Hiking in Bear Country: 12 Do's and Don'ts
Hiking in bear country can be a very enjoyable activity, however, you shouldn’t underestimate the risks and dangers associated with it because nothing guarantees total safety. If you are prepared with the right knowledge how to safely hike and camp in bear country, you will minimize the risk of a bear attack. Statistically speaking, walking the trails of bear country isn’t more dangerous than walking the streets of a big city or driving to the trailhead. Bear attacks are rare but they can be extremely dangerous as they can cause injury or death.
Bears are bigger, stronger and faster than you are. However, you have an important advantage over any black, brown or polar bear - your brain. Think smart and maintain your composure throughout your stay in bear territory, and you will increase your margin of safety and enjoyment.
Start your preparation by gathering information about the species of bears that live in the area you will be visiting and plan your trip carefully. Read as much as possible about bears and their habits to gain knowledge and understanding regarding these fascinating animals, however, keep in mind that it is difficult to predict the specific behavior of a given bear at a certain time. Also, keep in mind that bears are protected from hunting in national parks and other areas so you will not have firearms. However, in most cases, bear spray is pretty effective in keeping bears away. It is important to hike responsibly but not to overreact to the threat of bears.
12 Do's and don'ts for hiking safely in bear country
If possible, travel in groups
Don’t hike alone in bear country. Being a part of a larger party brings some advantages such as making more noise and appearing more threatening to bears. These help keep bears from attacking. Also, in case of an injury, someone can go for help while others can attend to injuries. If you’re hiking alone and get injured, there’s nobody to go for help. To keep the advantage of a large party, stay together and don’t split up. The large percentage of hikers mauled by bears was hiking solo or with one other person. Bears very rarely attack larger groups of people. That’s one of the reasons why it is highly recommended to travel in a group of four or more hikers in bear country.
Stay on the trail
Avoid side trips in bear country. Staying on the trail during the middle of the day minimizes the risk of encountering a bear (especially when the trail is heavily used). It’s probably because bears expect to find hikers on trails. Hence, you are much more likely to find bear off trails or along rarely used trails during the middle of the day.
Watch the Wind
A bear’s sense of smell is exceptionally acute - around 2100 better than a human. This means that the wind can be a friend or foe in your chances of encountering a bear. The direction and strength of the wind are crucial. When the wind blows at your back, the bear will smell you coming. Conversely, when the wind blows in your face, the bear won’t be able to smell you coming. Similarly, a strong noisy wind can limit bear’s ability to hear you coming significantly increasing the chances of an unpleasant encounter. So, watch the wind and if the wind blows in your face, make a loud noise to signal your presence to any bear.
Make some noise
Walking through lower-visibility areas increases the chances of suddenly confronting a bear. Bear experts recommend making plenty of noise to avoid an encounter. This noise will alert bears of your presence thus reducing the chance of seeing bears or any other wild animals. The reason is that if a wild animal hears you coming, it’s very likely to avoid you. Needless to say, respect others on the trail, don’t disturb them, and avoid unnecessary noisemaking so that all can enjoy wild nature. For example, you needn’t make noise in areas where there’s no chance of seeing a bear or where you can see a long distance up the trail.
You might ask about the most efficient or the best type of noise. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question because experts aren’t unanimous on what noise is best. However, one thing’s for sure - the bear is supposed to hear your sound while it is still far away from you. Remember that most encounters leading to injury have occurred when the distance between the person and the bear has been less than 50 meters and the person (the bear or both) was not aware of that until being already too close. Some experts recommend making noise that doesn’t occur in nature assuming that it is more likely to alert bears of your presence (such as metallic noise from bear bells). Others argue that loud clapping is more efficient and bear are alerted immediately by this particular sound because it’s similar to the sound of twigs breaking. There are hikers who shout, chant mantras, sing, blow whistles, yodel etc. You have to make the decision on what type of noise to make. Keep in mind that there may also be a danger in making noise because you may attract young bears. They’re very curious and often don’t have the knowledge that humans can mean trouble.
Watch your step but also watch ahead and to the sides, especially in areas most likely to be frequented by bears. Such areas include berry patches, places with dense vegetation, salmon-spawning areas, and along streams. Bear signs, traces of bear activity, fresh tracks, and scats are obvious signs that the area is frequented by bears. Look carefully at suspicious “animal-like” objects and try to detect bears when they are distant. If you’re several hundred meters away from such an object, using binoculars can be very helpful to tell the difference between a bear and a porcupine or a wolverine.
Berry picking and fishing are among the outdoor activities with the biggest chance of getting injuries from bears in summer or fall. Berries and fish are natural food for bears as well as for people. Be extra alert while picking berries (huckleberries and salmonberries are preferred by bears), watch for bears and bear signs, and make noise. Also, stay alert when fishing and if you have to clean fish because of the odor. It can easily get onto your body and clothing.
Always carry a bear spray
Bear spray is by far the most effective deterrent in the case of a bear attack. Keep in mind that bear spray is is not a substitute for normal precautions when traveling or camping in bear country. Bear spray is your next-to-last line of defense because if it doesn’t turn away the bear, your only remaining options are playing dead or physical resistance.
