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Bear Country 101

For more than a few hikers and campers in Canada and the USA, there’s no greater fear than an encounter with a bear. Bears are the classic bogeymen of the North American wilds: the go-to explanation for any thump in the night outside the tent or crash in the underbrush along the trail.

The danger they pose, however, is vastly overrated, and every outdoorsperson should appreciate the ecological value and brawny spirit represented by these intelligent, resourceful beasts. Your average bear will normally go out of its way to avoid a run-in with a human being. Many bad bear/human encounters boil down to disrespect, negligence, or sheer unawareness on our part.

That’s an indictment—and also an encouragement! There’s a lot you can do to decrease the odds you’ll have a nasty confrontation with a bear. In this blogpost, we’ll tick off some fundamentals of bear safety while camping and hiking.

After all, it may be wintertime now, but it won’t be too long before black and grizzly bears across the continent will be shoving their groggy mugs from their dens and swaggering out for a brand-new season of slurping ants and berries, crunching acorns and pine nuts, and—maybe—crossing paths with hikers on forest and mountain trails. What better time to review a bear safety guide?

The Bears of North America: A Quick Introduction

North America harbors three of the world’s bear species. The polar bear rules the sea ice and coastal tundra of northern Alaska and Canada. It’s a different-enough creature—more carnivore than omnivore, more predator than forager, more marine mammal than terrestrial one, and an animal not often encountered by most outdoorspeople given its top-of-the-world range—that we won’t be including polar-bear safety tips in this here roundup. (But if you are headed for “ice-bear” country, check out these safety primers from Parks Canada and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.)

From Arctic tundra south down the Rocky Mountain spine to the Greater Yellowstone, meanwhile, the grizzly bear—a North American subspecies of the brown bear, also widespread in Eurasia—reigns. (in the southern Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago lives another brown-bear subspecies, the biggest in the world in fact: the Kodiak bear.) Finally, the American black bear—by far the most numerous and widespread of the continent’s bruins—occupies most of the USA and Canada, including large portions of the East where it’s the only bear.

Long story short, most of North America is bear country, and in many of its most popular outdoor destinations you’ll be sharing space with these giant omnivores: It pays to learn the basics of bear etiquette and safety!

The Risk

Being attacked by a bear (whether black, grizzly, or polar) is a genuinely terrifying prospect, but in reality it’s a rare occurrence. Between 2001 and 2013, an average of one fatal bear attack per year occurred in the United States. Grizzlies tend to be more dangerous and aggressive than black bears, but the latter overlap more extensively with people.

Yellowstone National Park puts the risk of a grizzly attack in context: It’s one in every 2.7 million visits when all park activities are considered together. People who camp in front-country campgrounds have about a one in 22.8 million chance of being attacked by a grizzly; the risk is significantly higher for backpackers—one in 1.4 million—but all things considered that’s still low.

Bear Safety While Backpacking: On the Trail

When it comes to bears, there’s safety in numbers: Groups of three or more hikers are rarely attacked. That’s surely at least partly because larger parties make more noise on the trail than one or two people, lessening the odds of a surprise encounter with a bear.

And surprise encounters are the leading setup for dangerous bear situations. We’ve already established that most bears would rather steer entirely clear of human beings, but when a person abruptly appears at close range without warning, some will defensively charge or even attack—though even in sudden, close-range run-ins, a lot of bears still favor the flight option of fight-or-flight.

(And, on this point, a heads-up to you mountain bikers: Pedaling on backwoods trails may make you especially vulnerable to bears, as the mode of travel is fast and quiet. Bears may not hear you coming, and will have less time to react.)

Making Noise: Are Bear Bells Effective?

Avoiding sudden encounters with bears means making noise while hiking so that, hopefully, they hear you coming in time to exit the scene. Intentionally being noisy can be an annoying challenge for many outdoorspeople who head for the wilds for the peace and quiet, and for the opportunity to potentially spot wildlife. And it’s true: Advertising your presence and identity as a human being in the backcountry—one of the fundamentals of basic bear safety—likely means you’re going to see fewer deer, elk, foxes, and other critters. It’s a tradeoff you have to reckon with.

