BACKPACKING BASICS

How to Avoid Wild Animal Attacks: Backpacking Without Unpleasant Events

Animal Attack Grizzly Bear
Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

Most people enjoy nature, getting away from their daily routine of work and home. It is in our essence to do so, the wilderness being the place where we once came from. The healing power of the outside, the unexplainable joy and beauty of being part of a hiking trip for example, gives a better quality of life.

Although we are on top on the “food chain”, animals still have every right to be here, and we must respect their ways. “You’re safer in a national park than you are in any city if you use respect and allow the animal a comfort zone,” said Jack Hanna, the director of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Given the fact that many animals are capable of attacking and hurting us, we still need some guidelines on how to avoid wild animal attacks.

A Dose of Wildlife Reality

Being aware of what is around you is the first step in ensuring your safety in the wilderness. You don’t have to fear the outside of the concrete walls driving us from our natural habitat, it is more of a common sense story to respect nature. Look where you step and keep your ears opened.

Wild animal attacks

Don’t feed wild animals, or provoke them, instead use the zoom function on the camera to take pictures. Even though wild animals may look cute and cuddly in pictures, the real life is a struggle for surviving. About 98% of the time, if an animal will hear you he will run away. But make no mistake, in their territory, animals can harm you if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Research the place before you go, know the potentially threatening animals that are native to the area and the hot spots you should avoid. And always keep your distance from a wild animal, remember he is threatened by your appearance. Following are some easy and necessary tips on how to avoid and survive an encounter with a wild animal.

  • When camping, keep a clean area around you. Do not leave food hanging around, but place it in containers that don’t let the smell out. Wash carefully all of the utensils used to prepare the food. Also, the clothes in which you prepared the food must be kept in a container at night. Bears, wolfs and other animals have a great sense of smell, thus they can track food a mile away. And don’t forget about the garbage! Place it into smell-proof containers as well and keep it away from the camp area (at least 100 yards from your tent). Store food and odorous items by hanging them 10 to 15 feet above the ground. Do not take any food in the tent with you, if an animal comes, you have a chance of it not noticing you if it doesn’t smell your food.
  • Do not feed wild animals or get too close and startle them. Make noise on the trail, so that the animal can sense your presence and have time to leave before a close encounter.
  • Carry defense tools. Nobody enjoys hurting another living creature, but you have to be prepared. Cary a knife with you. A pepper spray is also a good idea for close encounters or fireworks that make a lot of sounds. Wolves, for example, are easily scared of powerful sounds, so firecrackers are good to have around.
  • Watch for snakes when picking up firewood or gear from the ground
  • Wear long pants and shirtsleeves to avoid mosquito, spider and tick bites.
  • Do not enter in thick bushes, always keep an open space in front of you.
  • Do not leave your dog unattended or chained outside the camp.

Bear Encounters

Bears don’t usually attack people to kill them. They either get you surprised in a close encounter, or a hungry bear smells your food.

Bear encounter

There are two types of bear attacks and this is how to escape them:

  • The bluffer attack: in this case, the bear doesn’t want to get in a fight with you, but he’s on the spot, so he needs to hold his ground and scare you away. Make space for him to leave, and if you are too close do not start to run. Avoid direct eye contact and slowly, talking in a calm voice so he doesn’t sense you as a threat, back away.
    If the bear is making noise and charging repeatedly at you, place yourself on the ground curled up with the hands over the back of your neck for protection. Having a pepper spray on you is a very good idea, the animal will back off on smelling it. If a young bear approaches you make sure to have something between the two of you, like a big stick. Eventually, he will back down.
  • Predatory attack: although this kind of attack happens very rarely, grizzly or black bears can see a human as a pray. The attitude of the animal is different, he walks slowly towards you, with his head down to monitor how much of a challenge you will be. In this case, if you “play dead” he will attack. To intimidate him, shout out as loud as you can, clap, grab anything you can find to use as a weapon, or ultimately search for a near tree you can climb fast on.

Wolf Encounters

Wolves are generally shy and don’t pose a big threat to humans. But because in some parts they’ve grown fearless to human habitat, living near homes, camping areas, their confidence boosted and there is a greater chance of an encounter.

