Camping Safety: Wild Animals and What to Do in an Encounter (Part 2)

Bears, bobcats, mountain lions, and wolves are magnificent. We probably wouldn’t mind getting a glimpse from afar. Far, far away, yes. But from fifty feet? Ten? Umm, no thanks. Camping safety 101: Appreciate from a distance. 

Some insects like ants and bees, and small animals like squirrels and raccoons are pretty common and are usually easily avoided. But that’s not to say that they can’t cause harm too, if you aren’t careful. 

And crocs? Now, those guys definitely deserve a healthy dose of fear and respect and must be avoided at all costs.

Camping Safety: Wild Animals and What to Do in an Encounter Part 2

Bobcat


Location

Bobcats can be found all over North America, from Canada to Mexico. In fact, they are the most abundant wildcat in the continent, with a population believed to be at a million in the United States alone. 

Bobcats are elusive and crepuscular (they hunt at dawn and dusk) for the most part, so humans seldom encounter them.

Description

Small but fierce hunters

These felines are about twice the size of an average house cat but can take down prey that is several times bigger than they are. Though bobcats mainly hunt rabbits, squirrels, rodents, birds, and other smaller game, these carnivores are also skilled at hunting and killing deer. 

Adult deer can weigh around 115 kg (250 lbs) while full-grown bobcats weigh in at just around 14 kg (30 lbs). They kill the much larger animal by jumping on its back and delivering a deathblow by biting at its throat. 

Bobcats are skilled tree-climbers, high jumpers, and fast runners. They can jump to as high as 4 m (13 feet) and can run at 55 km/h (34 mph). 

Bobcats with bobbed tails

Yes, they’re named for their stubby tails. Are you familiar with the bobbed haircut? Bobcats are so named because instead of long, sinuous tails that most other felines have, they have a “bobbed” tail. An adult’s tail reaches only about 15 to 18 cm (6 or 7 in) long.

A lynx but not really

The bobcat and lynx belong to the same genus, Lynx. Yep, so bobcats are a type of lynx, but different from their cousins who are the one commonly called “lynx”, the Canadian lynx up north. The two species are very similar genetically, however, and have indeed been known to interbreed where their habitat overlap, spawning blynx.

Hiking and Camping Safety

Bobcat sightings are rare because they like to hunt under the cover of darkness, usually at dusk or dawn. Attacks on humans are even rarer. That said, it pays to always stay alert when hiking and avoid attracting them to your camp by keeping food properly stored. Don’t let small children stray too far and keep pets on a leash.

What to do if you encounter a bobcat


There’s a good chance that an attacking bobcat is rabid or sick. If you come across one, keep your distance and do the following:

Pets and small children should be protected and kept near you. Bobcats likely won’t take a grown adult human but anything smaller is an easier target.

Slowly and deliberately retreat and create more distance while keeping your eye on the animal. Do not run.

-If it comes nearer, try to appear bigger and scare the bobcat with noise, yelling and the good ol’ banging of pots and pans should work. Spray it with water or blow a horn, if possible.

Stand your ground and fight with all you’ve got if it attacks. 

Seek immediate medical attention afterward as the possibility of rabies is quite high.

-If the bobcat is killed in the struggle, notify the authorities so the body can be properly tested.

Cougar


Location

Cougars or mountain lions live all over the United States but can more often be sighted in the western states. They are extremely adaptable and will live anywhere where there is shelter and prey. They even thrive at desserts or at elevations of more than 3,000 m (10,000 ft) above sea level. Mountain lions have one of the widest land mammal geographic ranges in the western hemisphere, second only to us humans!

Description

Can’t have too many names

Cougar, mountain lion, puma…they hold the record for animal with the most number of names. We’re barely scratching the surface here, they have over 40! Catamount, ghost cat, red tiger, deer tiger, mountain screamer—and our favorite, fire cat—are a few more of the cougar’s other names.

All animals are prey

Well, as long as they can successfully hunt it, cougars will kill and eat it. To survive, a full-grown adult needs to consume eight to ten pounds of meat per day, after all. They generally prefer large animals like deer, but will eat any animal from mice to rabbits, sheep, squirrels, elk, moose, armadillos, wild boars, even insects! They’re so quick that even small, agile prey have no chance. Mountain lions are generalist predators on top of the food chain, having no natural predators themselves. 

They are industrious killers

In an attack, mountain lions will often kill more than they can eat. They stalk prey and pounce at the right opportunity. They are known to kill numerous livestock in one go even if they can only eat a small portion of that kill. Of course, they won’t waste this food. Mountain lions like to store kills for the rainy days. Or at least, “cache” them, hiding kills under dirt or leaves to come back to and feed on over the coming days. This is opposed to some animals who prefer their meals fresh.

