Hunting Safety Concerns and Risks Explained
As a first time hunter, hunting safety is probably at the top of your mind. Maybe not outright, but I bet you worry about something. It might seem crazy that people are allowed to wander around remote areas climbing trees with loaded firearms…
Yeah, that pretty much sounds absurd. How could that combination possibly be safe?
Luckily, there’s far more to the story than that. But it brings up a good point.
New hunters often get caught up about the hunting safety risks from others and even themselves. For example, someone I recently spoke with mentioned that he felt a lot of anxiety about carrying a loaded weapon around the woods for the first time. For someone who grew up in a hunting family, this would be second nature. But for someone who’s not used to firearms, it can be downright scary.
- “What if I drop it and it goes off?”
- “What if I see someone else with a gun?”
- “If I accidentally hurt myself, what will I do?”
These are all very real concerns that you can probably relate to. And we’re only talking about firearms for this example!
Hunting Safety Concerns
Let’s discuss a few common hunting safety concerns that new adult hunters like you might have. I won’t leave you hanging there though. I’ll also go into how you can reduce these risks and even de-bunk a few.
As I said, getting past the mental barrier with firearms is one of the biggest concerns that new hunters have. But the safety statistics should help ease your mind. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, firearms were responsible for only 0.3% of all unintentional fatalities in the U.S. in 2015. To put that in perspective, you’re far more likely to die from driving to the grocery store or choking on the food you buy there than in a firearm-related accident.
But it can still be scary using a firearm. After all, it’s one thing to have a hunting rifle at home, but it can be nerve-wracking to bring a gun out into a public forest your first time.
The absolute first step you should take is to follow the golden rules of firearm safety. Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it. Wearing blaze orange or pink clothing is a good way to be seen by other hunters, but not by many game animals. The best way to get comfortable using a firearm is by practicing at a shooting range first. Don’t be afraid to ask questions from others. As with anything in life, you might get a couple weird looks, but most people are willing to help out. If you’re comfortable using it there, you should be good in the woods.
To put the prior example to rest, you should never, under any circumstances, climb a tree with a loaded firearm. It’s just as stupid as it sounds. Unload it before you ever climb into a tree stand, and use a pull rope to hoist it up when you’re securely fastened to a safety harness. But when you’re hunting small game, walking with a loaded firearm is part of the game. This is where your firearm safety lessons come into play. Always be mindful of where the gun barrel is pointing. Keep it aimed at the ground or up in the air, and always keep the safety on until you’re raising it to make a shot at a grouse or rabbit.
Another common hunting safety concern is getting lost in the woods. In most parts of the country, it’s pretty hard to get truly lost these days with expanding road networks and human development. You’re fairly likely to run into a road within a few miles, which you should be able to walk if you’re exploring such an area.
But what would you do if you suddenly had no clue where you were, and you weren’t used to navigating the woods? Most people panic, which is the worst thing to do. When you panic, you start to rush around and don’t think clearly. Being lost in itself isn’t bad, but bad decisions can hurt you quickly.
The best way to avoid getting lost is to build your navigation skills over time and make sure you’re properly prepared. Some hunter safety courses may teach a basic orienteering course, but don’t only rely on that. Start with smaller areas to explore before you hike off into the wilderness. For example, first research which parks are in your area. Pick a 10 acre (or so) park that is surrounded by roads and go wander through it. Take a park map and compass with you (always have a map and compass with you!), and practice navigating using landmarks and other trails until you’re comfortable reading maps and using a compass.
Before you enter the woods on a hunting trip, always decide ahead of time which direction you’ll need to head if you get lost. If the map you’re looking at doesn’t seem to make sense, or you’ve lost your compass, follow these steps. First, try not to panic. Take a few minutes to breathe and look at the area around you. See if anything looks familiar at all. If you have a smart phone and cellular service, you can easily find your location on a mapping app. But that’s not always an option in remote areas.
Next, try slowly backtracking as far as you can recall until you see something (e.g., a tree, meadow, or rock pile) you recognize. If you can’t find a landmark you recognize, you’ll need a decent understanding of your location on a map. For example, if you have several waterbodies or topographic features (e.g., hills, ridges, etc.), you should be able to find a vantage point at one of them and determine your location on a topographic map.
Using your general position, determine which direction the closest road or utility right of way is (i.e., north, south, east, or west). Again, if you have a compass or cell phone, you should be able to at least tell directions. But you can use the sun to tell direction in an emergency. We know it rises in the east and sets in the west, and it should be located further to the south of the sky in the U.S. You can use that as your guide in a pinch if the sun is out.
After finding a direction, keep looking ahead and try to pick out a landmark tree that lines up with where you are and the direction of travel. This can help you stay in a straight line instead of wandering in circles as you avoid obstacles.