It’s common, especially in grizzly country, to run into hikers on the trail jangling with bear bells. But do these accessories actually alert bears to your presence? Well, the jury’s sort of out, but most experts agree bear bells probably aren’t all that effective. Their sound doesn’t travel very far, especially in heavy timber or wind or alongside running water. Loud talking, shouting, and/or hand-clapping probably work better: Do so periodically on a bear-country hike, and definitely when passing through especially vulnerable areas such as noisy streamways or thick brush.

Assessing the Bear Hazard

Learning some very introductory ursine natural history will pay real dividends on the trail, as it’ll help you more accurately gauge the relative bear risk certain landscapes pose.

First off, familiarize yourself with the appearance of bear tracks and scat, which with a little practice are actually pretty easy to distinguish. Fresh evidence of either, as common sense would suggest, should put you on guard—or even convince you to abort your hike, at least in that particular area.

Key into bear foods, as they dictate (no surprise) much of a bear’s day-to-day wanderings. Grizzlies and black bears have extremely broad and varied diets with a lot of local and seasonal variation, but here a couple of general notes:

  • Early in the season, you may well be likelier to run into a bear in riparian areas and draws and on south-facing slopes—all places where vegetation first greens up.
  • Across much of the continent, midsummer to early fall sees bears gorging among thickets of various berry shrubs: huckleberries, thimbleberries, buffaloberries, etc. If you’re passing through ripe berry bushes, be on guard and make extra noise.
  • In some areas (such as coastal Alaska and B.C., and in Yellowstone), both grizzly and black bears feast on salmon and trout during their runs, when you’d do well to be extra careful around spawning rivers and streams (or avoid them altogether).

If you happen to stumble upon a carcass in grizzly country, meanwhile—or if you catch the aroma of one—leave the area immediately: You really don’t want to be on the receiving end of a grizzly’s territorial wrath when it’s defending a dead animal.

Bear Encounters

If you do meet a bear on the trail, remain calm: You need to assess the situation with a clear head, not panic—which could potentially escalate a fairly low-risk situation into something dicier.

If a bear hasn’t seen you, quietly retreat back along the trail; or, if the animal’s far enough off (say, well up- or downslope of you), you might opt to continue in your direction of travel. (But keep in mind that a bear bypassed on an out-and-back hike may be encountered again—and maybe at closer range—on your return trip.)

If a bear does appear to see you—looking alertly your way, maybe even rearing onto its hind legs for a better view—hold your ground and talk loudly but calmly. You want to help the animal ascertain your identity as a person—and thus something it likely doesn’t want to tangle with—and also establish yourself as nonthreatening. Pay attention to the breeze, and if it’s possible position yourself (slowly) upwind so the bear can scent you. (A bear’s sense of smell is much better than its eyesight.)

At this point most bears will likely turn around and galumph away. If it continues staring at you, showing sign neither of fleeing nor charging, try slowly backing away—still facing it, still talking firmly and steadily.

Protocol for black bears and grizzlies differs enough that we’ll treat each separately now as we talk about what to do if a bear encounter continues beyond the scenarios outlined above.

Black Bear Encounters

If the bear in question is a black bear, watch its response to you carefully. If it doesn’t run away or entirely ignore you (as habituated black bears in popular camping or recreation areas may do), there’s a good chance instead it will exhibit signs of discomfort or agitation at your presence. Such a defensive bear may flatten its ears, clack its teeth, grunt or wheeze, even paw the ground. This kind of performance can be intimidating (heck, it’s meant to be), but if you back off, talking in a calm voice, or go out of your way (literally) to detour around the area, the bear is unlikely to cause you trouble. (It’s unusual even for a mother black bear with cubs to act aggressively toward people.)

More worrisome is a black bear that approaches you, maybe tentatively at first, with silent curiosity. On the surface, this sort of bear seems much less threatening than the abovementioned defensive one, but the quiet, inquisitive approach should set off warning bells: This may be a bear sizing you up as potential prey, and statistically speaking predatory attacks by black bears (particularly by lone males) are the most dangerous kind.

