Wildlife and Animal Safety for Trail Runners

Humans aren’t the only creatures who like to play in the dirt.

Running on trails almost guarantees you some interaction with wildlife, and that’s a wonderful thing. Usually these encounters involve birds chirping, squirrels scurrying, and deer walking quietly with their fawns. The likelihood of a safe wildlife encounter is far greater than the likelihood of an unsafe wildlife encounter.

However, there is potential for a more exhilarating meeting with a predator, a snake, or any animal that feels a need to defend itself.

Knowing what to do can keep these interactions positive.

Trailhead by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie Layton

predator \’pre-duh-ter, -tȯr\ n. (pl. -s) 1. An animal that eats other animals in order to live. 2. An animal that may occasionally confuse a human with food.

Critter encounters of the benign kind

What should you do when crossing paths with an animal? Look at them, even take a picture if—and this is key—you can do so from a safe distance. But generally, leave them be.

Safe Interaction 101

  1. Don’t feed. No matter how much you think that squirrel wants to try your energy bar, don’t feed it—or any other animal that larger animals like to eat, such as deer, mice, or chipmunks. More of the little guys means more of the bigger, toothier guys hanging around.
  2. Don’t pet. Steer clear of cute baby predators. Their larger and very protective mothers are likely nearby, and a gentle animal can quickly turn into an angry animal.

Critter encounters of the potentially dangerous kind

As a trail runner, you’re likely too lean and sinewy and, well, human, to appeal to a meat eater. That’s not to say that there’s no chance of danger. (Deer are lean, too.) Some animals are predators, after all, and challenging their territory—whether you mean to or not—could provoke some unpleasant natural instincts. No wild animal wants you messing with it, its young, or its personal space—so no close-talking or provoking these guys in any way. Here are some specifics on how to stay safe and defuse potentially unsafe situations in the wild.

This list is limited to critters that a runner might encounter in the United States. If running in other parts of the world, seek advice on what to do when face-to-face with local animals.


The most common animal encounter you’ll likely have on a trail is with a dog running or hiking with a human. Dogs that are off leash should be well behaved and leave you alone, and the owner should be able to control the dog with a voice command. However, this is not always the case. If you are approaching a dog that appears agitated or is off leash and moving quickly in your direction, consider the following.


  • Greet the dog and owner with a friendly hello.
  • Stay calm; dogs may become aggressive when sensing fear.
  • Stop running and stand tall and still, like a tree.
  • Stand sideways, keeping the dog in your peripheral vision. This is a less threatening stance to an aggressive dog.
  • Lower your hand (with closed fist) so the dog can sniff you as it passes.
  • Raise a knee to protect yourself should the dog jump up on you.


  • Jump up and down excitedly.
  • Stick out an open hand; this may too closely resemble a slice of ham.
  • Freak out.
  • Run away while freaking out. Running can trigger a chase instinct.


These doglike creatures of the wild generally travel alone or in pairs but can sometimes be found in packs. They may entice their prey to follow them (Let’s go play!) so that the pack can encircle said prey.

Coyotes range between 20 and 50 pounds and eat rabbits, fish, frogs, rodents, deer, insects, snakes, fruit, grass, and sometimes livestock and small pets. They’re most active from dusk to dawn.

There have been rare incidents of coyotes attacking runners and biting the backs of their legs and ankles. However, according to the Humane Society of the United States, more people are killed by errant golf balls or flying champagne corks than are bitten by coyotes. Nonetheless, caution is always a good thing.


  • Stay calm and back away slowly if you see the coyote and it doesn’t see you.
  • Stop running, stand tall, and yell if a coyote or pack of coyotes sees you and appears to be sizing you up.
  • Throw something at the coyote(s). The goal is to scare it away, not hit it with a rock or stick.
  • Make eye contact if the coyote is alone, and back away slowly. If it’s a pack of coyotes, see “Do not.”


  • Turn your back on the animal and run away.
  • Act threatening or look any of them in the eye if you are facing a pack.


