About the Author
Olivia Magee oversees Social Media at Zpacks and helps monitor trends within the industry. Her contributions to the hiking community includes her work with the American Conservation Experience where she performed trail maintenance in the Smoky's and across the Southeast.
I am someone who is simultaneously scared of and intrigued by bears. Living in a sleepy beach town in Florida bears really aren’t my number one concern, in fact, I have never seen a bear (so I guess you could call me an expert in avoiding them). That being said I do have access to the internet and I have compiled all of the best tips and tricks (tried by other people) on bear safety.
However, I think it’s a good idea to take a step back and try to understand bears a little better. Understanding the motivation behind their behavior will give you an insight into why they do what they do.
BEAR POPULATIONS ARE ON THE RISE
Most states have seen an increase in bear populations in the last decade. In the past century, bear populations have been decimated by over hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to conservation efforts these once endangered populations are starting to bounce back.
BEARS ARE SMART
Bears are seriously smart. Considered to be one of the most intelligent land animals in North America, bears have the largest and most complex brains relative to their size of any land mammal. In the animal kingdom, their intelligence compares with that of higher primates. Some researchers believe that grizzlies possess self-awareness, there have been accounts of grizzly bears covering their tracks or concealing themselves from hunters with rocks and trees.
BEARS ARE CURIOUS
Finally, bears are curious animals. They want to know what's going on in their home range. If they see something they don’t understand they are going to investigate. What all this boils down to is simple, there are more bears on and around trails, and those bears are just as aware of your presence as you are of theirs.
PREVENTION IS KEY
Unless you are going to northern Alaska, the only species of bear you have to worry about are black bears and grizzly bears. Black bears and grizzly bears need to be handled differently but there are some general rules that apply to both species.
BRING BEAR SPRAY
First, bring bear spray. Seriously, bear spray is more effective than guns. When looking at grizzly attacks a person who uses firearms to defend themselves is attacked about 50% of the time. A person who uses bear spray escapes injury most of the time. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero's research has determined a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used. Finally, people who use bear spray and do get injured experience shorter and less severe attacks.
Store your bear spray in a place that is easily accessible. The last thing you want to be doing is fumbling around in your bag looking for a can while a bear is approaching. Also, make sure you know how to use your bear spray, here is a video on proper bear spray techniques.
Strategically make noise when coming around corners and blind spots. If a bear can hear you coming more likely than not it will run.
DON'T BE SMELLY
Be aware of your smell. Bears can smell better than they can see and they rely on smell to hunt and forage. If you smell like a walking berry smoothie a bear is going to want a sip. Make sure nothing you are wearing, sleeping in, or bathing with has a scent
KEEP YOUR FOOD AWAY FROM WHERE YOU SLEEP
Use a bear bag or canister. Everyone in the outdoor community should be familiar with bear bags. However, most people aren’t hanging their bear bags correctly. It's important to practice hanging a bear bag with the right techniques. Keeping food away from your camp will help keep bears away from your camp.
HIKE IN GROUPS
If you can avoid hiking alone, do it; bears do not attack groups. There has not been a single incident in all of North America where a bear has attacked a group of people. UPDATE: It has been brought to our attention that there was an incident where a bear attacked a group of people in Alaska in 2011.
BLACK BEARS VS GRIZZLY BEARS
Aggressive black bear behavior includes huffing, popping, jaw snapping or swatting the ground. If a black bear is standing on its hind legs, it’s curious. Try not to have a strong reaction and move away slowly.
- Make noise and make yourself big to try and scare the bear.
- Walk away slowly without turning your back. Walking slowly will lessen the risk of triggering the bear's instinct to chase.
- Don’t play dead. If a black bear attacks you, fight!
- Don’t Throw food as a distraction. This will make the bear associate coming close to people with a reward.
- Don’t Run. Running will trigger the bear's instinct to chase.
- Don’t Climb to escape. Black bears are excellent climbers they will follow you up a tree.
Just like black bears, aggressive behavior includes huffing, popping, jaw snapping or swatting the ground. Similar to dogs, laid-back ears and a lowered head indicate aggression. Standing on hind legs is a sign of curiosity and not aggression.
- Stand your ground and speak in a low monotone voice.
- Keep your pack on, this will offer protection if the bear attacks
- In the case of an attack play dead. With your backpack on, lay flat on your stomach and clasp your hands behind your neck. Spread your legs and use your elbows and toes to prevent from being rolled over. If it does roll you over, keep rolling until you’re back on your stomach. Remain as calm and as still as possible until the attack stops.
- If the bear does not approach you, back away slowly.
- Don’t fight back. Most grizzly attacks are defensive, don’t make yourself a bigger threat by fighting
- Don’t scream or yell at the bear. This may come across as threatening.
Bear safety TLDR
- Bring bear spray
- Travel in groups
- Make noise when coming around corners
- Keep food in a bear hang or canister at night
- Don’t wear anything scented
- Don’t run away