You’re Not Alone Out There: Trail Runners & Wild Animals

What to expect and how to react to animal encounters when running trails

With special guest blogger Dr. Craig Blair

For many trail and ultramarathon runners, being in nature is one of the biggest attractions to the sport. We love the outdoors. We love the beauty. We enjoy breathing the fresh air. We appreciate the solitude. We are fascinated by the wildlife. We are also terrified of the wildlife! One inevitability of trail running is that trail runners will at some point come into contact with other members of the animal kingdom. Some are cute. Some are harmless. Some are just annoying. Some are so stealthy or insignificant we never even notice them. Some, however, are simply dangerous.

So how do we deal with these animal encounters? How do we avoid unpleasant experiences with other animals? How should we respond when we do run into animals on the trail regardless of their level of danger or aggression?

We sat down for a quick Q&A with Dr. Craig Blair of Lexington, Kentucky. In addition to being an extremely experienced ultramarathon and trail runner, Doc Blair is also a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Clays Mill Veterinary Clinic in Lexington, Kentucky. An animal AND trail running expert. We just had to get his two cents!

A quick disclaimer: since Next Opportunity operates primarily in central and eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia, the following conversation will be limited to that specific region of the United States.

Snakes

Next Opp:  So Doc, let’s just jump right in. What are the various types of snakes that we can expect to run into on the trail in this part of the country - venomous or not?

Doc Blair:  There are more than 32 species of snakes common to our area so there simply isn’t enough time to discuss them all.  Fortunately, only two of those, the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake, pose any threat to humans. Both are pit vipers and that makes identification pretty easy (thick/heavy bodies, wedge-shaped heads with obvious pits in front of their eyes and obvious vertical slits for pupils).  Copperheads are especially easy to ID because their skin pattern looks like Hershey Kisses. Timber rattlers are one of the shyest and most docile of all rattlesnakes...but they’re still rattlesnakes.

Next Opp:  And where can we expect to run into those suckers?

Doc Blair:  Copperheads can be found anywhere and everywhere in Kentucky.  They prey upon small rodents, birds, frogs and lizards so you’ll find them along game/hiking trails, along streams, beside ponds and, where I see them most, tucked up under downed logs or at the base of trees.  You’ll find copperheads in pastures, wetlands, forests, swamps and urban lots. It’s rare that I can’t find a copperhead if I am looking for one. They are everywhere!

Timber rattlers are much less common but can still be found throughout Kentucky although rarely in the north central part of the state.  Their habitat consists primarily of the deep woods. They prey mainly on rodents, especially squirrels, and will often be found in rocky areas or in thickets and downed tree canopies.  

Next Opp:  What should trail runners do when we run into these various snake species?

Doc Blair:  The best advice I can give is to keep moving unless the snake is directly blocking your path of forward progress (having said that, I have hurdled many copperheads and a couple of rattlers but I don’t recommend that as a survival tactic).  Both of these snakes are shy and both are ambush predators so they aren’t going to come after you. Their first response to commotion is to hunker down and use their cryptic coloration to disappear into the environment. Next, they will try to flee if there is an open avenue of retreat.  Striking is their last defense and defense is the ONLY reason they would ever bite a human. If it’s blocking your path back off and give it time to clear the trail, go around or turn back.

Those of you who know me know that I share a lot of wildlife pictures from my trail runs but you’ll seldom see me post pics of these guys.  Taking a picture of a venomous snake (or otherwise interacting with it) increases your likelihood of being bitten by 80%.

One of the most common ways people get bit by copperheads is by stepping over or reaching under a downed log.  When I come up on downed logs that I can’t see under I will either hurdle them so that I land 1 ½ to 2 feet clear on the other side or I will step up onto the log (giving any snake in the vicinity a good strong vibration so that he’ll hunker down until I pass) and then jump away to land clear of the log.  Even a big copperhead is only going to be about three feet long so you’ll likely land out of their striking range.

Again, the best advice is to keep moving.  If you think you glimpse a snake on the edge of the trail or hear a rattle off the trail just keep on trucking.  Your footfalls will be signal enough for the snakes to hunker down until you pass. Stop to look under that log or foliage and, well, you may just find what you’re looking for!

Next Opp:  Worst case scenario: we get bitten in the middle of the woods, and we are alone. What should we do?

Doc Blair:  DO NOT suck it, cut it or compress it!  These are outdated treatments that won’t help and could make things much worse.  If you are bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake STOP running (keep your heart rate down), try not to panic, walk out and call for help as soon as you get a signal (because we all should always have our phones with us when we are trail running).  If the bite is on your foot or lower leg you should loosen your laces or remove them altogether because you foot is going to swell...A LOT! I carry a rescue whistle any time I’m in the wilds. Three sharp blasts of the whistle is universal for EMERGENCY!  

Copperhead bites are rarely fatal.  Rattlesnake bites are very serious but rarely fatal if treated promptly and appropriately.  I like to say that a copperhead bite will ruin your weekend but a rattlesnake bite will change your life.

Bears

Next Opp:  It’s pretty much common knowledge that Black Bears are the main bear inhabitants in this region. Are there specific times of day or year when a bear encounter is more likely than others?

