People hike for a variety of reasons, but many love doing so as a way of observing wildlife. Unfortunately, that’s not always a fruitful pursuit.
Despite what nature TV shows would have you believe, you can’t just step out of your car and witness critters bounding about the surrounding habitat. You aren’t likely to see a deer taking his first steps or a hummingbird feeding her offspring – at least, not every trip down the trail.
Most wild creatures do everything possible to avoid humans (for good reason – you are typically the scariest thing lumbering through the forest).
But there are things you can do to drastically increase the number (and quality) of the wildlife sightings you’ll enjoy.
We’ll share some of the best below.
21 Great Ways to See More Wildlife While Hiking
Before getting to the specific tips, it’s important to understand that you will take hikes in which you see nary a critter at all. But if you keep hitting the trail and improving your wildlife observing skills, you’ll find that you begin seeing more and more critters each year. Over time, you’ll even see some pretty neat things too.
But it’s an on-going process.
1. Pick good spots to rest or snack.
It’s not really clear whether you’ll see more animals while covering lots of ground or staying in one spot.
But one thing is certain: When you do stop and take a break, you should make the most of it. So, try to take rests, enjoy snacks, and make pit stops in areas that are likely to harbor wildlife.
That means looking for fruit-bearing trees, unusual topographic features that may appeal to animals, or nice basking logs emerging from the water. When you find such a spot, go ahead and make your stop – just keep your eyes peeled while you do.
2. Ditch the ear buds.
We’ve discussed the pros and cons of wearing earbuds while hiking before, but no matter where you come down on the question, it’s a good idea to ditch them if you’re trying to spot more wildlife.
Your ears will clue you in on a litany of creatures frittering about in forests and fields. Birds and frogs emit vocalizations, deer step on twigs and dry leaves, and rabbits occasionally thump the ground. Some sounds can even draw your attention to more exciting happenings, such as when crows or jays mob owls, snakes and other predators.
By paying attention to the sounds of the trail, you’ll undoubtedly encounter more critters.
3. Hit the trail early in the morning or late at night.
Outside of the dead of winter, when you want all of the warmth the natural world will offer, it’s almost always better to hike during the early morning or late afternoon. In addition to helping you stay safe in the heat, doing so will typically provide more – and better – wildlife viewing opportunities.
Wild animals are most active during these periods for a couple of reasons. For starters, it’s the best time for them to avoid the midday heat too. It also helps them to avoid the influx of human traffic that typically occurs in the mid- to late-morning and early to mid-afternoon.
Biologists actually have a name for this kind of dawn-and-dusk activity pattern; animals that move about during these times are said to be crepuscular (as opposed to diurnal or nocturnal). In fact, many animals commonly considered nocturnal are better described as crepuscular.
At any rate, the dim light of dawn and dusk are your friend when you’re looking for critters.
4. Try to hike immediately following rain.
Some animals are less active during or immediately after rainy weather, but other animals are much more active – and therefore easier to encounter — following rain (and some exhibit very complicated relationships with rain).
Amphibians, for example, take advantage of the high humidity levels following rain to move about, eat and find mates or egg-deposition spots. Many invertebrates do the same, especially crustaceans. You’re more likely to see crayfish or roly polies (yes, roly polies are crustaceans) after rain than when the air is dry.
Additionally, animals that must feed frequently (which essentially means small warm-blooded critters like birds and rodents) must make up for the lost time they experienced during the downpour.
As a bonus, heavy rain cools the air down a bit and often helps clear the trails of those pesky spider webs. So, get out there and enjoy a rainy day hike.
5. Pick more isolated trails.
We all have to work hiking into our busy lives, and that sometimes means trekking trails that are close to home – even if they’re more accurately described as suburban than remote. Unfortunately, crowded trails aren’t the best place to spot wildlife (usually — more on this in a minute).
But even within the confines of suburbia, you can usually find at least one or two trails that fly under the local jogger and dog-walker radar. These more lightly treaded trails will often harbor more animals, giving you a better chance of spotting them.
Actually finding isolated trails in urban and suburban areas can be tricky, but with a bit of effort and research, you can often find some off-the-beaten-path trails with fewer people.
