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Wildlife Safety

grizzlySome of our most memorable camping experiences have been the unexpected sighting of a wild animal: a black bear scurrying away from the trail or a tiny Key deer wandering through our camp.

But such sightings can’t be predicted, nor should they ever be encouraged. They are a happy bit of serendipity that you just have to wait for. That said, there are public lands where you are likely to see animals, particularly in the West. For instance, you can see free-roaming bison herds in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Henry Mountains in Utah, and Custer State Park in South Dakota - one of the largest bison herds in the world.
Walk quietly in any woods, and you’re likely to see a white-tailed deer darting across the trail or leaping gracefully through the woods. As tempting as it is to get closer to that herd of elk or bison or to try to pet a tame deer, we need to observe wildlife from afar.

Observe from a Distance

  • Use binoculars, or document the sighting using a camera with a zoom lens.
  • Hike and camp away from obvious animal paths, water sources, and signs like droppings or claw marks.
  • If spooked, animals like deer, elk, bison, or moose can become very dangerous and even charge you with their antlers or horns.
  • More humans are injured by these animals than by predators like bear, mountain lions, or wolves.

White-tailed Deer

  • Deer are common throughout North America, even in suburban locales, where they can become a nuisance.
  • In the spring, females, or does, give birth to young, which have white spots on their brown coats. Twins or even triplets are common.
  • The males, or bucks, have antlers, which are prized by hunters.
    *Always wear blaze orange when hiking during hunting season.

American Bison

  • The term buffalo is actually a misnomer for these large cattle that once covered much of North America.
  • They were nearly decimated by hunting, but today their numbers have increased because herds are being raised for meat.
  • Although herbivores, bison will charge and attack humans if provoked.
  • They can weigh up to two thousand pounds, as much as a small car.
  • Their characteristic hump and huge, shaggy head are an iconic American image.

Important note:

Teach children early on to observe through quiet observation and to never approach, try to touch, or feed wildlife. As stated elsewhere in this book, animals that become habituated to humans eventually become aggressive and may have to be euthanized.

Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance.
  • Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals (store food and trash securely).
    Control pets at all times.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.


These are dangerous and sometimes unpredictable animals, so be wary if you see them. Humans have very few predators, and nearly all wild animals you’ll encounter in North America would just as soon avoid you.

There are some exceptions, however. In some parts of the country, grizzly bears, alligators and mountain lions are valid fears since they are aggressive animals and their attacks have been fatal. The danger becomes more pronounced in areas where human population centers are expanding into formerly wild territory.

As stated previously, whenever a wild animal becomes habituated to human contact or learns to associate humans with food or trash, there is potential for unpleasant encounters.
However, don’t let irrational fears keep you out of the woods or the water. There are specific recommended steps you can take to avoid them.

Below are some of the more dangerous North American animals, how to identify them, and how to avoid them. If you encounter an aggressive animal, report it to authorities. It may need to be relocated or euthanized to protect other campers and hikers.

Poisonous Snakes

  • Venomous snakes are common throughout the U.S., but their bites are seldom fatal.
  • Venomous snakes usually have patterns, but not all patterned snakes are poisonous.
  • The ones to watch out for most are rattlesnakes and coral snakes, which live on land, and cottonmouths (water moccasins) and copperhead, which can be in the water.
  • Stay on the trail, avoid walking through tall grass, and be careful walking on rocks warmed by the sun.
  • Rocks warmed by the sun are a favorite hang-out for rattlers.


  • The grizzly bear, found only in the northwest U.S. and Canada, is much larger and far more aggressive than the black bear.
  • Black bears are common throughout the U.S., but dangerous encounters are rare. They usually just want your garbage!
  • When hiking in bear country, stay on trails and make noise. Some hikers wear a jingly bell on their pack or walking stick.
  • Keep an immaculate campsite in grizzly bear country: never leave food out, and change your cooking clothes before going to bed.


  • Several human and pet deaths occur in Florida each year, so this reptile is something to be very wary of.
  • Steer clear of prone alligators. They can run very fast. And be aware of the potential of alligator presence when swimming.
  • Alligators live in fresh water, while the American Crocodile lives in saltwater and only in south Florida.
  • If you see an alligator posing a threat, contact authorities. Do not try to divert it to another area or kill it. It’s illegal to do so.
    Alligators have a broader snout than the American Crocodile.

Mountain Lion

  • Mountain lions, also known as puma or panther, live in the western U.S., particularly in California.
  • Never hike alone in mountain lion territory. Make noise, go in groups, and keep children close.
  • If you encounter a mountain lion that stands its ground, do not run away, which only stimulates the chase instinct.
  • Make noise and flap your arms to make yourself look larger.

Important note about pets and wild animals:

Always keep your pet on a leash so that it doesn’t chase wildlife or get into a fight with a potentially dangerous animal. At one time or another, most dogs get a mouthful of porcupine quills, which will require a trip to the vet to have them removed under anesthesia. Although skunks are not dangerous, when a dog gets sprayed, it can certainly ruin a camping trip.


From the book Knack Car Camping for Everyone by Mary and Bill Burnham Copyright (c) 2009 by Morris Book Publishing, LLC Used by permission of FalconGuide. Visit


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