Doc Blair:  Black bears are active from March through November and you can see them any time during these months though they tend to be more aggressive and grumpy when they first emerge from their dens in the spring.  Bears are crepuscular in their behavior which simply means that they are most active in the early morning and the evening. Bears are true carnivores but in our region the bulk of their diet consists of fruit, roots, vegetation and insect matter.  Interestingly, bears LOVE yellowjacket nests! I’ve seen 5 black bears in the 12+ years that I have been running trails in eastern Kentucky. All 5 sightings were on spring mornings and all 5 bears were rooting around in dead logs and couldn’t have cared less about my presence.

Next Opp:  Are there things trail runners can do to avoid a bear encounter when we are out on a run?

Doc Blair:  Just like with snakes, the best thing you can do is to keep moving down the trail.  No forest creature wants to have anything to do with a loud, smelly, sweaty human who is running through the woods like a fool!  Keep in mind, this advice is for runners. If you are camping in the woods there is a whole other discussion about food storage and camp hygiene that must be had.  

Next Opp:  So we’ve run into a bear on the trail. What should we do?

Doc Blair:  STOP RUNNING!!  Bears, like dogs, have a very strong chase instinct.  You don’t want to do anything to engage that predator drive and you won’t outrun it because black bears can run up to 35 mph for short distances.  A stressed, angry, or anxious bear will pop his jaw and huff loudly. If you hear that you had better get your guard up!

DO NOT approach the bear to get a better picture!  The ONLY recorded black bear attack in Kentucky occurred in 2010 when some idiot was pursuing the bear to get better cell phone pictures!

Face the bear, make yourself as big as possible.  Keep your eye on the bear and SLOWLY retreat. Usually, the bear will either go back to foraging or it will amble off.  If it approaches you continue to face it as you continue to retreat, wave your hands over your head and make a lot of noise.

Now, what if you get attacked by a black bear? (and this is a huge "if". Remember there has only been ONE reported black bear attack in Kentucky.)  Remember, we’re talking about black bears. Most are in the 100-200lb range. That’s big but it’s not man-eating grizzly big. If you get charged stand your ground and go all Sam Kennison on his ass, grab a stick or rock and commit to the fight.  In the unlikely event that the bear makes contact with you DO NOT PLAY DEAD! Fight aggressively and aim for the snout and eyes.

Dogs

Next Opp: This is a harsh reality in this part of the country, especially in rural areas. Whether we are on a trail or on a road between the trailheads, what’s the best reaction when we see a barking dog running toward us while running?

Doc Blair:  This is the time when you DO NOT want to keep running.  Dogs have a very strong prey drive and your running puts that drive into high gear.  You WILL NOT outrun a dog! Stop, face the dog, make yourself as big as possible and tell that dog in no uncertain terms that he is a BAD DOG!!!

Next Opp:  Many dogs are simply curious. But what about those that are more than curious? What should we do when a dog is particularly aggressive and comes a little too close for comfort?

Doc Blair:  Again, make yourself as big and as loud as possible.  Conjure the spirit of Sam Kennison and make that dog ashamed that he was born.  If it comes to actual physical contact, aim for eyes. I hate to say it but if it’s him or me, I’m taking out his headlights.  I’ve been attacked once while running. He had me by the thigh and I was going down. I knew if I went to the ground it was going to get real serious real fast.  He didn’t let go until I had my thumbs in his eye sockets. Fortunately, I didn’t have to blind him, he just had to realize that I was serious. By the way, this attack happened in Dogwood Trace subdivision in Lexington!

Next Opp:  What should we do if we do get bitten to the point of drawing blood? Is it safe to continue the run, or should we seek medical attention right away?

Doc Blair:  You should not continue to run.  There’s no way to know in the field the exact extent of the injury.  If it is bleeding profusely, fashion a pressure wrap (but not a tourniquet), walk out as quickly as possible and call for help as soon as you get a signal.  Sometimes even if the physical injury isn’t that severe just the trauma of the situation can cause you to go into shock afterward so stop running, walk out and call for help.  All dog bites require medical attention and antibiotics (what’s your dog’s favorite thing to lick?!). Also, rabies is a concern with any bite from a mammal. It may be unlikely that the dog is rabid but if it is and you don’t get treated, guess what...rabies is 99.99% fatal.

Coyotes

Next Opp:  If any runners have been out on a trail in Kentucky or Virginia after dark they have probably heard a pack of coyotes yapping throughout the night. It’s a particularly unsettling experience the first time you hear it, especially if you are ALONE. Is that all mental or do coyotes pose a legitimate threat to humans in that situation?

Doc Blair:  True fact: more people are KILLED by golf balls each year than are BITTEN by coyotes.  Coyotes aren’t going to bother you unless you’re messing with them, they are cornered, or they are rabid.

One of the most dangerous things that I see trail runners doing is running with earbuds.  It’s one thing to listen to music if you’re running at Veterans Park or Raven Run (local Lexington, Kentucky city parks) but when you are in the wilds of Kentucky you need to be fully engaged with the environment.  Being able to hear threats is key to avoiding threats. Run smart out there!

Michael WhismanComment