The Backpacker’s Guide To Bear Safety

Of all the wondrous creatures in the world, the bear is one of the largest and most notoriously frightening. If you live in North America, these giant predators can be quite common. That’s why we must always be prepared for potential encounters when we’re hiking through their territory.

As scary as bears may seem, these animals are more shy and timid than you think. The idea of a bear attack is horrifying, but it’s actually quite rare. In fact, you’re more likely to be killed by a bee than a bear.

However, it’s still important that we all make the effort to understand their behavior and learn the dos and don’ts of bear safety.

When In Bear Country

If you’re entering an area that’s inhabited by bears, it’s important that you do all in your power to avoid an encounter. Bears want to stay away from you just as much as you want to stay away from them.

If you’re unsure whether bears are common in the area that you’re backpacking through, refer to this diagram of where bears live in North America. When you’re in the backcountry of the highlighted areas, running into a bear is a definite possibility.

It’s always best to travel in groups, as a bear will be less likely to approach you when there are several people around. Groups of 3 or more are the best.

Regardless of how many people you’re with, you NEVER want to surprise a bear. Try your best to make yourself known.

ALWAYS stay alert. Talk loudly. If you’re hiking with trekking poles, clack them together every 30 seconds or so. Sing your heart out (even if you’re not good). Don’t be afraid to laugh and be noisy during your journey. The whole point is to be sure that any bear within the vicinity is warned of your presence before you get too close.

Try not to hike near streams if you’re in bear country- the sound of a babbling brook may drown you out, making a surprise encounter more likely. It’s common to find bears near river beds during the spring and early summer. In the heart of summer, they’re more likely to be found at higher elevations, searching for berries to eat.

Avoid walking around blind corners. Don’t screech, whistle or scream. To a nearby bear, this might sound like an injured animal: AKA, a nice hearty meal for a hungry bear.

It’s also not a good idea to hike with open containers of meat or other pungent foods.

Common Misconception:

A lot of hikers like to attach bear bells to their backpack, shoes or trekking poles. HOWEVER, these are not as effective as they seem. They’re usually not loud enough to alert nearby bears. I don’t recommend buying one.

When in bear country, you should ALWAYS carry bear spray as a precaution. Keep it somewhere that’s easily accessible in case of an attack (don’t bury it deep inside your backpack). I also recommend practicing how to quickly grab and aim it before you step out into the backcountry. Do not spray it unless there’s a bear-related emergency. Most bear spray cans only contain a few seconds worth of mist.

Remember that bear spray is not permitted everywhere, and some national parks prohibit it. Check in with the laws and regulations of your area. Also, be sure that the product you’re using is EPA approved.

Don’t bring along dogs or any other pets while in bear country. Animals can cause extra trouble in the case of a bear encounter.

While bear encounters can happen any time of the day, they’re most active at dusk and dawn. Try to avoid backpacking at these times in bear territory, especially if you’re traveling alone.

Look For The Signs

Aside from the location and time of day, there are some tell-tale signs that indicate whether a bear has been nearby recently.

Always look out for bear scat (or poop). Bear droppings are usually in a tubular shape, somewhat similar to a human’s. It’s easily distinguishable from deer droppings, which is in pellet form. If you see scat that’s larger than 2 inches in diameter, there’s likely a grizzly bear nearby.

Also keep an eye out for marked trees. Bears often rub themselves on the trunks of trees to leave their scent. This is indicated by trees with bits of missing bark from 2 to 5 feet above the ground, strands of fur which have been left behind, or bite marks about 5 to 6 ½ feet up the trunk. You may see claw marks as well.

An animal carcass may also signify that a bear has been in the area recently. If you see a mauled animal, leave the area immediately. Bears may become very defensive over their food supply.

You especially want to watch out for bear cubs. If you see one, it usually means that the sow (mother bear) is close by. The classic notion that you should “never mess with mama bear’s cubs” is absolutely true.

Distinguishing Between Bear Types

If you’re backpacking through North America, there are two main types of bears that you run the risk of encountering: black bears and brown (grizzly) bears. While there are many similarities between the two, they look and behave differently.

Black Bears

Black bears are the most common species of bear found throughout North America. Luckily, they’re also the smaller, more timid and less territorial species. These bears are omnivores and opportunistic eaters. They’ll eat anything from fish to insects to berries to grass, and anything in between.

Black bear roaming through a sunny meadow.

Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of black bears:

  • Appearance: They’re usually black in color (hence the name), but they can also be brown, light blonde (which is rare) or even red. Many black bears also have a white patch on their chest. They have a mostly flat back, with only a small shoulder hump. Their ears are somewhat pointed. Their facial profile is identified by being flat and straight from the forehead to the snout.
  • Size: Female black bears usually weigh 90 – 300 pounds, but males can be up to 500 pounds. They’re usually 50 – 80 inches in length and 2.5 – 3 feet in height up to the shoulders (when on all fours).
  • Tracks: Black bear tracks can be identified by their slightly spread-apart toes which are in an arch formation. Their claws are usually about 1.5 inches in length and may not always be noticeable from their print. The pad of the paw is also rounded.

Grizzly Bears

As far as the lower 48 goes, Grizzlies are only found in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Washington. However, they’re also common throughout Alaska and western Canada. 

People often get confused about the difference between brown bears and grizzly bears. Grizzlies are a subspecies of the brown bear, so their appearance and behavior is mostly similar. Grizzlies tend to weigh less than brown bears, but they are also more aggressive. Like black bears, they are omnivores.

Grizzly bear walking out from the bushes.

Here are the common characteristics of grizzly bears:

  • Appearance: Although they’re usually a medium-brown color, grizzlies can also be black or blonde. The tips of their fur is usually lighter in color and looks frazzled. They have a prominent shoulder hump, rounded ears, and a bit of a depression between their eyes and nose.
  • Size: Being much larger than black bears, male grizzlies can range in weight from about 580 – 800 pounds. The females are generally between 300 and 440 pounds. These bears are usually 5 – 8 feet in length and around 3.5 feet tall at the shoulders (when on all fours).
  • Tracks: Grizzly bear tracks are identified by toes that are close together in a flat formation. The pad of the paw is also quite flat. The claw marks are located further away from the toe pads than they would be on a black bear track. 

Polar Bears

Since they mostly live in arctic climates, it’s not very likely that you’d encounter a polar bear in the wild. These bears are easily identifiable as they’re usually white, but the color of their fur can depend on lighting. They may appear to be light gray, orange, yellow or even green!

These are actually the largest type of bear in the world, ranging from 775 – 1200 pounds in weight! Polar bears are carnivores and their diet mostly consists of seals.

Their size and diet means that, if they encounter you in the wild, they’re likely to see you as prey. Unless you’re backpacking through the arctic circle, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll stumble across one.

Encountering A Bear In The Wild

When you stumble upon a bear in the backcountry, it’s very easy to panic. However, it’s vital that you act as calmly and wisely as possible.

If you see a bear but the bear doesn’t see you, you must leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible. Never turn your back to the animal. Walk backwards until you’re out of the bear’s sight and find a new route.

When a bear does see you, you must still keep your composure. If it’s a grizzly, do not make eye contact with it, as this can intimidate the bear and trigger an attack. Instead, talk to the bear in a low, calm and stern voice. Let it know that you’re a human and not an animal that can be seen as prey. Avoid making any sudden movements.

If your encounter is with a black bear, then you should be a bit more aggressive right off the bat. Be as loud as you can and wave your arms over your head, trying to scare it away. Throw something at the ground if you can (not food). Stand your ground. This approach does not work with grizzlies.

If you have children or an animal with you, pick them up to prevent them from getting any closer.

Analyze The Bear’s Behavior

Let’s set the record straight, bears do not want to attack you. In fact, they usually don’t want anything to do with you. You must take note of the way they behave and determine whether you’re at risk of being attacked.

When a bear feels threatened, it will often show signs of stress. If a bear is tilting its head away from you or looking from side to side, it’s probably searching for a way to get out of the situation. It’s important that you ALWAYS give a bear enough space for an escape route. Stay far away and NEVER attempt to approach it.

A bear that stands on its hind legs may just be curious- this isn’t always a sign of aggression.

If the bear is huffing, barking, chomping its teeth, swatting at the ground, popping its jaw or yawning, this is a warning sign. It’s saying, “I’m nervous, and I’m not afraid to attack you if I need to.” 

If you notice this type of behavior, raise your arms and try to make yourself look as big as possible. Speak to it loudly and slowly back away, moving sideways (this is less likely to intimidate the bear).

If a bear has its ears back and is making direct eye contact with you, this is a threat.

The bear may even do a “bluff charge” where it runs at you for a short distance with the intent of scaring you off. If a bear begins to charge, get your spray ready and use it if the bear comes within 40 feet of you.

When A Bear Attacks

Regardless of how hard you try to deescalate the situation, there are rare circumstances in which an attack is inevitable. Knowing how to handle this can mean the difference between life and death. The most important thing is to remain calm and be ready to follow the correct precautions.

There are 2 main types of attacks that ensue from a bear encounter. Each requires a different response.

