Wildlife Etiquette 101

How to safely share the trails with everything from chipmunks to bears, moose to cows.

You’ve seen the news stories of ignorant travelers, usually in national parks, getting too close to wildlife. The consequences for trying to get a good pic of say, a grizzly bear, could include charges getting pressed against you, or worse: getting attacked. Then there’s the video that went viral of the guy who approached a mountain lion to capture footage of his encounter—and then got chased by that mountain lion. Don’t be any of those people.

From bears and mountain lions to lesser deadly animals, like squirrels and chipmunks, there’s a way to safely, and kindly, interact with wildlife you might encounter on the trail. Take the advice of Public Lands contributor Lisa Jhung, who gathered insight from wildlife experts across the country for her book Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running, which has an illustrated guide of Do’s and Don’ts (adapted below) that outlines how to react to predatory animals and non-predatory animals alike. Stick to these tips and stay safe on your next outdoor adventure.  

Rules of Thumb

Any park ranger will tell you to leave wildlife alone. That means:

  • Don’t feed wildlife—human food endangers all animals.
  • Keep your dog on leash or on very strict voice control.
  • Give all wildlife space—don’t approach for any reason.

Don’t think that sharing your trail mix with a chipmunk is doing them any favors. Feeding wildlife creates unsafe behaviors in them: They start trusting humans too much, frequenting populated areas, and drawing larger predatory animals to those areas. Keep your trail snacks to yourself.

Dogs off-leash that chase after say, coyotes or moose, can cause danger to your pet, the wildlife, and to you. Keeping your dog close to you on the trail is the safe and responsible thing to do.

And as far as distance goes, guidelines in places like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier national parks are to stay 100 yards away from bears or wolves, and 25 yards away from other wildlife. Reason being: Bears and wolves are predators, and can mess you up. Other wildlife, like elk and moose, are large animals and can be dangerous. In fact, moose have injured more people than have bears. 

Aside from the importance of safety for both human and wildlife, animals encountered on the trail should simply be given respect, and therefore, space. Wildlife encounters in the great outdoors can be magical. Maintaining distance can help keep them that way. Still, being informed on how to react during certain encounters with wildlife can make the difference between a safe interaction and a not-so-safe one.

Reacting to Predators  

Predators are just that—predatory. That doesn’t mean they’re out to eat you or harm you in any way. But, since they survive by preying on other animals, they’re instinctual behavior is to attack if they’re provoked or threatened in any way. 

With the majority of predators, your best bet is to stand your ground and not run. Stand tall, raise your arms and become big, talk or sing loudly so you sound like a human and not a small, tasty animal. And back away slowly. 

Hiker looks back at mountain goat on trail head



  • Stay calm and back away slowly if the coyote doesn’t see you.
  • Stand tall and yell if a single coyote or pack of coyotes sees you and appears to be sizing you up.
  • If the coyote/coyotes approach you, throw something in the direction of it/them to startle them. 
  • Look a single coyote in the eye.


  • Look a pack of coyotes in the eyes or act threatening toward them in any way.
  • Turn your back and run away from a coyote or coyotes who is/are looking at you.



  • Back away slowly if the wolf hasn’t seen you.
  • Back away slowly, facing the wolf but not making eye contact with him/her. Give the wolf enough room to escape.
  • Raise your voice and speak firmly, or yell.
  • Wave your arms to look larger.
  • Throw something at the wolf if approached.


  • Look a wolf in the eye.
  • Run away.
  • Stand tall and appear aggressive if facing a pack.

Mountain Lion


  • Stop moving and face him/her.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Make yourself appear as big as possible, raising arms or trekking poles, opening your jacket, or standing closely next to whomever you’re with, if you’re not alone.
  • Make noise by banging whatever you have in hand, talking loudly and firmly.
  • Back away slowly.


  • Bend or crouch down.
  • Turn your back and run.



  • If a bear doesn’t see you, stay calm and back away slowly.
  • If a bear sees you, stay calm, speak quietly, and back away slowly.
  • If a bear sees you and charges, stand your ground, as the charge may be a bluff. 
  • If a bear sees you and charges, use bear spray.
  • If a bear charges and makes contact, drop to the ground and play dead, covering your face with your elbows touching the ground and your arms protecting your head and neck. Play dead for longer than you think you need to.
  • If a bear is stalking you, walk 100 to 300 yards, then make a 90-degree turn and repeat. Also, be aggressive toward the bear by yelling at it.   


  • Act the opposite of any of the above.


Reacting to Non-Predators

It’s not in a non-predatory animal’s DNA to attack a human, but certain large animals can be dangerous if provoked. And cows, which are likely the most common animals many will cross paths with when out hiking or trail running, can be dangerous if you annoy them.



  • Run if charged.
  • Try to get a tree between you and the moose.
  • Get up and run again if knocked down.


  • Stand your ground.
  • Think you can ditch the moose or elk by jumping in a lake. Moose and elk are great swimmers. 



  • Talk calmly to the cow/cows, encouraging them to move out of your way.
  • Punch a cow in the nose if it attacks.


  • Walk through a herd of cows.
  • Go near a calf.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Appear aggressive.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.