When I ask people why they are afraid to solo hike, the first answer that comes up is a fear of an animal attack. Animal attacks upon hikers are quite rare. Being prepared and keeping your cool are your best defenses against that unique possibility. Read on for some basic strategies to help you solo-hike with confidence and safety!
Know your territory
First of all, know the animals who roam in the territory where you are hiking. Javelinas are rampant in parts of West Texas, but not an issue in the Rocky Mountains. If you are new to an area or traveling to take a destination hike, do your research. Find out what animals inhabit the area. Talk to locals or search online newspapers to find out which animals frequent the area and where. When you’re on the trail, talk to hikers coming from the opposite direction and ask them if there is anything you should be aware of ahead.
If you haven’t had the thrill of a shrill squawk coming at you out nowhere, let me tell you, it’s a heart-stopper! Alfred Hitchcock was on to something! Birds are one of the rare animals that can see you, but you can’t see them. They are also very defensive if they have a nest nearby. If you get swooped at by a bird, take it as a warning to get away as fast as possible. Start waving your arms above your head and running. It may follow you until you get far enough to make it comfortable. Some birds that will go after you on a trail are mockingbirds, owls, and hawks.
Everyone wants to know what to do if they see a bear. You’ll only see a bear if you’re hiking in an area where they live. If you are, chances are, a bear will be just as scared and startled by you as you are of it. Therefore you want the bear to know that you are there. Some solo hikers carry a bell on their backpack so that the sound will alert the animals and spook them to move away. Rather than using earbuds to listen to music, playing it loudly on the speaker will send a warning just like a bell. If you are alone, stay alert and aware. In bear country, carry bear spray and know how to use it.
If you happen upon a bear, remain calm. Chances are the bear is protecting its young or a food carcass. Try to ascertain what type of bear it is. If a black bear, speak confidently to the bear, look it in the eye, and slowly back away the way you came. Your plans for the day may have to take a detour. If it’s a grizzly bear, again, try to back away. If the bear becomes aggressive, deploy your bear spray and get as far away as possible. Understand that bear attacks are uncommon, and most hikers can avoid them if stay aware and follow safe practices with stowing food in campsites.
Like bears, cats don’t like to be surprised. Carrying a bell or making loud noise on the trail lets them know you are there, and they can slink away. If you come upon one, look it in the eye, make yourself seem as big as possible, and slowly back away. Don’t turn and run as this could trigger an attack. Be sure to protect small children as cats often prey on smaller animals.
Javelina and wild hogs look and behave similarly but are different species. Both can be aggressive if they feel their babies are threatened. Like most animals, they will be scared off if you make a lot of noise. You’ll most likely smell them before you can see them, so if you get a whiff of their musky scent, start ringing your bell or singing loudly.
Your chances of seeing a moose on a hike in their territory are pretty good. Like bears, the best strategy is to back away and give them a wide berth. Look out for moose calves nearby and do not get in between the mother and the babies. Moose calves can live with their mothers for up to two years, so even if the calves look big, assume they are her babies. Moose mothers, like most moms, are very protective. A moose will smack her jaws, pull her ears back, and toss her head like a horse if she is uncomfortable with you. If you see these cues, get back quickly. If a moose charges, run as fast as you are able and try to put a tree or other large object between you. Again, moose don’t wake up each day looking for a fight. They would rather you leave them alone, so if you see one, your best bet is to do just that.
Snakes like to hide in the underbrush, and when they are cold, they hang out on the edges of the trail where they can get a little sun. So, stick to the path to try to stay clear of them. Wear proper shoes or boots to protect your feet. If you see one, pause and give it time to slither away.
Small but mighty
When people think of animals that can harm them or ruin their experience, they often think of big ones like bears and moose. The reality is, it’s the small pesky ones that will impact your experience more. Biting insects can turn an otherwise beautiful hike into a miserable one. Be prepared with appropriate repellent and clothing. Invest in lightweight hiking pants and long-sleeved shirts to protect your arms and legs. A hat with netting or a buff worn on your neck and over your head can discourage insects from getting to you and biting sensitive areas, like ears. If you’re camping or even stopping for a meal, watch out for critters like ground squirrels, mice, and ants. Don’t lean your pack against a tree while you trot over to the lookout area before lunch. A ground squirrel can get into your backpack and make off with your lunch if you turn your back for too long.
The reality is, it’s the small insects and animals that will be more of a nuisance on the trail. Some basic rules that will make you a safer solo hiker:
As a solo hiker, always let someone know where you are and your expected itinerary, including when you’ll be returning from the trail.
If you see an animal, give it lots of space. Stay as far away from it as possible.
Baby animals are cute for calendars, but not for close-up viewing. The reason is that if there are babies, there’s a mama nearby, and she doesn’t want you messing with her kids. So, stay clear of babies too.
If you’re night hiking, stick to the trail. Night is prime hunting time for many animals, and they’ll likely stay away from where the scent of humans is heaviest.
Carry a bell on your pack to avoid surprising animals.
Carry bear spray or a smaller pepper spray if appropriate for your area, and know how to use them.
Still not sure?
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