Visiting U.S. National Parks? Watch out for the wildlife!

Today we have an epic post from Carey of Blaze Your Adventure. Carey is a camping and outdoor survival expert, and in this post he shares with us some useful tips about understanding wildlife in the U.S. National Parks and how to deal with them if you have an encounter! Over to Carey…

us national parks wildlife

Image courtesy of Princess Lodges

It’s camping season!

Every summer, the U.S National Parks begin to teem with tourists and campers looking to escape the civility of the concrete metropolises and get back to nature.

For those planning on coming to the U.S., visiting a National Park is a rite of passage; with every step, and every trail, leading to a unique adventure. U.S. National Parks are passages to a simpler time, where travelers can escape the trappings of society and craft an unforgettable outdoor adventure. Like stepping into an Ansel Adams photo, U.S. National parks are pristine living photographs that capture the timeless qualities of the American landscape.

US national parks wildlife

Unlike the urban jungles of towering skyscrapers and man made artifacts, there is a pleasant uncertainty when hiking or camping in the backcountry.

In the words of John Muir, going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”

But with the throngs of nature lovers and adventurers converging on the National Parks, it’s inevitable for the wildlife to begin feeling a little squeezed. Close encounters with the denizens of the wild have become more commonplace. Many venture into the National Parks hoping to see firsthand the abundant, yet elusive wildlife, and end up biting off more than they can chew.

Make no mistake. The Wild is the Wild.

US national parks wildlife

Image courtesy of Henning Leweke

I’m sure you’ve come across stories of bison attacking tourists, hikers being stalked by mountain lions or in the most nightmarish of stories, campers dragged off by a pack of wolves. More often than not, these are just stories, tales meant to dissuade adventurers from getting too far off the beaten trail, or fear mongering for the sake of a colorful firelight anecdote.

The many critters that call the wilderness home are not dangerous and react more out of instinct and defense rather than aggression. Random attacks in the wild are few and far between. But, don’t get me wrong, as exaggerated as rumors are, there’s always a real possibility of being pitted mano-a-mano against the wild. Believe me, it does happen.

The wilderness is only as dangerous as you make it. Be prepared, know your surroundings, and know the techniques when face to face with jaws and claws.

Surviving the American Wilds

Know your park

Most National Parks in the U.S. have facilities catering to the millions of yearly visitors. But in the backcountry, aside from trails, there’s very little else besides you and the great outdoors. Rescue is hard, and if deep in it can be a few hours away at a minimum. If something does happen, self-rescue may be your only option. Get a map, familiarize yourself with the landscape and landmarks, know the weather patterns, and be aware of the wildlife that may be keeping you company. Lastly, always, always have a compass.

Know your animals

One of the great things about the National Parks are their diversity. Of the 60 national parks spanning across 27 states, you’ll come across multiple species of bears, mountain lions, the American bison, grey wolves, even to alligators. Each species have their own proclivities, their own instincts and unique behavioral patterns. In this case, one size does not fit all.

By knowing each animal, and what drives them and their predatory patterns, you are better equipped to devise strategies to counter them. For instance, black bears are known to hunt salmon at night, so it’s probably best to stay away from the salmon stream come nightfall.

US national parks wildlife

Image courtesy of Jim Liestman

Keep your food secure

Predators are not sport hunters, and since we’re not high up on the menu for most, we’re pretty safe. But they do like to eat. So if you happen to have your lunch laying about, they’ll naturally go the path of least resistance.

By knowing proper food storage techniques, you’ll not only keep the wild from getting too comfortable with humans, but you also won’t be seen as an easy target. Use bear kegs and keep it at least a 100 ft from your campsite. Animals lose interest quickly and will mosey on when it gets too difficult.

Keep your distance

Animals are defensive creatures. Attack is generally the last resort, and is usually motivated by either a need to eat, or the need to survive. Getting too close to a wild animal breaks their comfort zone, and forces them into a “fight or flight” response, and more often than not they’ll do what they know: attack.

Situational awareness

In high-intensity circumstances, paying attention to your surroundings is easier said than done. But believe me when I tell you it will save your life.   Know your surroundings and catalog tools or resources that can be used defensively. Also, never block the animals escape route; always give them an opening to run away.

And most importantly, don’t ever, ever come between the mother and its baby.

