Seeing a bear in the backcountry can be simultaneously breathtaking and terrifying. We are always hoping for a chance to see a bear from a distance while also hoping to avoid the danger of a close encounter. Over the years we've been given good and bad advice on what to do when we see a bear, like the time our Scout Master threw a rock towards a black bear and told us to drop our packs and run if it charged us (three things you should never do during a bear encounter). While bear attacks happen regularly, the number of attacks is very low in relation to the number of hikers, backpackers, and campers spending time in bear country every year. While it is impossible to completely eliminate bear danger in the backcountry, employing common sense and familiarizing yourself with these bear safety tips and resources will greatly reduce your risk.
It is always a smart idea to check with the local ranger station before exploring a new area and especially if it is bear country. A Ranger will know if any areas are closed due to high bear activity and recommend trails based on the latest information. You can also check online for recent reports of bear activity in the area you will be visiting.
While no one tip or safety measure can ensure your safety, one of the best bets is to always carry bear spray. Statistics collected on bear attacks show that bear spray is the best option to avoid serious injury and is much more effective than a firearm in deterring an attack. The video below from Banff National Park does a great job of demonstrating how to use bear spray.
You don't need to bring a Bluetooth speaker and annoy every hiker within earshot to stay safe. The idea is to ensure you are making enough noise for a bear to hear you coming with plenty of time to scamper off. You can use a bear bell, talk with your group, or clap your hands and say "Hey Bear". This is most important when approaching blind corners or areas with limited sight distance. While each National Park's recommendation on distance varies we like to stick with Yellowstone's 100-yard rule and make sure we keep at least 300 feet between us and any bears especially if they have cubs with them.
In bear country the old adage "there is safety in numbers" definitely applies. Groups of 3 or more hikers are easier for a bear to hear, smell, see and avoid. And if you do end up in a close encounter with a bear being in a group makes an attack a less appealing option for the bear and it is more likely to retreat.
Food and other scents can attract bears to your camp. Never cook, eat, or store food in your tent. If possible prepare your food and do cleanup away from camp and use a bear bag or bear canister to store food at all other times. Any scented toiletry items should also be kept in your bear bag/canister. When hikers are careless with food, bears can start to see hikers and their camps as easy food sources, which can lead to trails being closed to hikers and increases the risk for everyone.
Additional Reading: Storing your food and disposing of garbage properly can mean life or death to a bear.
If you do surprise a Grizzly or Black Bear and find yourself in close range it is important to stay calm. Remove the safety from your bear spray and have it at the ready. If the bear isn't charging, slowly back away speaking in a calm but clear voice to show you are not a threat. Never run away or try and climb a tree as the bear might be triggered to chase you. If the bear begins to charge hold your ground and use your bear spray once the bear is a within 60 feet of you and it will usually veer off. A bear is faster than an Olympic sprinter, so you don't want to wait until it is too close or you may not have time. If you are lucky holding your ground and using bear spray will end the encounter and you can safely leave the area.
The National Park Service recommends reporting any bear encounters to the local ranger station to help inform and protect other hikers.
If a grizzly bear charges and doesn't veer off wait until it makes contact and then lay on your stomach (if you have a pack leave it on for protection) clasp your hand over your neck and spread out your legs to make it harder for the bear to flip you over. Stay still and quiet, playing dead until the bear leaves the area. Give the bear plenty of time to leave the area and then get help.
While Black Bear Attacks are considered less frequent than Grizzly attacks, Black Bear Attacks have to be handled very differently. Playing dead will not work. If possible escape to the safety of a vehicle or building, if that is not realistic you must fight back with everything you have, concentrating on the bear's sensitive muzzle and face.
Lastly, if a bear of any kind is stalking you, or attacks you in your tent or cabin it is considered a predatory attack and playing dead will not work and you must fight back.
This article is by no means exhaustive, check out these additional resources for more info on bear safety.
Austin lives in the Pacific Northwest where he enjoys hiking and backpacking in the Olympic and Cascade mountains.
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