Attacked by Cows while Camping

As an experienced backpacker and camper, I am prepared for wild animals like bears and snakes. However, cows were not an animal that I really thought much about… Until a recent trip that almost went bad.


Cows Attacking My Gear

To be clear, I wasn’t attacked by cows.  Rather, the cows went after my gear.  Here’s what happened.

My daughter and I went wild camping at beautiful Bukumir Lake in Montenegro (Bukumisko Jezero).

To get there, we took a 12 hour overnight bus, a 1 1/2 hour bumpy local bus ride, and hitchhiked a ride 12km up a mountain road.  Needless to say, we were tired when we arrived around noon.

I quickly set up the tent but didn’t bother with the rest of the gear.  I left my backpack next to the tent and we headed towards the lake to go for a swim.

Right as we got our bathing suits on, a herd of about 15 cows arrived.

The lead cow (the one with a bell on her) headed straight for the tent.  She started sniffing at the tent.  Then she started to dig her nose into my pack.

She got at our food bag – full of things like oats that cows love – and started to chew on it!

I stood frozen, not sure what to do.

All sorts of things were going through my mind like…

That woman who was killed by cows in Switzerland last year…  

Would bear spray work on a cow?

How stupid it would be for us to have to turn back on Day 1 of our trip because cows ate all our food…

As I stood there, more cows joined in.  They started to nuzzle and lick the tent and my backpack…


Yes, Cows Can Be Dangerous

You might wonder why I didn’t just grab a stick and prod the cows away from my gear.  After all, cows are domesticated animals, right?

True cows seem docile – but there are also countless incidents of cows attacking and injuring people, often fatally.

Cows are huge creatures.  They can stand 6 feet tall and weigh easily 1,300 lbs or more.  Not to mention their HORNS and sharp HOOVES.

It would only take a nudge from a pissed-off cow to knock you over (and I’m not exactly a large person).  Once on the ground, the cow can stomp you, breaking bones and gutting pieces of flesh off you.

I wasn’t about to try shooing cows away from my gear, especially when alone with my 8 year old daughter!


The Stats on Cow Attacks:

  • In the USA, cows kill an average of 20 people each year. By comparison, bears only kill an average of one person yearly.
  • In the UK, an average of 4 to 5 people are killed by cows each year. One quarter of these were hikers.
  • In Australia, cow fatalities average 33 per year. The number of injuries from cows is in the thousands. (Australia’s notoriously venomous snakes and reptiles kill 23 people yearly).

I couldn’t find any statistics for Switzerland, but there are lots of injuries and fatalities there too. It’s gotten so common that some areas are requiring cows with calves to be penned in away from tourist walking paths.  You’ll also find signs warning hikers to stay clear of mother cows and their calves.

cow danger sign in Switzerland


Dogs: A Common Cause of Cow Attacks

In the UK, 94% of hikers killed had dogs with them.  Likewise, a lot of the cow attacks on hikers in other countries involve dogs.

Even if your dog is the nicest, most well-behaved creature in the world, a dog still looks like a predator to a cow.  It makes the cows feel threatened when they see a dog.  It definitely doesn’t help if your dog starts barking at the cows.

Owners often pick up their dogs to protect them against charging cows.  This is the worst thing you can do.  The cows then stampede the owner who is holding the dog.

The official advice for cow attacks and dogs is this:

Let your dog off its leash (even if it’s legally required to walk the dog on a leash).  The cows are more likely to go after the dog than you.  Both you and your dog will be safer if you let the dog run away from the cows.  

dogs and cow attacks


Other Causes of Cow Attacks

Another common reason cows attack is because they are trying to protect their calves. Thus, cow attacks are more likely to occur in springtime when new calves are born.

Cows can also get stressed by bad weather or if they are startled. The cows that were slobbering all over my tent and backpack?  I wasn’t about to piss them off by trying to scare them away!  I’d rather play it safe than sorry.

Surprisingly, bull attacks are actually pretty rare.  Part of this might have to do with the fact that bulls aren’t in areas used for hiking. In the UK, bulls are banned from being in Public Rights of Way land.

If you do encounter a bull while hiking though, be cautious.  Bulls have less interaction with humans than dairy cows, so are more likely to act aggressive towards humans.


How to Protect Yourself from Cow Attacks while Hiking

  • If you encounter cows while hiking, don’t go through them. Wait for them to leave or go around them.
  • When going around cows, do not go close to dangerous cliffs. If the cows charge, you might be pushed off the cliff.
  • Avoid startling cows. When approaching cows, talk calmly so they hear you coming.
  • Do not get between cows and calves.
  • Do not wear obnoxiously-bright colors.
  • Do not stare cows in the eyes.
  • Don’t try to pet cows, especially babies.
  • Note where fences are in case you need to escape a charging cow.
  • If cows approach you, it is probably because they are curious. Just remain calm and continue walking.
  • Keep your dog on a leash, unless the cows are attacking.


If cows start attacking/charging you:

  • Back away slowly. Walk backwards so you don’t lose sight of the cow. Do not run away from the cow.
  • Use a long stick or trekking poles to defend yourself.
  • Let your dog off its leash if cows start charging or you feel threatened.


The End of My Cow Attack Story

So, what happened to me in the end?  I watched from a distance as the cows chewed on my food bag.

Amazingly, they didn’t even break through the bag.  I guess they didn’t like the taste of plastic.

After about 10 minutes, they moved away from my stuff.  Apparently cows can be pretty curious, which was probably the case with this herd.

When the cows left, I hustled over and scooped up all of my gear (which was thoroughly coating with slobber – even a thunderstorm that night didn’t get all the slobber off the tent!!!). I then promptly went to hang a food bag.

I knew that the cows would be back the next day though.  So, the next morning, my daughter and I packed up and choose a new camping spot… but not before a herd of sheep came through camp though while I was making breakfast! Several of the sheep sniffed at my stove but moved away as they felt the heat.

I didn’t get a picture of the cows attacking my gear, but here are the sheep retreating.

The sheep didn’t scare me like the cows did.  However, when the three huge DOGS looking after the sheep came over to me, I did freak out a bit.  I threw them a few pieces of homemade jerky to make friends with them. Luckily it was vegan jerky, which they didn’t like too much.  Otherwise they might have stuck around all day, haha!


Lessons learned from my cow attack experience:

  • Put up your food bag right away. Even if there aren’t bears or “dangerous” animals in the area. Even if it is daylight! (here’s how to hang a food bag)
  • Don’t set up camp where there’s tons of fresh cow poop.


By the way, did you know I wrote a book? 

It’s all about how to make badass, ultralight, tasty backpacking meals on your dehydrator.  There’s also tons of info on how to plan backpacking meals too.  You can get the book for 50% off here!

dehydrator backpacking recipes

And below is what some of my trail food looks like.  Get the book here.

camping meals

Image credits:
“Toggenburg SG – Mutterkühe” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by pe_ma
“cow attack” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Ski Lodge Engelberg
“Attack Cow” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by CC Chapman

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