It may sound funny and you may have even watched one video after another of amusing animal-cyclist interactions, but if you’ve ever been chased down by a wild animal during one of your rides, then you know the experience is definitely not funny. Terrifying, stressful, vomit-inducing maybe, but not funny. It can also be dangerous and in some situations, even life threatening or fatal. Animals rarely attack unless they feel their lives or the lives of their young is in danger, but some may attack if they view you as prey or if they feel territorial, so it’s hard to plan ahead. And while it is admittedly scary to think your life may be at risk, a calm mind and your knowledge of animal behavior are valuable assets in safely managing a potentially deadly situation.
General methods of escape
When you’re out in the wilderness, it’s essential that you use situational awareness. This means you’re going to have to pay attention to your environment. For example, if you see fresh scat and tracks, then you know there was a bear in the area not too long ago and that you need to be on high alert. Because different species are driven by different instinctual urges, it’s important to know the best ways to handle the most common local predators. However, before offering advice on how to evade specific animals, let’s first discuss some general methods of escape.
The Avoidance Method
The best way to stay safe is to avoid riding into dangerous situations. You can do this by being aware of when wild animals are most active in the areas where you ride. For example, mountain lions and snakes are most active at dusk, whereas bears are most active during early morning and late evening hours. Moose and elk are known to be most aggressive during rutting season, which occurs during the fall, and then again in the spring when calves are born.
The Water Bottle Method
The water bottle method is as simple as it sounds—use a water bottle to deter the animal by either simply squirting water or actually throwing the whole bottle. If the animal happens to be within arm's length, try aiming for the eyes or nose. It’s a quick, easy way to defend yourself, but it isn’t especially accurate and requires that you be relatively close if it is to have any effect at all.
The Rock Method
Should you find yourself in a situation where an animal is trailing you, use nearby rocks, sticks, and anything else you might find to your advantage. Try throwing one away from you to see if the animal can be distracted. That might be all the time you need to create a great enough distance that whoever was interested in you will no longer be able to catch up. If absolutely necessary, rocks can be thrown directly at an animal in an effort to thwart its interest or attack.
The Outsprint It, AKA Big Chainring, Method
Attempting to outsprint an animal may sound easy, but it rarely proves to be. You’d be surprised with how fast many animals can run—especially when motivated by instincts. You should never attempt to ride away from an animal unless you know for a fact that the gap between the two of you cannot be closed. In most cases, this means you have to be an exceptionally strong rider, one capable of overcoming challenging terrain and who can do so over long distances. There are some obstacles that can derail even the best of riders: riding uphill, technical terrain, unexpected potholes, and restricted vision.
The Make Noise Method
Wild animals don’t like surprises, so making noises that animals associate with humans, like speech or singing, can be all the warning they need to stay away. If you happen to encounter a wild animal that shows interest in you, yelling and shouting at the animal in a strong, commanding manner might scare them away. Air horns are exceptionally effective in scaring away all kinds of critters. While it might not be commonplace, there’s no harm in packing one—just in case.
Stand big and strong method
Some animals may decide to stand their ground. If this happens, do not run. In the animal kingdom, running is exactly what food does and it’s the last impression of yourself that you want to give. Staying calm is key in dealing with any potentially dangerous animal.
Instead of running, use your bike, a backpack or jacket (or whatever else you have) to make yourself look larger by holding whatever you’re using above your head or out in front of you. Shout at the animal. It’s not recommended that you make direct eye contact with any wild animal that is behaving aggressively. Instead, use your peripheral vision to keep it in your line of vision while slowly backing away, using your bike as a barrier between the two of you. If you have bear spray, get it ready.
The Defensive Chemical Spray Method
Any kind of defensive spray should be used only when necessary because they’re made with chemicals that are designed to cause debilitating pain. Pepper spray is a popular go-to spray, but it is intended to incapacitate humans, not bears. If your intent is to protect yourself from bears and not humans, bear spray is recommended and turns out to be a much better option for everyone involved. Both sprays contain the active chemicals of capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, but bear spray is designed to project over longer distances (30+ feet) and disperse the chemical in a fog pattern instead of a thin stream of liquid. This means you don’t have to get nearly as close to the animal in question as you would if you were using pepper spray. Bear spray is also effective against most large animals—even on massive ones like moose!
