Furry can be cute. Other times furry can be deadly. How can you tell the difference? Good question.
Bears, mountain lions, bison, and moose are four mighty mammals you might run into on a car-camping trip in North America. With some basic knowledge about these creatures, you’ll be able to wow your buddies and save their skin if a run-in goes south while car camping.
Some campers are terrified of bears. Other campers dream of seeing the shaggy, grumbly animal sniffing around near their campsite. Regardless of how endearing you find the big honey-guzzlers, here are a few facts you should know about them.
There are two types of bears that you’ll find in North American backcountry: black bears and brown bears (the third type, polar bears, are only in Alaska and we won’t cover them here).
The black bear is the more common of the two; it trundles around forests and mountains in 80 percent of U.S. States. It’s also the smallest bear on the continent, weighing between 200 and 300 pounds. They might not be as mighty as their grizzly cousins, but their smaller size and short claws make them epic tree-climbers. That’s right, bears can climb trees (how else would they reach those yummy berries!).
Brown bears, on the other hand, are known for their size. When the salmon-spawning season rolls around, they’ll put on some serious mass and can weigh over 1,000 pounds. Unlike black bears, they’re also incredible diggers thanks to a mass of muscle above their shoulders that powers their forelimbs and drives their long claws into the dirt. They can also run up to 35 miles per hour. That’s 10 mph faster than Usain Bolt blazing down the track— you might want to think twice before running from one!
One famous subspecies of the brown bear is the grizzly, named after the grey hair in its fur that gives it a “grizzled” look. So it’s not “grizzly” as in mean and terrifying, but “grizzly” as in aging and not afraid to show it. The grizzly is also California’s state animal, a testament to the fact that the fish-loving bear used to roam wild throughout the entire state.
So what do bears want out of life? They generally want to eat berries and snooze. They can spend up to half a year hibernating, and are the only mammals that don’t pee or poop during that entire period. 6 months, no bathroom break. Think about that next time you pester your driver about pulling over so you can do your business.
How To Deal With Bears
Bears are calm animals, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep your distance. You’ll also want to let them know you’re around if you see or hear one. They don’t like surprises.
If you’re attacked by a black bear, don’t play dead. Try to escape to a car or building, but whatever you do, don’t climb a tree. Remember those short claws. They’ll be right on your tail.
You’ll need the opposite strategy for brown bears. If you’re attacked by one, lay on your stomach and play dead. Fighting back will only aggravate the bear, but if the attack continues, fight back and aim at the face. Brown bear cubs can also climb trees, but the larger bears won’t. If you don’t think you can outrun the bear, getting to a tall branch is a good option.
To avoid confrontations in the first place, the best thing to do is to suspend your food from the ground in bags or, even better, stash it in a bear-resistant container (known as a bear canister). Some campsites also have bear-proof lockers. If you’re going with the canister, make sure to stash it away from your tent at night. If the bear does get ahold of the container, it will only wrestle around with it before giving up. Usually.
In 2007, a black bear in the Adirondack Mountains learned to solve the puzzle of bear canisters. The bear learned to use her canine teeth to press in the latches on the container. Not only that, but other bears around her saw and learned to do the same thing!
So here’s the bear-knowledge to take away: bears sleep a lot, can and will follow you up a tree, and are pretty darn clever. To avoid unhappy confrontations, give bears their space and stash your food properly.
Cougars, pumas, panthers, catamounts — these are all names for the same stealthy cat, the mountain lion.
Mountain lions are the largest of the small cat species, and you’ll find them where you’d expect them: in mountains (who would’ve guessed!). They actually have the largest range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, except for humans. They’re up in Canada and down in South America and everywhere in between!
Mountain lions have large paws, sharp claws, and ridiculous hops. They can jump 40 feet forward from a standstill position, and up to 18 feet from the ground into a tree. They’re also fast runners with flexible spines, which means they can change directions in a flash and get around obstacles. You don’t want to be caught in a race with these guys.
