Bear Safety – Unlock the complete guide

The wild can be unpredictable.

When you go hiking or camping in a bear range, you should know two things; knowing how to deal with bears, and knowing how to avoid dealing with them in the first place. 

It’s all about that one tip you wish you knew, that can turn out to be a life-saver. In this article, we’ve penned down an extensive guide on bear safety.

Being Bear Aware

While you can find plenty of tips on what to do and what not to do when it comes to Bear Safety, the most vital information is what you get from the locals. Whether it is a national park or forest service, trust the local wilderness authorities of the region. They know the actual game and their tips turn out to be real life savers. 

Here are some of the things you can ask them:

  • Bear behaviour can vary from region to region, based on the incidents over the years and how they have evolved. Learn about them.
  • Get to know from the locals where the bears of the region usually hibernate. We don’t want to disturb them during that time. Bears are found to hibernate around 5 months in the winter!
  • Learn about the bear’s food of choice during the month of your visit.  If you have them in your backpack, abandon them. Stay away from the trails that involve these foods. 
  • Bears forage in autumn for upto 20 hours a day. If it’s foraging time for bears when you visit, get familiar with how many hours in a day they are out, and which trails are they most likely to forage in. 

Know your Bears

Bears are classified into Black, Grizzly/Brown and Polar bears. The Black and the Grizzly ones are the ones that are most likely to be found in the forests of North America. 

Differentiating between Grizzly & Black Bears

You won’t have to worry about finding which type of bear it is until it starts approaching you. But once it does, you should be able to differentiate between them to plan your next course of action. So, here’s how you can differentiate between them:

Black Bears

A black bear
  • Don't have a shoulder hump
  • Have a straight face profile
  • Have short claws
  • Have large tall pointed ears

Grizzly Bears

A grizzly bear
  • Have a shoulder hump
  • Have a dished face profile
  • Have long claws
  • Have short rounded ears
Differentiating factors you shouldn't rely on:
  • Color: Colors vary from black to brown to blonde in both the species.
  • Size: Grizzly bears are larger than Black bears generally; but not in all the cases.

To make sure that you can identify the type of bear, take this test by BearSmart.

Avoiding an encounter in the first place

Bears avoid human encounters many times than we know. They quietly walk away from the place. But there can be times when a bear sees you as a threat to its cubs, or if it sees that you have food it is foraging for, or in the worst case, if it is in a predatory mode. 

General Precautions

  • Hike in a group: Travelling in a group is the best way to keep bears off. To them, you appear as large groups and they get intimidated. Make noise, and always watch ahead. 

A group of people hiking in the woods

A group of people hiking in the woods

  • Look for obvious signs: Tracks, bear scat, diggings and shredded logs. If they are fresh, leave the area.

  • Leave your dog at home: Dogs can trigger defensive behaviour in Bears.

  • Stay in your trail: Don’t go off-track, use only the designated trail paths and hike in daylight.

  • Trailheads: Pay attention to signs at trailheads.

  • Be vigilant: Forget your electronic devices, and be alert of your surroundings throughout the hike. 

Campsite Precautions

During Backcountry Camping, there are quite a few precautions you can take to avoid bear encounters. 

Maintaining a clean campsite avoids bear encounters

A clean campsite

Campsite

  1. Pitch your tent in designated camping areas; away from hiking trails, berry patches and bear prone areas.
  2. Pitch your tent at a place from where you can easily spot wildlife around.
  3. Keep the campsite free of odour. Any perfumes or deodorants should be stored with food.
  4. Lock your RV’s and Vehicles. 
  5. Set up a bear fence. ( if you want your campsite to be bear proof! )

Trash

  1. Maintain a clean campsite and tent.  Don’t throw garbage anywhere.

  2. Don’t bury garbage. Pack them up and take it along with you when you leave. 

Cooking & Food

  1. Never store food in your tent or campsite. Create a bear hang or store them in bear-resistant food canisters or food storage lockers.

