How to Go Hiking & Backpacking With Wildlife-Watching in Mind

It’s often the case that a hiker sees less wildlife—larger or more elusive wildlife, anyway—than a motorist tooling around a national park or remote backroads. Many animals seem to perceive a person afoot as more threatening than a vehicle. Plus, we tend to make a lot of racket—more than we usually realize—tromping our way down-trail.

But hikers and backpackers can absolutely heighten their chances of seeing wildlife, let alone the fascinating wildlife sign that no motorized tourist is going to notice.

Let’s consider some tips and tricks for upping your wildlife-watching on the trail—and, also, some wildlife-safety precautions you need to bear (ahem) in mind when putting them into action.

First: Putting Things Into Perspective

We’re generally talking here about seeing mammals, and those aforementioned “larger or more elusive” mammals at that. But don’t neglect the smaller and more easily seen critters that can enliven your hike. Sparing a few moments to watch a red squirrel or cottontail may yield some intriguing behavior—or at least some cute-factor entertainment while you catch your breath. And, of course, a wildlife-keen hiker who starts keying into birdsong and the feathered crowd, in general, will rarely return to a trailhead disappointed.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Image courtesy of Steven Cordes

Generally speaking, early morning and late evening—the crepuscular windows—are more productive times for seeing many mammals. That’s particularly true in front-country settings or more heavily human-trammeled wildlands, where an animal’s crepuscular routine may be mostly about avoiding people. But from ungulate grazing patterns to the hunting grounds of mostly nocturnal carnivores, these times of day often see spikes in wildlife activity even in more remote terrain.

You should always have a headlamp or flashlight in your pack anyhow, but double-check you’ve got one before heading out to scout in the pre-dawn—or, all the more crucially, in the evening, just in case nightfall catches you out there.

Get in the Rhythm

A person hiking on a trail alongside a grassy mountain(Opens in a new window) Be sure to look up every once in a while. Photo by Leslie Cross

Bang-out-the-miles, tunnel-vision, daydreaming-style hiking isn’t a fruitful way to see wildlife. You want to be as aware and attuned to your surroundings as possible, which means adopting something of a wild animal’s tempo out there: a stop-and-start tempo, hiking a short way, and then halting to look and listen. Your peripheral vision is excellent at picking up movement, so slow 360-degree scans can be quite effective at noticing skittering or creeping forms, or flicking ears, or a trembling nose. And the quiet of standing still for just a minute or two is often enough to amplify the sound of a snort or alarm call, a thump, or a cracking twig.

You especially want to slow down and monitor when you’re approaching shifts in habitat—dense forest grading to open woodland or brushland, say—or when the trail comes to a prominent vantage or open ground.

Whether or not you see or hear much wildlife, this style of hiking can definitely deepen your appreciation of the landscape. On a backpacking trip when you do need to cover some ground, it’s likely not feasible to do this the whole time, but you can also work in occasional interludes—especially in prime habitats or areas with long sightlines.

Quiet Down

This one is probably pretty obvious and goes hand-in-hand with the previous section. But hiking quietly can be surprisingly challenging when you’re with others. Garden-variety on-trail conversation at even modest volume can be enough to alert keen-eared wild ones to your incoming presence and send them scattering before you’d ever have a hope of clapping eyes on them.

If you’re out hiking with some companions, maybe consider at least weaving in some stretches of relative silence—following the stop-and-start rhythm laid out above—and then going back to shooting the breeze.

Paying Attention to What Animals Leave Behind

Animal tracks in the snow(Opens in a new window) Rabbit tracks in the snow. Photo by Jamo Images

There is so much—so much—evidence of animal presence and passage you can key into while hiking. Among the most obvious are tracks, the reading of which can provide a lifetime’s worth of pleasure out in the woods. Even the most phantasmal of beasts—a puma, a wolverine—leaves its footprints, there to be identified by a sharp-eyed hiker in mud, sand, or snow. But there’s a load of other evidence waiting to be scrutinized if you pay attention: logs or anthills torn open by black bears, mountainside turf excavated by grizzlies, saplings scraped by elk or deer antlers, beaver gnawings, squirrel middens, badger holes—oh, and naturally quite a lot of droppings, which can be delightfully diagnostic.

Certain places are hotspots for wildlife spoor and leavings. Ridges are natural travel funnels; look for pawprints and ropey carnivore poop along a ridgetop path. Wild cats often leave scat and scrapes atop rocks, logs, and hummocks. Hillside benches are often utilized by elk and deer as bedding sites.

A tracking field guide comes in big-time handy on this front. Solid options include Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species or James Halfpenny’s Mammal Tracks of North America.

Balancing Act: The Wildlife Safety Element

A moose standing in a clearing surrounded by tall grass(Opens in a new window) Getting up close & personal with a moose is amazing… until it isn’t. Practice safety first. Photo by Aleesha Wood

Hikers hoping to spot wildlife need to walk a fine line, at least in certain landscapes. Hiking quietly at propitious times of day and seeking out productive habitat can up your odds of seeing critters, but also potentially set the stage for sudden run-ins with types of critters you don’t necessarily want to see up-close and personal. In North America, that includes not only grizzly and black bears, but also big ungulates such as moose.

In grizzly country, in particular, you’ll mostly want to be advertising your presence rather than sneaking through the landscape. A surprise encounter with a grizzly—any grizzly, but especially a mother bear with cubs or a bear guarding a carcass—is about as dangerous a wildlife encounter as you can have in North America. Grizzlies generally want nothing to do with people and will typically exit the scene in a hurry when hikers appear, but if startled at close range they may respond with an aggressive defense. Talking as you hike, and clapping or shouting periodically—particularly when passing through dense woods or brush, and when hiking along noisy streams—is a good course of action where grizzly bears roam, even though it’ll likely cut down some on your wildlife sightings.

Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Joris Buegels(Opens in a new window)