Animal Encounters While Hiking: A Majestic Experience or a Misadventure?

Wild Bison Animal Encounter While Hiking - What To Do

Are you always on the lookout for forest friends while hiking?

Whether you want to see wildlife or not, it’s important to remain aware of your surroundings so you don’t startle or get startled by a wild animal.

With recent reports of bison goring over-curious tourists and viral videos of mountain lions stalking hikers, we’d like to take a moment to educate you on what to do if you encounter wild animals while on the trail.

We share all of this not to scare you but to remind you that wild animals are just that: wild. They are unpredictable, and as hikers, we are visitors in their home.

Most times, wildlife sightings are a wonderful experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Witnessing wildlife from a distance can be incredibly moving. But when you get too close to wild animals, it can be unsafe for you, those around you, and for the animals in question.

Generally speaking, it’s always wise to maintain space between you and wild animals. Appreciate them from a safe distance the way nature intended. 

But what about when it’s too late to create space between you and the animal?

In this informational blog, you will learn:

  • What is considered a “safe distance” away from animals
  • How to minimize your risk of an animal encounter
  • What to do if you encounter a wild animal
  • What to do in the event of an animal attack

Not only will this information keep you and others safe, but it will positively impact the well-being and longevity of wild species.

First, let’s quickly cover just how far away you should be from wildlife in order to enjoy them safely.

What is Considered a “Safe Distance” Away from Wildlife?

Hiking Tips: Do Not Approach Wildlife

Approaching wildlife is dangerous and oftentimes illegal, which is why it’s valuable to know the adequate amount of space to give any type of wild animal.

Bears and wolves aren’t the only animals to stay away from. Bison, elk and other large mammals can also display aggression. Listen to the National Park Service and “don’t pet the fluffy cows.”

The space you keep between you and a wild animal varies depending on which animal you’re encountering in nature. Here’s what Yellowstone National Park recommends:

  • Maintain at least 25 yards away from bison, elk and other wildlife.
  • Keep at least 100 yards away from bears, mountain lions and wolves.
  • Use the thumb trick to decipher if you’re a safe distance away. Learn more about it here

You can use these distances as a framework but make note that guidelines can vary from park to park. Always confirm the appropriate safety measures with whichever park you’re visiting.

Now that you know how much space to give wildlife, let’s talk about other preventative measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of an unsafe animal encounter.

How to Minimize Your Risk of an Animal Encounter

Reduce Your Risk Of An Animal Encounter While Hiking

Being educated and prepared is a large part of being a responsible hiker. Below you’ll find tips that will enable you to share nature with wild animals in a safe way.

  • Know before you go: Research which animals live in the area where you’ll be hiking and be aware of their habitats, mannerisms and what to do if you see one.
  • Store food properly: Keep food packed away and out of reach for all animals, from small critters to large mammals. If you’re camping, use bear canisters or bags and keep food at least 200 feet away from camp.
  • Pack out your waste: When wild animals come across human food, they’ll start to associate humans with food. Once this happens, animals pose a threat to humans and are at risk of being euthanized.
  • Maintain a safe distance: Keep at least 100 yards away from bears, mountain lions and wolves and at least 25 yards away from bison, elk and other wildlife. Learn more about the thumb trick here
  • Be bear aware: While hiking in bear country, do not use noise canceling headphones. Be sure to observe your surroundings and be on the lookout for bears.
  • Make noise: This will alert wild animals that you’re near so they aren’t frightened by your presence. Use bear bells and talk to your hiking buddy or yourself (no judgment).
  • Hike in a group: If you are venturing somewhere with heavy animal activity, consider inviting a buddy or a few buddies to join you. When wild animals see a group of people, they perceive the collective to be a larger entity and therefore are less likely to attack.
  • Practice Leave No Trace: Stay on well-marked trails and avoid bushwhacking where an animal could be around any corner.

What to Do if You Encounter a Wild Animal

What To Do If You Encounter A Wild Animal

Now you know how to avoid animal encounters. But what do you do if you see a bear, cougar or bison on the trail?

If an unexpected animal encounter happens, here’s what to do:

What to do if you see a wild animal:

  • Stay calm. Don’t panic or act erratically. This will only disturb the animal and put it into fight or flight mode.
  • Keep your eyes on the animal and don’t turn your back to it. Observe its behavior to determine if it is aggressive.
  • Maintain your distance. If the animal is approaching you, back away slowly.
  • Alert a park ranger if the animal seems sick or aggressive.
  • If you see a bear in a state where bear spray is legal, have it ready but don’t use it unless the bear displays aggression.
  • If you cannot maintain a safe distance from the animal and the animal hasn’t noticed you, back away slowly and change your route.

Keep in mind these are general tips for all animal encounters. For specific tips depending on the animal, from bears and cougars to bison and moose, keep reading.

Animal Encounters: What To Do If You…

Wild Grizzly Bear In Glacier National Park

What to do if you spot a bear while hiking

Whether you see a black bear or a grizzly, you’ll want to let the bear know you’re there by speaking calmly. Stand your ground and raise your arms to make yourself look big. These actions will help the bear identify you as human and will be less likely to perceive you as a threat. Be sure to pick up small children and exercise extra caution if you see a mother bear with her cubs.

What to do if you encounter a cougar or mountain lion

How to react to a cougar sighting is similar to what to do if you see a bear. Stand your ground, make eye contact with the animal, and don’t turn your back. Do not run away from a cougar or mountain lion as this may trigger their instinct to attack. Speak to the animal sternly, make yourself look larger, and keep small children behind you.

What to do if you run into a wolf in the wilderness

Did you know a wolf has never attacked a human in Yellowstone National Park? While wolves normally do not pose a threat to hikers, there are measures you can take if one approaches you. Stand your ground, wave your arms, puff up your jacket and yell at the animal. If that doesn’t work, you can throw something at it to deter it from coming closer.

What to do if you’re up close with a bison

The best way to avoid a potential bison attack is by staying at least 25 yards away from the animal. If a bison bluff charges, head bobs or displays other signs of aggression, do NOT stand your ground. Yellowstone National Park advises visitors to walk or run from bison. 

What to do if you meet a moose on the trail

Most moose-related injuries and fatalities occur on the road. While driving to trailheads in moose populated areas, travel at the speed limit and remain aware. You can even tune into the park radio station to get updates on any moose on the road. If a moose approaches you while hiking, talk to it softly and back away slowly. Some moose-bluff warning signs include smacking lips, ears laid back and showing the whites of their eyes.

These wildlife safety tips were sourced from the National Park Service website.

Animal Attacks: Survival Tips for Hikers

Animal Attacks: Survival Tips For Hikers

While uncommon, animal attacks do happen. Prepare for the worst by knowing what to do in the event that a wild animal attacks.

  • If possible, use an emergency GPS to alert that you are in distress.
  • Use a wilderness whistle to scare off smaller animals and signal other hikers.
  • If the animal makes contact, protect your head and neck with your hands.
  • Put your backpack between you and the animal if possible.
  • Treat wounds with a first aid kit to the best of your ability.

Please note, these survival tips are general recommendations. How you respond to an animal attack depends on the animal in question. For example, you should fight a black bear but play dead if a grizzly bear attacks.

For specific tips about animal encounters and wildlife safety, we encourage you to search for additional information on the National Park Service website,

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Here at 52, hiking safety is our top priority. We want you to feel comfortable outside so you can accomplish your goal! The more educated you are, the more prepared you will feel and the safer you will be.

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