All About Bears
A Bear Safety Guide
As discussed in past articles, there are dozens of steps to take to prepare for an outdoors trip, depending on the type of recreation and the region you’ll be recreating in. While each individual aspect of the planning process is important in its own right, it is absolutely crucial to consider the wildlife found in the area, and the impact their presence may have on you (and vice versa!)
This series of articles will be highlighting proper preparation and safety techniques for all sorts of wildlife, but let’s start with the biggest and baddest of the bunch, the bear (with apologies to our Moose friends). Different species of bears can be found throughout the entire country, so it’s important to know what to bring with you, how to avoid encounters while in their territory, and to know what to do in the event you come into contact with them.
Photo Credit: Mark Basarab
Bear Safety Gear
Bear Canisters - also known as Bear Resistant Food Containers, or BRFC’s. A good bear canister allows you to store all of your smelly items in such a way that the smell won’t attract any unwanted attention - no need to string up your bags if you’ve got one of these. Keep it far away from your tent to minimize the risk of a bear rummaging through your campsite while you’re sleeping. Use these for food, trash, hygiene products, and any other scent-emitting items - including the clothes you cooked in! -but remember to test it out before your trip to ensure everything fits inside! Also, make sure you are using an approved bear-resistant product!
For a smaller size/weight profile in your backpacking kit, you can also utilize airtight Loksak bags, though you’ll want to check to be sure these are approved for use in your destination.
Ursacks are an excellent alternative to bear canisters as well - they are made out of extremely strong material and can deter a bear from accessing your food.
Bear Spray / Bear Mace - The most effective non-lethal bear deterrent, bear spray is used as a last resort to ward off charging bears and discourage them from attacking you. Make sure to check the regulations of whatever park you’re visiting - some prohibit the use/possession of bear spray altogether. Here’s a great video by the National Parks Service on how to use bear spray effectively. Proper usage of bear spray can buy you just enough time to make your escape (by walking, not running!)
Rope - considering you may need to hang multiple bags of food, trash, etc. from trees to keep them away from bears, you’re going to need a lot of rope. Nylon or paracord is probably your best bet, for strength and lack of weight.
Photo Credit: Marc Olivier Jodoin
Bear Avoidance Techniques
Read the signs! Many parks will label certain areas as “bear management areas” and restrict/prohibit visitor access. This is for your own safety!
Get Loud! Bears are at their most dangerous when surprised, so it’s important to announce your presence on a regular basis (especially when hiking solo) by yelling out, or even singing while on the trail! Call out “yo bear!” when going around blind corners on the trail, just in case. Also, the more people in your group, the better.
If a bear approaches your campsite, make as much noise as you can to discourage it from paying you a visit.
Playing music at your campsite (at reasonable volumes!) is another good way to discourage bears from visiting.
Food - Keep your food safe when camping in bear territory. If you’re using a developed site and there is a bear box - use it - it’s there for a reason. If you’re dispersed camping, or at a site with no box, string your food up from a tree branch 100+ yards from your tent - at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk. Do the same with your trash, cosmetics, lotions, toothpaste, and anything else that might give off bear-attracting aromas. Even the clothing you cooked your dinner in can retain enough scent to cause a problem!
If you’re car camping, the inside of a locked car makes for an excellent bear box as well.
Also remember not to leave any bags with food unattended, even for a minute!
Cook, clean, and go to the bathroom a safe distance away and downwind from your tent.
Keep crumb clean - dispose of any food scraps that may have fallen onto the ground while cooking/eating.
Carcasses. Bears like to eat dead things too - especially hoofed mammals. If you find an animal carcass on or around the trail you’re on, there’s a good chance that a bear is on it’s way (or may already be there!) Turn around and go back the way you came, immediately. As always, walk-don’t-run.
Watch for poop… or tracks… or large holes dug in the ground. If you spot any fresh evidence of a bear in the area, it’s best to get yourself out of that area as quickly as possible - back the way you came, as if you haven’t encountered them yet the bear(s) are presumably up ahead of you.
Bear cubs may be adorable, but they are almost certain to be accompanied by an extremely protective mother bear. There is almost no worse place to be on the planet to be than between a mother and her cub, so back away as far and as quickly (but don't run!) as possible.
