Bear attack prevention
Bears in the wild typically want nothing to do with humans. They’ll act aggressively if threatened, but as long as you give them plenty of space and make your presence known, most bears will either keep on eating or turn and run the other way.
But with that said, it would be utterly foolish to venture into bear country unprepared. Let’s not forget that bear attacks do happen every year. However, if you take the right precautions and keep your wits about you your chances of getting tangled up with a bear go way down.
1. Do Your Homework and Know What You’re Getting Into
If you’re planning a trip into the backcountry anywhere in North America, there are two types of bears you might encounter: black bears and brown bears. If you’re far up north in the Arctic, you may run into polar bears but most of us won’t have to worry about that.
Black bears are the most abundant and widely distributed, extending from Alaska and Canada, down through the lower 48 all the way to Florida. Brown bears, on the other hand, are found mostly along the coasts and interior mountains of Alaska and Canada, with mountain grizzly populations found further south into the Rocky Mountains of the lower 48.
So how do you find out which types of bears will be in the area you plan on visiting?
Easy, call your local wildlife biologist.
Just about all the public lands in the U.S. — national forests and parks, state forests and parks, BLM land, etc. — have dedicated federally-employed wildlife biologists who keep a close watch on fish and game populations on those lands. The best part is, these biologists can be contacted to answer questions and provide information about the area you’d like to visit.
To start tracking down a biologist for a specific area, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When you do find who you’re looking for, ask them questions like:
- Are there actually bears in the area?
- If so, how many? What’s the population density?
- What kind of bears are there? Black bears, grizzlies, polar bears?
- What areas, trails, or terrain types in the area are known for higher bear activity?
A biologist who studies the wildlife in an area you plan on visiting will be able to answer these questions and will likely give you other helpful information that will benefit other aspects of your trip.
If you can’t get a hold of the biologist for that area, try to contact a forest ranger or other authority who oversees the area. The more information you can get about the bears in the area, the better you can prepare and the smoother your trip will go.
2. Carry Protection
While firearms can be used for defense, it’s widely agreed that bear spray — a very potent form of pepper spray — is more effective in deterring bear attacks than any other method. Even if you are carrying a rifle or sidearm while hunting, bear spray should still be your primary bear defense.
What’s most important about using spray in bear country is that you keep it on you and readily accessible at all times. And not just tucked in your backpack. Most bear spray cans can be clipped to a belt, but a better option is to have it on your chest in a harness, like the one made by Counter Assault. This position gives you the quickest access to draw fast and take action when it counts.
3. Camp Clean and Hang Your Food
Bears are constantly on the move and are always feeding. They use their remarkable sense of smell to guide them to food, and since bears are highly opportunistic omnivores, just about everything’s on the menu. That includes human food.
Make sure every speck of food and trash gets sealed up in a bag no matter what. At night, all your food needs to be hung up in a tree, well away from your camp and out of reach of any bears.
4. No Food in Your Tent!
To further reduce the risk of drawing in nearby bears with food smells, it needs to be a hard-and-fast rule that no food is to be had inside your tent. When you’re tucked into your 0-degree down sleeping bag, snoozing away the day’s hiking pains, getting woken up by a snack-seeking monster is the last thing you want.
5. When Possible, Travel in a Group
The more prominent your presence is in the woods, the less likely a bear is to mess with you. But unless you’re yelling your head off all day, it’s difficult to uphold a threatening presence as a solo hiker.
So if you know the trail you’re hiking goes through land that’s thick with bears, it’s probably best you bring along a buddy or two.
Not only will a group of people create a more imposing presence, all those extra eyes and ears provide considerably more awareness to detect the initial signs of a bear encounter.
Plus, if you do run into trouble, having partners with you who can help can quite literally save the day.
6. Make Lots of Noise
You don’t want to surprise a bear. Bears get threatened very easily and if provoked, will lash out at whatever they perceive to be the source of the threat. What you do want is for any bears in the area to hear you coming and scamper off before you get close.