  2. Don’t cook heavily aromatic foods such as fish.

  3. Don’t cook close to your tents. Maintain a safe 100 yards distance. 

  4. Don’t leave food unattended at any cost in the campsite. 

  5. Wash the dishes and utensils immediately after use.

  6. Don’t sleep with the clothes you cooked in.

Bear Encounters

If you are Hiking / Trail Running / Cycling in a Bear Country, knowing how to deal with bear encounters is essential. 

If you spot a Bear

If you spot a bear and if it is unaware of your presence, move out of the area calmly and quietly and leave the bear unperturbed. Don’t stop to click pictures, as it can get the attention of the bear.

If you spot a bear

If you spot a bear

If the bear is aware of your presence, get alert and quickly identify a few things. Understand your position, how far are you from the bear, and which type of bear it is - Black or Grizzly ( as stated above ). The behaviour of each of them varies; when it comes to a human encounter, Black bears are generally submissive whereas the Grizzly bears are aggressive.

But a standing bear isn’t necessarily aggressive. It may be just standing to get a better look at you. 

In this case,

  • Make the bear know that you are a human, and that you are not afraid. 
  • Do not throw anything at the bear as the action might actually provoke an attack. From a bears perspective, it could be seen as an aggressive behaviour by the person, or it may startle the bear to retreating towards the person.
  • Make yourself appear bigger; stay in a group or carry a child, stand next to a rock or a tree and wave your hands towards the sides. Bears tend to walk away when they spot someone bigger than them. 
  • Make hand gestures, talk to it in a calm and firm voice. 
  • Back away slowly as you do the above.

If the bear walks away, walk away in the other direction to avoid any further encounters.   

If the Bear doesn’t seem to leave

If the beat neither approaches you, nor seems to leave, continue backing away slowly; all the while facing the bear. Don’t turn and walk away as you cannot see what the bear is doing. 

Sometimes, the bear also does bluff charges just to scare you. You don’t need to be scared of such advances by the bear. During a bluff charge, the bears are not trying to attack, rather to defend or intimidate.

If the Bear approaches you

If the bear progresses towards you, don’t panic. 

  • Stop and stand your ground. 
  • Don’t drop your pack. It makes you appear bigger, and also works as a defense if the bear attacks you. 
  • Don’t run or climb a tree. They can out-run you very easily ( their speed is close to 25-28 mph ).
  • Get ready to use the bear spray. Make sure that you can take it out easily. 

If the Bear attacks you

Before trying to understand the motive of the bear, you should have identified which type of bear it is. Grizzly bears are aggressive and are the ones that mostly attack defensively. Black bears on the other hand, are predatory. 

Try to understand the mood and emotions of the bear. Is it in an non-defensive mode or a defensive mode?

Your next step of actions should be based on these.

Defensive Attack - Play Dead!

This is when the bear sees you as a potential threat to its cubs, privacy or food. In such cases, the bear makes noises, slaps the ground with its feet and waves its head back and forth. It appears stressed and agitated. 

A grizzly bear with its cub

A grizzly bear with its cub

You should make yourself appear non-threatening to the bear. Talk in a calm voice and make it feel that it is safe. Continue to back away slowly as you keep doing this. If the bear stops approaching you, continue backing up and get away from the spot. 

If the bear continues to advance on you, stand your ground, keep talking calmly to the bear and take out your bear spray. When the bear is around 25 metres away from you, use the spray - give short sprays. This irritates the bear, and it might run away. This gives you a good chance to escape from the area.

However, if the bear comes forward and attacks you, playing dead is your defense here. With Grizzly bears, you cannot play aggressive. By doing so, you might be making the situation worse. 

Lie on the ground with your face facing the ground, hands covering your neck and play dead. Wearing your backpack can protect you in such cases. Lie still, make no noise and wait for the bear to leave. When you are certain that the bear has left, don’t get up quickly. The bear sees this as a defensive action from your side, and might come back to attack you. 

Wait for a while ( 5 minutes ) after the bear has left, and then get up and get out of the place as soon as possible.

Predatory Attack - Fight Back!

This is when the bear approaches you in a calm, non-agitated manner with all its focus on you. The ears of the bear straighten up sharp in such instances, and it slowly starts approaching you. 

