Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Watching wildlife a relaxing pastime

Among the natural wonders that wait for exploration by RVers is wildlife. An amazing variety of creatures great and small can be spotted while traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Wildlife watching is a fun pastime and can be enjoyed on many levels depending on your interests.

This can range from casual observation to serious wildlife-viewing expeditions. You don’t even need to leave your campsite to have wildlife encounters. Scampering squirrels amuse. Birds flitter about. Bears and raccoons often make visits and create mischief if you’re not careful how you store food and trash.

Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When staying on public lands you might encounter wild horses, ponies, and burros. Of course, you also can embark on trips and tours specifically designed for viewing whales, bison, polar bears, and more.

In this post, I share ideas for capturing great wildlife photos as well as safety tips related to wildlife encounters. They may be cute but they are called wild animals for a reason and can be unpredictable and dangerous. I also offer suggestions for making the most of wildlife-watching expeditions.

Here’s to bears, bison, birds, bees, bugs, bunnies, and the many other critters sharing our planet.

Safely photographing wildlife

If you enjoy taking photos, you already may have a nice collection of pet pics. How about expanding your shutterbug skills to capture wildlife photos? Try photographing critters in national parks, state parks, national wildlife refuges, preserves, national forests, and other natural areas.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camera equipment

Determine the best type(s) of camera for your interest and level of expertise. I suggest SLRs and mirrorless cameras for their versatility. For extensive outdoor use, invest in a weather-sealed model. A telephoto lens or a lens with a telephoto zoom facilitates shooting from a distance while macro lenses work for close-ups of insects and other small subjects. A weatherproof camera backpack in muted colors works well for toting all the photo gear.

Weather

Protect yourself, too. Dress to stay warm and dry; in buggy places, wear a wide-brimmed hat— with mosquito netting if needed.

Photographing wildlife in the middle of a snowfall or other weather event can add drama and interest to your shots.

Wild burros in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know your subjects

The U.S. Forest Service notes that capturing great wildlife images takes “preparation, patience, and practice.” Familiarize yourself with animal behavior. For example, many butterflies emerge in the early to mid-morning, warming themselves in the sun before they take flight. Such knowledge can help you find a great vantage spot. Wait for animals to come to you; they won’t pose if they feel you’re invading their space.

Photo tips

Follow the rule of thirds: Divide your frame into nine imaginary squares and place your subject in spots where the lines intersect. If an animal is looking in a specific direction include space in front of its head to improve the overall shot. Don’t just focus on your wildlife subjects; incorporate the surrounding beauty in some photos as well.

Be safe

You alone are responsible for your well-being around wildlife. Keep your distance; don’t feed them; avoid sudden or aggressive moves. If you encounter a bear, remain calm—if you can! Don’t run away. Avoid placing yourself between a mama bear and her cubs.

Here are some pointers for hiking in bear country: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife camping and viewing

Traveling in an RV allows you to experience a wide range of exciting and beautiful natural destinations. And one of the best things about spending time in these scenic spots is wildlife watching.

If you are looking to completely immerse yourself in nature, check out the National Wildlife Refuge System. This massive network of conservation lands and waters covers more than 95 million acres of land and 740 million acres of submerged lands and waters in the U.S.

Camping near these protected lands will not only help you avoid crowds typically found at national parks but you’ll also have less competition for campsites. Touring a wildlife refuge may be perfect for your next road trio:

Before you set out to explore the nature around you, it’s a good idea to take some steps to make sure you get as much as possible from your RV wildlife-watching experience. Learn how to identify wildlife through books or apps, take plenty of photos, and choose a wildlife-friendly location to make the most of your experience.

You should also be aware of your safety while wildlife watching. Keep your distance from predators or other creatures you don’t want to attract and follow local guidelines and signage in the area.

Big horn sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watching wildlife in national parks

Know before you go. Every national park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules.

Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

Rocky mountain goat in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you stay near a wildlife refuge or national park or in a boondocking spot, stop a moment to take in your surroundings while camping to see the wildlife around you—who knows what you’ll see!

Worth Pondering…

I would rather be amongst forest animals and the sound of nature than amongst city traffic and the noise of man.

—Anthony D. Williams.