Not all bear sprays are created equally, so buying “any old bear spray” simply won’t work. Experts advise that bear spray must discharge for a minimum of seven seconds, cover a distance of at least 30 feet, and be at least 7.9 ounces in size; sticking to these requirements helps compensate for weather conditions that might render lesser sprays useless and offer the protection required in the event of exceptionally aggressive animals who are protecting their cubs or a fresh kill.
If an animal charges or shows other signs of aggression, spray a warning blast (if the situation permits) before taking direct aim. In many cases, these behaviors are meant to scare you away and a warning blast of spray can be enough to scare them away instead. If an animal continues to charge or approach you and you feel your life is in jeopardy, only then should you take a direct aim at its face.
Before shoving your bear spray into your pack and pedaling away, be sure to familiarize yourself with how it works so you aren’t fumbling around when you really need it. Only inspect and learn how to use bear spray outdoors and away from people and animals. Most cans are equipped with a safety tab that requires removal prior to use and a trigger to dispense. Knowing how to aim it can be challenging, so it might be worth purchasing two cans, with the intent of using one for practice. If you shoot the spray above the animal’s head, it will not be effective. Usage instructions outlined on the National Park Service’s website suggest that you “aim slightly down and adjust for wind…begin spraying when the charging bear is 30-60 feet (10-20 yards/meters) away.” The idea is to spray at the charging bear so that it ends up running through the cloud of dispersed chemicals. If the bear remains relentless, then spray the deterrent directly into its face and then leave immediately.
The Fight Back Method
In the event that none of the suggestions above or below prove successful, or if you’re caught off guard, by all means fight back. What you need to do to fight back will depend on the size and strength of the animal you are fighting off, but using your bike as a physical barrier is a good start. If it comes down to a one-on-one situation, use anything you can to hit them as hard as you can, aiming for the head, eyes, and neck. When confronted by aggressive defense, most predators will give up leaving only the most determined predators as a threat.
The Play Dead Method
If you’ve encountered one of the more determined animals out there, then you might find that there’s no amount of fighting that will avert its intentions of attacking you. If this is the case, then your best option at this point is to play dead. The Humane Society instructs you to “curl into a ball with your hands over your ears and stay still.” It’s also suggested to refrain from screaming or rolling around.
Always be prepared
The best way to survive a dangerous animal encounter unscathed is to always ride prepared. This means knowing how to identify the presence of wildlife so you can avoid putting yourself in danger. It also means planning ahead and packing whatever you might need to protect yourself. If you’re knowingly going into an area where wildlife is active, don’t pedal away without bear spray. Always pack and stage your spray so it’s easy for you to access, do a couple of test runs to be sure If you want to be absolutely sure you can draw the spray on a moment’s notice, consider using a belt, chest or a bike frame holster. After all, what’s the point in carting all this stuff along if you can’t even get to it when you need it?
Handling specific kinds of critters
Animal attacks generally fall into one of two categories: defensive or predatory. If an animal attacks defensively, they are doing so in an effort to protect itself, its offspring, its food source, or its territory. Animal attacks that are described as predatory in nature occur when an animal attacks what it perceives to be a food source. While many of the above methods of evasion can be applied when dealing with a variety of wildlife, it should never be assumed that what works for one, works for all. The truth is that different animals respond differently in the same situation because they are…different!
Of all reported attacks, dogs are the most common animals that attack cyclists. Even though our canine companions are considered “domesticated,” they still retain certain instinctual urges. Because they are the descendants of the mighty wolf, dogs are highly reactive to anything speeding past them, which explains why so many react to cars, motorcycles, skateboards, and bicycles. To them, you speeding down the road in your sleek kit is reminiscent of a graceful deer running by and triggers their predatory urges. Dogs might also react aggressively if they feel the need to defend their territory. Regardless of the reason behind the behavior, you should never try playing with an unknown dog that is exhibiting excited, defensive, or aggressive behavior.
