Last week I was running from the storm. This week the weather has been much more accommodating, so I have been able to get a few decent trail runs in — still at a snail’s pace and still painful since I’m jumping back in after so long off — but I’m getting my runs in nonetheless.
On Monday, I was setting up my playlist in my car at the entrance of the trailhead when I noticed a white panel van making slow circles around the parking lot. Likely, the driver wasn’t up to anything nefarious. But it gave me pause for concern because you just never know. Also, hearing the story of two mountain bikers being killed this week near Seattle by a cougar, plus SOFREP’s own Alex Hollings encounter with a bear while out for a run just made this post timelier than ever.
It’s important to think about your own safety when you are out exercising, especially if you like to get off the beaten path like I do. So, let’s talk about some of the very basic safety items to consider when you’re out on the trail.
Listen to your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, do what you need to do to feel more comfortable—even if that means crossing the street to avoid someone, or skipping a trail you usually run because it’s dark and seemingly empty. (If you can’t break your night owl habits, then opt for reflective and bright workout gear that’s made for running in the dark.) If your gut tells you something doesn’t feel right — trust it!
Always let someone know where you’re going. Not to mention when you plan to be back. That way they’ll know to come looking should something go awry. Most phones have a location sharing function, so use it.
Maintain that situational awareness. We all love to rock out to our running playlist, but just remember that if you are out there on the trail, you should be keeping your wits about you at all times. There are too many opportunities for someone to catch you off guard and too many ambush points for someone looking to do you harm. Keep the tunes at a level that allows you to hear what’s going on around you, especially behind you.
Consider some type of personal defense weapon. When you are sweating and wearing workout clothing, concealed carry of a gun is not always the most convenient way to go but if you decide to carry while out running, you have choices — a holster or storage system strapped to the body or integrated into the clothing itself. Some types of holsters will cause abrasion to the skin and clothing during long distance running, biking or hiking. An ankle holster may be tightened and cinched close to the skin, but the added, concentrated weight can be an unwelcome burden.
The location of where you carry is a personal one. What is comfortable and easy for you to draw from are the keys. Bellyband holsters and compression concealment clothing are my favorites but as I am currently in a state where I cannot carry, neither are an option. So, it’s good to consider other options like a neck knife and pepper spray. Neither of these would help much if a cougar was on the prowl though — and I mean a real cougar, not the kind you see at the hotel bar while TDY.
Beware of the critters — Wild animal safety
As a trail runner, you’re likely too lean and sinewy and, well, human, to appeal to a meat eater. That’s not to say that there’s no chance of danger. (Deer are lean, too.) Some animals are predators, after all, and challenging their territory — whether you mean to or not — could provoke some unpleasant natural instincts. No wild animal wants you messing with it, its young, or its personal space — so no close-talking or provoking these guys in any way. Here are some specifics on how to stay safe and defuse potentially unsafe situations in the wild.
Of the few species of bears that roam the continent, black bears (which range in color from black to brown or even white) are the ones you’re most likely to encounter on a trail run in the United States. They live in most forested regions of the country as well as in mountainous and swampy areas.
Grizzly bears, including coastal brown bears, range from black to blond and live in the northern reaches of the country (Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, and western Canada). Grizzlies roam inland.
Running in bear country. Most bears are afraid of or uninterested in humans. However, a threatened bear, or the very rare predatory bear, can become a serious issue.
- Carry bear spray where you can grab it quickly (not on your back).
- Read bear spray instructions beforehand—spray duration and distance vary among brands.
- Start to spray a charging bear when it is 30 to 60 feet away.
Encounter #1: You see a bear and it doesn’t see you.
- Stay calm.
- Back away slowly.
Encounter #2: A bear sees you.
- Stay calm.
- Talk in quiet tones, telling the bear you’re a human.
- If the bear returns to doing bear things, back away slowly, as you would if the bear had never seen you.
Encounter #3: A bear sees you and charges.
- Stand your ground. (The charge may be a bluff.)
- Use your bear spray.
Encounter #4: A bear charges and makes contact.
- Drop to the ground and play dead by covering the back of your neck with your hands and protecting your face with your forearms, elbows on the ground.
- Carry bear spray as your bear deterrent. Don’t depend on personal defense products such as pepper spray to stop a charging bear.
- Play dead for longer than you think you need to. A bear may sniff you or simply watch you to make sure you are no longer a threat before leaving. If you move too early, you’ll likely regain its attention.
Encounter #5: A bear is stalking you.
- A predatory bear will be intent and focused on you. It will approach you with its head up and ears erect. If you think a bear is following you, make a 90-degree turn and walk 100 to 300 yards, make another 90-degree turn, and walk another 100 to 300 yards, and so on. It may just be curious and leave you alone once its curiosity is satisfied.
- Be aggressive toward the bear from the get-go: Talk loudly, wave your arms, look as big as possible, and throw things, showing the bear that you are not easy prey while you walk and turn, walk and turn.
An encounter with a predatory bear is extremely rare but knowing how to react is important.
Since off-leash dogs can attract grizzlies and lure them back to their owners, it’s a good idea to keep dogs on leash in grizzly country, even when walking.
Mountain lions weigh between 80 and 180 pounds and are typically 5 to 8 feet long, nose to tail. They have a long tail with a dark tip and are uniformly tan or grayish in color. Mountain lions prey on large and small mammals such as deer, raccoons, and beaver and are most active at dawn and dusk.
- Stop running and face the lion.
- Make eye contact.
- Mountain lions are also referred to as pumas, panthers, catamounts, and cougars.
- Make yourself appear as big as possible. Raise your arms, open your jacket, and stand close to your running partner. Wave your raised arms slowly.
- Make noise by yelling and banging rocks together.
- Speak slowly and firmly in a deep voice.
- Throw something you have in your hands (don’t bend or crouch down).
- Back away slowly. If you’re between the lion and its prey or kittens, give the lion a path to get to its treasure.
- Fight back if attacked, protecting your throat and neck.
- Bend or crouch down.
- Turn your back and run. Mountain lions like a good game of chase, and they win by pouncing on the slower playmate.
The most common animal encounter you’ll likely have on a trail is with a dog running or hiking with a human. Dogs that are off leash should be well behaved and leave you alone, and the owner should be able to control the dog with a voice command. However, this is not always the case. If you are approaching a dog that appears agitated or is off leash and moving quickly in your direction, consider the following.
- Greet the dog and owner with a friendly hello.
- Stay calm; dogs may become aggressive when sensing fear.
- Stop running and stand tall and still, like a tree.
- Stand sideways, keeping the dog in your peripheral vision. This is a less threatening stance to an aggressive dog.
- Lower your hand (with closed fist) so the dog can sniff you as it passes.
- Raise a knee to protect yourself should the dog jump up on you.
- Jump up and down excitedly.
- Stick out an open hand; this may too closely resemble a slice of ham.
- Freak out.
- Run away while freaking out. Running can trigger a chase instinct.
The Canadian Air Force isn’t exactly what you would call a deadly animal, but they can become quite nasty if you get between them and their goslings so if you run across them, best to give them a wide berth.
They may look cute and cuddly but these guys, if infected with rabies, can become all too aggressive and stories of them attacking runners are many.
OK, now that you have a few basic safety tips — get out there and go off-roading!
Featured Image: Grand Teton National Park. I saw two black bears on the trail the day this photo was taken. | Author