One thing that puts a lot of people off from hiking is the unknown. Sometimes, that unknown becomes very commonplace. Most people, across the Continental United States, have seen a skunk, deer, moose, bear, or other animals in the wild.
In the Northeastern United States, seeing a deer on the side of the road is almost as common as the white lines themselves. When humans venture off into an animal’s territory, these commonplace sightings can become much more dangerous.
When I was a child, I would visit my grandparents in Wisconsin nearly every summer. My cousins and I would go into the woods, hike, find new plants, bird watch, or even shoot guns. My grandmother used to always tell us to, ‘stay in sight of the cabin. I never understood why I needed to stay close to the cabin until I was about 12 years old. There were two girls, down the road from my grandparent’s cabin, that were attacked by a bear. Luckily, both of them survived with minor injuries, thanks to a passing motorist.
While walking through the woods, or walking down the road in a rural area, is not inherently dangerous it can become dangerous if we do not know how to read the signs of nature. Animals are great at marking their territories. While humans have marked their own territories with fences, buildings, and cut grass humans have forgotten how to recognize the subtleties of animal markings and occasionally walk into situations that they do not know how to get themselves out of.
While this guide may be helpful to some readers, we wish to express that the tools may differ from one geographical location to another. It may also differ from state to state, even if these states do border each other. The United States has such a wide range of diverse ecosystems, and the animal markings in these ecosystems may vary from location to location.
However, the same rule applies, no matter what area you find yourself. We wish to share information closely associated with what can be considered dangerous animals, such as Moose, Bear, Mountain Lions, Coyotes, Etc.
Identifying the Animal:
Knowing what wildlife is local may help to determine what kind of animal would readily be present. Don’t expect to find a polar bear in Arizona or an armadillo in Maine. Knowing the local wildlife is the first step necessary to avoiding them.
One of the best ways to track animals is not to actually follow the animal itself, but follow what they leave behind. That’s right, dung. Dung, scat, or droppings, can tell us what kind of animal has recently been in that area.
Once a dropping is located, the size is going to tell you how large of an animal it came from. As an example, deer tend to leave very small, round droppings. While they are small, they leave a lot of them. A bear will leave a fairly large dropping, similar to a human. On the opposite end, a mouse may leave a dropping roughly the size of a grain of rice.
Once we have an idea of how large the animal is noticing what it may contain also helps a tracker to understand what kind of animal left the dropping. A large dropping, containing bits of fur, would be a good indicator of a predator. Perhaps a Mountain Lion or Coyote is nearby. Bear and coyote dropping also commonly contain nuts and berries.
If an animal eats something, evidence of their diet will be in their droppings.
After size, and contents, we want to look at moisture. If a dropping is moist, wet, and looks fresh it probably is fresh. Dry, white (with some exceptions), and brittle droppings are the sign of an older dropping.
Recent weather plays a large role in determining the age of a dropping. Wet weather can make a dropping appear to be fresh, when it may be old. Additionally, as the weather starts to warm, a dropping that is thawing may also appear fresher than it may be.
The last thing we want to notice is location. Fox will leave their droppings on prominent objects to mark their territories. Deer will leave their dropping wherever they are walking. Feline species will try to cover their droppings. Dangerous animals will either leave their droppings in a very obvious place or try to hide it. Anything in the middle is relatively safe. The only
The only exception is when it looks similar to human droppings or has no real shape at all. These are generally a sign of bear droppings or a sick animal. Bear droppings hold little shape near the end of the summer to early fall, when they feed heavily on berries.
Everyone has watched some kind of movie where there is an amazing tracker that looks down at the ground and says something like, “a cat came through here 13 minutes ago” and everyone around them gasps in awe of their skills. While Hollywood has made tracking an exaggeration, the fundamentals are the same. The more practice you have, the more likely you will be to spot tracks.
Dangerous animal tracks will be easier to spot than other animals. They are generally larger, deeper, and farther apart. Feline (cat) species do not show claw marks while ursine (bear), canine (dog), lupine (wolf), and vulpine (fox) track show a clear outline of their claws. Hoofed animals will have between 2 to 4 indentations in the soil, depending on the species. In general, hoofed animals are to be avoided but not considered as dangerous as other species.
