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Adventuring in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

03.17.17

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Adventuring in Bear Country: What You Need to Know
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As adventurers, we are all enticed by remote and rugged landscapes, but the very wildness that nurtures us can also hurt us, and the natural residents of these places aren't always welcoming. Bears live throughout most of North America. Their presence is sometimes a major attraction to a region, or in some places they are hardly noticed. Other times, however, they act as a nuisance or even a serious danger to humans.

The term "Bear Country" usually reminds of grizzlies prowling the mountains of the Rockies or the Pacific Northwest. But even black bears can be detrimental to people and property, so proper bear safety should be practiced anywhere that bears are especially active. Follow these tips to stay bear aware.

A black bear (Ursus americanus) in Colorado's Waterton Canyon. Photo by Fernando Boza.

Hiking and Mountain Biking 

Caution and common sense are your first defenses against bears. They are most active at dusk, so avoid hiking or biking during this time of day. As the sun gets low, you should already be in camp or back at the car. Never travel alone in bear country. Groups of people are less likely to be attacked. Dogs should always be on a leash while on the trail and in camp, and they should sleep in the shelter with you to keep them from chasing or being chased by a bear.

While on the trail, the most important strategy is to stay in tune with your surroundings. Watch out for fresh prints or scat that may warn of a bear in the area. Choose trails accordingly, trying to steer clear of anywhere bears have been recently seen. 

Bears are more likely to attack if they are startled. Their eyesight is not great, so they won't always see you coming. Their hearing is better, so making noise as you move through the woods will give them a chance to move away on their own. Bells can work, but they aren't necessary. When in an area of thick brush or otherwise low visibility, remember to talk loudly, sing songs, and clap your hands or trekking poles often.

Camping and Cooking

Bears rely most on their sense of smell, and they are attracted to anything that smells yummy or interesting. When in bear country, you should do your best to avoid especially aromatic foods and hygiene products, but any smells can interest them. Do not apply anything "smelly" like sunscreen, deodorant, or shampoo within two hours of turning in for the night, because you don't want bears to be attracted to the smell of your body.

You should sleep inside a tent or car, not out in the open. Most importantly, do not keep any food where you sleep. Always do a pat down before bed to make sure you don't have any left over bars or spilled trail mix in your pockets. 

When in camp, establish a "smelly" area that is separate from the sleeping area. This is where all cooking, eating, washing, and personal hygiene will take place. The area should be at least 100 feet away from tents or cars, and further if possible. Food can be stored in this area overnight but should be properly bear proofed.

Food Storage

Food and anything that smells like food (trash, cooking gear, containers, etc.) along with smelly hygiene products like toothpaste should be locked in a bear-proof container and hung in a tree if possible. If you do not have a hard container, be sure to hang your bear bag extra high and secure.

It is crucial to pack out every bit of trash, because scraps will attract bears after you leave and make them accustomed to visiting that area for food, which endangers future campers.

A black bear (Ursus americanus) forages along the banks of Idaho's Selway River. Photo by Halvor Tweto.

If you encounter a bear

Don't run. This is the most important thing. Running will make you seem like vulnerable prey, and any bear can always outrun you.

If you see a bear that doesn't seem to notice or care about you, simply leave the area slowly and calmly and try to find another route to take.

If the bear notices you and seems interested or aggressive, talk in a loud but calm voice, stick your arms out and calmly move them up and down to seem as big as possible and identify as a human, rather than a threat or prey. Most of the time, this will result in the bear turning away, and you can calmly leave the area.

If this doesn't work and the bear approaches, continue talking and moving your arms as it gets closer, don't turn your back or run, but don't make eye contact either. Bears may perceive eye contact as a challenge.

Bears usually attack for one of two reasons--defense or predation. A defensive bear sees you as a threat to itself, it's cubs, or it's food. A predatory bear sees you as food. If a bear continues to approach you, watch for clues in its behavior to tell which of these two types of attacks it might be, and that will dictate how you should act.

Situaton A: Defensive bear

A defensive bear will woof, chomp, growl, sway its head back and forth, stamp the ground, or make bluff charges. If you see any combination of these behaviors, it means the bear sees you as a threat but not as food. Don't make any sudden movements. Continue talking calmly but loudly and holding arms outstretched. Back away slowly from the bear to show it that you are not dangerous, but try not to turn your back to it. Continue backing away until the bear is sufficiently far and seems less agitated. If the bear makes a real charge and is clearly about to attack, avoid the instinct to run.

Stand your ground until the last possible second, but if this doesn't work, immediately play dead. This has proved to offer the best chance of surviving attacks from defensive bears. If you are wearing a backpack, leave it on and curl up into a ball face down, protecting your head and neck as well as possible. Do not yell or fight back as long as the bear doesn't have a hold of you with its teeth. If it tries to move you, simply roll back over and keep playing dead.

Once the bear has stopped attacking, stay in the position but try to keep an eye on the bear until it has moved far away or out of sight. Then slowly move out of the area, trying to keep an eye on the whereabouts and behavior of the bear.

Situation B: Predatory bear

A bear that thinks you might be food will approach quietly, not making noise, calmly focused on you and moving slowly but deliberately in your direction.

If stalked by a bear in this way, continue talking and slowly moving your arms, but stand your ground. You have to show that you are human, not food, and that you are not vulnerable. Even if the bear gets very close, stay where you are and remain calm as long as possible. If the bear gets closer than 15 feet, you can use mace if you have it.

Only if the bear strikes should your strategy change, then you should fight back. Use your fists, water bottle, stick, rock, or whatever you can to hit the bear in face and yell loudly. This lets the would-be-predator know that you are not an easy meal, and will hopefully stop the attack.

Once the bear has backed off, continue standing your ground and talking. When the bear has moved far away or out of sight, try to leave the area calmly but keep an eye on the bear in case it comes back.

Be Bear Aware!

Remember that the number one strategy is to be smart and aware, so that you can minimize bear encounters in the first place. Bears are the original inhabitants of North America's wild places, and we are just visiting their territory, so respecting their space is the best way to stay safe.

 

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