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How to Hike in Wolf Country

Hearing wolf song in the backcountry is an exciting—and unlikely—thrill. While you're unlikely to encounter a wolf on trail, it's still important to know how to hike in wolf country. Also, learn how to increase your chances of hear their song, and preventing conflicts with hiking dogs.

Hearing wolf song in the backcountry is an exciting—and unlikely—thrill.

While wolf numbers are increasing in the state, 126 wolves were counted in Washington in 2018, you're still unlikely to see one on trail. Wolves are mostly in the eastern part of the state, although the first pack was identified in Western Washington recently. 

The gray wolf remains an endangered species throughout Washington under state law, and is endangered under federal law in the western two-thirds of the state.

Hiking in wolf country

Because of their low numbers and shy nature, the presence of wolves in Washington has relatively little impact on hikers and backpackers. Hikers concerned about wolves should rest assured that wolves, like most wild animals, avoid humans.

In the last 60 years, there have only been two apparent wolf-caused human fatalities in North America, and those occurred in very remote parts of Alaska and Canada.

"You are very, very unlikely to actually see a wolf; they usually avoid people at all costs," emphasizes WTA's Jonathan Guzzo, who grew up backpacking in Minnesota's wolf country, where he said it wasn't uncommon to find the remains of kills on frozen lakes or scat.

Keep a clean camp

Though wolves usually won't try to scavenge your food, it's still a good idea to keep a clean camp and practice good Leave No Trace principles. Hang your provisions or use a bear-proof canister.

>> Read more about how to hike and backpack in bear country.

Keep dogs on leash to prevent conflicTs

The biggest conflict a hiker could expect to get into with wolves would be having a pet dog attacked. According to Doug Zimmer at Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, wolves who encounter dogs can treat them as competitors.

  • The best prevention for any conflicts is keeping your dog close and on leash while you hike.
  • If you're backpacking with a dog, make sure your pup stays inside your tent with you.
  • As you hike, stay aware of your surroundings, so you don't stumble into an encounter (this is good advice for all wildlife encounters).

Increase your chances of hearing wolves howl

More likely than an encounter, the presence of wolves in the Cascades will allow hikers the goose-bump-inspiring privilege of hearing a chorus of wolf song at night. Hearing animals at night is one of the most tangible sensations of the mystery of wilderness, whether it be owl hoots, elk bugles, coyote chatter or wolf howls.

If you want to increase your odds of hearing wolves, Guzzo suggests finding someplace where the sound travels—a meadow, a peak, a big lake—and have dinner at sunset. Wolves often howl to herald sundown.

What to do if you spot a wolf

First, learn to tell the difference between a coyote and a wolf. Gray wolves are generally light gray to black in color, where as coyotes will have a gray to brown fur color. Wolves have rounded ears and a broad snout; coyotes have tall, pointed ears and a more narrow snout.Wolves are larger, weighing between 80-120 lbs and standing 2.5 feet tall. They stand a full foot taller than coyotes, who only weigh in at 20-50 lbs.

If you spot a wolf in the backcountry, report your sighting to the Wildlife Department of Fish & WIldlife when you return.

In the extremely unlikely situation that you encounter a wolf or pack at close range:

  • Do not run or turn away
  • If you are approached by a wolf, step toward the wolf, yelling or clapping your hands
  • Aggressively use poles, rocks, limbs, noisemakers or other handy items to discourage wolves from approaching

Learn more

>> Get more information on wolf conservation and management in Washington.

This article was adapted, in part, from the September + October 2011 article "Wolves and Grizzlies," written by Erik Neumann.