6. Pick busier trails.
We’re not being cheeky here: Isolated trails are likely the superior option if you’re on the lookout for wildlife, but busy parks and trails can also offer great wildlife-viewing opportunities.
In fact, busy trails are better in some cases.
For example, if you live in a suburban area, the deer living near low-traffic trails probably remain relatively skittish around people. This means they’ll have a longer flight distance from people and tend to keep their distance.
But the deer living near the busiest suburban trails often learn to take humans in stride. They are born close to human foot traffic, and simply accept it as part of life.
To share another example, let’s say you’re living in a fairly rural area. Maybe you even have access to a national park or forest. Within these areas, you’re probably more likely to see coyote, bear or other large scavenging critters near high-traffic trails.
In such places, the animals not only become accustomed to the presence of people, but they also find plenty of easy-to-access food (such as trash cans).
7. Focus your efforts in the spring and fall.
We’re not saying you should stop hiking in the summer or winter – get out there every chance you get.
But you’ll likely see the most wildlife when the temperatures are relatively mild, which means hiking in the spring and fall. Additionally, spring and fall often offer unique resource opportunities in the form of nectar-producing flowers and calorie-rich fruit.
And behaviorally, many wild animals also become more active during the spring (when they’re finally able to be active following the winter) and fall (when they begin preparing for a long period of inactivity).
Use the summer for learning new trails – trails stick out best when the forest is at its most lush. By contrast, winter is the best time to concentrate on burning calories and noting things that the trees obscured during other seasons.
8. Learn to walk more quietly.
If you sound like the proverbial herd of elephants my dad was always referencing, you are going to scare away many critters long before you can see them. So, learn to walk more quietly on the trail.
You can do this in part by simply putting your feet down more lightly and by looking for (and avoiding) things like twigs that’ll make sounds underfoot. It’s also helpful to place your feet on surfaces and substrates – such as rocks or hard-packed sand – that’ll make less noise than a patch of leaf-litter-covered ground will.
However, no matter the substrate, you can make your footsteps quieter by embracing the following pattern:
- Gently lift your back food while keeping all of your weight on your front foot.
- Swing your back foot forward and softly place the tip of your heel on the ground in front of you.
- While still keeping your weight on what is now your back leg, gradually roll your front foot forward until your entire foot contacts the ground.
- Only once your entire foot is in contact with the ground should you shift your weight to your front foot.
- Once your weight is entirely over your front food, repeat the process.
It’s an exceedingly simple technique, but it does take some practice to master. However, once you learn how to do so, you’ll be able to walk nearly silently (if slowly) along the trail.
9. Watch for signs of animals.
Animals leave scads of clues in their wake, and clever hikers learn to spot them.
Some of the most obvious clues include things like tracks and scat (poop). And these are often especially helpful, as they may lead you to the animal who made them. But there are also less obvious clues you may notice.
For example, deer may leave rub marks on saplings when attempting to rub the velvet off their antlers. Owls may leave pellets beneath their favorite perches. Sapsuckers may leave geometric hole patterns in trees they frequent.
By learning to spot these types of clues, you’ll increase your chances of seeing more animals.
Signs of animal activity obviously won’t always lead to a sighting during that particular hike. But you can keep these clues in mind during subsequent visits – eventually, most will pay off with the sight of a wild critter.
10. Watch your odors.
Have you ever been walking behind someone on the trail and have to stop because their perfume-laden wake was simply overpowering. Well, animals tend to avoid these odors too.
Many wild creatures rely more heavily on their senses of smell than anything else. And while they’re certainly capable of smelling a garden-variety human odor from quite a distance, you don’t need to make things easier on them.
So, leave the cologne and perfume at home when hitting the trail.
Unfortunately, insect repellent probably also falls into this category. However, we think the pros outweigh the cons here and continue to slather on the DEET, despite the fact that it probably keeps sharp-nosed critters away.
Also, keep in mind that things like smoke and vape-related odors (however mild) are also likely to frighten wildlife.
11. Learn to identify your local trees.
Learning to identify your local trees (and herbaceous plants, for that matter) will provide a number of benefits, including helping you to spot more wildlife. Well, sort of.
