If you hike a lot you will inevitably run into a large animal or two on your treks. These are some of our favorite encounters and tips on how to handle yourself when you do run into a wild animal on the trail.
Our first major encounter took place while hiking in Glacier National Park. We were coming down from a long hike with major elevation gain and were exhausted. We turned the corner where the trail went from open mountain side to thick forest and the person leading the way screamed. I came around the corner to see what the scream was about and there in the middle of the trail stood a mountain goat. I grabbed my fellow hiker and pulled her to the side of the trail. You could see the goat was more afraid of us then we were of it, but it is also a large animal and will surprise you when you come around a corner and are staring it in the face. It caused our hearts to race, but was a good first encounter of a wild animal as we weren’t really in much danger. Although they do have large horns that look like they would hurt.
My second favorite encounter also took us by surprise as we were on high alert. The night previous to our hike we had listened to a ranger talk on bear safety. It was extremely informative and the stories he shared about what to look for when hiking in bear country helped tremendously. Bears are one of those animals I would love to see from a distance in the wild, but don’t ever want to get close enough to be able to look it in the eyes. As we got a few miles into our hike we saw some of the signs the ranger had said to watch for, areas where bears were digging for bulbs to eat, tracks, and just a little further down the trail the air turned foul. The ranger had said if that ever happens out of the blue keep your head on a swivel because a bear is probably close. The reason is because bears love to roll around in dead things. We were prepared with bear spray, but I never want to find out what it is like to use bear spray in a real situation. We debated turning around at that point because there wasn’t much area to retreat to if needed, but we decided to push on a little further. As I looked up going around the next turn Alison, my hiking partner, was frozen looking into a small patch of trees about 10 feet off the trail between us and the lake. I thought “here it is, tell our parents we love them!” As I got my bear spray out and approached her, Alison’s frightened look became a smile and when I turned the corner there was a moose calf about 15 feet away. Alison thought is was awesome, but I figured if there was a calf, there must be a mom around and sure enough she emerged from the trees right next to us. I pushed Alison along to get moving so we didn’t have to see what happens when a Mother moose protects her baby.
The third story comes from our trip to Alaska a couple of years back and made us realize why people get attacked while hiking and why we weren’t as scared of hiking in bear country after that. Our bus that was taking us to WonderLake Campground stopped at the final visitor center so our fellow passengers could turn around and make it back by dinner. We were headed back to the bus located in the parking lot of the visitor center and the rangers told everyone to go back towards the visitor center doors. Another bus had pushed a grizzly bear into the visitor center parking lot because there wasn’t room on the road for it to pass by. People started to get nervous and then excited. The park rangers were on top of things and were telling folks what to do and where to go as the situation progressed. However, we noticed several people ignore the rangers instructions and start heading closer and closer to the bear. One mom told her 6 year old son to get closer to the bear so she could take his picture with it in the background. Needless to say, we were in awe of the stupidity of people and realized if it came down to it, we weren’t the ones that had to be worried. We could see the frustration of the rangers as they had to deal with disturbing the bear as little as possible and keeping people safe even when those people aren’t following their instructions. The bear couldn’t have cared less about what was going on around him and the end result was he wandered off into the mountains without incident. It did put into a new perspective the tips we had gotten from ranger talks. If you follow the rules they lay out, your chances of ever having a very close encounter go WAY down. It also made me look into some of the bear attacks that have happen around the United States. When it comes down to it, treat the animals with respect and use some common sense and everyone will go home happy. Unfortunately, not everyone follows those rules and no matter how much you try people will always toss common sense aside for a good photo.
Tips for Animal Encounters:
1. Keep Your Distance – There are certain recommended distances to stay away from animals from the National Park service and may vary by parks, but remember these animals are fast and can close a lot of ground very quickly. If the animals have babies stay even further away. No matter what the animal, if they have babies they become more territorial and protective of their young. We take extra caution if we ever see babies with their parents and add extra distance to the recommendations below.
Bears, Mountain Lions and Wolves – 100 yards
Elk, Moose, Bison, Mountain Goats or Sheep – 25 yards
Squirrels and Chipmunks – 500 Yards
2. Know What Animals You Might See On Your Hike – Before you hit the trail know what animals you may encounter. Is there a chance you run into a bear? An Elk? Park officials can also help with letting you know tips for certain areas in a park. Last time we backcountry camped in Rocky Mountain National Park the ranger let us know our campsite very rarely, if ever, see’s bears. We were still cautious but it was helpful to know that information.
3. Know How To React -After you know what animals you might see on your hike, check to see how you should react. Running into a big horned sheep on the trail requires a different reaction than a large grizzly bear. Some reactions require running while others, it is the Last things you should do.
4. Keep Your Fellow Hikers Informed– We like to let other hikers that we see on the trail know if there was a sighting on the trail. This can help let people know to be on the lookout whether that is having the camera ready or having your bear spray ready. Both are helpful!
5. Report Larger Predator Sightings – Whatever park you may be hiking in, if you see animals like bears, mountain lions or wolves report the sightings to the park officials so they are aware of their presence. Often times they will post in areas where there is a lot of activity, but they also like to keep watch on the animal’s movements throughout their park.
6. Don't Be That Person.