Dogs might also react aggressively if they feel the need to defend their territory. Regardless of the reason behind the behavior, you should never try playing with an unknown dog that is exhibiting excited, defensive, or aggressive behavior.
There’s more than one way to evade a dog that is trailing you, but the best method for you will depend on several variables. If you notice a dog trailing behind and it doesn’t appear aggressive, come to a slow stop, get off your bike so that your bike acts as a barrier between you and the dog, and then make some noise. Some dogs can be startled into submission by the deep, stern “master voice.” Try shouting, “No! Go home!” while pointing in the direction from where the dog appeared. The key here is to remain calm and confident. You are the human and the alpha and it’s imperative that they understand that you are in charge. If they remain unmoved by your command, then yell the commands loudly while using your gear to make yourself appear larger and more threatening. If still undeterred, you can squirt water or throw something (like your water bottle) in its direction. This is also a good time to use an air horn. Because they have such sensitive hearing, loud sounds are especially scary and uncomfortable. Making direct eye contact with an aggressive dog is not recommended. Instead, use peripheral vision to keep track of it.
There comes a point during an animal encounter where you need to make some serious determinations, one of which is whether or not riding away from it is a good idea. Attempting to outsprint a dog is only recommended to those who actually can. While it might not sound difficult, the average dog can sprint about 19 mph, which is a lot faster than most people realize. Often, dogs are able to run fast enough to keep up with a bicycle and once they catch up, try to bite ankles. This can result in the dog getting caught up in the spokes, ultimately injuring both the rider and the dog. Uphill can also be a problem.
If you’re unable to outsprint the dog, then you’ll have to determine the best way to protect yourself. If the canine becomes aggressive, use your bike as a physical barrier and if necessary, as something to bite on—it’s better than your body. If you believe your safety is at risk, then bear spray can be used with a dog. Keep in mind that bear spray causes excruciating pain and is intended to take down a bear, so use it responsibly. This means using it as a method of self defense and not as a convenient way to get a curious dog to leave you alone.
Should you find yourself being attacked, you can either fight back or curl into a ball. If you choose to fight back, then fight with all your might. If you have anything available to use as a weapon, use it to hit the canine in the head (or more specifically, the eyes, nose, and mouth). In the event that you are bitten, do not pull away. As difficult as it may be to wait for it to let go, doing so results in less tissue damage.
It’s always recommended that you track down the owner of a dog that’s attacked you, as they are able to tell you whether or not the pup is up to date on its shots. Demand to see the vaccination records and don’t second guess calling the police if the owner is not cooperating. Depending on the circumstance, you may even choose to pursue legal action. If you’re unable to locate the owner, it’s likely that you will have to undergo a round of rabies shots, so it’s definitely worth making the effort.
Wolves and coyotes
Wolf and coyote attacks are exceptionally rare, but they are becoming more common. Coyotes in particular are beginning to find their way into residential communities and shopping areas, a consequence of developing these structures on land that serves as a home for countless wildlife. Both are members of the canine family and like dogs, are driven by their predatory instincts. Unlike the domestic dogs, wolves and coyotes are natural hunters, but wolves are often described as being one of the best hunters around. They are adept in taking down prey independently and execute flawless take-down as a pack. Wolf and coyote footprints show that they walk with their front and back paw tracks nearly overlapping and in relatively direct paths, a technique that allows them to sneak up on unsuspecting prey without making a sound. Some wolves are slightly larger than a coyote whereas others are so large they tower over the average-sized adult.