You not only need to learn your local trees, but you need to learn how animals relate to them.
You’ll want to know, for example, that deer tend to ignore holly trees if there are better food sources available, yet robins and thrushes often deliberately seek out holly berries. Or that sapsuckers often visit maples and sweetgums, while rarely visiting thick-barked longleaf pines.
You’ll also want to know that oaks (particularly white oaks) tend to attract almost every herbivore in the forest, which in turn also attracts the animals who prey upon these acorn-eaters.
But in order for you to benefit from this kind of knowledge at all, you have to start by learning to identify common trees.
12. Check the park or trail calendar.
While the people-acclimatized wildlife in busy parks can be easier to observe at times, that doesn’t mean they don’t get spooked and lay low at others – such as during mountain bike races, litter cleanup days, and other types of crowded occasions.
So, it makes sense to keep tabs on the happenings at your favorite parks so you can plan around these chaotic days. You may even be able to sign up for messages or alerts that’ll provide this kind of info.
But at the very least, check the park’s website the night before you plan to visit. If there’s a big activity going on, you’ll either want to change your plans of just accept that wildlife viewing opportunities may be limited.
13. Walk loop trails in both directions.
Loop trails are great because they offer two distinct hiking experiences. Walking in one direction will offer different views (and challenges) than the other one.
And this can be especially helpful when looking for wildlife.
You’d be surprised how many different nooks and crannies – many of which may harbor critters – you’d miss walking in only one direction.
One of the most notable examples occurs while walking along the banks of a river or pond. Downed trees, rocks and even beaver dams can all hide things from view while hiking in one direction, but if you simply walk the other way, they’ll be plain as day.
14. Invest in a good pair of binoculars.
Binoculars are standard-issue equipment for birdwatchers – most wouldn’t think of walking into a forest, field or marsh without a good pair.
But binoculars are so valuable that regular day hikers and those specifically looking for wildlife should also carry a set on the trail.
Binoculars are obviously great for watching tiny songbirds frittering in the bush or for seeing the plumage details of an unidentified hawk perched 100 yards away. But they’re also handy for watching deer from well outside their flight distance or prairie dogs peeking up from the other side of a meadow.
Another great way to use binoculars is in search of “cold-blooded” critters. This includes snakes lying in wait along tree stumps or lizards basking on logs in sunny patches. You’d be surprised just how many of these animals are lurking in natural areas, once you have a way to view them from a distance.
15. Research the seasonal patterns of different species.
Many birds obviously have migratory habits, which influence the chances of seeing species X at time Y. Birders know these patterns well and take strides to make the most of their opportunities in the field.
You don’t go looking for scarlet tanagers in eastern forest in December; you look for ruby-crowned kinglets, instead.
But many – if not most – species exhibit different seasonal patterns. They may not travel the vast distances migratory birds do, but they do things differently in different seasons.
For example, most reptiles will cease activity entirely when the temperatures drop too low – or climb too high. You may see lots of snakes, lizards and turtles in July in Michigan; it’ll be too hot for those living in Arkansas most to move around at midday by this time. They’ll have to wait again until fall arrives to resume normal activities.
For mammals, many seasonal differences relate to the reproductive and offspring-rearing parts of life. Coyotes and some big mammals may breed or produce young in just about any month. But deer, rabbits, squirrels and elk, among others, tend to exhibit fairly distinctive breeding patterns.
16. Look under stuff.
This may be the only “controversial” bit of advice we share here.
On the one hand, you never want to truly disturb wildlife. But on the other hand, if you just lift a rock and look at a pretty salamander squirming around beneath before gently returning her rock, did you really cause much harm? Do the negatives of this experience really outweigh the benefits?
We’d definitely encourage you to replace things you look under exactly as you found them (and to do so delicately for any of the creatures living beneath), and we’d strongly discourage you from doing so anywhere that it may be illegal to do so (such as most national parks).
But, if it’s legal and you’re OK with the ethics of the matter, lift some rocks and logs. You’ll be amazed at the diversity of critters you’ll see.