Wolves are typically afraid of humans. While you might run into a lone wolf (only in limited areas of the United States), they usually travel in packs. Both red and gray wolves are bigger than  coyotes and behave a little differently. For one, they hunt bigger animals such as elk, deer, and moose. Wolves weigh between 40 (female red wolf) and 115 (male gray wolf) pounds and hunt day and night.


  • Sneak away quietly if you see a wolf before it sees you.
  • Back away while facing the animal if it has seen you, making a space for it to escape and avoiding eye contact.
  • Raise your voice and speak firmly.
  • Wave your arms to look larger, yell, and throw things at the wolf if it acts aggressively.
  • Fight back if attacked, trying to keep the wolf away from your head and neck.
  • If attacked, go for its face. Its eyes and nose are sensitive.


  • Look a wolf in the eye. They see it as a challenge.
  • Run. You’re not fast enough.
  • If you are facing a pack, stand tall and appear aggressive.


Bobcats weigh roughly 15 to 35 pounds and are not to be confused with mountain lions, which are much larger. Bobcats are spotted and have short tails and tufted ears. They eat small animals such as rodents and rabbits. They’re most active around sunrise and sunset.


  • Back away slowly.
  • Make eye contact. This tells the bobcat you and your human eyes are not prey.
  • Spray or squirt the bobcat with water, if possible.
  • Make a lot of noise.
  • Fight back if attacked.


  • Run. This could trigger a pursuit.

illustration from Trailhead by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie LaytonMountain lion

Mountain lions weigh between 80 and 180 pounds and are typically 5 to 8 feet long, nose to tail. They have a long tail with a dark tip and are uniformly tan or grayish in color. Mountain lions prey on large and small mammals such as deer, raccoons, and beaver and are most active at dawn and dusk.


  • Stop running and face the lion.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Mountain lions are also referred to as pumas, panthers, catamounts, and cougars.
  • Make yourself appear as big as possible. Raise your arms, open your jacket, and stand close to your running partner. Wave your raised arms slowly.
  • Make noise by yelling and banging rocks together.
  • Speak slowly and firmly in a deep voice.
  • Throw something you have in your hands (don’t bend or crouch down).
  • Back away slowly. If you’re between the lion and its prey or kittens, give the lion a path to get to its treasure.
  • Fight back if attacked, protecting your throat and neck.


  • Bend or crouch down.
  • Turn your back and run. Mountain lions like a good game of chase, and they win by pouncing on the slower playmate.

illustration from Trailhead by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie Layton THBear

Of the few species of bears that roam the continent, black bears (which range in color from black to brown or even white) are the ones you’re most likely to encounter on a trail run in the United States. They live in most forested regions of the country as well as in mountainous and swampy areas.

Grizzly bears, including coastal brown bears, range from black to blond and live in the northern reaches of the country (Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, and western Canada).

Grizzlies roam inland.

Both kinds of bears hibernate but have been known to come out of their dens in the winter. And though they’re more active at dawn and dusk, they can be out and about at any hour.

Bears can be active for up to 20 hours a day in the fall. It’s a phase called “hyperphagia”—the time of year when they eat and drink excessively before hibernation season.

Grizzlies are generally larger than black bears; however, there are large black bears and small grizzlies. How do you tell black and grizzly bears apart? And do you need to know the difference? Only if you like identifying animals. Your response to any bear encounter should depend on the circumstances and the bear’s behavior, not on the species.

Running in bear country. Most bears are afraid of or uninterested in humans. However, a threatened bear, or the very rare predatory bear, can become a serious issue.


  • Carry bear spray where you can grab it quickly (not on your back).
  • Read bear spray instructions beforehand—spray duration and distance vary among brands.
  • Start to spray a charging bear when it is 30 to 60 feet away.

Encounter #1: You see a bear and it doesn’t see you.

  • Stay calm.
  • Back away slowly.

Encounter #2: A bear sees you.

  • Stay calm.
  • Talk in quiet tones, telling the bear you’re a human.
  • If the bear returns to doing bear things, back away slowly, as you would if the bear had never seen you.

