Wildlife encounters are always a possibility anytime you explore the great outdoors. You’ll see birds, bugs and other common critters on virtually every hike, and if you spend enough time trekking through forests, fields and deserts, you’ll surely encounter more spectacular animals too.
Such encounters usually end as quickly as they begin – most wild animals are inclined to avoid people whenever possible. But, unpleasant interactions can happen from time to time, and you’ll be wise to take whatever steps you can to keep wild animals at a safe distance. Failing that, you’ll want to be able to diffuse any tension that arises before the situation takes a turn for the worse.
There are a number of different things you can do to reduce the chances of a negative encounter, and we’ve listed some of the most effective and important below. Because you’ll need to take different steps to avoid problems with different kinds of animals, we’ve broken down the recommendations into several different critter categories.
Bears may be some of the most frightening animals to encounter on the trail, but they don’t cross paths with humans as commonly as is often supposed. And of this relatively small number of interactions, only a handful will progress to an actual physical confrontation. Most bears will move off at the sight of people. To limit encounters and stay safe, try to incorporate the following tips:
- Never feed bears or allow them to access your food. Bears that begin to associate people with food often become nuisance bears in a very short time. Such bears often become dangerous, and they’ll frequently need to be euthanized in the name of safety. Just make sure you keep your food in a bear canister or hang it high from a tree or a set of bear
- Make noise while hiking. Surprise encounters can startle bears, which can cause them to react violently. But if you simply make noise while walking, anbey unseen bears will usually get out of your way. Just sing or talk while you walk (some authorities recommend against whistling, which bears may mistake for the sounds of prey). Alternatively, some hikers like to hang jangling keys from their belt or attach some other type of noisemaker to their pack.
- Travel with plenty of friends. Simply put, bears are less likely to get rowdy when they cross paths with large hiking parties than they are one or two people. Additionally, by hiking with a group of friends, you’ll be easier to hear and smell, thereby making it easier for local bears to get out of your way.
- Bring bear spray when traveling through areas where they’re common. Bear spray usually provides an effective way to end an encounter, and it will do so without causing the bear (or any bystanders) significant harm. Bear spray is essentially pepper spray on steroids, so it’ll burn the bears eyes and nose for a while, but he’ll recover soon enough.
You can encounter any number of canines while trekking through the wilderness, including coyotes, wolves, foxes and even feral dogs. Because of their size and powerful jaws, some may represent a potential danger. Note that wild canines are among the most common rabies carriers in some locations. This is especially true of foxes and coyotes. To avoid or diffuse situations with wild or feral canines, try to employ the following strategies:
- Never attempt to feed wild canines – including feral dogs. Doing so will not only encourage them to hang around and increase the chances of an unpleasant incident, it will make them associate all people with easy meals.
- Keep your dog leashed or tethered at all times. While it’s true that large dogs may keep smaller canines away from your campsite, some dogs may instead draw the attention of coyotes, wolves or feral dogs. It’s also important to ensure your dog’s vaccinations – particularly his rabies vaccination – are up to date.
- If you find yourself face-to-face with an aggressive canine, maintain eye contact and try to make yourself look as big as possible. You can also yell loudly, stomp the ground and swing something over your head. If an attack occurs, fight back vigorously and use anything you have at your disposal, such as rocks, trekking poles or big sticks, to fend off the animal.
Bees and Wasps
Bees and wasps are pretty familiar to hikers and campers, as they live right alongside us in the cities and suburbs we call home. But, it is still wise to use caution – especially if you or any member of your party is allergic to their stings. In fact, bees and wasps probably cause more problems for campers than any other animals you’re likely to encounter.
Keep unpleasant bee- and wasp-related encounters to a minimum by following the tips below:
- Always check the nearby trees for signs of bees or wasps before selecting a campsite. Simply avoiding areas with active nests will help eliminate most unpleasant encounters with bees and wasps. Be sure to observe large hollows in the trunk or branches for emerging bugs, and also scan the outer branches for hanging nests.
