Hiking in the Bear Country: Tips to Stay Safe in the Wild

Hiking in the Bear Country: Tips to Stay Safe in the Wild

When it comes to nature, the United States and Canada are probably two of the best destinations out there. The ever-changing landscapes, stunning mountains, vast plains, and old forests are drawing hikers and backpackers from all over the world. These are some of the rare places on earth where you can still experience the true wilderness. But with that in mind, people must understand, that it’s not tamed and can get as wild as it gets. If you plan on hiking in North America, make sure you know as much as you can about bear safety.

This article will tell you some important things about bear awareness. Although this topic is often in the media, many people just don’t spend the necessary time to learn what they need to do while hiking in bear country.

Safety in numbers

When it comes to what can and cannot happen, statistics can be something to look at. Statistically, people in groups of four or more, are very unlikely to be attacked by a bear. If there are fewer than four of you, make sure you know what you are doing and what should you do if you encounter a bear. Some parks also allow you to join a guided hike with the park ranger. That could be an option for you.

Know when to go hiking

Dawn or dusk is when bears are most active. Avoid hiking during these times or try to go in a group.

Many people think that all bears strictly hibernate during the winter. But this is not the case. Although most bears do, many of them will get back out during the period, especially if it gets warmer. According to Parks Canada and National Park Service bear awareness communications, hibernation is not as deep as people used to believe and some bears are even found to skip hibernation completely. Remember that climate change also changes the behavior of animals. So always be ready for an encounter, even during a winter hike.

bear safety- black bear climbing a tree

Make a lot of noise

You must understand that bears (except polar bears) do not see people as food. Bears do not want to encounter humans as much as you do not want to encounter them. One of the best things to do to avoid confrontation with this animal is to make as much noise as possible and as loud as you can. Make sure to call out regularly. This will increase the chances for the animals to hear you, and it will also allow them to know which direction you are headed, this way they can plan their route to get out of your way.

Bears do not have a great hearing though, so, be loud. Increase the frequency of callouts and noise near noisy water streams and blind corners and also, if it’s windy.  

Do not trust bear bells. It’s not the noise that gets the bear away, it’s the human voice they tend to avoid. Animals do not associate music, bears, or whistles with humans, therefore, you are not helping yourself with random noises. Bells are said only to work in parks where the animals have learned to associate these sounds with humans, so the chances they will help are quite slim. Some scientists who study bear behavior even think the bear bells can attract curious bears. And we know, the cubs are the most curious out there. And perhaps there’s no worse situation than being next to a bear cub with its momma lurking by.

Do not go on closed hiking trails

It might be self-explanatory to some, but I have seen people ignoring the signs and going on trails that are officially closed-off. Some people might think that the trail is closed due to some vegetation protection, and, being ignorant, they might go there anyway. But especially in North America, the trails are very often closed due to predator activity, denning, or mating season among other reasons.

Bears or not, if the trails are closed, do not go there and report anyone you see doing it to protect them and nature from these types of people.

Look for bear signs

Look around you to see if there are any bear signs. If you see footprints of a bear (easy to distinguish), claw marks on tree bark, signs of digging, or bear scat, it’s very likely a bear is in the area. You might want to leave that place as soon as you can. Also, avoid thick vegetation and fresh berries. These are the areas it’s hard to spot a bear and where they likely can come for food.

Keep a safe distance if you see a bear

If you are lucky enough to spot a bear from a distance and it’s not a dangerous situation, do not try to get closer for a better look or a photo. Keep at least 100 meters (330 feet) away and make sure you are not in its way or accidentally cornering the animal. Give it space, admire the beautiful creature from afar, and make sure you leave the area safely.

bear safety- two grizzlies

Carry a bear spray

Bear sprays are thought to be the best protection and the last resort against these animals if an encounter would go badly. While some people think guns would be safer, shooting an animal, that’s running at up to 56 km/h (36 mph), under a lot of stress, and hitting it right to the head or other parts that would cause enough damage sounds very difficult. You must also understand, that if a bear charges you, often it is a bluff charge and usually no weapon is needed. If a bear continues to approach, the bear spray is great, because you can spray a barrier of the gas in front of you and it’s very effective to stop the bear from continuing to be interested in you. Obviously, there is no means to guarantee your safety by 100%. If you do not want to take any risk, stay at home.

Note: there are more and more “anti-bear” noise devices and whistles that are being sold to people who do not do their research. I have met many of them in touristy parks and most often these are people who have rarely been in the wild. Do not trust these items; there is not enough scientific proof of them working and if an attack does happen, you’ll prefer to have a bear spray rather than a whistle or a high-pitch sound alarm in your hand.

