FIGHT OR FLIGHT Part Two: Signs of Presence, Danger, Precautions, First Aid


Photo courtesy Google images.

Trail Safety when practiced, will enhance your hiking experience because you will know ahead of time what to do should a problem present itself. These tips are general. I encourage you to do your own, and more thorough research. I’m available to answer questions and value your comments and concerns. Lets get to it:

Signs of bear presence:
Look for bears up in oak trees foraging on the acorns, or bedding down on the other side of a felled log, (don’t just hop over logs, check what may be on the other side first) near streams (they can NOT hear you when they’re near running water, so know that it’s easier to surprise them there) and among berry patches. More signs of bear activity are overturned rocks (foraging for grubs and worms), claw marks on tree trunks (announcing their prowess, height, and territory to other bears, sample photos at the end of this post), among heavy brambles and brush, or flattened grassy “beds”.  The most obvious is the bear track, which to me looks similar to a human bare foot print.  The tracks will have a “pigeon-toe” pattern, each paw print will show the piercings of their claws in front of the toe marking.  Also you can easily scan for fresh scat, dig marks, tracks, clawing markings on the ground where a bluff or animal challenge had previously occurred since you are checking the ground in front of you anyway. Caves, hollow trees and logs and even under dense brush are common “dens”. In other words, they’re everywhere, but there’s no reason to be frightened by it. Simply be aware that you are in their backyard and enjoy the adventure, camera-ready!

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Black bear foraging in brambles. By Marybeth Haydon

Learn to identify scat and tracks, (I found Scats and Tracks by James C. Halfpenny, Ph.D very helpful) you will be amazed at how fascinating this can be! After capturing the scat or track on film, you can research it when you get home and the thrill of discovery is enhanced by the challenge the research presents. Don’t be timid about breaking apart scat with a handy twig to discover if there are berries, fur, or bone in it. Fur and bones, probably feline and canine. Berries, fur, hairs and garbage probably bear. Once the bear begins to feed on meat, the scat will be black in color with a stronger odor. Do not sniff scat, some can be hazardous & toxic when inhaled directly. (Raccoon scat can be mistaken for bear scat and the raccoon scat can carry a parasite that is fatal to humans.)

A bear cub will make a sound that sounds to me just like: “MA!” or “Maw!” which is their distress call. You know what to do. And it’s not scream and shout and run all about. Be calm, back away, deep breath now, you can do this. (But doubtful you ever will need to.) My personal experience was, the cub was more frightened of me and went scrambling up the nearest tree, calling “ma!” which gave me plenty of time to calmly leave the area. (Disappointed at a photo op missed, but I’m not completely stupid about photos.)Black bears often follow well-established trails. Wide double ruts formed in the grass or the ground are a good indication of a bear trail. In wooded areas, these trails often go under obstructions. They are careless about the amount of sound they make vs an animal that is stalking you such as the cougar. Listen as you hike.

Cougar scratching post ch 16

Cougar or Bobcat scratch post. Marybeth Haydon

Danger signs: A distress call from any of our wild animals’ young is a definite get-away-from-the-area signal.  You will recognize it immediately once you’ve heard it, regardless of the type of animal. I had stopped for a comfort break and as I prepared myself I heard this odd meowing, but not quite a meow and there was a definite “distress tone” to it. 2+2 I’m thinking it almost sounded feline, when my ah-ha moment engages: Oh Snap! I rushed out of the bushes and headed far, far away. My nemesis the cougar, flashes of its beautiful but powerful body raced through my imagination. Near her distressed cub/kitten? I think not! So use all of your senses while on trail. It will become second nature to you, much like noticing traffic problems before they happen.

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Animal Food Cache courtesy Google images.

NOTE: Don’t carry your car keys or phone in your pack. If you need to throw your pack as a deterrent, there go your keys as well. Keep them in a zip-up pocket on your person or safety-pinned inside a pocket. On your person! I learned the hard way.

Food Cache: Another danger are food caches.  Usually you will know immediately from the distinctive odor and/or the abundance of flies that there is a kill in the immediate area. DO NOT REMAIN IN THE AREA OF A KILL OR FOOD CACHE. Remain calm, and leave the area. Animals are highly protective of their caches.

Cougar/Mountain Lion/Puma:

They are gorgeous animals, big, strong and potentially lethal. They like to be at the highest point, but they also are at ground level, under brush for surprise attacks. Even at a distance a brief glimpse should be cause for alarm. Though the cougar is most likely to leave the area, you should group together and travel with caution.

If there are repeated sightings, be prepared to aggressively defend yourself and others. Be alert and on guard for the remainder of your hike. Also, the mountain lion is crepuscular, so plan the hours of your hike around that. This is one animal I highly respect and depend completely upon the Lord for help and protection against. He is more than capable! Then I subsequently rely upon my training, research, experience and upon my God-given senses.

hunting cougar

Intense, focused. A cougar on the hunt. Courtesy Google images.

If attacked by a mountain lion, appear larger: Raise your arms. If you have trekking poles raise them over your head, appear large. Pick up small children. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice. Women, lower your voice, sound masculine, decisive. The idea is to convince the mountain lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to it. Fight back if attacked, using anything as a weapon.  Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Fight back aggressively! It goes without saying, but I must; a cougar attack must be reported.