Fortunately, such attacks are not only super-rare, but also can very often be thwarted before actual physical contact by a person responding assertively. Shout at the bear and wave your arms; if it gets too close, throw a stone, stick, or whatever else is available (though not your backpack or any food items). If you have pepper spray, use it. If a bear that’s behaved in a predatory manner does attack you, fight back—don’t play dead.

Grizzly Bear Encounters

In contrast to black bears, most grizzly attacks are defensive in nature: a bear defending cubs, a carcass, or simply its personal space. A grizzly is more likely to charge you: a frightening spectacle, to be sure, though usually just that—spectacle. Most grizzly rushes are bluff, and if you stand your ground the bear will probably veer off before making contact. A grizzly may make several of these charges, and running away is the worst thing you can do: It may trigger a chase, and bears are much faster than people—outrunning one is not an option.

Should you try climbing a tree to escape a grizzly bear? Conventional wisdom correctly pegs a grizzly as a worse climber than a black bear, but a couple of issues: (1) Grizzlies can make their way up a tree trunk if they want to; (2) it’s rare that a nice, climbable tree stands close enough to scramble up before a griz going full-speed catches up with you; and (3) are you really that great of a tree-climber?

So holding your ground’s the best bet. If a grizzly looks like it’ll actually hit you, use that pepper spray you’ve got ready at hand (see below). If that doesn’t work and the grizzly attacks, get down on your stomach, put your hands behind your neck, and play dead. The bear will likely bite and swat you a little, then leave you be, satisfied the threat it was responding to has been neutralized. (If the grizzly’s attack continues beyond a couple of minutes, start fighting back.)

The Value of Bear Spray

If you really want to cover as many of your bases as you can recreating in bear country, you ought to carry bear-specific pepper spray. Deployed in a cloud at close range, this capsaicin-based product aggravates a bear’s eyes, nose, and airways, giving you time to leave the area and likely discouraging the animal from pursuing an attack further; it’s also appealing because it doesn’t result in lasting injuries to the bear. Bear spray can be very effective when used correctly: A 2008 study analyzing more than 80 cases in Alaska showed it deterred brown bears 92% of the time, black bears 90% of the time, and polar bears 100% of the time (only two polar-bear incidents were reviewed).

To learn the proper use of bear spray, check out this page from Yellowstone National Park, which includes a demonstration video. Remember: Make sure the canister you’re carrying hasn’t expired, keep it in an easily accessible belt holster (not buried in your backpack), and don’t blast that spray into the wind!

Bear Safety While Camping

Camping in bear country demands its own set of responsible behaviors on your part, as a poorly executed campsite can actually be a bear attractant. Bears, after all, possess a mean sense of smell and an omnivore’s non-picky foraging habits, so the onus is on you to keep a clean camp and carefully manage odors.

Keep your cooking/eating and sleeping areas separate. Prepare and eat meals at least 100 yards downwind of your campsite. In bad or cold weather, it’s tempting to make food at the tent, but avoid the temptation unless conditions are truly awful. In Bear Attacks: Their Causes & Avoidance (recommended reading for any outdoorsperson), Dr. Stephen Herrero suggests that those who engage in both summer and winter camping ought to think about dedicating separate tents for each: There’s a decent chance you will be cooking and eating in your tent during the winter—when you have to less to worry about from the ursine crowd—and you don’t necessarily want to sleep among those food odors come summer.

Don’t bring food, garbage, or toiletries into the tent. Store these items in a bear bag or bear canister. (Some people also change out of the clothes they wore when cooking and eating and stow these with the other odorous items.) Bear bags must be hung from trees (or established poles) so they’re out of reach of bears, and there are several different methods for doing so—all of them requiring a bit of practice, and enough daylight left when setting up camp to identify suitable hang trees. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics provides a good how-to on hanging a bear bag; so does Backpacker and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Some areas don’t have trees suitable for hanging a bear bag—or local bears have figured out how to sabotage the system. A popular and much easier alternative is to use a bear canister, which in some national parks backpackers are now required to carry. These canisters are hidden on the ground well away and downwind from your campsite. Grand Teton National Park (one of the places requiring the use of canisters) offers a handy primer.