Some simple wilderness survival rules should be followed when hiking or camping in wilderness areas where wild animals, such as bears, cougars, mountain lions and other potentially dangerous animals live.
We’ve written about how to survive wild animal attacks. This article is about how to prevent wild animal attacks from occurring.
The first rule when camping or hiking in wilderness areas is to never surprise a wild animal. Most healthy animals will avoid people if you give them the opportunity to do so. If they know you are coming, they will most likely get out of your way and will put some distance between you and them.
Animals do not like to be startled. One of the worst case scenarios is when a hiker finds himself between a mother bear and a cub. In these situations, the mother will most likely go on the offensive and attack to protect her cub. This type of situation can be avoided by simply making some noise when hiking in wild animal country. Most hiking and backpacking stores sell one-inch jingle bells that can be attached to a belt or backpack. These are intended to warn wild animals of your approach. If you do not have jingle bells, whistling or talking loudly can alert animals to your presence.
The second rule when hiking or camping in wild animal territory is never temp a wild animal. By this we mean that you should never do something that will trigger an animal’s natural instincts, such as when they see something running through the woods. In Arizona most cougar attacks appear to be provoked by people either jogging or riding mountain bikes on trails. These actions are very similar to that of a running deer, which is the type of prey that finds itself at the top of a cougar’s delicacy list. That means that you should never take off running if you accidentally confront a dangerous or threatening animal. They will almost surely attack if you do so.
Wild animals spend a good portion of their lives looking for food and they are naturally attracted to anything that may smell good to eat. When camping, always wrap your food supply items in sealable plastic bags and store the food in a tree at night. The food should be put in a pack or stuff sack and hung from a branch. The food needs to be at least ten feet from the ground and at least six feet from the nearest tree trunk. Simply tie a rope to the food sack and ties the other end to a rock or stick. Toss the end over a suitable tree branch and tie the end of the rope to a tree trunk or branch. The idea is to prevent the scent of the food from permeating the area by sealing all food in sealed plastic bags, and then raising it into a tree where a bear cannot reach it.
Never, ever under any circumstances should food be brought into a tent. An animal’s sense of smell is much stronger than that of a human and if they smell food in a tent, you could be injured or worse if they attempt to retrieve it.
Do not leave food scraps in the campsite. Always wash your dishes before going to bed at night and burn all food scraps. In popular camping areas, bears and other wild critters tend to have a regular circuit that they follow from one campsite to the next due to the food scraps that they found in the past.
We use a couple of tricks to discourage roaming campsite-visiting bears. One is to bring a bag of moth balls and spread them randomly around the camp at night. Most animals hate the smell of moth balls and the odor will additionally mask any smell of food. You can collect the moth balls in the morning and use them again for the next campsite. Another trick that works well is to bring a small squirt-bottle filled with ammonia. The ammonia can be used to spray a perimeter circle around your tent and around the campfire area at night. We have watched bears come into a campsite the next day and as soon as they hit the line of ammonia, they stop in their tracks, snort and wander away.
The third rule is always be prepared for an animal attack. It is a good idea to carry pepper spray when hiking through the woods. We are not talking about the little cans intended to be sprayed in a human attacker’s face. Pepper spray made for thwarting bear and other wild animal attacks is stronger and usually will spray a ten-foot stream. Only use the pepper spray if an attack is inevitable. Most of the time you are better off if you hold the spray can ready to use and slowly back away from the animal. If the animal continues to move toward you aggressively, remember that you must hit their eyes and nose with the pepper pray for it to be effective. the idea is to temporarily blind and disable them.
Although some people are not comfortable with firearms, they do save hundreds of lives in the USA every year, not just from animal threats, but also from human threats. In 2010 a new Federal law went into effect that allows visitors to carry loaded handguns while in most National Parks and wilderness areas. You must still obey all local laws regarding the carrying and discharge of those firearms, but at least you are now able to protect yourself should the need arise. The problem was not only one of a growing number of animal attacks, but also attacks from criminals who preyed on hikers and campers in wilderness areas.
Keep in mind that a wounded animal can be the most dangerous type of animal, so never fire a weapon at a wild animal unless you have to. If you own a handgun, learn how to use it properly and carry it with you when you go into dangerous wilderness areas. It may save your life some day.