Rare wolf encounter

In that case, here are the guidelines to reduce the chance of conflict while in wolf country and understand their body language:

  • If a wolf spots you and “stands his ground” fearless, maybe even growls, it does not mean he will attack, more likely he is curious. Do not run. Never turn your back on a wolf, or he may see you as prey and attack.
  • Be dominant, don’t lose eye contact and raise your hands up in the air making loud noises.
  • Slowly, with your face towards him, start backing away and throw rocks or whatever you can find.

Shark Encounters

From almost 500 species of sharks that live in the waters, just 3 pose a threat to humans. Shark attacks are very rare, and usually express a case of mistaken identity due to poor visibility. If the shark does bite a person, It may also be because it confused you to his normal prey, a seal for example.

After noticing that you don’t taste like one, it may back off. But if it feels threaten in any way, then it is possible to bite in self-defense. To avoid an encounter with a shark, use this simple steps:

  • Sharks are attracted to bright colors, so don’t wear any jewelry on you in the water.
  • Do not enter the water if you have an open wound. Sharks can trace blood miles away.
  • Don’t adventure too much on your own in the sea, but swim in groups. Sharks are more likely to target a single person.
  • Sharks are more active during night time, so don’t go in the water after dawn.
  • If you see a shark approaching and you are alone, a last ditched effort to stop his attack is to, well, play dead. The reason is that a shark is more likely to target a living creature than a dead one.
  • In the animal has a hold on you, fight back and try to hit him repeatedly in the eyes.

Lion Encounters

Probably the most intimidating encounter you can witness on land is the one standing in front of a lion. The behavior of the big cat towards our kind varies from region to region. In the safari were tourism is high, lions have grown habituated to vehicles and barely notice our presence.

But these lions are more dangerous to humans in an encounter without the safety of a vehicle, because they lost their instinctive fear of us. In contrast, in areas where tourism is rare, a lion will more likely run or attempt to scare you away than eat you.

Lion encounter

In both cases, if you find yourself face to face with a lion, first thing is to freeze and notice his body language, while running away will awaken his hunting instincts.

Although it’s a question of circumstances, you can make some preventions when traveling in a safari, to avoid being attacked by the “king of the animals”.

  • Prepare yourself with pepper spray, firecrackers, maybe a knife when adventuring in the wild.
  • Avoid taking a trip in the safari during the mating season. Even approaching a pair of mating lions in a vehicle is very dangerous.
  • Keep your distance, don’t approach lions with your camera lenses
  • Avoid camping at night in any area known to be high in lion density. If you do, then maintain a vigil throughout the night and a fire. Although lions are not very afraid of fires on the ground, if you pick up a flaming stick they may back away.

There are two types of attacks, the mock and the hunting. Here’s what experts say you should do:

  • The mock attack: You can recognize if a lion is intimidated by you and just wants to scare you away, from his movements. Look at his tail, if he feels threatened he will sweep it from side to side. He will stand his ground and make mock charges at you with long growling sounds. Even if the lion charges, do not run. It’s very intimidating, they charge at 80 km per hour and the roaring is deafening. Stay on your feet, keep eye contact, raise your arms high using your shirt to try to look bigger and shout at him as loud as you can.
    If the lion still doesn’t back off, but doesn’t approach you either, then start backing away slowly in the same position. If he moves again towards you, freeze immediately. If you can keep this energy through the encounter, most likely the lion will step away.
  • The hunting :This type of attack is meant to kill you, so your chances of survival are lower. It usually happens when you interfere in their territory during mating season or in an encounter with a mother lioness. Their body language differs. The lion keeps his tail straight, for more concentration, and will charge at you. The only chance to survive this is using defensive tools. The softest, a pepper spray, could scare him off if you use it at the right time and position it so it reaches his face. There have also been cases were keeping fire between the two of you scared the lion away.

Snake Encounters

Snakes may be fun to photograph and see from a close perspective, but they are not to joke with. The snake has a very good defensive system and if you step in the wrong place or invade its privacy, it will attack. So give it space and it will escape to the nearest corner.

Snake encounter

It’s hard to tell the difference between a venomous and non-venomous snake. There are some common features, like triangular shaped heads or brightly colored skin for venomous snakes, but if you are not an expert you can’t tell for sure. In the water, it’s easier to identify a venomous snake because it swims with its entire body visible on the water.

