How to survive a wolf encounter

Although a wolf encounter is rare, it never hurts to be prepared.Wolf

Emergency situation: You’ve just set up camp and started a fire in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The temperature drops as the sun begins to set, and then the wind picks up and begins to howl. On second thought, you realize you’ve never heard the wind howl and growl. Staring into the gloom, you notice 10 pairs of glowing eyes watching your every move. What should you do?

Solution: First of all, a wolf encounter is extremely rare. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, there were about 153 wild gray wolves in Montana (at last count, in 2004). These animals also roam Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and northern Idaho.

Wolves typically avoid humans and generally are not aggressive toward them. In the rare instances that wolves have attacked humans, it has been the result of dog owners attempting to separate a wolf and a pet. That said, like most large predators, when their food supply runs low, wolves may attack any potential food source, including people. This is where things might get hairy.

Because they are highly coordinated pack hunters, wolves tend to attack mammals that are considerably larger than they are — not great news for you. A wolf’s usual prey is not people but ungulates: large, hooved animals, most often deer, elk and bison. Wolves are opportunistic hunters, typically attacking young, sick or disabled animals, seeking to first incapacitate prey by attacking flanks, and then killing by attacking the throat or face. They are also avid scavengers, chasing off other predators and eating their kills.

When encountering wolves in the wild, it’s very important to remain calm and stand tall while maintaining eye contact. Wolves in a pack are highly attuned to the behavior of the alpha (dominant) wolf, which may be male or female but is typically the largest individual; the other pack members are offspring of the alpha wolves. The alpha wolf’s actions will influence those of the rest of the pack. Signs that a wolf might be about to attack include baring teeth, growling, barking, howling and raising its hackles — in general, behavior that might be exhibited by an angry dog.

If you notice this behavior, begin to slowly back away — but do not turn your back — and don’t run. Observe the wolves carefully while you back up. If they continue to appear aggressive and begin to approach, the next step is to show the alpha wolf that you are not some defenseless ungulate: You mean business. Throwing rocks or other nearby objects might demonstrate that you’re not easy prey, and the wolves will most likely move on. Ultimately, should the wolves attack, fight back aggressively, protecting your neck and face at all costs until the wolves give up.

One additional note of caution: Wolves might carry rabies, so even a brief encounter with a wolf that involves only a minor scratch or bite should be considered a medical emergency.

JOSH PIVEN is co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit


  1. I am glad the author noted that wolves rarely attack humans. However, this is even more rare than suggested and not “when their food supply runs low” as suggested. There has never been a documented wolf attack on a human in Montana, Wyoming or Idaho where their numbers have been documented many times since 2004! In fact there are more than 1500 in the region if you believe the wildlife agencies. By not talking about how lucky any person would be to encounter one of these amazing, yet elusive animals is just perpetuating the unreasonable fears that too many people have for this important wildlife.

    • Dave, could not agree with you more. Farley Mowat’s book “Never Cry Wolf” explains why we have a fear of wolves, and you are absolutely right. There are no documented wolf attacks against humans in North America. The fear comes from the Russian settlers and explorers of Alaska who brought their stories and fear of wolves with them. Jack London later used these Russian folktales as basis for some of his Klondike stories. The animal that Josh should have written about is the Mountain Lion. Scouts do backpack in Mountain Lion country and Mountain Lions do attack people.

  2. Medical emergency is a little bit of an overstatement since you have more than a week to start your rabies vaccinations. I am not suggesting it is not a concern, but you do not need life flight helicopter service for the possible exposure to rabies. In the “stay or go, fast or slow” realm, this would be a go, slow.

    Have fun and enjoy the outdoors.

  3. I just read this article and was amazed that the author did not do his homework. There has never been a recorded wolf attack against humans in North America since they started recording dangerous animal attacks. Read Farley Mowat’s book “Never Cry Wolf”.

  4. As an Eagle Scout, and in my role as executive director of the International Wolf Center, I was disappointed to see an article like this appear in Scouting magazine as the implication that wolves may attack humans if their food supply runs low is purely an unproven opinion of the author, there is no scientific proof of this to be accurate. The more common kind of negative interaction we typically see between humans and wolves tends to result from people feeding wolves or wolf pups – something that should never be done with any wild animal. Hopefully the author was not paid this article!

  5. “The death of 32-year-old Candice Berner stunned not only the village of a few dozen residents but also wildlife officials, who say wolf attacks are very, very rare — and fatal attacks, even more so.

    Officials say Berner, a special education teacher who moved to Alaska last summer, was set on by at least two wolves while out for a late-afternoon jog on a road outside Chignik Lake, a fishing village on the Alaska Peninsula, about 475 miles southwest of Anchorage.”
    North American fatal wolf attack

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