But sometimes the normal hiking sounds you make — the sound of your footsteps, your breath, your jacket brushing against trees — aren’t enough to fully let a bear know you’re coming. That’s when it’s necessary to make extra noise.
The standard protocol for noise making in bear country is to yell out a loud, confident “Heeeey bear!” every so often. If you’re moving through thick brush or anywhere with limited visibility, increase the volume and frequency of your calls to ensure you’re heard. You may also consider carrying an air horn, just make sure it’ll last the entire duration of your trip.
7. Freeze, Assess, and Stay Calm
We’ve talked about things you can do to avoid a bear encounter completely. But what happens when you actually run into a big bruin or sow?
Let’s say you’re walking down a trail and all of a sudden you see a black bear walk out onto the trail about 100 yards ahead. What do you do?
First, you need to freeze. Stop walking, stand still, and stay quiet.
Next, assess the situation. Did the bear see you? Is it on the move, eating, or running away from something? What’s the wind doing and has the he smelled you yet?
While you’re trying to figure out if the bear saw you and what direction it’s traveling, try to stay as calm as possible. If the he didn’t see you, stay where you are and wait it out until the bear moves through the area and you feel it’s safe to continue.
However, if the bear does know you’re there, some behavioral clues will help you figure out your next move.
8. Read the Bear
When a bear feels threatened, it typically displays a range of warning behaviors as if to say, “I know you’re there, I feel threatened by you, come any closer and you’ll force me to attack.”
Whether you’re in range of a black bear or grizzly, here are some behaviors to watch for:
- Standing on hind legs sniffing the air — When a bear notices you, it may stand up on its hind legs to get a better look while using its nose to figure out what you are.
- Pawing the ground or swatting — A warning sign to say “I’m a bad mo’ fo’, stay back!”
- Snapping teeth — Bears will slam their jaws closed to make intimidating teeth clacking sounds. Another warning and expression of the bear’s fear.
- Snorting, woofing, huffing, and other vocalizations — Bears make lots of different sounds with their mouths which they use not only to communicate with other bears but express discontent.
- False charge — If a bear reaches the end of its tolerance, it may rush up quickly and stop abruptly right in front of you. This is known as a false or bluff charge, and although it’s scary, full-on attacks don’t typically follow false charges. Black bears do occasionally false charge, but you’re much more likely to experience this aggressive behavior with brown bears.
9. Use Your Protection
If you encounter a bear and it displays any of the warning signs above, your bear spray should be in hand and ready to discharge.
Here’s the basic procedure to follow when it’s time to put your bear deterrent to use:
- Draw your bear spray.
- Remove the safety clip.
- Hold the can with both hands and extend your arms in front of you, aiming the can at the bear.
- When the bear gets approximately 25 to 30 feet away from you, press the trigger making several 2 to 3-second sprays. You’ll need to aim above the bear’s head to account for gravity pulling the spray down as it flies toward its target. If there’s any wind, you’ll have to aim either to the right or left to compensate.
- If the bear continues to come closer, continue spraying in short bursts, and if it gets too close, give it a long blast right in the face.
If your bear spray hits its mark, that bear will hopefully spin and run off in pain.
10. Fight Back or Play Dead
If the bear spray doesn’t stop the animal from advancing, it’s time for drastic measures.
If you’re in a scuffle with a black bear, it’s widely held that it’s best to fight back. Use any weapons you can grab — rocks, sticks, trekking poles — and aim for the eyes and face.
If it’s a brown bear, however, playing dead is thought to be the best strategy. As soon as you come into contact with the bear, hit the ground and assume the fetal position with your hands clasped behind your neck. When the bear leaves, stay down for as long as you can stand in case the beast is hanging around looking for more trouble.
Don’t Let the Presence of Bears Scare You Off
Bears are a natural part of the landscape and a healthy part of the ecosystem. Can they be dangerous? Yes, of course. But should you let the possibility of a bear encounter keep you out of some patch of amazing backcountry wilderness? Absolutely not.
Use the tips and strategies in this article to stay bear-safe and admire these powerful creatures from a distance.