Whether you’re camping in the wilderness this winter season or just day hiking, being aware of your surroundings is one of the keys to staying alive. When I say surroundings, I’m not just referring to the beautiful landscape. I’m also referring to the predators in the area.
In the winter months, there are certain predators I personally would be especially aware of. Bears, wolves, and mountain lions. People often ask me “Why take such precautions in the winter regarding bears? They hibernate!”. This is the number one misconception about bears. We’ll cover that in more detail in just a moment.
Before we talk about predator safety, let’s talk briefly about survival necessities - what to carry with you when you are in the wilderness. These items could literally save your life in the wake of a possible predatory encounter! Most, if not all, of these items aren’t just for your ‘winter carry’. In my opinion, there are to be carried year round. One piece of advice - do not overload your pack. Keep it as lightweight as possible.
Items I carry in my pack:
- First aid kit
- Multi-tool or Multiuse Knife
- Fire starting kit - Ferro rod and tinder (cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly make great tinder.)
- A small metal container/cup (for boiling water and/or cooking food)
- 550 Paracord - One of the most versatile items on the planet! I ALWAYS carry paracord in my pack! You can carry it in a bundle or wear it as a bracelet (I do both).
- Way to filter water - You can use your metal container/cup to boil water. Or use a bottle purifier.
- Pepper spray or bear spray
- Lightweight Tarp
- Prepackaged snacks such as protein bars (I say ‘prepackaged’ due to some predators having a strong sense of smell)
Now that you’re set with your pack, let’s talk safety. As I said before, there are a few predators to look out for. Depending on where you live, the predators to watch out for will vary. For example, there aren’t bears in Texas but, you do have wild hogs and they are extremely dangerous if you aren’t cautious on their territory.
We will go over other predatory animals in future articles. For now...bears, wolves, and mountain lions make the list of the top 3 predators to watch out for!
The number one misconception about bears is they hibernate during the winter months. Bears do not truly hibernate. They do, however, go into a dormant like state known as ‘torpor’.
True hibernation is when animals “sleep” through the winter. During this sleep, the animals will not wake up when they hear a loud noise or even if they are moved or touched. During torpor, their heart rate is extremely low but their body temperature is relatively high, and they won’t eat (in some cases) or release bodily waste. While in torpor, the animal can wake up quickly and easily.
Bear attacks are rare and even more rare in the winter months but, they can occur. On warmer days in the winter months bears will awake and move around. I don’t know about you, but the thought of possibly running into a grizzly bear who hasn’t eaten in a few weeks is a little unsettling. This is where the ‘beware of your surroundings” comes into play. If you know you are deep in bear country there are things to look for.
Evidence of bear activity in the area during winter months:
- Fresh bear scat (bear poop) which is a rare sight due to the fact that some bears will not eat in the winter months, even if they awake and move around.
- Large indentations on the ground with flattened leaves and other foliage (this is most likely their den).
- Bear tracks (the claws on grizzlies are extremely long and can be easily identified as opposed to black bears whose claws are much shorter).
- Look up in the trees as black bears are excellent climbers. You most likely will not see them in the trees in the winter months but, if they sense your presence they could climb. Bears are extremely smart and actually use caution in our presence as we use caution in theirs.
If you encounter a bear here is what you should do:
- Remain calm - this may sound impossible but this is the most important step. Back up slowly and when there is a healthy enough distance between you and the bear just turn around and walk away slowly. Do not run! No matter what you may have heard, a grizzly and a black bear can and will outrun you!
- Do not climb trees to get away. As I said before, black bears are excellent climbers. Grizzlies climb but aren’t as efficient. Some survivalists will tell you to climb trees as a form of escape. Ultimately, it’s your call.
- Use your spray deterrent if necessary. You can use bear spray or pepper spray. This method is a last resort and only works at close range (up to 10 ft). Some also use a air horn to deter the bear.
It is important to note that in most cases the bear does not want any trouble anymore than you do. (Note that if there are cubs or food involved they can be aggressive. You respect them and chances are it will be reciprocated. No running to escape and move extremely slow once you spot each other. It boils down to one thing, in my opinion. Respecting the fact that you are on their turf….their home.
A momma bear with cubs in her presence or a bear protecting their food source is most likely to happen in the warmer months as they are back to being fully active. We will cover this topic in a later article.