Black Bear in backcountry

You need a different tactic here. You need to stand your ground and fight back aggressively. Let the bear know that you are not an easy target. Use any object you get to throw at the bear, yell loud and act aggressively. Make yourself look as big as possible and intimidate the bear. 

When it’s at a distance which is within your bear spray’s range, use the bear spray. If the bear still progresses towards you, go for the nose/face of the bear. Kick, punch, elbow - do anything you can to get the bear off you. It’s a matter of life and death.

Spotting Bears by the road

Watching bears on the roadside is an exciting experience for people who visit the national parks. With that said, we also need to take care of causing them minimal disturbance. 

Spotting Bears by the road

Bears by the road

If you spot a bear by the road, you could slow down your vehicle and watch it safely from inside your car. If you wish to stay for a while, ensure that you are not causing a traffic jam by stopping your car to spot bears. 

By no means should you feed the bears. Stay quiet, click pictures silently if you want to, and then move on. Giving them the space they need is the best we can do for them. 

Bear Spray

The Bear Spray is made of a chemical that’s found in chillies, which makes the bear uncomfortable and makes it to retreat; it does not harm it though.

Demonstration of a bear spray in use

Using a bear spray

Buying Advice

When you are buying one, make sure of the following:

  • It should be EPA certified to make sure that it’s tested and is effective.
  • It should have a safety clip;it locks the spray and prevents it from getting pressed accidentally. 
  • The spray should go out for at least 25 feet. 
  • The label should clearly state that it is meant for use on bears. 
  • It shouldn’t have expired yet.

At least one person in the group should carry a Bear Spray.

When to use it

Using the bear spray should be the last retort, given that you first tried to move out of the area calmly. Bear Sprays are only meant to be used at aggressive or approaching bears. 

How to use it 

When the bear is around 25 metres away, remove the safety clip, point the nozzle towards the bear, and give short spray bursts. Once done and you see that the bear starts to retreat, move away from the spot swiftly. 

Note: Make sure that you don’t spray yourself! It can seem silly, but it’s quite possible in a panicky situation. 

Precautions

  • Read the instruction manual/labels of the spray.
  • Find out how many seconds it sprays for. Make sure that it’s more than 5 seconds. 
  • Carry it in a bear spray designed hip or chest holster. This allows for immediate access and proper containment. If you keep it in your pocket, the bear spray could easily fall out of a pocket or accidental spraying could happen with movement. Make sure that have quick access to it at the time of need. 
  • Mentally practice to understand how the safety clip opens and how the spray works. The total spraying time is 5 seconds, so you won’t have time for learning when you have to use it in the wild.
  • It’s not meant to be sprayed on your clothes or backpacks like a repellant. 

Myths about Bears - busted

  • Bears can climb trees. Black bears especially.
  • Menstruating women don’t attract bears
  • A standing bear need not necessarily attack.

Our part - Help Protect Bears

When we foray into their living space, the least we can do is be respectful of them and leave the place as it was ( or better ).

A happy bear
A bear cub
A bear reaxing
A bear hanging on a tree

While the following tips can feel pretty basic, following them is safe - both for bears and backpackers. 

  • Follow the Leave No Trace principles.

  • Stay on the trail. 

  • Don’t disturb them during their hibernation. 

  • Don’t take selfies with them. ( Really, there have been such incidents that have turned out disastrous ). 

  • Camp in your designated camping spot.

  • Don’t feed them.

Check out this article by us that covers an exhaustive list of backpacking essentials

Summary

All this information can feel like an overkill. But, believe me. When you are out there, it all boils down to a small tip that we wish we knew, and that makes all the difference.

Have fun backpacking and most importantly stay safe 🙂

Was our bear safety guide helpful? Do you have any tips to add? Feel free to let us know them in the comments section below.

Mark Bennett
 

I have a serious thing for travel, outdoors and wilderness. I grew up in Oregon and camping outdoors with my father was one of the fondest memories of childhood. I enjoy camping and hiking and love to share what I've learnt over these years.