This post is sponsored by REI. All thoughts and opinions are our own.

Welcome to the blog Ambassador Laura as she helps put those fears of what wild animals we might encounter on the trail to rest. She tells us about a time when she had that fear as well as helpful ways to move past it.

I felt the pit in my stomach grow bigger as I wandered through the Provincial Park’s Visitor Information Centre. The angry eyes of vicious predators stared back at me from all around the interpretive display: bears, cougars, wolves – even the moose looked mean. And these were the inanimate, stuffed versions of these animals. I couldn’t imagine how terrifying the living, breathing versions would be. I took a deep breath and walked out the door, permit in hand. I was shaking as I headed toward the trailhead, questioning what I was about to do.

I was heading out into the Alberta backcountry for the next three days on my first solo backpacking trip. The Canadian Rockies would be my home for only a few nights, but I was keenly aware that they are the permanent home to all types of potentially dangerous wildlife. When I told people my plans prior to leaving on this trip, they’d often exclaim how brave I was. Especially for going alone. I certainly didn’t feel brave as I stepped onto the trail: shaky, unsure, and with visions of bear attacks dancing in my head.

Can you spot the grouse?

I’m happy to report that I had no dangerous wildlife encounters on that trip. The scariest run-ins included a mouse scurrying across my boot, a grouse flying up out of the underbrush, and an aggressive chipmunk coming after my trail mix. For the record, each one of those incidences made me jump and caused my heart to race. So, while I’m not some fearless adventuress who laughs in the face of killer wildlife, I don’t let that stop me from going out and spending time where I’m happiest: on the trail.

Over the years I’ve learned a few ways to manage my fear and help myself deal with the idea of a potential encounter. Preparation and knowledge are powerful tools when attempting to overcome a phobia and I’ll share some of the strategies that have worked for me. Hopefully, they’ll help you too, if this is something that keeps you off the trail.

Put it in Perspective

Having a healthy respect for wildlife and being aware of potential dangers is always important. However, if your fear of what lurks in the backcountry borders on irrational, it is helpful to realize that the threat is perhaps not as great as we imagine it to be.

In U.S. National Parks between 2003-2007, wildlife attacks were actually the least common cause of death with only a handful of cases. Drowning, vehicle accidents, and falling caused many more deaths than wildlife over the same time span. Considering the vast numbers of visitors to parks each year, the odds of something bad happening are very slim. For example, the likelihood of facing a grizzly bear attack in Yellowstone is around 1 in 1.4 million for backcountry campers. Looking at statistics and the historical reality of wildlife attacks can help provide a clearer picture and put your fear in perspective.

Do Your Research

Although an attack is unlikely, it is still important to be prepared in the rare case that something does happen. Having knowledge means having confidence. Before heading out on the trail, be sure to do some research to find out what types of wildlife are in the area, what potential dangers they pose, how best to deal with an encounter, and how to treat animal-induced injuries. It is also important to know how you can prevent a run-in in the first place.

A bear print

For example, store your food properly, know how to spot signs of wildlife activity, and make noise as you hike. There are different regulations and recommendations depending on where you are hiking. Much of this information can be found online through park websites, conservation organizations, or other groups who manage wilderness areas.

Take a Course

If you’d like a little more in-depth learning than what you can find online, consider taking wildlife safety training or a wildlife awareness course. Learning from an experienced and knowledgeable instructor ensures you are getting the proper information and allows you to ask questions one-on-one. Do a quick search to see what is offered in your area.

Carry the Right Tools

Once you know what types of wildlife you can expect to find where you are hiking, you can figure out what sort of specialized items you may want to carry with you. Do you need specific first aid items to treat an injury? Should you carry bear bangers, bear spray, or a firearm while you hike? Are these items allowed in the area where you are hiking?

As a side note: many people feel that firearms are the best option for protection, though studies have shown that bear spray is more effective. Regardless of what you carry, it is crucial to know how to properly use these items and feel comfortable with them before an emergency situation. Take some training and practice using them before heading out.

Bear scat (or poop) is shown

Find Others to Hike With

If you don’t feel comfortable hiking alone or you aren’t confident in your ability to deal with a potential animal encounter on your own, hiking in a group is a great option. Coming across wildlife is often less likely when in a group, as more noise will scare animals away. Be sure to share your concerns about wildlife with the group leader before heading out and don’t skip out on researching and preparing for the hike before hand. It will still be up to you to remain calm and react appropriately to any situation.

Check to see if there is a local HLAW group near you.

The idea of coming across wildlife while out on the trail can be pretty nerve-wracking for some of us. But we shouldn’t let it keep us from getting outside and on the trail. Having the right knowledge and feeling confident in our ability to deal with an encounter can help overcome this fear and allow us to enjoy our time in nature a little more.

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