Cute is still dangerous

Even the smallest, most unassuming animal can kill – think beavers. Animals are bred for their environment, and have survived through the harshest climates, evolving survival techniques we can only dream about. Squishies like us can’t even compete against a critter 1/10 our weight class. Just sit down, get the photo-op and don’t engage.

Common American Predators

Bears

The great American bear comes in all shapes, sizes and temperaments. From the small black bear, to the large grizzlies, you’ll be both in awe and fear when you come across one in the backcountry. I’ve encountered quite a few bears while backpacking, and let me be the first to tell you – you never get use to it.

US national parks wildlife

Bear Tips

  1. Quickly assess if the bear is a threat: identify their ear position (the more sloped the ears, the greater the intent to attack), identify raised hair on the bear’s nape, bluff charges followed by standing their ground, swinging of head side to side.
  2. Never run away from a bear, and back away slowly. Running causes their predatory drive to kick in.
  3. Look for telltale signs of bear presence: claw marks, bear scat, scratched trees, or fresh kills and leave the area quickly if you notice any.
  4. Avoid a mother bear with a cub, and never come between them.
  5. Use your backpack as a shield and be sure to cover your vitals, like neck, head and stomach.
  6. Stand tall, hold your arms out to appear larger and make a lot of noise. If with a group, stand together. Bears generally are hesitant to take on anything larger than themselves.
  7. Wear bells or make loud noises as you hike to avoid surprising the bear.
  8. Don’t play dead if it can be avoided. It’s a risky bet to curl up in a fetal position and hope the bear was just playing. If the bear bluff charges or is with a cub, it might bat you around a bit and move on, however, some bears might just find you an easy lunch. If they’re on you, fight for your life; kick, scratch and go for tender bits like eye sockets and the underbelly.
  9. Store food and all scented items properly (bear kegs, hanging) and keep at least 100 ft away from your camp.
  10. Use a strong, high lumen flashlight to blind a bear at night. Even a camera flash can work.
  11. Try to keep something large, like boulders or logs, between you and the bear.

US national parks wildlife

Mountain Lions

Pumas, cougars, or mountain cats, whatever you may call them, are the North American big cats and are weapons on four legs. With four sets of claws, razor sharp teeth and muscles on top of muscles, mountain lions are predators built to kill. If you happen to be on the receiving end of a mountain lion your only option is to fight for your life.

US national parks wildlife

Image courtesy of K Fink

Mountain Lion Tips

  1. Never run and stand your ground. Prepare for a fight.
  2. Make tons of noise; yell, scream and throw things like a 2 year old.
  3. Keep children in the middle and travel as a group whenever possible.
  4. Keep an eye out behind you and above you. Mountain lions stalk from behind, and leap from ledges and ridges.
  5. Use your backpack as a shield and protect your vitals like head, neck and stomach.
  6. Never let them get behind you.
  7. If you’re lucky enough to see it lunge, hold out your non-primary arm or pack to diffuse the first bite. If you get thrown to the ground, roll on your back and raise your knees to your stomach to protect the tummy, keep your non-primary arm as a block or to hold your backpack up. Using your primary arm, unsheathe your knife and start swiping and stabbing with intent to kill. It won’t be easy to puncture the hide, but it is possible.
  8. If the mountain lion gains the advantage, shove your arm straight down its throat. Your arm is going to get torn up, but it’s a far better alternative then death.

US national parks wildlife

Image courtesy of Valerie

Wolves

Being attacked by a pack of wolves is not an easy accomplishment. Generally fearful of humans, coming across the elusive wolf is no easy task and requires some hard work to achieve. But again, the reality is that wolves do roam territories inside some of our National Parks and so I would be remiss not to include them as a top apex predator. Individually, wolves lack the same power as the big cat or bear, but in a pack, it can be a death knell.

