ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS HIKING
When I think of animal risks on the trail, I’m always reminded of the saying at the end of every episode of the old G.I. Joe TV show from the ’80s: “Knowing is half the battle.” Each hiking area usually comes with a unique set of animals to watch out for. It might be black bears along the Colorado Front Range or timber rattlesnakes in the Southern Adirondacks. Knowing which potentially harmful animals are in your area is the first step to avoiding an encounter or determining what to do if one happens to cross your path. It’s a universal rule that you should never approach a wild animal (not exactly the opportune time for a selfie!). However, each animal comes with a unique set of signs to look out for and solutions for avoiding an attack. We have listed some of the most common wild animals to watch out for along with some helpful resources specific to each animal.
Know bear habitat.This seems impossible to avoid while hiking, but actually, it’s rather simple. Bears eat all day and all night to pack on an extra 20-30% of their body weight for the upcoming winter. They hang out along waterways for fish, grassy meadows for grazing, and berry patches for a bit of fruit and fiber. But they also sleep during the warmest parts of the day, hidden from sight by brushy shrubs and small trees. Pay attention to your surroundings. Watch for tracks, scat (poop), or trampled grass and foliage. Bears are nothing if not burly, and they leave a mess wherever they go. It’s a signal for you to go a different way. Better yet, plan a hike so as to avoid known bear habitat; check in with local land managers (state parks, Forest Service, Park Service, etc.) before you meet up.
Bears know we’re around a lot easier when we tell them we’re coming, allowing for a faster getaway in the other direction. Our family sings songs, talks loudly, claps our hands, and yells “Hey bear, ho bear, don’t you eat my toes, bear!” (We made that up; not bad, eh?). The jingle of a large “bear bell” can indeed help make noise when your voice becomes tired, but it should always be coupled with clapping or other obnoxious sounds in bear country.
Travel in groups.
Studies have shown that groups of five or more have never been threatened or injured by an aggressive bear. Why? Groups who know bear safety know that when they bunch up and hold their arms over their heads, they look like the most ridiculous, multi-limbed creature in the world, not to mention smell decidedly odd, so bears generally won’t stick around. Encourage groups to stay together, even if it means traveling slower, and keep toddlers and bigger kids within an arm’s reach at all times. If one member of the party needs to stop, everyone stops.
Carry bear spray.
Those of us who live, work, and play in bear country don’t leave home without our trusty can of pressurized pepper spray. Proven to be effective as a bear deterrent when used correctly, bear spray, shoots a curtain of red-hot pepper vapor into the entire field of vision, smell, and taste senses of a bear up to 30 feet away, for a duration of seven seconds.
As much as they fascinate me, I also have a somewhat irrational fear of snakes because I have encountered numerous snakes while hiking. Almost all of them were non-venomous and way more interested in getting away from me rather than attacking. That said, knowing which species to look out for and what to do if you come across a venomous species while on the trail is extremely important.
3. Mountain lions:
Also known as cougars, pumas and panthers, mountain lions are extremely widespread throughout the Western Hemisphere. That being said, it is generally rare to encounter a mountain lion on a hike.
While ticks may not strike fear in your heart, the diseases they can transmit should. I live in an area that shows one of the highest occurrences of Lyme disease in the nation, so protection in the form of insect repellent, long sleeves and pants, and tick checks is very important.