If you do see a bear, do everything you can to stay 100+ yards away from it. Any closer than that and the bear may consider you a threat, which could lead to...
Photo Credit: Janko Ferlic
It’s very rare that a bear will attack a human unprovoked. Proper preparation and avoidance techniques reduces this chance to near-zero. But it’s important to recognize that near-zero is not actual-zero, so you should know what to do in this worst-case scenario.
According to the rangers at Yellowstone, “If the bear clacks its teeth, sticks out its lips, huffs, woofs, or slaps the ground with its paws, it is warning you that you are too close and are making it nervous.” Time to back away and try to remove yourself from the situation before it’s too late.
First and foremost, never run. Bears are faster than you are, and will instinctually chase after you if you try to escape. Don’t try to climb a tree either, as black bears tend to be better climbers as well. Stand your ground, counterintuitive as that may seem.
Second - have your bear spray handy, and make sure you’ve practiced how to remove the safety and fire prior to your life depending on it!
Do not spray if the bear doesn’t charge - even if it rears up on its hind legs that’s typically more of a display of curiosity than aggression. Instead make yourself as large as possible by raising your arms above your head, and talk to the bear in a calm, reassuring voice while slowly backing away. If the bear begins to move towards you, increase your volume - clap, yell, attempt to scare it away. While doing so, you might want to (slowly!) get that spray in hand and ready to go if you haven’t already done so.
If the bear charges, our resident ranger recommends standing your ground and firing off bear spray when it is about 30 feet away - aiming low so the cloud envelops the bear’s face. This has proven overwhelmingly effective in encouraging the bear to break off it’s charge and retreat to tend to its burning eyeballs. In the event you don’t have any spray, can’t get the safety off, or encounter other issues, it’s time to prepare for a close encounter of the ursine kind.
While preparation and avoidance techniques are largely the same regardless of the species of bear, the general underlying guidelines if attacked do vary a bit depending on what type of bear is attacking you - so it helps to be able to tell the difference between the two primary species that inhabit the US (we’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you can spot a polar bear without our help). Regardless of their names, both species vary widely in color, so you’ll have to know where to look to spot the difference.
A Handsome Grizzly Bear - Photo Credit: Sebastian Scheur
Brown Bears (Grizzly Bears)
Brown bears, also known as grizzly bears, are primarily found in Canada and the Northwestern US - Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Brown bears have a large pronounced hump on their back, as well as shorter rounded ears. Their claws are about double the length of those of black bears - though if you’re in range to measure their claws we’re willing to bet you have more pressing matters to deal with.
If attacked by a brown bear, play dead. Drop down to the ground the instant before the animal makes contact. Keep your pack on to protect your back, lie down on your stomach, and use your arms to protect your head and the back of your neck. Remain still and silent. Even if the bear leaves, stay down until you’re 100% sure it’s gone - the idea is to present as little of a threat as possible. Try to sneak a peek around without moving too much to determine if the bear remains in the area - if not, get up and walk-don’t-run away from the area.
A Handsome Black Bear - Photo Credit: Bruce Warrington
Black bears are typically a bit smaller than their brown counterparts, but are far more widespread - there have been reports of black bear sightings in 40 of the 50 United States! These days, they are most often found throughout the East Coast, all across California and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the Rockies and the Ozarks. Black bears have pointier ears than their grizzled counterparts, and for the most part are missing that large hump on their back. Black bears also tend to be far less aggressive, typically preferring to run away from threats or climb a tree to escape rather than defend themselves.
If attacked by a black bear, fight back! Get as big and as loud as possible. Most black bears spook easily, and will want nothing to do with you if you make it clear you are not going down easily. Find nearby objects to use as weapons - rocks, branches, etc - and try to target sensitive areas such as the eyes or nose.
Image courtesy of Center for Wildlife Information via bearsmart.com
It's important to remember that in our outdoor excursions, we're intruding on the bears' territory, not vice versa. They were here first, they'll be here long after we're gone. Make sure to be prepared, but if you respect their space, give them a wide berth wherever possible, and follow these techniques, chances are extremely low they will ever pose any sort of threat to you.
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