Encounter #3: A bear sees you and charges.

  • Stand your ground. (The charge may be a bluff.)
  • Use your bear spray.

Encounter #4: A bear charges and makes contact.

  • Drop to the ground and play dead by covering the back of your neck with your hands and protecting your face with your forearms, elbows on the ground.
  • Carry EPA-approved bear spray as your bear deterrent. Don’t depend on personal defense products such as pepper spray to stop a charging bear.
  • Play dead for longer than you think you need to. A bear may sniff you or simply watch you to make sure you are no longer a threat before leaving. If you move too early, you’ll likely regain its attention.

Encounter #5: A bear is stalking you.

  • A predatory bear will be intent and focused on you. It will approach you with its head up and ears erect. If you think a bear is following you, make a 90-degree turn and walk 100 to 300 yards, make another 90-degree turn, and walk another 100 to 300 yards, and so on. It may just be curious and leave you alone once its curiosity is satisfied.
  • Be aggressive toward the bear from the get-go: Talk loudly, wave your arms, look as big as possible, and throw things, showing the bear that you are not easy prey while you walk and turn, walk and turn.

An encounter with a predatory bear is extremely rare, but knowing how to react is important.

“Trail running in grizzly country is not recommended because of the increased risk of a surprise encounter and the danger that poses for the runner and the bear.” — KATE WILMOT, bear management specialist for Grand Teton National Park

Although black bears are better climbers than grizzly bears, they both can climb better than humans, which means that climbing a tree is not a safe option.

Since off-leash dogs can attract grizzlies and lure them back to their owners, it’s a good idea to keep dogs on leash in grizzly country, even when walking.

illustration from Trailhead by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie LaytonMoose

Moose are large animals, and the males (called “bulls”) have paddle-like antlers. They are not particularly interested in humans, but if a moose feels threatened or is trying to protect its calf, it may charge. (It’s the hooves you need to worry about, not the antlers.) Moose are herbivores,eating only plants. They weigh between 900 and 1,500 pounds and are most active at dawn and dusk.

The plural of moose is not “mooses” or “meese.” It’s “moose,” as in Good thing I’ve been doing speed work because I had to run away from two moose today!


  • Give a moose space.
  • Keep your dog under control.
  • Look for warning signs. If a moose begins moving its ears, raising its hair, smacking its lips, bulging its eyes, tossing its head, or urinating, it’s warning you. Give it even more space.
  • Run if it charges. Moose sometimes drop their pursuit after a few strides.
  • Try to get a tree between you and the moose while you run. (Most moose attacks are bluffs, and the tree will deter them.)
  • Get up and keep running if the moose knocks you down.


  • Stand your ground. Just get the heck out of there.
  • Think you’re scot-free if you can jump into a body of water. Moose are very good swimmers. (But then again, they likely won’t pursue you.)


Elk, like moose, are large animals with antlers (the males), but the elk’s antlers are thinner than those of a moose. Elk can weigh up to 700 pounds and are found mostly in the western United States. Elk are light brown and cream, and their necks are usually darker than the rest of their bodies. They are herbivores, eating only plants.


  • Give an elk space.
  • Run quickly to the other side of something, such as a fence or tree, that will block its path if it charges.
  • Get up and keep running if the elk knocks you down.


  • Stand your ground. Just get the heck out of there.
  • Think you’re totally safe if you can jump into a body of water. Elk are very good swimmers. (But they likely won’t pursue you. They are not predators.)


Found on prairies around the United States (and in the woodlands of western Canada), where they eat grasses and other plants, bison can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and run up to 40 mph. That means you don’t want to mess with a bison. (Though many confuse bison with buffalo, buffalo are found only in Africa and Asia. So you know!)


  • Give bison space.
  • Hide behind anything you can. They’re less likely to detect (and care about) stationary objects than moving ones.


  • Startle them with loud noises or sudden movement.
  • Annoy them by approaching.