Keep your camp tidy

If you’re camping in the bear country, and it does not matter if it’s front-country or back-country, make sure to keep your camp clean. Odorous items, such as food, sunscreen, toiletries, utensils you have used for cooking, and everything else with odor must be stored in a bear locker or your car. In Yosemite National Park, only bear lockers can be used as the black bears have learned to get into people’s cars to get the food.

Do not leave any garbage out and dispose of it in the bear-proof garbage containers. If you are backpacking, take everything with you and store it safely when you are not carrying it. Make sure to dump the water you have used to wash your utensils or for cooking into the grey water disposal area. The same goes for the water you use to wash or clean your teeth. Do not dump the water on the ground. This will attract bears and other animals. These are also park regulations and not just recommendations. Remember that it’s not only your safety you might be compromising but also others around you in the campground.

bear safety- brown bear in the field

Take care of your items

Most back-country campsites have poles or special metal cables specifically designed to keep your food and items. The majority of official backcountry campgrounds also have a designated area where you can prepare food. This area will always be further from the tent pads, not to attract animals to the place where you sleep.

Make sure you do not go to your tent with the clothes you used to cook food, especially if it was something odorous or fatty. Food molecules will cover your clothes and you will carry food sent on you if you do not change your clothes before sleep.

Pack out all garbage and use the leave no trace regulations.

If You encounter a bear

All bears can be potentially dangerous. Do not feed or approach a bear even if it’s acting calm. If the bear has cubs, never get in between them and the mother bear. The same goes for its food source, like an animal carcass. It will defend its cubs and food fiercely.

If you encounter a bear, do not panic and never run as it will trigger it to chase you. Do not look into its eyes as this might be seen as a challenge to the bear. Slowly back away from the bear, make sure you keep it in your site, and do not turn your back to it. Speak calmly to the bear while you are backing away. This will help it understand that you are human and not its food or a threat.

Do not climb trees or cliffs thinking you might get away. A good rule is to think that whatever you can do, a bear can do much faster. Black bears can climb trees well and grizzlies can also climb bigger trees to some level.

If a bear stands on its two rear feet, do not panic. This is the way they act to gather the sent and information around them, they try to get a better understanding of what you are and what the situation is.

A bear can bluff charge. It will start running towards you but then stop when it gets closer. Do not start running if this happens. You cannot outrun a bear.

In most cases, nothing more than what was written above will happen. The bear will lose interest in you and you will safely move away from the area. Rarely, though, a bear may continue its attack.

wildlife watching tips-grizzly and cub

If a bear attacks

The most important item to use is bear spray. Make sure you do not spray it all out before it approaches. After it reaches a closer distance, spray the gas just under its face, and as a barrier, to make sure it gets into its eyes and nose. Use 2-second-long sprays, otherwise, you might spray it all out before the situation is over. Watch this video on how to properly use bear spray.

If a bear charges you and gets to you, make sure to protect yourself by rolling on your stomach and placing your hands on your neck. If a bear tries to roll you back on your stomach, do everything you can not to be flipped over. Your neck and stomach are the two most vulnerable parts. Pull your knees to your chest to protect your stomach. A backpack on your back can add some extra protection as well. When the bear does not see you as a threat anymore, it will usually leave. Do not make noise or move until you know it’s gone.

Important note: The literature differs from what I have learned in the US versus Canada. In the US, more often than not, it’s said to try to distinguish a black bear from a grizzly bear. The main reason is that grizzlies will see you as a threat and will most likely want to teach you a lesson and often, leave you be after that. The black bears, however, can act differently. A black bear may see you as food and continue its attack. Make sure to study more literature, as often, sources do not share information on the difference between the bears.

If a bear continues to charge or acts predatory, fight with everything you can. Throw rocks at it, use your hiking poles, try to be seen larger than it is. Make a lot of noise.

It is also important to know the difference between a bear’s defensive behavior versus predatory behavior. If the bear is chasing you for food, acting as a predator, you cannot act submissive or play dead. You will have to fight.

Remember, these are summarized notes I have collected over the years. I am not a bear safety expert and would advise you to read this official bear safety information manual or consult with park rangers and professionals to make sure you know how to behave.

On a final note, as much as bears can be dangerous, if you act right, it will most likely never get to any real danger. And going back to statistics here, bear attacks are extremely rare. You are more likely to get killed in a car accident on the way to the park or by a falling coconut. But you must respect the wilderness and stay aware of your surroundings. After all, you are a guest in their habitat.

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