If you find yourself face-to-face with a wolf or a pack of wolves or coyotes, you may feel compelled to run away, but are encouraged to fight that urge. Not only are these creatures instinctually programmed to hunt, but they actually enjoy the thrill of a good chase. Instead of running away like most prey would, be as loud and as large as possible. Use your jacket, backpack, bike—whatever you have—to exaggerate your size. Remain calm and confidently stand your ground. If that does not deter their interest, try to scare them away by throwing things at them. Throw your water bottle, rocks and sticks you might find around, or whatever else you can access without jeopardizing your safety. Refrain from staring a wolf in the eye or turning your back on them. If the opportunity presents itself, back away slowly, being especially careful not to trip. Remember that wolves and coyotes are triggered by fast and sudden movement, so an accidental trip or slip could be all it takes to instigate an attack.
If you are attacked by a wolf or coyote, do the same as you would do if it were a domestic dog. However, remember that you’re dealing with a wild creature, and be especially careful to protect the areas of your body that wolves tend to aim for the most—the head, neck, face, and sides. Be sure to curl yourself up into the tightest of balls to give the attacker even less access to your most vulnerable, delicate body parts.
There may not be any lions or tigers roaming the North American wilderness, but there are several kinds of bears (oh my!), and being able to identify them can save your life. It’s worth noting that while bear bells are popular, they do little (if anything) to deter bears and should not be considered a form of defense or deterrent. Generally speaking, the best way to avoid an unwanted bear encounter is by being observant of your surroundings (notice any scat or prints?) and making your presence known. In many cases, bears will avoid humans if they know they’re coming, so don’t be afraid to make some noise!
Bears are known to stand on their hind legs to get a better whiff of whatever has piqued their interest and have one of the most acute senses of smell in the entire animal kingdom—one hundred times keener than that of a dog’s! While the towering size of a bear is an excellent excuse to give in to the “flight” urge, attempting to outrun a bear is never advised—they can run as fast as 35 mph, both up and downhill, and they won’t hesitate to do so if they feel driven. Whether the bear you encounter in the wilderness is shown predatory or non-predatory aggression matters because how you handle each situation differs. If the bear is engaging in a non predatory attack, the best line of defense is to play dead. In this case, the bear has no interest in you; its main interest is in protecting someone or something.
Grizzly Vs. Brown Bears
A common misconception is that grizzly bears and brown bears are the same animal, but this is only a half-truth; brown bears and grizzlies are within the same species, but they are of separate subspecies. This means that all grizzlies are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies—and there are some notable differences between the two. Grizzly bears are found a bit further into the mountains than brown bears and survive on a diet consisting of berries, roots, grubs, moths, and the occasional remains of large animals. Unlike grizzlies, brown bears are coastal creatures who primarily survive on a diet of salmon and other fish, a diet that can render it up to 100 lbs larger than its inland relatives. While they both don brown fur, an adult grizzly bear’s fur is characterized by silver tips whereas a grown brown bear’s has an overall darker hue.
Both grizzly and brown bears are massive (up to 900 lbs and 1000 lbs respectively), powerful creatures who are exceptionally defensive and respond to danger by standing their ground to avert anything they view as a threat to themselves, their offspring, or their food. It should always be assumed that if you can see their cubs, their mom can see you. If she aggressively approaches you, it’s best to play dead. To play dead, experts suggest lying flat on the ground, placing your hands behind your head, and covering your neck. If the attack is predatory, then the bear’s intent is to eat you and there’s little you can do to stop them–unless you happen to have bear spray.
Black bears are noticeably smaller, less aggressive, and less territorial than grizzlies and brown bears. Attacks by black bears, fatal or not, are exceptionally rare. They try to keep their distance from humans and are more likely to climb up a tree than engage in an encounter with you, so if you happen to stumble upon an unsuspecting black bear, give it a moment to assess its situation—it’s likely to saunter away on its own. If the situation permits, you can slowly back away, too; black bears are generally happy to see a retreat and aren’t known to pursue an altercation unless absolutely necessary. They most often attack when they are hungry and desperate. If hunger is, in fact, the motivation behind the attack, it’s far better to fight back than submit. Black bears who are preparing themselves for a predatory attack will stalk their prey, often disappearing and then reappearing. It’s rare for black bears to make predatory attacks and those who do are usually just hungry juveniles, jonesing for a bite to eat, but under these circumstances, you are seen as food and your only chance is to fight.
