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What to do if you encounter a wolf on the trail

wolves
After facing near-extinction, measures to reintroduce gray wolves to US states like Colorado and Utah are slowly getting underway (Image credit: Getty)

After facing near-extinction, measures to reintroduce gray wolves to US states like Colorado and Utah are slowly getting underway. As rewilding efforts gain more public approval among those concerned about the environment, it’s possible that soon, wolves might roam in areas where you like to hunt and camp. Though wolf sightings are extremely rare, it’s helpful to know what to do if you encounter a wolf to keep yourself, and these until recently endangered creatures, protected.

Though traditionally revered in indigenous cultures, wolves have also suffered from a lot of misunderstanding amongst humans, whether they’re huffing and puffing in children’s bedtime stories or facing off against plane crash survivor Liam Neeson in remote Alaska. But are wolves really as dangerous as we’ve been led to believe? Let’s take a look at the gray wolf, and what to do if you encounter one in the wild.

Finally, if you’re planning on hiking or camping in northern or western states, you’re much more likely to encounter a bear than a wolf, so make sure you read our article on what to do if you meet a bear

The gray wolf 

wolves

The gray wolf, also known as the timber wolf, is the largest non domesticated member of the canine family (Image credit: Getty)

The gray wolf, also known as the timber wolf, is the largest non domesticated member of the canine family. Basically, it’s a very large wild dog. 

An average sized male wolf is about 6.6ft long and stands about 30 inches tall at shoulder height, weighing 100lbs. Female wolves are slightly smaller. The largest wolves in North America are found in Canada and Alaska. Wolves typically have gray or brown fur with white fur on their underbelly and legs. 

Wolves once roamed diverse habitats across North America, Europe and Asia. They are hunters and possess large canine teeth and are able to pursue their prey at speeds of up to 37mph. Wolves feed on large mammals like deer and moose as well as smaller rodents like beavers. A wolf can consume up to 20lbs of meat in a single meal, hence the phrase “wolfing it down”. They will also prey on livestock such as sheep and cattle and as a result, were virtually eradicated from North America and Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. By 1950, Minnesota was the only place in the US where wolves remained.

Two wolves howling

Wolves are known to travel large distances, and do most of their movement and hunting at night. They use howling to communicate within the pack. (Image credit: Laura Hedien)

Gray wolves were classified as an endangered species in 1974 and efforts to reintroduce them began in 1995 in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. Since then, they’ve been reintroduced in other western and northern states and there are estimated to be as many as 78,000 gray wolves in North America, the majority of which are to be found in eastern Canada. There are thought to be about 18,000 in the US, most of them in Alaska.

Wolves live in organized packs, usually around 6-10 animals, consisting of an alpha male and female and their offspring. Their territory can be as large as 1200 square miles. Wolves are known to travel large distances, and do most of their movement and hunting at night. They use howling to communicate within the pack.

Will a wolf attack a human? 

Two wolves running in a forest

Like virtually all wildlife, wolves fear humans and tend to steer clear of human interaction so attacks are very rare (Image credit: Henrik Sorensen)

Like virtually all wildlife, wolves fear humans and tend to steer clear of human interaction so attacks are very rare, to say the least. A fatal wolf attack in Alaska in 2010 was the first in the state, and only the second on record in North America. A 2002 bulletin by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife (ADFG) found 80 wolf/human interactions in a 60 year period, only 25 of which involved unprovoked attacks by a healthy wolf. As is the case with other wildlife such as bobcats and coyotes, attacks tend to occur when wolves feel threatened, are infected with rabies, or when humans have been feeding wolves or leaving garbage out.

In short, your chances of being attacked by a wolf are far less than being attacked by a cow, a shark or a goose. In fact, your chances of ever even seeing a wolf are rare.

Will a wolf attack a dog? 

A wolf snarling in the snow

There’s no other way to say it – a wolf will probably attack your dog given the opportunity (Image credit: Terry W. Eggers)

There’s no other way to say it – a wolf will probably attack your dog given the opportunity. According to the ADFG, wolves do display aggressive behavior towards dogs, even when on leash, and may often even ignore humans in pursuit of a dog. If you are camping or hiking in wolf territory, you may want to consider leaving your dog at home, rare as wolf encounters may be. 

What to do if you encounter a wolf 

A wolf jumping over a fallen tree in autumn

Since there are so few wolves in the wild and at most you'll find one wolf pack over an area of more than a thousand square miles, your chances of encountering one in the wild are honestly minute (Image credit: Stan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer)

Since there are so few wolves in the wild and at most you'll find one wolf pack over an area of more than a thousand square miles, your chances of encountering one in the wild are honestly minute. In the very unlikely event that you do encounter a wolf in the wild, here are a few steps you should take to stand your ground. 

1. Make yourself bigger 

You may have heard this advice before for encounters with wildlife like mountain lions and it’s important to heed with wolves too. Stand up straight, even raise your arms or backpack over your head, and try to appear as big as possible. 

2. Don’t run 

Remember: wolves are hunters. Don’t even turn your back on the wolf, never mind running which makes you look like prey to a wolf. Wolves can run faster than you can! Keep facing the wolf and back slowly away. 

3. Secure your dog 

If you’re with a dog, get it on leash and keep it by your side. This won’t necessarily prevent the wolf from attacking your dog, but standing with yourself in between the wolf and the dog may help. If the wolf does attack your dog, don’t attempt to physically intervene. 

4. Make noise 

If the wolf does not appear to be backing down, or if it’s acting aggressively towards you, clap your hands, blow your whistle, yell and throw things at it – water bottles, stones, whatever you can reach without turning your back or making yourself more vulnerable. 

What to do if a wolf attacks you 

Wolves on a trail with snowy mountain in background

A rabid wolf, one that has been habituated to human contact or an alpha female protecting her pups could display aggressive behavior (Image credit: D Frank Wright)

Again, this is an extremely unlikely occurrence, especially if you’re not doing something dangerous like feeding or cornering a wolf. However, a rabid wolf, one that has been habituated to human contact or an alpha female protecting her pups could display aggressive behavior. In this scenario, here’s what to do to protect yourself: 

1. Fight back 

If the wolf attacks you, stay on your feet and fight back. Use hiking poles, fishing poles, sticks, stones, whatever you can get your hands on. This will show the wolf you’re not worth attacking. 

2. Use bear spray 

If you have bear spray, it's worth carrying in wolf country as you can use it on a wolf. Learn more in our article on how to use bear spray

3. Climb a tree 

Wolves are dogs, not cats, and they can’t climb trees. Though you’re unlikely to have a lot of time, if you’re near a tree and can scale it, get to safety until the wolf retreats. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.