Bears are beautiful animals and it can be exciting to see one. But don’t let this excitement make you forget what you’re dealing with. Their unimaginable power and sharp claws make them dangerous and you should not take their presence lightly. This complete guide makes sure that you know how to prevent a bear encounter and how to act if you do have one.
How great is the risk?
You might think that the risk of getting hurt by a bear is quite high, but in reality, it’s not. You are more likely to be struck by lightning. By acting correctly when you encounter a bear, you reduce the risk even more.
Bear country regulations
You may want to look up if there are any bear-related regulations in the backcountry you wish to visit.
A bear canister is obligated in some National Parks such as Grand Teton, Yosemite and Denali. You may also be able to rent one, like in Yosemite. Or you may find yourself in a National Park where it’s obligated to store your edibles and ‘smellables’ in food storage lockers provided by the Park.
In most National Parks where grizzly bears live such as Grand Teton and Glacier, you are encouraged to bring bear spray. In other National Parks, such as Yosemite, bear spray is not allowed because only black bears live there.
I suggest that you visit the Park’s website and look for any regulations as this can affect your gear choice. For example, you may not need to bring bear canisters if the Park has food storage lockers.
Bear spray is the best defense tool against bears and it has saved many lives. You may think that a gun would be more effective. However, research reveals that people using a firearm are injured about 50% of the time, while bear spray-users escape injury most of the time. And let’s not forget that a gun injures these animals, while bear spray only hurts them temporarily.
Bear spray contains 1 to 2% capsaicin, which is a chemical made of hot peppers. Because of that, it temporarily irritates the eyes, nose, throat, mouth and lungs. However, it’s still necessary to use only bear spray and not other spray-protections like pepper spray. Bear spray covers a much wider area and shoots further, mostly around 20 to 30 feet. Pepper spray is only effective at close range, and you may not want to get too close to an attacking bear. Even if you manage to hit the bear, it may not work enough, resulting in a very angry and dangerous bear.
Bear spray doesn’t work like bug spray, it isn’t repellent. So spraying it on your backpack, clothing or tent won’t do anything.
In order to use it quickly, you should carry it close to you, like in a holster. It may not be smart to put it into your backpack as you may need to use it quickly. Even putting it in an outside mesh pocket isn’t a good idea as it can get knocked out.
Bear spray isn’t allowed on planes, so you may need to buy it at your destination and leave it behind when your trip is over.
How to identify a working bear spray
You might want to check a few things about the bear spray you want to use. This way you can be sure it works.
- First of all, make sure that it has a minimum volume of 7.9 ounces. The bigger, the better.
- Next, you should check whether it has an EPA number. If it does, it means that this specific spray has shown to be effective through testing.
- You also want to be sure that it sprays in an expanding cloud and that it has a minimum reach of 20 feet.
- Ensure that you know how to use a bear spray. It may not be a bad idea to read the manufacturers instructions in this case. In general, you have to switch off the safety, like with a firearm. Then you can press the button that makes it spray. You can also practice pulling the bear spray out of your holster and aiming. Don’t forget that this tool can save your life if used properly.
How to avoid bears while hiking
As I said, seeing a bear can be exciting, but only from a distance. If they get too close, the excitement may turn into fear, and you put yourself in danger. So how do you keep them at a distance?
- Don’t hike in the morning or evening. Bears are most active at dawn and dusk. Don’t walk at night either as you won’t be able to spot a bear.
- You may want to reconsider going on a solo trip through bear country. Groups of 4 or more are less likely to be attacked. Make sure that you walk close to each other.
- Make noise when hiking. Bears don’t have super ears. Wind, flowing water or dense vegetation can prevent a bear from sensing you. Loud talking or shouting should keep the bear at a distance. Bells that are sold as ‘bear bells’ are not loud enough and won’t ensure your safety. Don’t whistle, use a whistle or scream. It can attract bears as it may sound like an animal in pain to them.
How to prevent encounters while camping
Bears like human food… very much. They crave it once they had a taste, and often become aggressive toward you in an effort to eat your food. They become a problem and are usually killed by bear managers. So to ensure the bear’s safety and yours too, you have to make sure that there’s no way that a bear can obtain your food, garbage or anything that can attract bears.
So what attracts a bear? A bear’s sense of smell is even better than a dog’s. So you want to avoid leaving smelly things on the campsite.
