Ah, the great outdoors. Forests, rivers, fresh air. In the majority of the United States, the great outdoors is home to bears. That’s why, whether camping, backpacking, day hiking, biking, or rafting, it is important to be bear aware – and that means being bear-prepared by knowing bear safety.
If you’re in the great outdoors, chances are good you’re in the bear’s house now. Be a good guest and don’t cause trouble. You don’t want to tussle with that much muscle. The good news is, bears are generally peaceful animals who prefer a lot of personal space.
Read on to learn how to act and react in bear country, to keep bears and yourself safe.
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Know Your Bears
Black bears and brown (grizzly) bears – despite the names, it can be difficult to ID these two distinct species by color alone.
Black bears live throughout much of the U.S. They have no shoulder hump, taller ears, and a straight face profile.
Brown bears/grizzlies are found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, possibly the North Cascades in Washington, and of course Alaska. Grizzlies have a prominent shoulder hump, small rounded ears, and a concave face profile.
The kind of bear you encounter affects how you should react.
Bear Safety While Hiking
- Make noise while you hike so you don’t surprise a bear. Don’t whistle, scream, or otherwise sound like an animal in pain – these noises may actually attract a bear. Clap, talk, and shout.
- Be especially alert near noisy streams, bends in the trail, dense vegetation, or in other conditions where you might accidentally surprise a bear or other wildlife at close range.
- Keep children within sight and nearby at all times. Don’t allow squealing or other sounds that a prey animal might make. Don’t let them play in or near areas with dense ground cover. The same goes for pets. In fact, pets may attract bears.
- Hike in groups of four or more adults and stay close together on the trail. Larger groups lower your risk of attack.
- Avoid spending time near where bears feed.
- Do not hike off trail or at night.
- Avoid hiking at dawn and dusk when bears come out to forage.
- Avoid scented personal products. Bears have a great sense of smell. Your coriander-scented deodorant smells so yummy.
- You see a female bear with a cub. It is so amazing. You have to get a photo. No, you don’t. Most human injuries by bears result from females protecting their young. Don’t mess with mama.
- Bring your bear spray.
Bear Safety While Camping
- Remember that wildlife near campgrounds is more likely to be habituated or food-conditioned.
- Do not camp near trails, thick brush, or near where food (or garbage) may be, like picnic areas, berry patches, or fish-spawning streams.
- Learn to recognize bear signs and do not camp near recent bear signs.
- Sleep in a tent versus under the stars. Is your flimsy tent a match for a two-inch claw? No. But a tent can act as a psychological barrier for bears.
- Place tents in a line and allow space for wildlife to move freely between them.
- Keep bear spray and a flashlight in your tent with you – where bear spray is permitted. Some parks do not allow possession of bear spray, so check ahead.
- If a bear enters your camp or cooking area seeking food, get your bear spray, group together and retreat to a place of safety. IF IT IS A BLACK BEAR, you might try, from a distance, to shout and throw things to drive the bear off. If the bear does not retreat, leave the area immediately. Report the incident to the wildlife management agency and only go back for your things with their assistance. DO NOT TRY TO DRIVE AWAY A GRIZZLY.
- Speaking of bear spray, know how and when to use it, and reserve it for when a bear charges you. Hopefully, if you have practiced staying safe in bear country, you’ll never have to unholster that bad boy.
Cooking and Food Storage in Bear Country
- Stock up on individually wrapped foods and/or make use of airtight containers.
- Find out ahead of time if bear poles or metal lockers are installed at the sites you’ll be camping and plan accordingly.
- Hang food 10 to 15 feet off the ground, and 4 feet from supporting access points (like poles or tree trunks). Or store food in approved, bear-resistant canisters. Coolers, boxes, backpacks, tents, and soft-sided pop-up campers are NOT bear-resistant. Treat garbage and scented personal items, like toothpaste, the same way.
- Items are considered unavailable to bears if enclosed inside a car, but don’t count on it – people report bears opening car doors or breaking in when doors are locked.
- Avoid strong-smelling foods. Cook downwind and 100 yards from where you will sleep.
- Strain food particles from dishwater using a fine mesh screen and store the particles with your garbage. Dump dishwater 100+ yards from your campsite.
- Designate clothes for cooking in and store them with your food. Don’t ever sleep in clothes you’ve cooked in.
You Find Yourself Near a Bear. What Now?
- Never approach a bear.
- Pick up small children immediately.
- Group together to look more imposing.
- Always leave the bear an escape route.
- If you have a backpack, keep it on to protect your back during a possible attack.
- Do not give the bear your food. This encourages the bear to approach humans.
- If you spot a bear before it spots you, back away slowly and sideways, to avoid tripping while keeping your eyes on the bear. Adjust your route to give the bear a wide berth. If you can’t progress on the trail, it’s better to try again another day.
- If a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, do not run – you can’t outrun a bear. Do not climb a tree – bears are better at that than you are. Instead, speak aloud in a calm, firm voice so the bear knows you are a human, not a prey animal. Stand your ground and slowly wave your arms like you would making snow angels. Turn your face slightly to the side to appear non-threatening.
- Bears may try to drive you off by vocalizing, swatting the ground, or even bluff-charging you. The closer you are to the bear when it becomes aware of you, the more likely it is to react defensively in an effort to get you to leave.
- Get your bear spray ready, but continue to talk to the bear in low tones. Sudden movements and screaming can trigger an attack. Carefully and slowly increase your distance from the bear. Leave the area immediately.
- Only if the bear is persistent and seems poised to attack: shout, stamp your feet, and threaten the bear with whatever is handy.
Tips to Survive a Bear Attack
Most bear attacks are defensive in nature. The bear may bluff charge one or more times, without making contact. A bluff charge is a bounding move toward you that stops short or veers aside. Even when there is contact, a defensive attack is usually brief and intended to neutralize a threat, not kill.
In a predatory charge, a bear has its heads down, its ears back, and moves at high speed. A predatory attack is prolonged.
If a bear is making a predatory charge at you, use your bear spray when it is within 30 feet of you. Aim low so you don’t spray over the bear’s head.
Always fight back if you are attacked in your tent, camper, building, at night, or after being stalked.
What to do if a black bear attacks:
- Do not play dead.
- When possible, retreat to the security of a car, hard-sided camper, cabin, or other secure structure.
- If escape is not possible, aggressively fight back. Kick, punch, gouge, and hit the bear with any available weapon, concentrating on the eyes and nose.
What to do if a grizzly attacks:
- When the bear makes contact, drop to the ground, lie flat on your stomach, and clasp your hands over the back of your neck with elbows out to protect the sides of your neck and face. Spread your legs to keep facedown. If the bear flips you over, keep rolling until you are on your stomach again. Alternatively, you can try a cannonball position. Play dead.
- Play dead until the bear leaves. Stay on the ground for as long as it takes to make sure it has really left the area.
- Fighting back usually increases the intensity of attacks. But if the attack is prolonged, it is no longer defensive, and it is time to fight back with everything you have. Use whatever you can to hit the bear in the face.
Is this a lot? Yes, it’s a lot. But the fact is, bears largely want to be left alone to do bear stuff in peace. Give them their space, follow the rules to avoid attractants, know how to respond to encounters, and chances are very high that you will enjoy your time in the bear’s house in safety – while keeping bears safe too.