The Defensive Attack

Usually, if a bear is going to attack you, it’s for the sake of its own defense. This can be to protect themselves, their personal space, their food supply or (in most cases) their offspring. A lot of defensive attacks happen when a hiker accidentally surprises a bear. This can trigger the animal to attack without warning, so it’s important to think quickly in these situations.

Oftentimes, a defensive attack will result in nothing more than a single swipe from the bear’s paw- though even one hit can leave you severely injured. With a grizzly, a defensive attack can kill.

These attacks have one purpose in a bear’s eyes: to eliminate a threat.

NEVER try to run away from a bear. They can run at speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour. They will catch you. Do not try to avoid them by climbing a tree or jumping into water. They can climb and swim better than you, I promise.

Grizzly bear emerging from the water looking directly at the camera.

This is the time to grab your bear spray and aim it directly at the animal’s face. If the bear is charging, spray when it’s about 40 feet away so that it runs directly into the mist. This will deter a bear from attacking about 92% of the time (that’s even more effective than a firearm) and it can save your life.

If you’re being defensively attacked by a grizzly bear, play dead. This may sound crazy, but it’s an effective tactic for grizzly bear safety.

Drop to the ground and lie on your stomach. Spread your legs to prevent the bear from flipping you over. Clasp your hands over the back of your neck to protect yourself. If you’re wearing a backpack do not take it off. Your bag will help create a barrier between the bear and your vital organs.

Don’t pick your head up. Try your best not to make any noises- this can aggravate the bear even more. Most bears will leave you alone after they realize you’re no longer a threat. When the attack stops, continue to lie there until you’re completely sure the bear is gone. Sometimes, grizzlies will stop an attack and then watch you from nearby. In this situation, getting up may result in a second attack.

Common Misconception:

Many people believe that the best way to get away from a bear is by running downhill. This is untrue. Bears can run downhill perfectly well, and they will easily catch up to you if you attempt this.

It’s very rare for a black bear to perform a defensive attack, unless it’s a sow defending her cubs.

Predatory Attacks

Predatory attacks are far more rare, but also more deadly. This is when a bear sees you as prey and is attempting to eat you. For the most part, these types of attacks only happen if a bear is not used to human interaction, is young or is sick in some way.

The majority of fatal black bear attacks in North American history have been predatory.

Generally, bears who are attempting to perform a predatory attack will stalk and try to circle a human. They’ll do things like swat at the ground aggressively or climb trees to show off their strength. In this situation, yell at the bear in a bold, boisterous voice and try to make yourself look big.

If a bear performs a predatory attack on you, fight back with all the power you have. Use sticks, stones, branches or anything you can use as a weapon. Be as vicious as you can and concentrate your blows on the bear’s face and snout. Don’t give up until it retreats.

Bear Safety While Camping

The last thing any camper wants is for a hungry bear to infiltrate their campsite. This is a quite common occurrence in bear country.

A lot of the bears that pass through official campsites are habituated, meaning they’re used to human activity. These bears have no problem feasting on garbage or leftovers from humans. Habituated bears may seem harmless at first, but they can still be very dangerous if you don’t respect their space.

NEVER, under any circumstances, feed a bear.

Always camp with bear proof containers. These air-tight canisters will help ensure that a bear’s sensitive nose doesn’t lead him/her to your campsite. Everything with a strong odor should be stored in one of these containers (this includes food, deodorant, toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.).

If you don’t have bear proof canisters, you can also use a bear bag and hang it from a tree. Make sure it’s at least 10 feet off the ground, and 100 feet away from your campsite. You should do this with garbage as well. Here’s an instructional video on how to properly do this:

Also, be sure to wipe down any plates, silverware or mess kits that you may have used while camping.

If you’re going to be cooking food, make sure you change before going to bed. Store the clothes you were wearing while cooking with the rest of your aromatic items.

In the very rare circumstance that a bear attacks you inside a tent, you must fight back with all your might. This means that the bear considers you as prey. Punch, kick, yell, bang any metallic objects together- do everything you can to make the bear retreat. Be sure to keep your bear spray within reach before you go to bed.

Conclusion

The idea of encountering a bear in nature can be a bit scary. It’s extremely important that all backpackers know exactly how to react properly in one of these situations. Always remember to bring your bear spray with you and follow these guidelines whenever you see one of these animals in the wild.

Bears are beautiful, intelligent and majestic creatures. It’s important that we protect them as well as ourselves. Always respect their strength and power. Never interfere with them in their natural habitat. When we observe and understand their behavior, we can coexist with bears peacefully.

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