How to See Wildlife When Hiking
February 14, 2022
We’ve been hiking in the mountains for years and have been fortunate to see our share of wildlife. Even better, we haven’t seen any bears or mountain lions, but we’ve come across fresh tracks and have been pretty certain that they’ve seen us. They say that if you hike in the mountains of Colorado, on about one out of ten hikes, a mountain lion has seen you, even though you don’t see them. With that in mind, we thought we’d share some tips to help you see wildlife when you hike, but always put safety first. Seasoned hikers will likely notice that most of these tips are in complete contrast to the tips for avoiding bears when hiking. If you’re hiking in bear country, always talk to the rangers and find out where there have been recent sightings and where the bears are most likely to be active. Never intentionally put yourself in harm’s way.
1. Be extremely observant – This is probably the most obvious, but if you’re not constantly scanning the area around, you’re likely walking by animals without even knowing it. It is always best if you see the animals before they see you, especially if there is even a remote chance that the animal could harm you, which is almost always the case. Almost any animal when startled or threatened has the potential to attack, so seeing them first allows you to control the situation.
2. Don’t make a lot of noise, talking in quieter voices – You don’t have to be completely silent, in fact we’d recommend that you make some noise and talk, just a normal pitch. If you’re making some noise, you’re less likely to startle an animal that perhaps you didn’t see, but still be quiet enough not to spook an animal that is farther away. There was one time when we were hiking near Beaver Creek, Colorado, when we ended up startling a young doe, even though we were talking and not being overly quiet. The deer literally ran into us as she made here escape, scaring us as much as we scared her.
3. Hike in smaller groups, usually three or less – Pretty much for the same reason as number two, the larger the group, the more noise that you make. Also, the more people in the group, the more motion that you make, the more reflective surfaces to catch the sun, the more noticeable that you are. Remember, the animals are watching for you as much as you might be searching for them. Just as you are more likely to notice a herd of deer versus as single deer, so is it true of them seeing you.
4. Watch for anything that moves – Being observant and scanning the horizon isn’t always enough, you need to pay attention to any motion that see. Sure, more often than not, it will be caused by the wind, but the animals are camouflaged, making them hard to see. What at first seems like the rustling of a leaf, might just turn out to be the wiggling of an ear. And if you see one animal, be extra careful, there are probably several more just out of sight.
5. Hike more remote, less frequented, trails – It doesn’t do any good to do everything possible to see wildlife if there are a hundred hikers in front of you doing the exact opposite. Getting away from roads, towns, and most importantly other hikers, will definitely increase your chances of seeing wildlife. Be smart, though, carry bear spray, phone, flashlight, compass, and extra food if you’re heading into remote areas. We always stay on well-marked trails and don’t go venturing off into the woods. The national forest system in Colorado is huge and you could easily get yourself lost for days if decide to go trailblazing.
6. Hike near dawn or dusk – Animals are always most active around these times, so be extra alert when hiking at these times of day. Light can be an issue as the shadows are longer and it isn’t as easy to see off into the distance. Take your time when hiking during these times so that you don’t startle an animal that you didn’t see as well as to give yourself time to truly see what is all around you.
7. Carry binoculars or camera with a telephoto lens – Obviously it makes it easier to see animals in the distance if you can zoom in and focus closer on them. It is also the safest way to observe animals without putting yourself at risk. We’re not professional photographers, but we did invest in a telephoto lens a few years ago and it was one of the best investments that we’ve made.
8. Spend time in locations that are likely to draw animals – Sources of water and food are the most likely places to find animals, so spending time near those locations, especially at dusk or dawn, will increase your chances of seeing them. Animals also use the trails to get through the forest as much as hikers do, simply because it is easier for them to walk on the trails, so staying on the trails will increase your chances of seeing them. Sometimes the most likely place to see animals isn’t where you might expect it. One of our funniest stories about seeing animals in the wild was when we were in Estes Park, Colorado, many years ago. We had gone hiking at dusk and waited by an open field with a stream running through it and, after much waiting, a herd of elk finally appeared. It was autumn, so the temperatures quickly dropped and we were frozen by the time we got back to the car, but we were happy to have seen the elk. We drove back to our hotel and lo and behold there were hundreds of elk walking around the property nibbling on the fresh grass. It hadn’t crossed our minds that they would be drawn to the green grass of the hotel versus foraging for food in the wild.
Hopefully you will have as much luck as we’ve had seeing wildlife by using these tips. We can’t say it enough, though, be smart about it and don’t do anything too risky. Always respect wildlife, some animals may look cute, but they are wild animals and therefore can be unpredictable.