America is home to numerous venomous snakes, but the rattlesnake family is one of the most prolific. They prefer hotter climates across the Southern states, and are generally active during warm summer evenings. Take note: A snake won’t always have time to give off its telltale rattle, so don’t rely on your ears alone. Instead, keep an eye out for the distinctive coiled body, and avoid thick brush in regions of heavy activity. If you do get bitten, be sure to stay calm—keep the wound below heart level, and try to reach a hospital within the first 6 hours.
Black Widow Spider
While the brown recluse spider may haunt your Google searches, this aptly named species is far more venomous. Most specimens are less than half an inch in length, with a jet-black carapace and a distinctive red belly. They generally avoid human dwellings (thank goodness), but can sometimes be found in the shadowy corners of outhouses, garages, and public restrooms. If you do get bitten, apply a cold compress, and call 911 immediately.
At three inches in length, the Arizona Bark Scorpion doesn’t cut a dangerous figure, but its venom is the strongest of any American species. It can be found in most states across the Southwest, and prefers damp areas—like lawns and houses—over dry desert environs. To prevent a sting, avoid going barefoot, and carry a blacklight at night: Scorpions glow brightly under UV light. If you do get stung, clean the wound, apply a cool compress, and take ibuprofen to minimize pain and swelling.
Though largely confined to the Pacific Northwest, the Grizzly bear is the boss battle of dangerous animal encounters. First and foremost, never run—this will only encourage an attack. Instead, stand your ground and remain perfectly still, even if the bear starts to charge (Grizzlies will often make a bluff charge to see if a target is threatening). If it continues the attack, immediately fall to your stomach, spread your legs so you can’t be flipped over, and cover your head and neck with your arms. The bear may poke around and eventually lose interest, but if he starts to lick your wounds, get up and prepare to fight with any weapons available (or pepper spray if you have it).
Most wolves will try to avoid human contact, but dwindling natural habitats has led to a rise in encounters. If you happen upon a wolf, stay calm, and remember that more are probably nearby. Try not to run, make eye contact, or turn your back. If the wolf lunges, fight back with any available weapons (aim for the nose and snout) and protect your own face and neck. Yell loudly, and make yourself as big as possible—with any luck, the wolf will decide that you’re not worth the effort.
Despite its majestic bearing, this cat can pose a serious threat anywhere west of the Rockies. If you encounter one in the wild, repeat the same strategy you’d use for a wolf: Stand your ground, make some noise, and always keep your eyes on the animal. If the mountain lion charges, you’ll have to fight—look for a stick or a rock you can use, or pull out that trusty pepper spray.
Of all the creatures we’ve mentioned, this one is the easiest to avoid. If you find yourself in alligator country (Eastern Texas to South Carolina) be careful near rivers and ponds: Resist dangling limbs in the water, and stay well away from riverbanks, especially those with brush. If you see a wild alligator, keep a distance of 15 feet, and try not to startle it. When attacked, make a run for it: Alligators rely on the element of surprise, and will rarely pursue their prey.
The Great White shark may get all the Hollywood glory, but its cousin the Bull shark is the one to fear. Highly aggressive, and just as adaptable, this species can tolerate brackish water, which allows it to swim up rivers. If you encounter a bull shark, back up against a hard surface to reduce its potential attack angles, then strike at its eyes and gills with whatever weapon you have, be it a rock or your fists.