In many places where other predators are populous, cougars often have to hunt even more frequently. Bears or wolf packs, especially grey wolves, like to steal and run the lone cougar off its kill. 

Housecats on a grander and wilder scale

Unlike other big cats, cougars do not roar, instead, they purr. (They can also produce a scream that can sound eerily like a human’s.) Their general build—a slender body, long, tail, and pointed ears on a round head—is also similar to the regular house cat probably sitting on your lap right now. But bigger and more deadly. They grow to 2.8 m (9 ft) long and weigh up to 90 kg (200 lbs).

Cougars are also lithe, graceful, and agile like house cats. They can run really fast, clocking at 80 kp/h (50 mph). Their powerful hind legs allow them to jump remarkably high, with vertical jumps 4.5 m (15 ft) high and running leaps that reach 12 to 13 meters (40 ft – 43 ft) long.

Cougars are also fast swimmers and awesome climbers. In fact, many frequent trees and wait there to ambush their prey. They jump on its back and deliver a powerful killing bite to the backs of their neck.

And while mountain lions do not have the best sense of smell, they have superb hearing and excellent vision, perfect for hunting from dusk ‘till dawn.

Hiking and Camping Safety

Although they are up there among the most feared animals in the American wilderness, it’s unlikely to ever encounter a cougar or mountain lion on your hiking and camping trip. Science has proven once and for all that they rapidly flee upon hearing human voices. Yes, science. And as they can hear much, much better than you or me, we are unlikely to catch them by surprise. 

With that said, here are precautions you should take when hiking and camping in cougar country. As with other predators, follow these 3 steps and you should be safe and sound.

Hike with a group*. Numbers always trump lone cat, predator or not. A big group is sure to make enough noise in the trail that cougars will hear you from far far away and get out of the way. If you must hike alone or in pairs, make sure to bring noise-makers so you don’t startle the animal into a defensive attack.

Keep children and pets close, don’t let them run around freely. Unlike adult humans, children and pets may prove too tempting to a hungry mountain lion. Don’t tempt them.

Store food properly. Another awesome exercise in not tempting faith is storing food and food wastes properly so you don’t attract cougars and any wild animals.

*Please exercise current mandates on proper social distancing

What to do if you encounter a cougar


-Stay calm, stand your ground, and do not turn your back and run. Instead, talk calmly and firmly to the cougar to identify yourself as human. If you are on a crouch, straighten up. Raise and wave your arms slowly to look as big as possible. Use a towel or jacket to look even bigger.

-If you are blocking a path or if you are surrounded by tents and other objects, move out of the way. Give the animal a clear and wide escape route. 

-If it doesn’t go away, prepare to use any deterrent you have on you—bear spray, a long stick, stones, or knife, etc. 

-If it attacks, fight hard. Use anything you can get your hands on. Take inspiration from this man who survived an attack fighting barehanded rather than be killed himself. 

Coyote


Location

From living in just the country’s prairies and desserts, coyotes are now present all over the US. Neither are they restricted to just the woods, grasslands, or mountainous wilderness. Drawn by livestock, coyotes have gone on to inhabit rural neighborhoods. When campaigns to exterminate them began due to being nuisances to the livestock industry, the wily coyotes moved into urban areas as well.

Description

They’re often mistaken as dogs.

And no one can blame you for making that mistake, especially at night. Coyotes are about the size of your small to medium, friendly neighborhood dog. Though they are noticeably less interested in making friends, especially when they’d sooner eat a pet than exchange sniffs. 

They do look a lot like their domesticated cousins but the most distinctive difference between the two is the coyote’s narrow, elongated snout, pointed, erect ears and long, droopy and bushy tail, tipped with black. They also have lean bodies, yellow eyes, and thick fur. They can be light brown to greyish but the fur on the coyote’s belly is typically white.

Smart and adaptable

Well, that sounds like something you’d put on a job application form. But coyotes are indeed smart and extremely adaptable to different habitats. We’ve mentioned that they first started as residents of the US’s prairies and desserts but now can be found all over the country.

The threat of extinction from extermination campaigns of the livestock industry did not faze these sneaky creatures, oh no. They just expanded their reach and learned to live in urban areas. The coyote population is now stable and is not under any danger. In fact, their numbers now may just be at its all-time high.

They sing!

You have probably never encountered a coyote while camping in coyote country before but you’ve definitely heard one. They have a distinctive call composed of yipping and howling that often develops into a canine chorus. It can sometimes sound rather ominous at night.

Contrary to what one might (understandably) think, these are not attack sounds. This “singing” is their way of communicating with and keeping track of family members, as well as members of other coyote families.

Coyotes are not picky eaters

Part of the reason why they can so easily adapt to various environments is that coyotes are omnivores and are opportunistic eaters. They will eat just about anything–rabbits, fish, frogs, fruit, grass, human food trash, snakes, beans, carrion, lizards, birds, and even deer—you name it! 