Encountering Wild Animals or Angry People
This is a very interesting hunting safety concern that many people share. If you’ll be hunting on public land, it’s entirely possible you could run into another hunter who’s having a terrible day, and they might be irritated. Or maybe you’ll run into someone with strong anti-hunting views. Or maybe you’ll stumble across a dangerous animal. Do these situations happen often? Hardly ever. But it’s good to have a plan in place before they do.
For people, first make sure you keep your firearm pointed away from them, and maybe it as you approach to make them feel at ease. It’s just good etiquette around groups of people to keep your gun empty with the chamber open. As long as you’re definitely on public lands and didn’t mistakenly trespass, realize that you don’t have any obligation to stick around and “chat” with them if they’re angry. Simply say, “have a good day,” and walk away. Many states have anti-harassment laws, so you may consider reporting them to a conservation officer in especially uncomfortable encounters.
As far as dangerous animals go, this depends on where you hunt. Walking around in Alaska certainly carries some risk as you could run into grizzlies, wolves, moose, etc. But if you’ll be wandering through suburbia, you may encounter a coyote or angry raccoon at most. In general, calmly walk the other way after letting the animal know you see it.
I ran into a black bear sow with a few cubs one spring, and it was a little frightening. But I simply stood tall and said, “Hey bear,” while slowly backing up. She eventually turned and ran with her cubs into the forest, but it was a good chance to apply this advice and know that it works!
Field Dressing an Animal
Field dressing simply means removing the internal organs from an animal to preserve the game meat. There are pretty minimal hunting safety risks associated with this concern, but it’s a huge worry that most new hunters have. After finally succeeding in ethically killing a game bird or rabbit, the next steps can be pretty confusing. What exactly do you do? How do you transport the animals back home?
The only real safety risk would come from two avenues. First, you could injure yourself while field-dressing the animal by nicking yourself with a knife or bone fragment. It does happen when you get careless or are hurrying. And sometimes it happens no matter how safe you’re trying to be. The other way you could potentially injure yourself is if one of these cuts above gets infected from the animal’s bodily fluids.
As for the first concern, don’t worry. There’s really not much you can do that will ruin the animal if you do it wrong. The only exception really is allowing the contents of the animal’s digestive tract to spill onto the meat. This can taint and ruin game meat and make it unsafe for consumption, so take care to prevent it.
Small game animals can be carried around during a day of hunting in a back vest pouch without any problems, and you can clean them when you get home. Each state has slightly different laws for transporting wild game animals, so make sure you’re clear on the laws before you move the animal from the field. Larger animals should be field-dressed as soon as possible to allow the body cavity to cool down. I’m going to cover specific field-dressing tactics in a future article (let me know if you’d be interested in this). But in the meantime, there are tons of videos online of people field-dressing different animals. Simply type, “field dressing a ___” (fill in your animal) into a search engine and look for videos. Your state wildlife agency should also have some good resources to help with this.
The second hunting safety concern can be mitigated by taking your time and wearing latex or nylon gloves whenever you field-dress wild animals. If you slow down, you’ll be less likely to slip and hurt yourself. And the gloves provide a barrier against potential pathogens or bacteria from the animal. I’ve nicked myself while field-dressing animals a few times without wearing gloves, and each time they got infected to varying degrees of severity. Now I always wear gloves because I don’t really want to put the welcome mat out for a flesh-eating bacterial colony.
Any time you go into the woods, you run the risk if injuring yourself. You might twist an ankle stepping over a log, slip into an ice cold stream, or fall out of a tree stand. And when you’re by yourself in a remote area, hunting safety is serious.
You can’t completely remove every hazard in life, but you can minimize the chance that they will become serious problems. The best solution to these emergency situations is to always let someone know where you’re going and when you intend to get back. If you don’t show up or check in, at least they have a clue where to direct search and rescue teams.
Another way to reduce these risks is to pace yourself. When you start rushing around, you’re much more likely to slip, trip, or fall. Don’t be afraid to take breaks when you notice yourself getting tired after a long day of hiking and hunting. The brief rests will allow you to recharge and re-focus so you don’t inadvertently put yourself in a dangerous situation. Fatigue can cause you to miss certain hazards that are otherwise obvious. If you’re hunting from a tree stand, take time to connect a safety harness so you don’t plummet to the ground.
Finally, you need to be prepared in case you hurt yourself. Never go into the woods without the right clothing and a few basic survival items with you. I just keep them in my hunting backpack permanently with my knife, compass, and map. Your survival kit should include bandages, athletic wrap, a flashlight/headlamp, whistle, fire starter, and a mirror for signaling. You’ll probably never have to even open this kit, but the further from civilization you go, the more prepared you need to be. Keep an eye on the weather and be prepared for changing conditions. If you can do these things, you’ll be ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
Hunting Safety Risks
In the end, hunting itself really isn’t as dangerous as you might think. There are other activities you do daily that could injure you far more. But as a new hunter, it can be scary to take that first step. If you’re interested in talking about these situations further, or would like customized advice for your situation, reach out to me. I read every email I get.
Stay safe out there!