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Dirty Runner: Wildlife Encounters on the Trail

A lot of runners who have never ventured into the woods seem to have a fear of what might lurk amongst the tees. As a trail runner, I often get asked about what sort of wildlife I encounter while running out in the forest. For my first post as “The Dirty Runner” I’m hoping to relieve some fears by discussing what type of animals you might commonly see, and what to do should you come face to face with one of these creatures. *Disclaimer: I am not a wildlife expert. Far from it! I’m simply going to post what my experiences have been with animals out on the trail. I encourage you to research the wildlife in your local area and study expert opinions on how to behave during an encounter.

English: A white-tailed deer

English: A white-tailed deer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Deer – Living in New England I see a lot of deer. Usually when I encounter a deer I hear it before I see it. If you get close to a deer and startle it, it’ll typically let out a surprisingly loud exhale through its nose. Deer are terrified of humans, and will turn and leap away from you. It’s incredibly beautiful to see these large animals do a bunny impersonation and bound gracefully into the thick woods. If you stay still and watch, you will see that they usually go only a little ways before stopping to see if you are still there. I cherish my meetings with them – they always bring a smile to my face.

Moose (1998) Alaska Office of Economic Development

Moose (1998) Alaska Office of Economic Development (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moose – If you have never seen a moose up close, you’ll be dumbstruck at how gigantic these creatures are. And stupid. This is not an animal that you can scare easily. I have found their behavior to be very similar to deer, except that they only run about 25 feet before stopping to check and see if you’re still there. Moose are known to charge people if they feel threatened, so it’s best to stop as soon as you see one and give it space. The most frightening encounter I’ve ever had was when I was running along and and I spotted a little moose a short distance away from me. As it ran off to the right of me I realized that it was a baby.  I thought to myself: “Hmm… a baby, I wonder where its mama is?” I turned my head to the left and saw a gigantic moose. I was directly between them and it was a very open, exposed trail. Luckily it just looked at me as I passed between them. I ran fast and hard for quite a while! Adrenaline is a great speed enhancer!

A porcupine

A porcupine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Porcupine – I see these guys all the time. I actually almost kicked one once when I was too focused on my footsteps. I have never seen any aggressive behavior from them, but like any wild animal, it’s best to give it space.

he was happily sitting back and munching on so...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beaver – There are a ton of swamps and bogs in New Hampshire, and whenever you have those you have beavers. You’ll see evidence of them anytime you run along a river or stream, in the form of trees that have been chewed down. If they have babies they might show protective behavior by slapping their tails on the surface of the water. It’s very loud and almost sounds like a gunshot – this indicates that the beaver feels threatened and wants you out of there. Best to oblige it.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse (Photo credit: StoneHorse Studios)

Grouse – These small birds can nest on the side of trails and when encountered will display behavior that will make you think that it’s hurt – it might act like it has a broken wing. It will screak and squawk loudly and run around in circles. You might be tempted to stop and see if you can help this poor creature, but that would be a mistake. After the little dance, they will run strait at you as fast as they can. They don’t have any endurance and the attack won’t last long. Fortunately they are easily outrun, but you will have to run fast. I have never seen any grouse in southern NH, but have encountered them in VT and northern NH.

Earl the Squirrel

Earl the Squirrel (Photo credit: Jared Browarnik)

Squirrels and Chipmunks – They are everywhere in the woods. They will sometimes yell at you, but they are not a threat (note from Pete – a squirrel ran smack into my leg at full speed last week in my garage after a run, maybe they’re more dangerous than we think!).

English: Black bear in the Canadian Rockies

English: Black bear in the Canadian Rockies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bear – In New England we have Black Bears. Of all the animals that people tell me they are afraid of, bears are at the top of the list. I have encountered a lot of black bears, and almost every single time they have run away like I was their worst nightmare. Black Bears are extremely timid and afraid of humans. They scare easily with a little sound, like clapping your hands. You can also carry a little bell which can be effective at keeping them away. In some cases, bears get used to people due to irresponsible human behavior (like leaving out food for them, not securing garbage pails, etc). These bears are no longer afraid of you and should be avoided at all cost. When I ran Western States in California I saw a huge brown bear at the base of Squaw Valley, and it seemed to not even notice all the people around. It was pretty scary! I have no experience with Grizzly bears, but I understand that they don’t scare easily and are very aggressive. 


Bobcat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bobcat – I have seen Bobcats on three occasions. Once in Florida when running between villages at Disney, and twice in the woods in my back yard. They look like big housecats and are beautiful creatures. In all cases I have simply stopped running and watched them. They did not seem afraid of me at all, which is kind of scary. Once I saw one with a dead squirrel walk across the trail perpendicular to me about 20 feet away. It didn’t notice me and didn’t seem worried about anything. 

A Red-Tail Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flying. Ha...

A Red-Tail Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flying. Half Moon Bay, California, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Birds of Prey (owls and hawks) – I see owls all the time. I thought they were nocturnal (no, I didn’t do any research for this post), but I see them in the daytime a lot.  They’re beautiful animals and have a huge wingspan. I’ve never really been afraid of birds, but in June 2011 I was attacked on the trail by a hawk. No joke! Rather than retell the story here, you can read the entire post about the encounter on my blog.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in Fort Wort...

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in Fort Worth Zoo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Turkeys – There are a ton of turkeys in the woods near me. I usually see anywhere from 3 to over a dozen in a group. They scare easily and are almost comical in their panic to get away from you – they are the least graceful animal you will ever see and will crash through brush and trees scurrying away. I have had friends tell me they can’t fly, but they do, usually for only short distances though. The recent mild winters seem to have led to an increase in turkey numbers over the past few years.

Striped skunk

Striped skunk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Skunks – I usually encounter them at night, and funny enough, usually on the roads.  Once, in the last mile of the Vermont 100, I hallucinated a cartoon skunk and screamed at my pacer, ‘”Joe, LOOK OUT, a skunk!” I don’t think that counts as a real encounter though.


Cougar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mountain Lions – There are rumors that there are mountain lions in the east, but I have never seen one. When I was preparing for the Western States 100 I was told that the best thing to do when encountering one is to stop immediately and raise your shirt over your head with your arms stretched high to make yourself look bigger. Do not, under any circumstances, run. That signals to the lion that you are prey.

Sasquatch (photo via Cryptomundo)

Sasquatch – Although never confirmed, the East Coast woods is an obvious breeding ground for the fabled Bigfoot. I have seen many a ‘squatch print and careful study of scat proves that what you might think is dog poop, is actually Sasquatch. They are usually pissed off and jealous of your minimal shoes, since nobody is making a size 28 in 4E. When encountering one, do not try to reason with it. If you have Jack Links Beef Jerky give him the package and slowly back away.

Nate Sanel is an ultrarunner and author of the Dirty Runner column on Runblogger. You can find more of Nate’s writing on his personal blog, Biker Nate, or follow him on Twitter.

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a biology teacher, track/soccer coach, and dad (x3) with a passion for running, soccer, and science. If you'd like to learn a little bit more about who I am and what I do, click here, or visit

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