US national parks wildlife

Image Courtesy of Ellie Attebery

Wolf tips

  1. Don’t run, don’t stare them down, don’t grin or show your teeth, and never turn your back on them.
  2. Move slowly and in a non-threatening manner. Back away carefully and do not fall down. Vulnerability makes for easy prey and laying on the ground will inevitably trigger an attack.
  3. Keep your backpack, or whatever you have between you and the wolf. Be sure to protect your vitals.
  4. Try to throw food to distract the wolves if you have any. Hope that it tastes better than you.
  5. Don’t let them flank you. Do your best to keep the wolves in front or at a minimum to your side. Wolves look for vulnerabilities in your defense, and nothing screams weakness like your back.
  6. If in a group, never break from the group. They’re intent is to divide and conquer; break the group down and pick off the stragglers.
  7. Stay calm and fight only at the last minute. Aggression escalates the wolf pack, and the more excited they become, the greater the chance of an attack.   Remember that you’re fighting a group and that even if you best one, there’s another 6 hanging in the wings waiting to take a shot.
  8. Keep your camp clean and store your food properly.
  9. Keep your camp fire lit.

Probably the most important piece of advice for any man verses wild situation is to stay calm and keep a good presence-of-mind. Not only do predators “feed” off fear, but panic clouds the mind, minimizing options otherwise available to you.

U.S. National Parks are awesome. Animal attacks are extremely rare, and if they do happen are almost never fatal. Just don’t be that person that thinks, “It will never happen to me.” Respect nature, and know that mistakes in the wild can be unforgiving.

US national parks wildlife

Image courtesy of Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith

My own personal favorite National Parks: Yosemite, Sequoia Kings Canyon, Smokey Mountain, Yellowstone, and Denali.

Carey’s biography:

I am an aspiring scuba diver, novice spelunker, ghost hunter and avid adventurer.  I have a penchant for always getting lost along with an established track record for always choosing the worst places to eat. With a healthy aversion to staying in one place for too long, I am the ceaseless wanderer and explorer. I traded in the suit for a backpack, and am now pursuing to live a life of travel. I travel to learn, I travel to live and I travel in search of the epic adventure. I’ve been fortunate to be able to share my wanderlust with my wife, as she is my biggest supporter, as I am hers.  She keeps me grounded, and on budget! From camping, backpacking, to adventure travel I hope to leave my shoes well worn, with no stone unturned, all while meeting new friends in the process!

Check out Carey’s blog Blaze Your Adventure!

7 comments

  1. Ah Carey, such a nice batch of information here. It seems like the west has the more dangerous Nat’l Parks in comparison to those where I lived in the eastern U.S. I remember hiking a bit in West Virginia this past summer and thinking about snakes and other sorts of vermin that might be small but deadly.

    It’s interesting that you mentioned beavers because yeah, I’d never think of them as dangerous. But hey, they had to survive somehow. Mountain lions are the real deal here as well, and aren’t thought of as much as bears. Yet people should remain concerned about them, and not just think about grizzlies or black bears.

    Here in Korea, there’s really no concern when hiking other than the occasional dangerous peak or the drunken tour groups that clog the paths. It’s a refreshing thought, to just have the sights without the fear of big and dangerous animals. However, I miss seeing and hearing animals all around me. We’ve got birds here but their numbers are in danger, thanks to massive development and destruction of their habitats.

    Thanks for sharing this guide, Carey. It’s a wonderful set of tips but weirdly, it made me almost reminiscent about such dangers and things to be worried about. Haha!

    Take Care.

    • Petra
      Author

      Wow, thanks for your mammoth comment! It’s interesting to hear about Korea, it’s much the same here in New Zealand – we have no poisonous or dangerous animals apart from one rare spider! We have amazing bird life though. It made us a bit scared going into the U.S. wilderness as we had no idea what to do if we came across something dangerous – so Carey’s post has been fantastic in educating us for next time we’re in the area!

  2. Goodness, much obliged for your mammoth remark! It’s fascinating to find out about Korea, it’s much the same here in New Zealand – we have no harmful or risky creatures separated from one uncommon creepy crawly! We have astounding winged creature life however. It made us somewhat terrified going into the U.S. wild as we had no clue what to do on the off chance that we went over something risky – so Carey’s post has been phenomenal in teaching us for next time we’re in the region!

    • Petra
      Author

      I’m a Kiwi too Annabel, so it was incredibly useful to get Carey to write this guest post! It’s so hard to know what to expect when going to places like the US that have all these scary animals! Glad you found the post useful 🙂

  3. Michelle Yerkeson

    One more animal I would include is elk. They are huge, can move on a dime and during the rut, are drunk with extra hormones. The added threat of those antlers adds to the problem. Like most animals, just backing away is the best advice. I have seen elk jams in Yellowstone and lots of tourists walking up to the elk.

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