Here are some things that you absolutely want to keep out of reach from a bear:
- Human food (canned food included)
- Pet food
- The clothes you wore for cooking
- Birdseed or bird feeders
- Lotions, deodorants, scented soaps, perfumes and toothpaste
- Pots, pans, plates or anything that has gotten food on it (even if cleaned)
- Cooking oils
- Stove and lantern fuel
- Canned drinks
- insect repellents
Some people like to include their stove. However, due to space limitations, this may not always be possible.
You want to store these items either in:
- A bear-resistant food storage box, which is provided by the campsite
- A vehicle. Keep in mind that craving bears may damage your vehicle in an effort to obtain these things.
- A bear canister
- A bear bag
- A pole-hung bag. In this case, the items should hang at least 10-15 feet (3 – 4.5 m) from the ground. There should be no vertical support within a range of 4 feet (1.2 m). It may not look like it, but bears are excellent climbers.
Cooking food and washing dishes
Cook food and wash dishes or hands at least 100 yards (90m) away from your tent, preferably more. It’s important that you keep the odors away from your tent, or you may get surprised by a craving bear in the middle of the night.
When washing your dishes, try to use soap as little as possible. Unscented soap is preferred as it will less quickly attract bears. After doing the dishes, you may want to filter the dishwater. This way, you prevent attracting bears with the food particles. You can do this with a small metal screen. Put the particles in your trash bag and you’re good to go.
Using the restroom
You may think that peeing around your tent will keep the bears away because you mark your territory. However, I don’t think you want to compete with a bear and it will just attract them because of the smell.
In that case, it may be smart to do your needs 100 yards (90m) away from your tent. Also, be aware of the direction the wind is blowing. Your tent should be upwind from your urine so that the wind doesn’t carry the smell towards your sleeping place.
Okay, but what if you have to poop and there’s no toilet. Well in that case I suggest the same, but you’ll need to do some extra work. You have to dig a hole of at least 8 inches (20cm) deep, preferably more. When you’re done, cover it up and stamp it with your foot. Also, make sure that there’s no water source within a radius of 200 feet (60 m). If done wrong, it can pollute water sources and contaminate native fauna.
Checking your surroundings
Make sure that there are no carcasses near your tent. Because that can definitely attract a bear. A lot of animals won’t eat a dead animal, only if they catch it themselves. However, bears are lazy enough and won’t let that opportunity slide. Checking whether there’s a carcass nearby isn’t all that hard because it tends to be stinky.
Also, don’t approach a carcass as you don’t know whether a bear is watching. It won’t be happy when it finds out that you’re moving in on its lunch and neither will you.
How to act when encountering a bear
Most bears will avoid people, but they are unpredictable and dangerous. A bear’s behavior and how to act when encountering a bear depends on its nature.
While writing this article, I notice that many sites claim that the behavior of a bear depends on the bear’s species. However, this is not entirely true. It depends on the nature of the bear and its intentions. Some bears are predatory in nature, while others are defensive. They act differently because their intentions to attack you differ from each other. I will soon explain the difference between them.
It is true, however, that most black bears are predatory in nature and grizzly bears defensive, but not all of them. That’s why many websites claim that you should act according to the bear’s breed. Many experts recommend treating a black bear like a predatory one and a grizzly bear as a defensive one. Why? Because it may be hard for you to differentiate a predatory bear from a defensive bear. Maybe not now, but it may be in an encounter. It can be a frightening, stressy and scary situation.
To avoid confusion, in this article I will consider every black bear as a predator and every grizzly bear as defensive.
Predatory bear vs defensive bear
Predatory bears don’t make a sound. Their ears point forward and they focus on you in a calm way. They attack with the intention to kill and eat.
Defensive bears make noises like woofing and growling. They may move their head back and forth or slap their paws on the ground. They don’t like your presence and it stresses them out. It feels threatened and may want to defend its territory, food or cubs.
Grizzly bear vs black bear
It can be hard to differ them from each other since both can be blonde, brown or black. However, in the eastern U.S., black bears are almost always black.
So how can you differ a black bear from a grizzly bear based on its looks? Well, I found a great article that explains it in full detail, check it out here.
These are actions that you should take when encountering any type of bear. It doesn’t matter if it’s a black bear or a grizzly bear.
- Never run. This is the most important rule. By running away, you may very well trigger its predatory instincts. It may not look like it, but bears are able to sprint at 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). So even Usain Bolt shouldn’t try to escape a bear.
- Don’t walk away when a bear approaches you. Only walk away when it stands still. Get out of its way as that may be all it wants.
- Get close together if you’re with others. You’ll look more intimidating.
- Walk away backwards if the bear doesn’t see you. Keep your eyes on it until it’s out of sight.
- Never get close to a bear. Sometimes, people like to approach a bear to get a photo, which is a very bad idea.