Do be sure to lift rocks and logs toward your body – this way most potentially harmful critters lurking beneath will be likely to move away from you. If you lift a rock away from your body, you’re inviting a potentially dangerous snake, centipede or tarantula to head in your direction.
17. Take advantage of bridges, ridges, and other elevated places.
It’s no accident that birds of prey while flying or perched above. Observing the land from an elevated location provides numerous obvious advantages.
You certainly can’t fly to do so, and we wouldn’t advise climbing trees. But neither are necessary. Most trails will offer a number of elevated vantage points from which you can scan for wildlife (and this would be another great opportunity for using binoculars).
Just be sure to make the best use of the elevated perches available to you. If you’re on an exposed ridgeline overlooking acres and acres of habitat, you’ll want to look for large animals – deer, elk or moose (or, if you’re lucky, the predators pursuing them). But if you’re on a wooden bridge that looks over a small forest creek, you’ll want to look for frogs and small birds.
But no matter where the elevated location is, make the most of the opportunity.
18. Think about what you’re wearing.
You needn’t walk into the forest wearing a full ghillie suit to observe wildlife. But a brand-new, neon colored hiking coat may not be the best option, either.
You’re right – many critters can’t see colors like we can. That’s why deer hunters are able to get away with wearing camouflage patterns featuring blaze orange patches. But what you don’t want is a gigantic, unmarked vest in blaze orange (or just about any other color, for that matter).
There aren’t many large, unicolored things in natural habitats. Everything has a complex and convoluted outline. Everything has texture. So avoid clothing with large, unbroken patches of color.
And it bears mentioning that birds absolutely do see color – they see it better than you do. So, stick to realistic-looking earth tones if you’re looking for birds.
19. Don’t be afraid to wander from the trail (where allowed).
Let’s be clear: You should definitely stick to the trail anytime it’s required by law or rule, and you should also stay on the trail anytime you’re moving through sensitive habitats. After all, human traffic does impact the behavior of local animals (though it’s not always a huge issue for them).
But if you’re in a park that doesn’t prohibit off-trail travel, and the surrounding habitat is robust, you should absolutely consider venturing off-trail in pursuit of more wildlife sightings.
Just be sure to exercise common-sense safety; you don’t want to get lost while wandering around in the woods. Also, be aware that off-trail travel exposes you to an assortment of dangerous obstacles, ranging from ground-nesting wasp nests to simple holes just waiting to catch your foot and sprain your ankle.
20. Don’t forget to watch the water.
Water edges provide a unique microhabitat in which you can see a variety of wild animals. Some animals simply inhabit these areas more often than other species (think frogs, water snakes and wading birds), while others are simply easiest to see in these places (which includes everything from rodents to passerine birds).
In either case, make a practice of scanning shorelines anytime you can. Most shorelines exhibit at least a small gap between the ground-water interface and overhanging trees, which means these areas are easy to see.
And this isn’t just about terrestrial or amphibious animals, either. There are plenty of full aquatic organisms (with fish and tadpoles being two of the most obvious examples) that you can see from the shore.
The Fish and Wildlife Department may view these two categories distinctly but be sure: Fish are wildlife for the average nature lover.
21. Leave the dog at home.
Look, we love bringing (leashed) dogs on the trail too. But there’s no two ways about it: Your four-footer will keep other four-footers away. Your dog is a predator, after all.
Not only will your dog’s scent help discourage animals from approaching, but her yips, barks, and howls will also factor in. For that matter, the trail of poop and pee she leaves behind will further help to create a bit olfactory presence, further repelling wild critters.
You may still want to bring Fluffy along in the forest, but just understand that she’s likely to frighten away many of the critters you’d like to see.
There is quite a bit of luck involved in seeing interesting wildlife. Most encounters will occur somewhat unpredictably, and it’s up to you to make the most of the opportunities Mother Nature provides.
As the saying goes, “chance favors the prepared mind.”
So, embrace some of the tips shared above and keep your eyes peeled. You’ll start seeing more animals before you know it.
What wildlife-viewing tips have we missed? What do you like to do that helps increase the number of sightings?
We’d love to hear about them in the comments.