Mountain lions are fierce predators, yes, but their superpower is their stealth. They’ve probably survived into modernity because they’re so darn sneaky. The big cats are ambush hunters, using their keen eyesight to stalk prey during dawn and dusk, their peak hunting hours. They will also hide carcasses, snacking on them for several days. Yum.
How To Deal With Mountain Lions
Though mountain lion attacks are rare, as the animals are shy, there are some simple precautions you can take. Don’t hike alone and don’t let young children wander out on their own (a small child is easy prey for a mountain lion).
If you see a mountain lion, stay calm, stand tall, and face the animal. If you squat down, you might look more like a deer, which means you’ll look like dinner. And you’ll want to be careful about running, which will likely trigger the animal’s chase instinct.
If the mountain lion approaches you and looks aggressive, make yourself as scary as possible. Start yelling and throwing pots if you need to, which might convince the cat that 1) you’re NOT a deer and 2) you ARE dangerous.
The takeaway: If a mountain lion is in the area, do your very best not to look, act, or sound like a four-legged animal. But you probably won’t ever have to deal with that silliness, since these cats are on the shier side anyway.
Once upon a time, 20 to 30 million bison roamed wild across North America’s plains, but because of hunting and habitat loss, only about half a million roam today, primarily in national parks and other small wildlife areas.
If you’ve ever seen a bison, you know they are big. Really big. They’re the largest land-dwelling mammal in North America, with the adult males weighing up to 2,000 pounds. And don’t forget that they’re herbivores, which means they’re chomping on a lot of grass; bison typically forage for 9 to 11 hours daily.
The shaggy bovines are known for their iconic shoulder hump, a massive heap of muscle that allows the animal to plow snow in the winter by swinging its head from side to side. They’re basically plow machines and are built to withstand both hot summer heat and freezing winter blizzards in the Great Plains.
How To Deal With Bison
In case you forgot...bison also has horns. This is where they start to sound a whole lot less cuddly.
If you find yourself in Yellowstone National Park, the best policy is to keep your distance (at least 75 feet) in case these animals decide to turn their heads into battering rams and test what you’re made of. They will also be more aggressive during their mating season, so you’re going to want to think twice before taking that perfect bison selfie.
If you are close to a bison, make sure it’s not snorting, raising its tail, shaking its head, or pawing at the ground. If the animal is doing any of those things, you’ll want to get out of there right away.
If the bison charges at you, run and keep running. And if you see a tree, scramble up it as fast as you can and you’ll be safe. Hoofs don’t make good climbing instruments.
The takeaway—bison is in the business of grazing. Don’t try and get chummy with one though, since they can be temperamental and, well, their species has just been through a lot already.
Moose is goofy-looking. They have big cartoonish noses, humped backs, and gawky legs, but they’re also just impressive animals. They’re the largest members of the deer family and are also the tallest mammals in North America. They measure in at 7 feet from hoof to shoulder, and their antlers can grow to be about just as wide, 6 feet from end to end.
Moose also weigh a ton. Well not literally, but they’re not far off. Alaska-Yukon bulls weigh in at around 1,600 pounds. They also prefer colder climates, since they can’t exactly sweat through their thick fur coat. Temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and they peace out.
When it comes to antlers, only males grow them and they are made from pure bone. What’s even crazier is the antlers are deciduous. Yup, you read that right. Moose shed old antlers and grow new ones every year. They will literally just shake off 40 pounds of bone.
How To Deal With Moose
Again, these guys might look clumsy and cute, but don’t try to pet one. The same rule applies here as with our other furry friends — keep your distance.
If you’re near a moose, look for signs that the animal is agitated. It might lay its ears back, raise its hips, smack its lips, or toss its head up. If the moose charges you, run and don’t stop. Chances are it’s just trying to drive you away, so you can help the moose along by getting far away.
The takeaway: Moose look silly until they decide they don’t like you. They love the cold but can be hot-tempered, so it’s probably best not to test one.
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North American mammals are full of surprises. Be sure to give these mighty creatures their space to stay safe while sleeping in your car and enjoy them from afar.