How to stay safe around wildlife while hiking

  • By Craig Hill The News Tribune
  • Friday, September 20, 2013 12:47pm
  • Life

From black bears to mice, it’s almost a certainty hikers and backpackers will eventually encounter wildlife during their travels.

Depending on how prepared you are, these animals can either spoil your trip or make it a little more memorable.

Here’s what you should know:

The little creatures

The big beasts such as bears might sound scary, but the animals most likely to give you trouble are the little creatures such as squirrels, chipmunks and mice.

These little buggers can scurry into your pack and start nibbling away at your trail mix in less time than it takes for a potty break.

“The people who have trouble with animals are the ones who don’t hang their food,” said Chuck Young, Mount Rainier National Park’s chief ranger. “Don’t leave food in your tent or in your packs at night. Really, if you stay tidy and clean and hang your food, you probably won’t have any trouble.”

Backcountry camps at Mount Rainier include bear poles, which allow hikers to hang their food. If you are in an area without bear poles, store your food in a bear canister or hang it in a tree — at least 12 feet high and 10 feet from the nearest tree trunk.

In addition to food, you should hang anything that might have a scent. Toothpaste, trash, hand sanitizer, soap and eating utensils all go on the pole.

“You should be absolutely spic and span,” said Young, who recommends even hanging spent fuel canisters.

Don’t just hang these items at night. String them up any time you leave your gear unattended.

And don’t feed the animals. While you might get away with it, this conditions the animals to associate humans with food.

Black bears

Bears, obviously, can do a lot more damage to you and your pack than smaller animals. However, they’re also more likely to keep their distance.

Hikers are more likely to see bears on the trail. There are on average of 417 back bear encounters per year in Washington, more than any other potentially dangerous animal.

But black bears are more likely to bluff charge — swat the ground and pop its jaw — than attack.

It’s terrifying, but you must remain composed. Turning to run or even dropping to the ground to curl into a ball might encourage the bear to attack.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife guidelines recommend staying calm and slowly, quietly moving away. If the bear approaches you, wave your hands and talk to the bear in a low voice, but don’t use the word “bear.” Because people who feed bears frequently say “here bear,” some bears associate the word with food.

Don’t challenge the bear or make eye contact. But if a black bear attacks, the agency recommends fighting back if you think it is a predatory attack. If you don’t think it is a predatory attack, drop to the ground and protect your vital organs.

Bear spray can also scare away these animals. If you carry it, make sure it’s within reach.

Making noise as you hike — conversation, a bell attached to your pack or occasionally clicking your trekking poles — is an excellent way to scare off bears and other animals before you get too close.

Mountain goats

Many hikers didn’t see mountain goats as a safety risk until a Port Angeles man was gored and killed by one in Olympic National Park in 2010.

At Olympic National Park hikers are asked not to urinate along the trail because the salt attracts the goats and other animals. And signs recommend staying at least 150 feet away from the goats.

If goats, which can be bold, approach you, look for a way to give yourself separation while leaving the animal an easy exit.

Elk

While elk are majestic and might not look intimidating, they can be dangerous if you don’t give them space. They’re strong enough to flip hikers high into the air. Elk are most likely to approach hikers during rutting season, September and October.

Keep your distance and if one approaches, get something big — like a tree — between you and the elk.

Read more

This story is part of a series on the Wonderland Trail. Read more at wwwb.thenewstribune.com/wonderland.

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