plenty of these, from your average wren to — if you’re lucky — bald eagles and osprey, Mississippi Kites and hawks. Stop and enjoy them. Don’t disturb any nests you find, and if you do run across a baby bird on the ground, leave it where it is: it’s a nestling that’s learning to fly, and mother bird is nearby. If you pick it up, your scent may turn her off, and she may abandon it. Worse, if you try to take it to an animal rescue shelter, it may not survive. Let mother nature do her job. 

Bobcats

You likely didn’t see one. But if you did, count yourself lucky to gaze upon this stealthy little cat, and give him a respectful distance while he goes about his catly business. He deserves to remain undisturbed.  

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent lives in a medium-sized city in the South with her three children, three dogs, and patient husband. She works as a staff writer for Scary Mommy, and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post and on Time.com.

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