Spotting a wild animal in its natural habitat is always an exhilarating experience. Of all wildlife you can encounter on a hike, bears are one of the most dangerous animals. So what should you do to stay safe around these creatures? In this post, we’ll share some tips on how to keep bears away when hiking and camping in the wild.
KNOW YOUR BEARS
It’s important to know what type of bears you might come across on your hike. Doing so you’ll learn the behaviors of each which will help you handle a possible encounter.
The Center for Wildlife Information tells us that there are three species of bears in North America – black bears, brown-grizzly bears, and polar bears. Unless you’re adventuring in the far Arctic north of Canada or Alaska, having a polar bear encounter is unlikely. So, let’s put our attention on black bears and grizzly bears.
1. BLACK BEARS…
- Are by far the most common North American bears.
- Live in all 50 U.S. States.
- Are the smallest of the three species.
- Are gentle and adaptable animals that are generally shy and evasive.
- Their dominant color is black, however, these bears may also have brown or even blond fur.
- They live in woods where they find abundant food and shelter.
2. BROWN – GRIZZLY BEARS…
- Are without question the most dangerous land mammal in North America.
- There are two subspecies of them—the Alaskan brown bear and the grizzly bear.
- The Alaskan brown bear is the larger of the two, with a shoulder height of four and a half feet when standing on all fours.
- Are smaller than Alaskan browns, with a shoulder height of a full foot less.
- Live in the forests of the Northwestern United States, Western Canada, and Alaska.
HOW TO IDENTIFY BEARS
How can you tell if it’s a grizzly bear? Two good indicators are its sheer size and distinctive shoulder hump. As opposed to black bears, brown-grizzly bears evolved in open landscapes. This made them much more aggressive and powerful. Their shoulder hump, for instance, is a huge muscle that allows them to dig for roots and other buried foods.
The first and most important step to avoid a confrontation with a bear is to inform yourself before heading out into the wilderness. If you want to know how to keep bears away, you need to understand basic bear behavior.
While watching animals in their natural habitat, remember they are WILD animals. Bears act instinctively and can be unpredictable.
According to the Get Bear Smart Society, there are a few critical things every hiker and camper should know about bears. The first one is bears do not hunt people. To the contrary, they generally try to avoid interactions with people at all costs. When bears and people do meet, it’s often because the bear was looking for food. Bears are not intrinsically aggressive, but they do tend to be quite curious.
If you see a bear standing on its hind legs, it never implies aggression. All it means is that the bear wants to get a better look at what’s going on around it. Again, it’s curiosity.
Since bears are so curious, they might focus all their attention to investigate an unknown object or on follow a scent. This applies especially to brown-grizzly bears. Consequently, this means they might be less aware of what’s happening around them. To avoid surprising a bear, it’s important to make your presence known. We’ll get to back to how to do that in a just moment.
Other bear behaviors that you should know are that they are not territorial and are most active between sunrise and sunset.
Black bears’ behavior differs from that of brown-grizzly bears. For one, black bears can climb trees well and are often seen hanging out on high branches. Brown-grizzlies aren’t good climbers, although they can climb a tree if they want to. Black bears tend to be shy and will almost always run away if they meet a human. Brown-grizzly bears are far likelier to defend themselves and can be extremely aggressive.
HOW TO PREVENT A BEAR ENCOUNTER
1. MAKE NOISE
The first step to avoid a confrontation with a bear is to make your presence known. No one likes surprises—not even bears. So be loud. Get creative – ring bells, clap your hands, sing, or talk loudly.
2. LEAVE YOUR DOG AT HOME
If you have a dog, it’s best to leave it at home when heading into bear country. In case an encounter occurs, a dog might go into protective mode and start barking. This can provoke and set off a bear, initiating an attack.
3. NEVER, EVER APPROACH A BEAR
If you spot a bear during your hike, the worst thing you can do is approach it. No, not even to take a better picture. Getting too close to bears, especially those with cubs can lead to a dangerous situation.