Precautions, good sense:

  • Make a wide detour or leave the area if you see a bear at a distance. If you cannot detour or retreat, wait until the bear moves from your path. Always leave the animal an escape route.
  • Do not run. Most bears can run as fast as a racehorse. A scream or sudden movement can trigger an attack.
  • Don’t throw anything at a bear; it may provoke an attack.
  • Do not wear scented perfumes, sunblock, chapstick, etc. as scents attract a habituated bear.
  • Do not pack-in food that is not in bear containers.
  • Never feed a wild animal. It is a disservice and a disgrace! The animal will likely end up euthanized because of it.
  • The sight or sound of multiple flies, ravens or crows means you are near a carcass. Leave the area immediately.
  • Heavy, foul scent, like old, spoiled meat. Carcass, a sure sign to detour safely.
  • Menstruating women should hike another time when you’re not on your cycle.

First Aid Snake Bite:

One should always carry an ace bandage and small – large band aids with them on any hike. To treat a snake bite, wrap the limb a few inches above the bite snugly with the ace. The idea is to slow the lymphatic not the blood flow. You are NOT applying a tourniquet! You should be able to get a finger under the ace, between the ace and the limb. Do NOT suck-out the venom. Try to avoid unnecessary exertion. Obviously, get medical help immediately. Take a few cleansing breaths and force your thundering heart to slow down, calm down. Rarely is a rattler bite fatal. Expensive, extremely so, yes. Fatal no. You will probably feel faint, it’s that post-adrenalin download. Go ahead & squat so that should you faint, you don’t have far to go. Just practicalities here. Where you were bitten will be painful and may begin to tingle. Don’t stress it, it is what it is. You’re not dying out in the wilds. If you have a pen in your pack (some people take notes on what they observed during the hike) draw a circle around the bite, 2″ from the center of the bite.  Write the time down. This will help first responders. It will swell. Again, it is what it is. Be calm, your body is responding the way it should.

Hiking alone? Well, with that fire starter in your 10 essentials, if it is safe to do so, start a signal fire only if you are in a very clear area around you and above you, so that a responding helicopter will be able to CLEARLY see you and the smoke. Lay flat, spread out for the maximum exposure for the helicopter overhead, you want to be a very broad, wide “target”. Spread out that large red bandana you had in your ten essentials. When the helicopter is overhead, signal with your hand a slithering snake, (remember they’re viewing this from overhead, make the proper adjustments.) then the striking motion & point to the body part. They’ll understand & arrange medical & evac for you.

No possibility of a signal fire, trees too dense? Not the ideal situation, but you need to hike out. Get your composure, obviously pray, and be as easy on the affected limb as possible, you may have to scoot your way downhill rather than chancing wide, deep steps. Limit your mobility while being safe. No trekking poles? Snag a downed limb to use as a cane, the less stress on the affected limb the better. (Assuming it’s a leg.)

Since I hike during the week, (low trail traffic) I encounter snakes a lot. Remember with weather patterns changing, that snakes are out from their hibernation at atypical times (at least for my state, CA) and you do need to keep an eye out for them. They like the trail and rocks, anywhere that the sun can bake upon them. If you encounter a snake whose eyes look clouded-over, it is in the process of shedding its skin. THEY ARE VERY UNPREDICTABLE DURING THIS PHASE. Just a heads up.

Ten Essentials:

You’ve probably heard about this. You can customize your pack, but here are a few that really are essential:

  • Extra water!!
  • Fire starter (I use cotton balls saturated with vaseline in an old, small film canister.)
  • Waterproof matches
  • First Aid to include ace bandage and band aids
  • Map. You printed the trail details from a website? Don’t leave the directions in the car!
  • Compass
  • Flashlight
  • Knife
  • Sunscreen. Large red bandana
  • Extra clothing (ie extra jacket, preferably waterproof)

Remember, there are always exceptions to the rule, these are wild animals. But the more informed you are as to their usual behavior, the more relaxed and confident you will be on handling any encounter.


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Do your research! courtesy Google images

Do your research from various sites on how to handle animal encounters pertaining to the area and state that you will be hiking in, for your general 411 and safety confidence. If you’re camping, after you’ve set-up go chat with the ranger and see how they handle wildlife for their particular park. If you’re hiking in a different state, please check with their local forestry dept., and with their fish & game for wildlife information particular to their state. I also look up the fire department number for the area that I’m hiking. Some small towns are volunteer fire dept and have a direct number which is actually faster than 911. Do your research. When you know how to handle a situation in advance, the more relaxed you will be while on trail, making your adventures truly sensational! My knowledge is far from replete, so please, do your homework!

Leave no trace is essential!  You got to enjoy your views litter-free, so please pass it on. It’s important that we all practice good stewardship. I carry a small sandwich bag in a designated pocket to collect any used tissue that I may have had to use (allergies), perhaps you have additional tips on keeping wildernesses beautiful and vibrant, I’d love to hear from you!

If you have something to add, I value your comments.  More Identifying Photos below. Your comments at the end of this post may help someone else logging-on to read & learn. Please post your comments!

black bear claw marks on alder tree

Bear claw markings by Kim Cabrera

3-19-11 two marshal cyn trails scouting 034

Habituated bear scat (note the saran wrap) by Marybeth Haydon


Bearprint by Marybeth Haydon

2 large area of scratchings

Hasty markings on trail by Marybeth Haydon

You can see more photos of tracks and scats at my FB page   Click for Part 3   Click for Part 1


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