Here are some suggested actions and precautions to take to avoid or stay safe during wild animal encounters, BUT, animal behavior can be unpredictable based on how hungry they are, how aggressive an individual example may be, whether a male feels his female is threatened or whether a female feels her offspring are threatened—or just factors we don’t fully understand yet.
Here are a few suggestions from experience and from other hikers’ encounters. That is all they are, suggestions; there are no guarantees.
- Travel in groups. Hiking solo increases the risk of a dangerous animal encounter. Hiking with two or more people makes you a less attractive target, and you are more apt to make noise, which will usually divert an animal even before you see it.
- Make noise. Most wildlife wants to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. Being noisy on the trail is a good strategy: you do not want to surprise them. Noise can be singing, talking, or even clanging hiking poles together.
- Do not listen to music through headphones. If you wear headphones while on a trail, not only are you less likely to make noise, but you will miss hearing key noises that might clue you in to nearby wildlife.
- Back away. If you encounter an animal, make yourself seem like less of a threat and back away slowly. Do not turn your back or run unless it is a charging moose (see below). And do not approach the animal.
- Keep strong odors away: Leave foods and beverages with strong odors at home. Avoid wearing scented lotions, perfumes, scented deodorants, and other stronger odors. Most animals have a strong sense of smell and can detect odors from far distances.
- Never approach a baby anything; assume they are not abandoned even if the mom is not in sight. The maternal instinct could produce an aggressive behavior if you come between a mom and her offspring, so play it safe.
Mountain lions (also called cougars and panthers) are common in most American habitats. They hunt mostly at night, so day hikers do not often encounter them, but it has happened.
If you see a mountain lion, the above principles are the best bet. Turning and running will most likely trigger its chase reflex, and a mountain lion is much faster than a human, so you will not outrun one. Instead, I am told this is one animal with whom you want to make eye contact and retreat slowly while facing the mountain lion. It will look right at you with an intimidating stare. With most stories I have heard, a sighting ends with the mountain lion strolling or bounding away into the woods. If that is the case, I would recommend not continuing the hike, especially if you have small children or a dog with you.
If the mountain lion does approach, face it, and retreat slowly. Do not crouch down. Make yourself appear as large as possible by waving your arms, opening your jacket, being noisy, etc.
Mountain lions usually avoid human confrontation, and sightings are rare. Attacks are even more uncommon: their instinct guides them to prey on elk, deer, coyotes, and rodents—not humans.
If a mountain lion attacks, do not roll into a ball and play dead: it will only see you as small prey. The cougar prefers to attack the back of the head and neck, so protect that area as much as you can. To avoid that, face the cougar, and beat the tar out of it. Punch it repeatedly in the head, go for the eyes, hit it with a hiking pole, stab it with a knife, use rocks or whatever is around.
That may seem to require more bravery than you feel, but in an attack, you have no choice but to confront the situation.
Moose can be found in many locales around the U.S., not just up in Alaska. I live in an area where moose were repopulated and whose numbers are increasing.
If a moose feels threatened by your presence or that you are invading its territory, it will either pick up and leave or it will get aggressive and approach menacingly. Again, as suggested above, do not approach. Give it a wide berth or wait until it decides to move away. If you spot one, back away slowly, but if it charges, do NOT think you can stare it down. Your best bet is to turn and run, but not so fast or uncontrollably that you may fall. Try to put some trees or obstacles between it and you. Most often when it feels it has sufficiently driven you away, it will stop.
If it does get close enough to hit you or knock you down, do everything you can to get back up and continue running. There are very few stories about a moose prolonging a chase to the point of death of its target, but they are big, and a hit will hurt.