Bear spray is the overall best line of defense against bears. Its debilitating effects are meant to change the bear’s normal course of behavior by shifting its interest in you to a state of painful confusion because it can no longer see or smell, allowing you the opportunity to escape. While harsh, spray is a way to teach bears avoidance without having to be killed and can be passed on genetically and through cub rearing.
Mountain lions are commonly known as cougars, panthers, and pumas. Like the canines mentioned above, mountain lions are highly reactive to their environment and won’t hesitate to make its move if you give any reason to. They are built for speed, which is evidenced by their long muscular limbs and torso.
Experts advise that in the event of a run in with a mountain lion to freeze and back away slowly while making yourself look as big as possible and making as much noise as possible. If you’re physically able, lift your bike over your head and shake it, still while yelling and being as loud as possible. If the cougar remains undeterred, throw whatever you can at it in an attempt to scare it. Under no circumstances should you lose sight of or expose your back to a mountain lion (this includes crouching over to pick anything up); they are notorious for attacking from behind. Doing so could prove to be a fatal mistake.
If the mountain lion continues to approach you in an aggressive manner, use bear spray. If you don’t have any, then prepare to fight back. Grab a knife, jagged rock, stick, or just use your fists (if that’s all you have as a weapon) and aim for its head. People have survived cougar attacks, but anyone who wants to live to tell the tale will have to fight like heck for it.
Moose, elk, deer
Moose, elk, and deer aren’t aggressive by nature, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t be if they feel the situation requires it. Since they’re known for being a bit unpredictable, it’s better to assume they see you as a threat and to act accordingly. This advice can be applied to any hoof-and-horn animal.
Male moose, elk, and deer are highly defensive of their territory and females generally see humans as a major threat to their offspring. If you see the hairs on its back rise, its ears go back, and notice that it’s licking its lips, take that as a sign of trouble. If you notice that one of these creatures has you in its line of vision and is walking toward you, do not assume it wants to interact and become friends.
There are plenty of videos on social media of moose, elk, and deer being friendly, affectionate which can mislead people into thinking that’s typical behavior; it is not. It’s best to slowly back away until you can duck behind a tree, rock, or building or until there’s a patch of trees or other obstacles through which you can weave. Since most charges are bluffs, most chases are short lived. Staying on your feet is important because they’re likely to stomp and kick you once they realize you’ve gone down. If you end up on the ground and are facing deadly hooves, curl up into a ball, hold still, and protect your head and don’t attempt to get up until you’re certain it’s gone. Letting down your guard prematurely can result in having to endure the ordeal again, as it returns for round two.
After an attack
What you do following an attack will depend on what animal you’ve fought and how well you’ve fared. A picture is worth a thousand words, so whenever possible, take pictures of the animal that attacked you, the location of the attack, and any other photographic evidence that may prove useful. Many animal scratches and bites are prone to infection, so a trip to a walk-in clinic or urgent care might be a good idea. If you’ve been injured and have cell phone reception, don’t hesitate to call a loved one or EMS.
If the animal belongs to someone, make an effort to identify and contact its owner. If there were any nearby witnesses, be sure to obtain their contact information, too. Always file a report with the appropriate authorities to ensure they are aware of an aggressive animal in the area. If you are expecting to pursue the matter legally, avoid discussing the matter or financial settlements, refrain from accepting monetary compensation of any kind, and save any items of clothes or other belongings that show signs of an attack.
In some cases, it doesn’t matter how perfectly you may have executed avoidance and escape methods because the animal you encountered has made up its mind that it needs to attack you. However, the choices you make can greatly affect the outcome of your situation. Knowing how to handle various animals, always riding prepared, and staying calm during a scary confrontation are key in being able to tell the story later.