While less than 1/3 of all snake species are venomous, a bite is very unpleasant.

If you are hiking or traveling in an unfamiliar area this is what you need to do to avoid an unpleasant and possibly dangerous snake bite:

  • First, prepare yourself with some appropriate gear, wear high boots and long pants and make a research on the snakes in the area you are about to travel to.
  • Don’t corner a snake, or it will feel threatened and attack.
  • Be mindful of your step and where you put your hands, try to stay on the trail. Don’t adventure in tall grass or crevasses where snakes usually hide.
  • Don’t camp near large rocks or tall grass.
  • Snakes are more nocturnal creatures, so zip your tent well and if you go outside, carry a flashlight with you. Remember to keep your boots inside, you don’t want a surprise visit in the morning.

Bison Encounters

The massive bison is incredible to look at, and may seem docile, but it’s a wild animal and it’s very fast. They don’t just attack people, they protect their territory.

Bison encounter

Here’re some simple tips to avoid being in that dangerous situation:

  • Be patient. If you come close to a bison and you’re in a vehicle, don’t horn or agitate the animal and don’t get out of the vehicle. If you drive slowly he will eventually back off.
  • The safe distance between you and a bison is of 100 meters, so don’t get too close.
  • Don’t startle them, but let the bison know you are there and mindfully walk away.
  • They are more aggressive during mating season, so take extreme precaution and find a refuge if you see this signs: it shakes his head, raises his tail, or runs towards you.
  • If you travel with dogs, keep them on a leash or they may trigger an attack.

Beware of Animals That Show Signs of Sickness

There are many diseases and health problems that can affect wild animals, and can be transmitted also to humans. If an animal is sick then its behavior can be unpredictable and it may attack an adult or child. Even if your instinct is to save the animal in distress, don’t rush to it before calmly determining his state.

Therefore if you spot these signs get away from him and call the local animal control:

  • stumbling, staggering, walking in circles, dragging a limb or the hind end
  • acting strangely, approaching people or pets in an aggressive manner
  • hypersalivation

Control Your Fear And Respect Nature

Remember that the majority of the attacks from wild animals directed to humans are a result of human behavior and could have been prevented.

Control your fear

There are many animals out there that can attack a human, normally they don’t, only if they think they have to protect themselves. Your prevention and reaction to the animal will determine your well being when you pass on their, in fact our, now much more rare, territory.

There is one common aspect to all avoidance and survival tricks and that is your energy. The good energy comes from knowledge and respect. Learn to be dominant and respectful in the wilderness, not ecstatic and fearful. Don’t impose, just be there, watch, feel and learn, and the experience will be enormously rewarding. Have a safe and fun trip!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sean Nelson
Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.

  • Wendy Fortin

    Based on the discussions of people who have been on the Appalachian trail and their experiences with wild animal encounters such as bears and snakes, you will be safe as long as you follow the instructions above. In my opinion, it is of utmost importance to have the necessary knowledge to fight off such an attack, regardless of your location.

    • Sean Nelson

      I agree Wendy. You really have to be prepared. Don’t be afraid to ask and listen to what your sources are saying at all times. I’ve been to numerous trails and encountered my share of wild animals. It helps to stay calm and to focus on what’s ahead of you. Panicking will get you nowhere.

  • Mark Lee

    Don’t worry too much about the danger of wild animal attacks on the Appalachian trail. From what I’ve read, venomous snakes there are rare and black bears are scared of people. If you still feel unsafe, you may want to read more about how to stay safe while in a region where bears roam around.

    • Sean Nelson

      The wise thing to do is to be calm and prepared for anything. Remember that going camping or trekking in the wild exposes you to a lot of challenges. Your experience and quick thinking will always save the day. It doesn’t hurt that you have the right tools for protection.

  • Allen Federico

    Thankfully, I have never been involved in a situation where I felt threatened by an animal on the trail. I do still always carry a good knife with me at all times, just to help myself feel a little more secure. I use the Columbia River Knife And Tool M16-01Z. It’s a great every day carry knife. Very versatile, too, so you’ll be able to use it for more than just self defense!

  • Sean Nelson

    Thanks Allen and I hope you never use that knife. Although prevention is still key, being prepared is crucial. You may also want to try bringing a bear pepper spray.

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