Unfortunately, they will also hunt pet cats and small dogs if given the opportunity. This is also why farmers label them as pests and what has led to the extermination campaigns. Coyotes will kill and eat calves, lambs, and other livestock. And because they’re so smart, it can be a pain to keep them away.

Hiking and Camping Safety

Coyote encounters are rare and they generally shy away from humans, even when hunting as a pack. Still, it’s better to be prepared.

-The best way to avoid a surprise encounter with a coyote is to make some noise and not hike at night. 

-Carry a walking stick/noisemakers/deterrent spray. 

-Coyotes may be afraid of you but a pet dog is an enticing prey. If you must bring a pet on a hike in coyote country, always keep it in a short leash.

-Don’t let small children wander too far. Keep them between two adults.

-As with other wildlife, don’t keep food around camp and minimize the smell of cooking as much as possible. 

-Make sure your tent windows and doors are zipped up if you’re not using them, in case a curious coyote happens to wander around.

-Mating season is in January and February. These are already lean months for hunting. That and an excess of testosterone can make a coyote more aggressive than any other time of the year.

What to do if you encounter a coyote


-If you chance upon a coyote on the trail, don’t run. As you’ve probably figured out by now, this is the rule of thumb when it comes to predators, most of which will always be faster than you. Running will also make them think that you’re prey and follow you on instinct.

-Hold your position and look the coyote in the eye. Maintain steady eye contact. Often, this is enough to make one run for the hills (if it hasn’t already upon seeing you). They are naturally timid and will almost always be the fist to avoid an encounter with humans.

-If the coyote doesn’t seem to go away, hazing is the name for this series of actions that people are advised to do in case of an approaching coyote.

  1. Don’t turn around and run. Stay calm and try to look big by waving your arms about. 

  2. Make noise by clapping your hands, shouting, stomping, banging some pots and pans together, or using a whistle or horn. 

  3. Throw sticks and stones at the coyote, not with the intent to injure but just to scare it away.

  4. Spray it with water. Water with vinegar, if on hand.

  5. If you know that coyotes can be aggressive in an area or if it’s mating season, you can have a “coyote shaker” prepared. It’s a soda can filled with pebbles or pennies that you shake or throw at the coyote. 

-Continue hazing until the coyote turns away.

-If this doesn’t work and it goes on full attack mode, fight back. 

-It’s unlikely to be attacked by a coyote unprovoked so there is a fair chance it is rabid.  Seek immediate medical attention and report the incident to the authorities.

Fox


Location

North America mainly has four wild foxes. The red foxes can be found all over the content. Desert kit foxes inhabit the USA’s open deserts. Gray foxes live throughout the US, except in the Rocky mountains. And lastly, arctic foxes can be found in Canada and Alaska.  

Description

The dog that’s a cat that’s a dog

When you look at a fox, do you see a dog or cat? Can’t quite put your finger on it? What looks like a cat and behaves like a cat must be…a dog? DNA proves that foxes belong to the dog family. But why do you think they’re cat-like? Can’t blame you, really. Here’s why:

-Foxes are the only dog species that have retractable claws. Guess what else has retractable claws? Cats. Their vibrissae or whiskers are also longer and more sensitive than any other dog’s, just like a cat’s. 

Foxes have vertical pupils that look more like cats’ than dogs’ round ones. This feature, along with the reflective membrane at the back of their eye give foxes excellent vision during the night and day, both. 

-Behaviourally, foxes are very similar to cats too. Both are excellent climbers, especially the gray fox. Foxes, like cats, also hunt alone, instead of in packs like dogs do. Both are stealthy hunters that would rather stalk and catch prey by surprise. They also have the same prey, like mice, squirrels, and birds. Foxes bite-to-kill like cats, instead of grab-and-shake like other dogs. 

Even fox posturing is more like a cat’s. The fur-raising, back-arching, stiff-legged prancing is a cat’s signature, no? Additionally, foxes make meow-like noises and sharp cries, and baby foxes hiss and spit like kittens.

Foxes and their fluffy tails

Probably one of the most noticeable features of foxes is their tails, sometimes called brush. It’s about a third of their body and is the fox’s best friend, especially in cold weather. They would tightly curl up to cover their nose, legs, and paws with their brush to keep them comfortable and warm. 

The tail is also a significant part of their communication, conveying playfulness, aggression, etc.

Hiking and Camping Safety

In all honesty, you probably aren’t going to be meeting any foxes while hiking because they’d have run away long before you see a glimpse of one. However, there’s a chance that a fox will brave going inside your camp if food is left lying about. Keep all food and food waste stored properly, preferably in your car.