The likelihood of you being attacked by a pack of wolves is even more rare than a bear attack but, like a bear attack, a wolf attack (when an attack occurs) on a human is extremely severe!
There’s only a couple of reasons why wolf attacks on humans are so rare. Wolves are very fearful of people and try their best to avoid them, but also because your chances of being where wolves roam freely is slim to none!
Evidence of wolves in the area you are in include:
- Wolf tracks (Look very similar to the tracks of a large domesticated dog)
- A fresh bare spot in the snow (Usually several bare spots as wolves are pack animals. These ‘bare’ spots are where they have rested.)
- An animal carcass (Sometimes half-eaten with hair still attached. They are known for their seemingly wastefulness on a kill.)
You encounter a pack of wolves - what should you do?
- Do not run! This will make you look prey. Remember, wolves are hunters.
- Do not "stare a wolf down." This looks like a threat and they will attack.
- Do not turn your back on the wolves.
- Make yourself appear scary. Shout, throw stones, raise your arms over your head.
- If you've entered an enclosure of wolves, back away slowly, moving toward the exit with your back against the fence.
- Don't look scared and try your very best NOT to fall. This will encourage an attack.
- If things get really bad, curl into a ball and protect your face. This should be a last resort reaction.
As I mentioned before, wolf attacks are extremely rare. But, due to the severity of a wolf attack and the damage they can do, I feel it is important to discuss safety measures to give you the best chance of survival if you are attacked.
Wolves are undoubtedly the top of the food chain wherever they roam. Some may argue that the grizzly is number one. I will say this though, if a lone gray wolf and a male grizzly went head to head the wolf may be the underdog in that particular instance.
Mountain lion, puma, cougar, panther - this cat is known by more names than just about any other mammal. But no matter what you call it, it’s still the same cat. They live in a variety of habitats, at home in forests, prairies, deserts, and even swamps - they are very adaptable cats!
These cats may be on the prowl during the day or at night, but they are most active at dusk and dawn. They eat a variety of prey depending on where they live, including deer, pigs, capybaras, raccoons, armadillos, hares, and squirrels. Some larger cats even bring down animals as big as an elk or a moose.
Are they a threat to humans? Some will say that you are more likely to drown in your bathtub, be killed by a pet dog, or hit by lightning.
The family of a 6 year old boy tell a much different story…
In September 2014, a 6-year-old boy was walking just 10 feet ahead of his parents on a trail in the hills of Cupertino, California, when he was attacked by a mountain lion.
Horrified, his family raced to his aid as the lion mauled him and dragged him into the bushes. His parents fought the cat off, but the mountain lion followed them all the way to the trailhead before they got their injured son to safety.
So, once again, if you are in mountain lion territory be cautious, be aware.
Usually, animal tracks can be identified, but in the case of mountain lions, it’s not that easy. The tracks of bobcats, house cats, and foxes have all been mistaken for the tracks of a mountain lion. But, there are other signs to look for.
Evidence of mountain lions in the area:
A sure sign that they are in the area is their unique sound. Mountain lions make little noise in the woods. When they do, they often sound like a person whistling or a bird chirping. When they growl, they sound like an overgrown house cat. Kittens have a raspy, loud purr. Many people hear shrieks in the night and think they are made by mountain lions, but almost always these blood-curdling screams are made by other animals.
Encounters With Mountain Lions - What Steps You Can Take to Stay Safe
- Safety in numbers. If you are concerned about an attack, don’t walk or cycle alone. Solitary hikers are three times more likely to be attacked than people in a group.
- Keep children close. Never let kids run ahead of you or fall behind on the trail.
- Make yourself look big. Stay calm, face the lion and raise your arms to look as large as possible.
- Give it a chance to leave. Never approach a lion that isn’t threatening you.
- Don’t run away, which may trigger an attack from behind. Scoop up young children so they don’t panic and run.
- If approached, get aggressive. Mountain lion attacks sometimes occur by ambush. But often the cat is seen and decides to stalk toward its intended prey (you). Try to look threatening - wave your arms, shout, scream.
- Throw sticks and stones. If bluster doesn’t scare off the approaching cat, throw stones, sticks, whatever is at hand.
There you have it, folks - how to stay safe against 3 of the world’s largest predators.
And, as always...
- Be prepared
- Be alert and aware
- Know your surroundings
Written by Stacy Bravo of Anything Survival.