4. DON’T HIKE SOLO
Bears may act on instinct, but they also always assess a situation. Bears will think twice about approaching or attacking two or more people. Solo hikers are an easy match for a bear. And it knows that.
5. ALWAYS CARRY BEAR SPRAY
The folks over at Backpacker.com are crystal-clear: “Do not go into bear country without a deterrent.” It’s just common sense to use all the means available to avoid an actual bear attack. Bear spray may be the last resort, but it is an extra option you can give yourself. It’s stupid not to use it.
HOW TO KEEP BEARS AWAY FROM YOUR CAMPSITE
1. PICK YOUR CAMPSITE WELL
Try to choose a campsite that is as uninteresting to bears as possible. Scout the area for tracks, scratched trees or even bear poop. Discarded food is also a clear sign that you better pitch your tent somewhere else.
2. USE THE “BEAR-MUDA” STRATEGY
The “bear-muda” strategy borrowed from Wide Open Spaces, is an excellent tip on how to keep bears away. This strategy involves creating a triangle around your campsite. Pitch your tent in one corner and use the other two corners for food storage and to cook a camp meal. Make sure to leave at least 100 yards between all corners. Also, try to put your tent upwind from your cooking and food storage areas.
3. KEEP SMELLS AWAY FROM YOUR TENT
According to the number of scent receptors, the bear has the best sense of smell of all terrestrial mammals. Knowing this, everything that has even the slightest scent should not be in or near your tent. This includes food but also things like cooking utensils, pots, stoves, toothpaste and soap.
If you’re car camping be sure to pack everything into your car and don’t forget to roll the windows up all the way.
For backpacker’s without cars, the best option is to use a bear hang. This contraption makes it impossible for bears to reach it. A bear hang is nothing more than a waterproof and smell-free bear canister hanging from a rope. Try to make sure your food hangs at least 10 feet from the ground and 4 feet from the tree’s trunk.
4. CHANGE YOUR CLOTHES AFTER COOKING
The scent of the food you cook will stick to your clothes. Even if you can’t smell it yourself, the bears can. Make sure that you have a separate set of clothes for cooking and for sleeping. Also, don’t change into your sleeping clothes in your cooking area. This defeats the entire purpose of changing clothes.
5. WASH YOUR POTS AND UTENSILS AFTER COOKING
Wash your cooking gear and utensils immediately after using them. This eliminates the chance that food odors linger in the air or get caught by the wind.
6. SLEEP WITH A FLASHLIGHT AND BEAR SPRAY
Bear spray works, so it would be crazy not to have the option. Sleeping with a flashlight or headlamp is a given. Bears can see in the dark much better than humans. Don’t allow them that advantage.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR
Even if you follow all the tips on how to bearproof your campsite and avoid encounters, there is still a chance you cross paths bear on the trail or at your campsite, you’re in their home after all. So what do you do if you run into a bear?
RULE #1: DO NOT RUN AWAY. If you turn your back and run, you might trigger the animal’s predatory instinct and cause it to attack.
As scary as it might sound, face the bear and slowly back away.
RULE #2: Make yourself as large as possible and make noise. If hiking in a group, stand together. Put small kids on your shoulders. This keeps them from running away and makes you appear bigger.
If a bear does approach, use your bear spray. Do this before it gets too close.
WHAT TO DO IF A BEAR ATTACKS
In the rare event that a bear attacks, your response depends on the species.
Browns and grizzlies are aggressive and may attack to protect themselves or their cubs. The best approach is to play dead. Stay on the ground face down and spread your legs and elbows, to help stabilize yourself. Clasp your hands around your neck.
If the bear turns you over, continue rolling until you’re on your stomach again. If it’s a defensive attack, the bear will stop as soon as it realizes you’re not a threat.
Black bears hardly ever attack humans. They’re much smaller and their shy nature causes them to flee rather than fight. If a black bear does attack, it’s almost always predatory. The only thing left to do in that case is fight back—hard. Once a black bear feels that there’s serious resistance, it will most likely back off again.