Bear spray is not just a “pepper spray” - it contains higher quantities of capsaicinoids (up to 2%) than the pepper spray that is used against humans. Look for something called “bear spray” or “bear pepper spray” since these are much more effective than an ordinary pepper spray. Actually, bear spray is more effective against aggressive bears even than a gun as it is much more difficult to miss a charging bear (spray when the bear is within range, i.e. it is no more than 7-10 meters away) than if you use a weapon. Keep the bear spray in an instantly accessible place to make sure that it is close to hand at all times and ready to use.
Always read the directions on the bear spray container or packaging and test-fire before going to bear country but don’t do it into the wind unless you want to have the personal experience of what a bear feels like when sprayed. Keep in mind that bear spray is not a repellent - it’s pretty effective to turn away a charging bear but its smell is also a powerful bear attractant. So don’t get any on a tent, on your tires, around camp, on yourself or on equipment. In addition, don’t leave your bear spray in extremely cold or hot environments (it could explode if left in a hot vehicle all day).
Hike at night
Night hiking, as well as hiking early or late, is not recommended in bear territory. It can be very risky because bears are most active after dark - around dawn and dusk - and being on the trail at that time increases your chances of encountering bears. Unfortunately, you’re less likely to see a bear until it’s too late. Hence, make a lot of noise to alert bears of your presence. Running on trails at night is even more dangerous than night hiking. It increases your chances of surprising a bear as 1) you cover distances faster than expected by wildlife, and 2) you tend to be quieter when running. So, avoid running in bear country if possible. If not, carry a bear spray, make a lot of noise, and run during the heat of the day.
Ever step between a mother bear and her cubs
This is the cardinal rule in bear country. Remember that cubs can be deadly and if you see one, never approach it (even if it might seem abandoned). It is highly likely that the mother bear is nearby and female bears are protective of their cubs as they fiercely defend their young. Bears are like human - each bear has a distinct personality so they can be very unpredictable. However, if you come across a bear suddenly and unexpectedly, and it attacks you, it’s likely that the bear only wants to defend itself and/or its cubs. A female bear guarding her young probably isn’t hunting you, i.e. her attack is defensive.
Get too close to a bear
Never get too close to a bear just as you should never get too close to other wild animals. Many animals including bears are aggressive when they feel threatened especially when someone disturbs their natural feeding behavior.
If you see a bear or bears, don’t get too close for a better view. A high percentage of people mauled by bears are photographers because they often get closer to a bear for a better look and do it quietly on purpose. Thus, the bear is surprised and what’s more, it is likely to interpret this as an act of aggression and charge. So, if you see a bear at a distance, don’t move toward the bear but take a detour around the animal keeping an eye on the bear until out of sight. If possible, stay out of sight but more importantly, make lots of noise to ensure the bear knows you’re there. Leave quickly the area but never run as running or other sudden movements might cause the bear to charge.
Try to outrun a bear, or escape by climbing a tree
Bears are bigger, stronger, and faster than you are. Don’t underestimate bear’s speed as it can sprint at up to 55 km (35 miles) per hour. You have a zero chance of outrunning a bear. Bears, especially black bears, are also very good at climbing trees. If you decide to climb a tree, make sure you can reach the tree before the bear can get there. Moreover, trees are not safe unless they’re too thin for the bear to climb.
If you see a bear nearby, stand still, be quiet, and carefully assess the situation first. Make no sudden moves but back away slowly, talking quietly in a monotone. Carefully retreat and avoid direct eye contact with the bear. Also, never turn your back on a bear - don’t act like prey and you might not become prey.
Leave your bag unattended
Indications of bear activity (turned over rocks, torn-apart rotten wood, evidence of digging for roots and bulbs etc.) are often easy to notice but it’s difficult to differentiate between traces made by grizzly bears and those made by black bears. The presence or absence of such traces will tell you if bears are using a particular area. Even if there are no visible signs of bear activity, don’t leave your pack unattended especially in areas known to have a high bear population. Don’t forget that a bear’s sense of smell is extremely acute and if there is something interesting to a bear in your pack, it might smell it. So, an unattended pack on the trail is more or less an invitation for a bear to investigate what’s in it.
Let fear ruin your trip
Remember that fear needn’t ruin your backpacking trip in bear country. One of the easiest ways to conquer your fear of bears is to just follow the basic rules of safety in bear territory and be prepared and knowledgeable of how to deal with encounters. This will give you confidence that you have a good chance of dealing with an encounter and coming away uninjured. But let’s face it, bears don’t want to prey on humans or at least 99% of them want to stay away from people. So, the chance of ever having a bear encounter is very slim. When you know and do the right things, you’ll be fine. Enjoy your hiking trip to bear country and don’t let the fear of bears accompany you every step of the way and ruin your vacation.
Needless to say, hiking in bear territory can be a bit awkward initially but with time and experience, you’ll just get over it. The more you know about bears, their habitat and habits, and where you might confront one (in dense brush, for instance), as well as your experience will help you avoid an accidental encounter. Bear encounters pose a threat to human safety but if you take every precaution to avoid an encounter, the chances are you’ll only see bears at a safe distance.
Hiking in bear country can be an enjoyable experience. Don’t miss it.