Seeing bears in the wild is an amazing, heart-pumping experience for any outdoor or wildlife lovers. But, sometimes those encounters result in serious injuries or death, often because people are not prepared for how to properly deal with wild black bears and grizzly bears.
One thing that always annoys me when I’m talking to hikers or hanging out in parks is how dismissive experienced outdoors people are towards the dangers of black bears. I’ve heard countless people say black bears are push-overs, they’re timid, easily scared and nothing to be afraid of. This is true – usually. Most people will only ever see a black bear running away into the bush as they drive down a remote road, or perhaps see one running away after it hears them on a hiking trail.
So Black Bears aren’t dangerous, right?
That “fight or flee” instinct almost always results in a black bear fleeing from you before you ever see or hear it. But people become accustomed to seeing black bears in some national, state and provincial parks across the US and Canada. Too many parks have black bear issues where bears become habituated with humans as they leave garbage and food lying around campsites. Easy food for black bears, and potential problems. These bears lose their fear of humans, and humans also become accustomed to seeing bears close by, so we lose our fear of them.
Grizzly bears still have a reputation of fearsome animals, so hikers and campers in the Rockies and western US/Canada tend to have more respect for these bears. Still, I’ve seen too many people out west with an attitude that black bears are nothing to be scared of, whee they should really treat both species with respect.
The reality of bear attacks is that black bears and grizzly bears have killed about the same number of people across Canada and the US. Black bears are much more prevalent, so the percentage of encounters that result in injuries compared to brown bears (grizzlies) is much lower, but still nothing to take for granted!
In Canada, fatal bear attacks have occurred in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. With the two exceptions of Nunavut (polar bears only) and Yukon (grizzly bears only), all of these provinces and territories have had fatal black bear attacks.
Depending where you are hiking or camping, the local authorities may have specific instructions about how to handle bear encounters. Whether it is black bears, grizzly bears, or even polar bears that are active where you’re going to be travelling, pay attention to the local rules. Some people say to throw rocks and stones and make lots of noise when encountering a black bear. Other authorities advise to simply stay quiet and slowly back away. Some people may tell you that grizzly bears can’t climb trees – but they can. When there are active bears in popular parts of most parks, the rangers will close off trails or park areas to avoid potential bear encounters. Don’t go exploring these areas, unless you’re looking for trouble.
Now that you hopefully understand that all wild bears are potentially dangerous, here are 20 tips on how to make sure you stay safe in bear country.
Bear Safety Tips for Campers and Hikers
1. DO. Listen to local park rangers and authorities. If there is a “trouble” bear, or active bears, in the area, they will advise you on what to do.
2. DO NOT. Run from any bear. Seeing you run away will often trigger the natural instinct to chase potential prey.
3. DO. Travel with bear spray, especially in brown bear territory. Be sure you know how to use it. It is the most effective deterrent to bear attacks.
4. DO NOT. Climb a tree. Contrary to popular belief, grizzly bears can climb trees almost as easily as black bears. They can both climb faster than you.
5. DO. In the backcountry, cook food and clean dishes 100 metres away from where you are sleeping at night.
6. DO NOT. Go to sleep wearing the same clothes you wore to cook your meals.
7. DO. Hike in groups and make noise to ensure you do not surprise any bears along the trail.
8. DO NOT. Approach any bear cubs. If you see cubs, chances are the mother bear is nearby, which means danger! Back away.
9. DO. Stash your food in provided bearproof containers, in your vehicle, or in a “bear hang” between two trees.
10. DO NOT. Think you’re safe if you have a gun. Bears that are shot rarely die quickly, and often result in deaths or injuries to their shooters.
11. DO. Treat your toiletries like food. Toothpaste and deodorant smells good to bears, store it away from your tent.
12. DO NOT. Bring your pets into bear country. If you do, always keep dogs on leashes. Unleashed dogs can lure bears to your campsite.
13. DO. Maintain a “bare” campsite. This means storing away all dishes, camp stoves, coolers, bug spray, bottles – anything that smells.
14. DO NOT. Burn or bury your food scraps, as bears will be able to smell this food. Eat everything or safely store it away from your tent.
15. DO. Consider an extra large tent. Some bears may bite at objects touching the side of a tent to determine if it is potential food.
16. DO NOT. Cook strong smelling foods, such as bacon. Cook more dehydrated and pre-packed foods with less odour.
17. DO. Walk around your camp area before setting up. If you notice bear markings, scat, animal trails, berry patches, then camp elsewhere.
18. DO NOT. Ever bring food into your tent, not even a small snack on a rainy day.
19. DO. Advise park authorities of your hiking /canoeing route if you are going into the backcountry.
20. DO NOT. Stare directly at bears that are watching you. They may think of this as a threat. You want to convince them you are not a threat.
Overall, most tips are the same for black bears or grizzly bears. Bears that are standing up on their hind legs, or making huffing and snorting sounds are generally just trying to get a better look at you. They make do a false attack, or bluff, which sort of looks like they are bouncing up and down as they approach you. Most likely after getting closer they will realize you are not a threat, and turn and leave you alone.
If you do get attacked by a bear, most authorities agree that “playing dead” may be your best chance for survival from a grizzly bear attack. Lie on the ground, cover your head with your arms, and hope the grizzly bear is satisfied with your lack of threat and doesn’t deem you as food. Fighting with a grizzly bear often results in the grizzly getting more aggressive.
For black bears, if they do attack, it is generally best to fight back with everything and anything you can, as they are more likely to get intimidated and run if you pose a challenge. As for polar bears, if you encounter one of them…good luck.
Follow the tips above and you should be safe in bear country. Learn to use bear spray, and spot signs of bear activity. If you come across bear activity on a trail, it is always safer to turn around and back track, or take a detour to avoid the bear area.
Have you encountered bears at your campsite or when you’ve been out on the hiking trail? Do you have any additional bear safety tips to share?