Foxes can also pose a threat to small children and pets, especially cats. Keep your hiker cat on a short leash. Don’t allow children to roam too far and out of sight, nor try to pet strange cat-doggies.

What to do if you encounter a fox


-Back away and give it space to escape. It may have a den or kits nearby. If it’s birthing season, move away and give it a wide berth. We won’t want to make a parent fox feel threatened.

-If you accidentally run into a fox on the trail, making loud noises and stamping your feet should work like a charm. Foxes are naturally afraid of an average-sized adult human so it should be easy to scare one into going away.

-If the fox is used to humans and doesn’t go right away or if it’s drawn to your camp, go through the steps of hazing below, just like you would with a coyote:

  1. Stand your ground and try to look big by waving your arms about. 

  2. Make noises by clapping your hands, shouting, stomping, banging some pots and pans together, or using a whistle or horn. 

  3. Throw sticks and stones at the fox.

  4. Spray it with water, water with vinegar, or as a last resort, pepper spray or bear spray.

  5. Fill a soda can with pebbles or pennies and shake it. You can also throw it at the fox without injuring it.

-Again, your intent is not to harm but just to scare it away. Also, hazing won’t work as well if you have food lying about or if someone at camp is feeding the fox.

-Foxes are not dangerous to humans but exceptions are if they have kits nearby, are rabid (very rare), or if they are deliberately mistreated e.g. captured and handled (very stupid and cruel). Even then, a bite or two will likely be the worst of it. Seek medical attention right away.

Gators (and Crocs)


Location

Crocodiles, alligators, and caimans live in tropical areas and can be found in all continents except Europe and Antarctica. In North America, alligators are found in the southeastern US. American crocodiles and caimans are found only in South Florida.

As such, this section will talk of an alligator encounter and how to fend it off, but everything pretty much applies to crocs, and even caimans too.

Description

All smiles

Alligators have a very toothy smile. They can have up to 80 teeth at a time and will have more than 2000 over a lifetime. In addition to the abundance of teeth, gator jaws are incredibly strong, usually with a bite force of 2125 pounds per square inch. The croc’s bite force is even stronger at 3,700 PSI.

Fun fact: Prying a gator’s mouth open is almost impossible for a human adult but holding it close is relatively easy in comparison. It’s because gators may have a powerful bite but the muscles that keep their mouth open are comparatively weak. 

Runners, they’re not

Gators can run but they generally prefer not to. At short distances, they can reach 56 kph (35 mph) on land. But chances are you can outrun an alligator because it does not have much endurance and can’t sustain speed for long.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re slow, however. Gators are quick and agile. The alligator danger zone is a 180-degree field on its front, for about half the length of its body. If you’re anywhere near that distance, it can strike rapidly and have you between its powerful jaws within seconds.

Hiking and Camping Safety

Do your research. Learn the habits of gators in the area. Ask locals and rangers about the animals’ activities and what their recommended safe spots are. 

Leave Fido at home. Don’t bring your pets (and even small children, if possible) to places known for alligator activity.

Select your camping spot carefully and according to your research. It’s always a safe bet to set up camp far away from water. 

Always secure food and leftovers so they don’t attract unwanted visitors.

Stay alert and be careful when passing swamps or marshes. Maintain a healthy distance between you and the water, if possible. Do not swim in waters that gators are known to inhabit.

Steer completely clear of bodies of water at dusk or evening. They can be active at any time, day or night, but gators are more active at dusk and evening. Better yet, stay away long before it starts to get dark.

What to do if you encounter an alligator


If one looks to be eyeing you on land, eye it right back while you calmly move away. For gators, staring can be taken as a warning not to approach so this might actually scare it away.

If it is at an uncomfortable distance or is headed towards you, run away. They can run fast but they can’t keep it up for long. Gators don’t like running after food anyway and chances are they’ll give up in favor of unaware prey to ambush.

If you fell into the water, swim out as quietly and rapidly as you can.

If it’s got you, fight. Don’t try prying a gator’s jaws apart (spoiler: you can’t). Instead, try to do as much damage as you can to its snout, eyes, and throat. Drive your thumb into its eyes if possible. If you have a weapon, use it. Struggle, scream, fight for your life, and show the alligator that you’re food that fights back. They will often let go of prey that proves to be too difficult or dangerous. 

If you survive, seek medical help immediately and report the incident. You don’t want to survive an alligator attack, only to be had by some nasty infection from its bite.


Did you know that wild bison can be more dangerous than bears, mountain lions or gators? They actually attack and injure more people than top predators at Yellowstone! If you’re curious about grass-eating wildlife and what to do if they attack, stay tuned for Part 3 of our Camping Safety: Wild Animals and What to Do in an Encounter series and learn about wild herbivores like bison, elk, and more! 

If you missed Part 1 of the Camping Safety series, read it here and learn more about our fierce forest dwellers, bears!


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