Deer are ever-present in the wild and in nearly all cases are docile and safe. There have been rare instances of humans being gored by buck antlers or stomped. In those cases, the buck was likely startled by the human or accompanying dog. Deer are herbivores and can weigh up to 300 pounds.


  • Make your presence known by making noise, calmly.
  • Run away.
  • Climb a tree.
  • Play dead if attacked.


  • Sneak up on or scare deer.


To stay safe on the trails during hunting season, follow these tips:

  • Know the season and the trails. Look online for hunting seasons and where hunting is allowed in your area, and consider changing your running location while the hunters are out. Read trail signs for allowed activities in addition to looking online before you go.
  • Avoid dusk and dawn. Since the hunted are most active at dusk and dawn, so are the hunters. Running in the middle of the day is safer (though not necessarily hunter-free).
  • Dress in bright colors. To be seen by hunters, wear vivid running clothing—a bright-orange hat or shirt, for instance.


Bulls are generally kept behind secure barbed-wire farm fences. They’re ridiculously fast, can turn on a dime, and are pretty smart. Only if you’re in Pamplona should you consider running with a bull, and even then . . . These animals weigh upward of 3,300 pounds. (So you know: Bulls aren’t particularly drawn to the red color of a matador’s cape. It’s the tantalizing movement of the cape that attracts their attention.)


  • Stay far away from a bull.
  • Throw something if a bull charges—a pack, water bottle, loose clothing—to distract it.
  • Run to the nearest thing that will separate you from the bull: a fence, gate, or cattle guard. Bulls are fast, so make it a short run, and make it quick.
  • Climb a nearby tree if there’s one sturdy enough to hold you.
  • Stand your ground and fight if all else fails. Yell at the bull or punch it in the nose.


  • Taunt a bull by challenging, teasing, or aggravating it. Certainly do not wave a cape.
  • Stand still for more than a second with a mad bull staring you down.


Some trails cut through areas where cows freely feed. Cows may seem like ridiculous animals to fear, but they are big, weighing up to 1,000 pounds, and can become agitated if provoked. Cows generally have little interest in humans and are not aggressive. But an angry cow is a potential danger. Walk quickly past cows.


  • Avoid walking through a herd of cows.
  • Talk calmly to the cows if you must walk through the herd, encouraging them to move out of your way.
  • Walk quietly and quickly.
  • Punch a cow in the nose if she attacks.


  • Go near a calf. Mama cows are protective.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Appear aggressive by making loud sounds or waving your arms. This irritates cows, and an irritated cow is a dangerous cow.
  • Second-guess your instincts. If a cow looks irritated, it probably is.

Wild pig/boar

Found largely in Texas, Hawaii, and sporadically in other parts of the United States, wild pigs and boar can be aggressive when provoked. They have large, hard heads; the males have tusks that they use for protection; and they can run up to 30 mph. All boar are pigs, but not all pigs are boar.


  • Stop running.
  • Back away slowly, talking calmly to the animal.


  • Provoke the pig or boar.
  • Get too close.
  • Yell or act aggressively in any way.


Canada geese, found in both Canada and the United States, are the most aggressive type of wild geese, but other species can be persnickety as well. Geese are very protective of themselves and their young. When they feel threatened, they hiss and approach humans. They’ve been known to peck and bite. Canada geese have black heads and necks with white patches on their faces. Other types of geese are either white, grey, or black.


  • Give geese plenty of space.
  • Run away.


  • Crowd their personal space.
  • Try to pet geese or goslings.
  • Stand your ground.



Roughly 100 types of snakes slither around the United States, most of them nonvenomous and essentially harmless. However, there are 20 species of venomous snakes in the U.S.: 16 types of rattlesnakes, 2 types of coral snakes, and the cottonmouth (also known as “water moccasin”). Coral snakes have the most potent venom. These cold-blooded creatures like to warm themselves in sunny places on sunny days. When it’s hot, they cool themselves in the shade. Their most active period is spring through early fall. They are nocturnal hunters, spending the day resting and sunning themselves. Depending on the type of snake, they eat small

rodents, birds, fish, frogs, and insects. If you come across a snake, knowing what type it is can be a potential lifesaver should you get bitten. Informing medical professionals about the snake that struck you helps them quickly administer the proper treatment.

Rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes are common all over the continental United States, especially in the Southwest. They’re between 1 and 8 feet long, with bulky bodies and catlike pupils with no eyelids. Their heads are triangular, wide at the neck, and they have a pit between their eyes and nostrils (a distinguishing feature of a pit viper). They can be brown, gray, rust, yellow, cream, beige, and of various patterns. The most distinguishing rattlesnake feature is the rattle at the end of their tails, but know that rattles sometimes fall off.

Cottonmouth snakes. Also known as water moccasins, these reptiles live in the southeastern United States, including eastern Texas. They can be up to 4 feet long and have large, triangular heads with pits between their eyes and nostrils (they are a type of pit viper, like rattlesnakes). Their bulky bodies taper to a narrow tail and are dark brown or dull black with lighter banding. When a cottonmouth opens its mouths in aggression, the sticky “spit” looks as if it just woke up after a bender and needs a Big Gulp.

Trailhead by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie LaytonCoral snakes. These are the most lethal snakes in the U.S. but look an awful lot like the less dangerous scarlet king snake.

Keep this rhyme in mind:

Red touch yellow—kill a fellow

Red touch black—venom lack

Regardless of the type of snake you encounter on the trail, your actions should be the same.


  • Leave the snake alone.
  • Give it a wide berth.
  • Back away calmly as quickly and quietly as you can.


  • Stick your hands in crevices.
  • Sit on logs or craggy rocks without looking around them and inside.
  • Step over a log into a shady, possible snake-napping spot.
  • Provoke the snake in any way.

Rule of Thumb

If struck by a snake, stay calm and seek medical help as soon as possible. For more on what to do (and not to do), see “Snakebite,” page 144.


Alligators have wide, rounded snouts, while crocodiles have long, narrow, pointier snouts. Crocodiles’ teeth overlap and stick out of their mouths; alligators’ do not. Both are found in the southern United States—alligators mostly in freshwater and crocodiles in salty or muddy waters. Both defend their territory like hungry runners defending their last gel or postrun beer, especially during mating season—April through July for alligators and July and August for crocodiles.


  • Keep your distance from shorelines to minimize encounters.
  • Give it a wide berth (at least 15 feet).
  • Run (away from the water).
  • Fight back if attacked. Go for the eyes, the nostrils, the ears, the palatal valve (a valve behind the tongue). If your arm is in its mouth, push on that valve, and it will likely let go.


  • Jump into a pond and try to swim away from a crocodile or alligator.
  • Run in a zigzag pattern; this is an old myth. Instead, run straight as fast as you can.


Interactions with insects can be pleasant; think butterflies fluttering. There are, however, places and times of the year where bugs can be a nuisance and even a health issue. When the nuisance goes beyond grasshoppers bumping into your legs with every step and elevates to mosquitoes attacking, you’ll want to cover as much skin as possible and coat yourself with a safe bug repellent. When the bug-human interaction becomes ticks latching or bees or wasps stinging, proper treatment makes a difference (see “Stings and Bites,” page 141 ).

If you suffer from grasshopper annoyance, run when it’s coolest, as these coldblooded leapers need warmth to move. Grasshoppers frequent dry areas with tall grass but also live in forests and jungles.

Tracking tracks

Spotting tracks on the trail will alert you to what’s recently been in the area. Some tracks should make you turn around and run the other way. Others simply heighten your awareness and prepare you for a possible encounter.

illustration from Trailhead by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie Layton TH

This article is from Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running by Lisa Jhung with illustrations by Charlie Layton. Trailhead is a witty, fun guide to all things trail running. Veteran trail runner, triathlete, and adventure racer Lisa Jhung offers this illustrated pocket guide to all runners curious about running off road or wanting to run farther into the backcountry. She offers authoritative advice on everything from how to find good trails to run, how to choose the best shoes and clothing, how to carry enough water, and how to stay safe from wildlife and weather.

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