As the spring weather warms up, crowds of people will head out into the wild places of this continent, and several lucky (and some unlucky) adventurers will come face to face with animals that may pose a serious threat if approached incorrectly. Day hikes, weekend camping and longer backpacking trips are becoming more popular than ever, and this is bringing more inexperienced hikers into contact with animals that require caution and quick action should the encounter go wrong. Aside from the “you’re asking for it” behavior like trying to take selfies with bears and other dangerous creatures, you can reduce the chances of the encounter ending badly if you know what to do and, in some cases, what gear to bring along on the trip. Let’s take a look at some of the most common dangerous animals you’ll encounter as well as what you can do should you find yourself face to face with them.
We start this series with the “big three,” or the larger dangerous animals that are talked about most in survival guides: black bear, brown bear and cougars or mountain lions:
Black bear territory overlaps many popular recreation areas in the US, and while black bears are generally less aggressive than brown bears, they should still be dealt with carefully when encountered. Many black bears have become dependent on human trash, which means they are more likely to be found in wilderness areas frequented by humans like campgrounds and parks. The first step to reducing and hopefully preventing a black bear encounter is to store all your food and trash responsibly.
Next, a mother bear with cubs can be a very dangerous situation to encounter, and anytime cubs are around, you should get out of the area as soon as safely possible. The mother bear will usually defend the cubs while they scurry up a tree, and any approach towards the mother or cubs will likely result in a confrontation. On rare occasions, the mother may take off leaving the cubs unattended, but this is no indication of safety. Again do not approach the cubs and vacate the area. This is still an extremely dangerous situation as the mother could return at any time.
In circumstances where you spot a black bear or it approaches you, there are several things you can do to ensure the encounter goes as smoothly as possible:
- If the bear has not spotted you, do not approach it. Back away slowly and vacate the general area where you saw the bear. Never approach a bear. You never want to alert the bear to your presence if you have a choice. DO NOT run away from a bear ever. You’ll look like prey to the bear, and that is never a good thing to look like around dangerous animals.
- If the bear has spotted you, take note of its behavior. Sometimes a black bear will just run away if it spots you, but other times it may pause whatever it is doing and look in your direction. It may “mock” charge you by picking up speed as it runs towards you and then stop before it reaches you. It may also make noises and paw at you. This is an indication that you are too close to the bear, and you should back away slowly while keeping the bear in view. Again, running is the worst thing you can do. Group your party together, stand tall and back away slowly while monitoring how the bear responds. At this point, most bears will stop pursuing you.
- However, if the bear continues to approach you, most times without making noises, you’ve probably got a more severe encounter on your hands. First, try one more time to back away slowly and change your direction of travel. Next, you may consider climbing a tree if one is near, but remember that black bears will climb trees after you so be ready and get high up in the tree.
- If the previous suggestions don’t work and the bear is near, it is time to stand your ground. Look big, group your party close together and make aggressive noises towards the bear. You can throw rocks if they are around, but don’t lose focus on the bear. This is the time to use bear spray if you have it.
- Should the bear physically attack you, DO NOT play dead as this doesn’t work with black bears. Focus blows on the nose / snout of the bear, and fight back with as much aggression as you can muster. At this point the bear considers you prey, and you will have to do whatever you can to get them off you.
Bear spray is a popular deterrent for bear attacks, but it should be treated as a last resort option as it can backfire when not used correctly. Bear pepper sprays have a limited range (25 ft. or less), and you need to pick the time to use them carefully. You also have to factor in the direction of the wind as it can blow the pepper spray back at you. The last thing you want is to be blinded and miss the bear. Bear spray should always be worn on your belt in a holster so you can access it quickly in the field. Food storage options like bear-proof food containers and heavy-duty coolers are good storage options for bear country as well.