Aging tracks is a bit more difficult than aging droppings. Tracks, depending on the soil, will exhibit different aging patterns. Tracks in the soft soil will be well defined, while in the hard soil they may be difficult to spot. All animals need water to drink, so it is very common to see many well-defined tracks near a stream or pond.
As the water starts to dry up, during the end of spring, the tracks will also dry and crack. When the entire outline of a track is brittle it is generally an older track. When the majority of the outline is well defined, the track can be assumed to be fresher. Lastly, as the wind blows, anything that falls into a track may stay there. The more debris inside a track, or footprint, the easier it is to assume the track is older.
Every animal will mark territory in its own way. Beavers obviously
need to chew wood to build their homes and will make it obvious their home is nearby. Bear and animals with antlers will also rub against trees, especially near a water source. The markings on trees may look the same, for someone unfamiliar with the different patterns between beaver, bear, moose, and deer. It is always better to be safe and avoid a questionable area altogether. If avoiding a questionable area is not an option, try to imagine an animal rubbing against a tree. A beaver poses little threat to humans and will chew a tree. A bear uses a tree as a back scratcher and may rub the bark off of a tree in one, or more, areas.
Generally, bear marks on a tree are superficial unless the tree was starting to degrade. Deer and moose rub their antlers on trees, especially during molting/shedding season. They use this as a way to put their scent on the tree and rub their antlers off. While some antlered animals don’t shed their antlers they do molt. Elk, especially, have a thin layer over their antlers that peels off. Try to imagine an antlered animal rubbing against a tree. If an animal was rubbing antlers against a tree you will notice hoof marks near the base of the tree, if not an antler itself!
Deer have a natural way of marking where they have been through their resting periods. They lay down on leaves or grass, making the ground, and anything on top of it, flat. They also will urinate nearby, killing much of the surrounding grass. Moose, elk, etc are not much different. If it looks out of place, it probably is.
It’s best to avoid these animal bed, not just because of the animal but the parasites that may be close by. If you see dry, flat, dead grass it was probably a deer, elk, or moose.
Any time an animal walks it will naturally move the soil or vegetation surrounding them. Broken sticks, scattered leaves, holes in the ground, all of these are common indicators an animal has been nearby. While a deer bed will leave the area flat when deer and moose search for food they tend to turn the soil over to find bugs to eat.
Omnivores may also disrupt vegetation when they eat by remove berries, nuts, or leaves from the plant. Most animals are opportunistic eaters. The easier a food is to obtain the more likely a dangerous animal is nearby.
Now that we know what we are looking for, to spot an animal, we now know how to avoid certain areas. Common sense is at play here. If someone sees any of these signs of a dangerous animal, though droppings, rubbings, overturned ground, and tracks they know to avoid those areas. Seeing each of those once is not necessarily bad. Animals move, they come and go.
The likelihood of being in an area with a dangerous animal is very slim. They will try to avoid human contact first. If a hiker sees similar droppings more than once they should change direction for a while. If they see
If they see three different signs of a dangerous animal (eg. Droppings, tracks, disrupted vegetation) they should quickly change direction. When someone is hiking and oblivious to these signs they are much more likely to encounter a dangerous animal.
Staying alert will always help someone avoid dangerous animals. Exhaustion, in survival situations, allows out mind to not see common signs of danger.
Practicing the skill of spotting indicators of animal activity will help hikers to train themselves to notice even the smallest changes. When a hiker can spot small indicators they are more likely to notice larger indicators, even when exhausted.
Keep your eyes moving. Watch the ground as you walk, but take some time to stop and scan your environment. Just because you haven’t seen any indicators of animal activity doesn’t mean they are not there.
It’s a good practice to stop every hundred steps, or so, just to look around. Not only does this allow you to see the beauty of nature, it will give you a chance to spot marked trees, animal presence, and indicators of animal activity farther away.
When you can stop and scan the area you may notice that you find indicators of animal activity may be parallel to you.
While animal attacks may be rare they do happen. Thankfully, we have been given all the tools we need to avoid some of these most dangerous animals. Recognizing, and avoiding, animals may not be a natural skill but it is a necessary one for every hiker, hunter, and survivalist.
The only way to learn these skills is to practice them. So, get out there and enjoy nature!