- Understand that some wasps nest in the ground, rather than the trees. Just try to keep an eye out for flying wasp-like insects that appear to head into and out of a single spot near the ground repeatedly.
- Clean up spills and uneaten food immediately. Many bees and wasps will visit picnic tables and other places in which humans eat. Sugary drinks and small bits of protein are typically the most problematic substances, so take the time to clean up spills and messes promptly to avoid attracting bees and wasps unnecessarily.
Rodents – including rats, mice, chipmunks, squirrels and other buck-toothed mammals – are unlikely to initiate an outright attack unless cornered or provoked, but they can ruin your food and spread germs over your belongings. Some diseases carried by rodents are serious, so you’ll want to limit interactions with them as much as is possible. Help limit the problems caused by rodents by employing the following tips:
- Don’t feed the squirrels and chipmunks near camp. Although they may be cute, and those accustomed to humans may be bold enough to eat from your hand, fed critters will often wear out their welcome.
- Generally speaking, the more exposed a campsite, the fewer rodents it will harbor. If the idea of rodents scurrying around your campsite all night long bothers you, select a sun-bathed, exposed habitat, which will generally have fewer rodents than shaded forests.
- Pack out all of your trash. You don’t want to make the rodent problem worse for the next campers to use the site, so don’t leave any rodent-attracting trash behind. Most trash is pretty light, and it is easy to haul back to the trailhead by tying a garbage back to the back of your pack.
Spiders, Ants and Other Assorted Creepy Crawlies
Spiders, ants and other critters rarely present a significant danger, but some can inflict a venomous bite or sting, they shouldn’t be regarded as completely harmless either. Besides, even the bravest hikers and campers probably won’t keep their composure easily once they notice a scorpion, centipede or spider crawling up their leg. You’ll never be able to avoid these types of animals entirely, but it’s best to limit the direct interaction you have with them. You can do so by implementing to following practices:
- Consider sweeping away the debris and leaf litter around your campsite to help discourage bugs from hanging around your tent or the fire circle. Just use a flexible stick as a broom – you don’t need the ground to be immaculate, you just want to move the stuff bugs like to live in.
- Always knock your boots out before putting them on your feet. Your boots can provide insects and arachnids with a cozy place to hang out, so you’ll always want to verify that your shoes are not occupied before sticking your feet inside. You don’t want to hike all the way back to the trailhead while enduring a spider-bitten toe.
- Try to avoid contact with shrubs and bushes, where bugs often lurk. You’ll surely come into contact with plants from time to time during the average camping trip but do your best to limit such exposure. You could brush up against a variety of bugs while doing so, but ticks are particularly problematic in this respect.
In warm habitats, reptiles are often far more numerous than most hikers would suspect. Because they require less food than mammals or birds of the same size, reptiles sometimes outnumber their warm-blooded counterparts by a 10:1 ratio. However, this illustrates the degree to which most reptiles are willing to go to avoid encounters with bipedal, pack-wearing predators.
And while a few snakes, lizards and crocodilians may be dangerous, the vast majority of reptiles are completely harmless, and no cause for concern. But, it is relatively easy to avoid most encounters with reptiles in the first place by employing the following tactics:
- Watch where you place your hands and feet. The majority of unprovoked bites by venomous snakes occur when someone unwittingly steps or leans on them. This also means you should avoid walking through high grass or dense vegetation whenever snakes are a concern.
- Never try to kill a snake. The vast majority of people who are bitten by venomous snakes suffer their wound because they were trying to catch or kill it. Just leave snakes alone and they’ll likely return the favor. Venom is a precious resource, and they’d rather not waste it biting something they can’t eat.
- Don’t be careless during the winter. Most snakes and other reptiles become dormant in the winter, but they may emerge from their hibernacula and bask in the sun on unseasonably warm days. Pay special attention to small exposed, rocky areas, in which reptiles often like to bask.
Wildlife encounters are rarely dangerous, and they usually cause for celebration and photographs. However, it is important to avoid potentially dangerous animals whenever possible. Just follow the tips above and you’ll be well on your way to coexisting peacefully with the creatures of the wild.