Animal Safety While Backpacking

While it may seem to out­siders like a walk in the park, back­pack­ing is seri­ous busi­ness. It requires real sur­vival skills and it places humans back in the food chain; back­pack­ers expose them­selves to the very real dan­gers of the wilder­ness. How­ev­er, giv­en our of years of intel­lec­tu­al and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, we have devel­oped strate­gies for avoid­ing many of the dan­gers of rur­al adven­tures. Hike at your own risk!

bearBears: Food Safety
When trav­el­ing in the back­coun­try, or even near towns in cer­tain areas such as the Sier­ras, bears pose a very real threat—particularly giv­en how used to humans they have become. Before you trav­el, do a bit of research to find out if you will be in bear coun­try. If you will be trav­el­ing through lands poten­tial­ly occu­pied by these hulk­ing beasts, food aware­ness is key. When you go to bed for the night, you will want to keep all food, includ­ing food waste, and good-smelling items, such as lotions, sun­screen, deodor­ant, and tooth­paste in a bear-safe con­tain­er, such as a bear can or bear bag, and hang it at least 100 feet from where you will be sleeping.

Bears: Avoid­ing and Address­ing an Encounter
While hik­ing, you should make noise or wear bear bells to warn bears of your pres­ence to avoid an encounter, though the effec­tive­ness of bear bells is debat­ed. You can fur­ther pro­tect your­self from curi­ous or starv­ing bears by car­ry­ing a can of bear spray while you hike and keep­ing it handy in your tent. This is a high­ly effec­tive means of ward­ing off a would-be attack at close range. If you encounter a bear at some dis­tance, and/or you do not have bear spray, assess the sit­u­a­tion, slow­ly retreat while keep­ing your eyes on the bear (but not eye con­tact), and if it stalks, approach­es, or charges you, attempt to climb a tree and/or pre­pare to fight back. How­ev­er, if the bear is a griz­zly, play­ing dead has also been proven effec­tive in deesca­lat­ing the sit­u­a­tion or reduc­ing the damage.

wolvesWolves: Address­ing Encoun­ters and Food Safety
While much less com­mon, wolf pop­u­la­tions have been ris­ing in the Unit­ed States, so an encounter could hap­pen. Just as with bears, being aware of and pro­tect­ing your food is impor­tant for avoid­ing wolves. If you encounter a wolf in the wild, what­ev­er you do, don’t run. Also, do not make eye con­tact, but do not show fear. If you can find a rock face to back against, do so, and try to scare them off by mak­ing your­self look big, make a lot of noise, and throw stones. If they attack, cov­er your head and face.

raccoonRodents: More Food Safety
A very real dan­ger in the wilder­ness is star­va­tion, so it is impor­tant to keep your food safe. Rodents, such as mice, squir­rels, and even larg­er ani­mals, such as rac­coons, will try to steal your food if giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Hang­ing your food up in a bear can is also effec­tive for pro­tect­ing it against pests if sealed properly.

Rodents: Avoid­ing Disease 
When peo­ple think of ani­mal-human com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases, they often think of rabies. Of course, avoid approach­ing ani­mals in the wild, but if you do get bit­ten, wash the wound with soap and water as soon as pos­si­ble. Then, if you have it, rinse the wound with alco­hol or iodine and head straight to the near­est hos­pi­tal for treatment.

How­ev­er, anoth­er dis­ease lurks in back­coun­try wildlife. Believe it or not, the bubon­ic plague is alive and well and exists in the Unit­ed States. It is, just as dur­ing the dark ages, trans­mit­ted by rodents through their feces, bod­i­ly flu­ids (dead or alive), and the fleas they car­ry. While back­pack­ing, avoid all dead ani­mal car­cass­es and try to stay away from rodents as much as pos­si­ble. Thank­ful­ly, we can now treat bubon­ic plague with antibi­otics, but they should be admin­is­tered with­in 24 hours of the first sign of symp­toms, so if you feel like you have a flu com­ing on while hik­ing and you know you were recent­ly exposed to rodent drop­pings or were bit by a rodent, head straight to the hospital.