- If the bear is aware of you, talk to it with a calm voice. Stick your arms out and move them up and down slowly. You want the bear to know that you’re a person and not another bear or a prey animal. Don’t make eye contact.
- If the bear looks at you, but runs away or doesn’t approach you, back away slowly. Only turn your back when you can’t see the bear anymore.
- If you’re in camp, lock away any type of food, so that the bear can’t eat it. Carry it if you need to (even if in cooking pots). It’s important that the bear doesn’t get your food, or it will come back. Only drop it as a last resort.
- Get your bear spray ready, and turn off the safety button. You wouldn’t be the first one to forget this.
- There should ring an alarm in your head if you see bear cubs. Their mommy may be close and she wants to protect her babies. She can charge at you without warning. This can also happen if you encounter a bear while it’s defending an animal carcass, so be careful.
- You may want to reroute your travel, or even postpone your hike if necessary.
- If a bear attacks you in your tent or after stalking you for some time, you should fight back. This kind of attack is extremely rare but is very dangerous. The bear is hungry and is looking for food, and sees you as his next snack. That’s why it’s important to have bear spray on you, all of the time. Also consider equipping yourself with a knife, you can stab the bear’s face with it. You don’t stand a chance without pepper spray or a knife at least.
If the bear doesn’t plan on leaving, assess its behavior. You want to determine whether it’s a predatory or a defensive bear. If you’re not sure, treat a black bear as a predatory one and a grizzly as a defensive bear.
A bluff attack
Bears tend to make a bluff charge before they actually attack. However, they tend to skip this step if its cubs are nearby.
A bluff attack looks different than a real one. Its ears will be up and the bear may woof, huff and bound towards you. Now is the right time to get your bear spray ready. Keep talking calmly to the bear and try not to panic. Don’t turn your back and run. Keep backing up if the bear retreats after a bluff charge.
Grizzly bear safety tips
When encountering a grizzly bear, most likely a defensive one, it’ll stand up and look at you. This means that it judges you based on the level of threat you pose. You want to avoid eye contact in order to not appear as a threat. Talk to it calmly and back up slowly if it isn’t approaching you.
If it attacks
An actual attack looks like this:
- the bear’s ears lie back
- it’s silent
- its head is positioned low during its charge
This is where the bear spray comes in. Use it when the bear comes in the spray’s range. Aim low so you don’t miss its head.
In case you don’t have bear spray, play dead. Don’t fight back. Lay flat on the ground with your face down. Cover your head and neck with your arms and hands. In case you have your backpack on, keep it like that. It protects your back against the bear’s sharp claws. Keep your legs apart from each other so that you’ll roll over less easily. If the bear turns you on your back, roll back over. It’s important that you don’t let the bear scratch or bite your belly.
Keep laying still long after the bear has left. It may be lurking behind a tree, and attack again if it sees you moving.
Black bear safety tips
When encountering a black bear, most likely a predatory one, you want to appear intimidating. There’s no point in sweet-talking a predatory bear as it intends to kill and possibly eat you. You have to make it think twice about attacking you.
Raise your arms and put your hood on to look larger. Make eye contact and yell loudly, but not like a scared chicken as that will only encourage the bear to attack you. Bang pots, poles or anything that makes a lot of noise. You can even throw objects like stones to scare it off. You may also want to pick up a big stick to poke the bear with if it comes close enough. The more the bear persists, the more aggressive your response should be. Don’t forget to have your bear spray ready for use.
If it attacks
You can’t let it eat you, but you can’t run either. So fighting back is your best shot. If bear spray is allowed, you may want to use it when the bear charges at you. Black bears don’t do bluff attacks Don’t panic and shoot too soon. Only use it when the bear is within reach of the spray. Aim low so it doesn’t go over the bear’s head.
In case you don’t have a spray, attack with everything you got, but preferably a knife. Remember, the bear wants to kill you, there’s no time and space for compassion. Focus on the bear’s eyes and nose as these are his most vital spots.
Encountering a bear is no joke. Fortunately, an encounter is rare and getting hurt by a bear even rarer. However, you can never be too safe.
Preventing a bear encounter is even more important than knowing how to act when you do have one. Keep all ‘smellables’ and edibles in bear-proof storage. Cook and do your needs far enough from your tent. Be sure that there are no animal carcasses nearby.
Know how to act when encountering either type of bear, and you should be good to go. I hope that this information was interesting to you and that you can use it on your next hike through bear country.
Don’t be shy and contact me if you have a question. You can also leave it in the comments, I will get back to you as soon as I can.