Brown bears are similar to black bears in some ways, but they are much more dangerous and unpredictable than black bears. Brown bears are also larger and tougher to back down from once provoked. Again, any encounter with a brown bear mother is very serious, and she will attack you to defend her cubs in most situations. Trash and food management is very important with brown bears as well, and a clean camp with properly stored food is a must. Here’s what to do if you encounter a brown bear:
- You never want to surprise a brown bear while hiking through the bush. In areas where brown bear are common, make regular noise as you hike like singing, talking loudly with your friends, or even calling out the occasional “hey bear” as you hike. If you’re lucky, this will drive off any bear that is around, and you’ll never know that they were there.
- If you do encounter a brown bear, back away slowly as you would with a black bear. The difference here is you want to look small and meek not large and intimidating as with black bears. Keep an eye on the brown bear’s behavior, and never, ever run away or turn your back on the bear.
- If the bear charges you, be ready with your bear spray and wait until it is in range. The bear spray will be your best defense if the bear is acting overly aggressive and getting ready to attack.
- Should the brown bear attack you, do not try to fight it. Instead this is where you should play dead. Roll up in the fetal position to protect your vital organs, and don’t move or make noises as the bear stands over you. Hopefully once the bear realizes that you are not a threat, it will stop attacking. Remain in the fetal position playing dead for 15-20 minutes after the bear is gone, even if you are injured, and then seek assistance immediately.
Bear spray is a must-have whenever you’re in grizzly country, and it could mean avoiding a mauling in cases where you can’t back away from the bear. Invest in high-quality bear spray and remember that they have expiration dates, so replace them periodically. Always keep the bear spray in a holster on your belt, and make sure everyone in your party has some. If camping in brown bear country, carry bear proof food containers and hang your food high up in a tree (above 10 feet) to reduce the possibility of a bear encounter.
Cougars / Mountain Lions
Cougars or mountain lions are apex predators that can weigh up to 200lbs. and feed on a variety of larger animals including deer and elk. They have on occasion been known to attack humans, but their behavior is unpredictable, and you have to be aware when in mountain lion country as they can attack without much warning. Still mountain lion attacks are fairly rare, and you can help prevent them if you know what to do.
Keeping an eye on children is extremely important whenever you’re in mountain lion country. Cougars are known to perceive children as prey due to their size, and you should never let children wander on their own if you’re in an area where cougars may be. Should you see a cougar, pick up small children immediately. You should also instruct children to be aware of mountain lions and never approach them. Pets like dogs are also subject to mountain lion attacks, and you should not allow them to wander away from camp if you’re in an area known to have cougars.
- Similar to bears, if you see a mountain lion, back away slowly and try to avoid the encounter altogether if possible. Keep an eye on the cougar at all times and NEVER run away as you’ll trigger them to chase you. In most circumstances, a cougar will not attack you if you keep a healthy distance and vacate the area slowly and cautiously.
- Should the cougar focus its attention on you and and approach closer, you’ll want to speak confidently and aggressively to the cougar and stand tall. You’ll still want to keep your body facing towards the cougar and back away slowly if you can.
- You can tell when the mountain lion is getting ready to attack by its stance. If it crouches low and looks like it is ready to pounce, then you need to get ready for a fight. Try to put obstacles between you and the cougar, and gather anything you can to fight it including sticks and rocks. You can also throw rocks, and now would be the time to ready your bear spray for use if you have it. Gather your group together, stand tall and continue to hold your children if they are present.
- If the cougar pounces, you’ll want to fight as aggressively as you can with everything you have. Focus on the face and nose and use weapons if you’ve got them. Never play dead, and keep fighting until the cougar hopefully withdraws.
Bear pepper spray is a good thing to bring along in cougar country as well, but as before, pay attention to the wind direction and range so you don’t end up spraying yourself instead. Cougars aren’t usually attracted to trash, but they are attracted to the critters that eat trash like raccoons, and you should handle your food and trash properly anyway because you’re probably in bear country too. A good belt knife is a nice addition for anyone who doesn’t have bear spray and wants an additional weapon should the cougar pounce.
Note: these are suggestions on dangerous animal defense, and you should always research the topic thoroughly before spending time in areas where dangerous creatures can be found.