Bear Safety: How To Stay Alive (You AND The Bear)

​Black bears and grizzlies can be found across North America, and encountering either one on a trail can be life threatening…especially for the bear. In Canada, hundreds are destroyed each year due to human conflict.

Of course, in bear country, us humans are vulnerable, too. Just look at what happened to this hunter in Colorado. It needn’t be this way, however, and the folks living in Hemlock Farms, Pennsylvania, are a great example. According to bear.org, seven-thousand residents peacefully coexist with over 20 black bears within a seven mile radius.

In this bear safety guide, we sort the facts from the fiction and provide you with essential information on avoiding bear attacks during your camping trips or off-trail hikes, as well as how to properly react when a bear surprises you.

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Bear Safety: How To Stay Alive (You AND The Bear)

​Know Your Bears

Know Your Bears

​Grizzly bears are found all across the temperate zone of North America while black bears roam forests as far south as Mexico.

Black bears are among the easiest to spot. Despite their name, they spot a variety of colors from light-blond to black. Grizzlies only come in medium or dark brown coats.

Other good indicators are height and build. Adult grizzly bears are 6.5 feet long on average and black bears are significantly smaller and leaner in appearance. Only the brown bear features a hump of pure muscles around its shoulders.

Black bears are among the easiest to spot. Despite their name, they spot a variety of colors from light-blond to black. Grizzlies only come in medium or dark brown coats.
bear safety

​Preparation

Preparation

​Preparing for a trip through bear country requires some serious attention. Not all areas allow you to use bear spray as a deterrent (especially black bear populated areas). Check the legislation and guides provided by the rangers before packing your bags.

Try to hike in a group as bears are less likely to attack multiple people at once. Sticking to a schedule and avoiding travel at dusk and dawn is also something to keep in mind. You should try to bring a defensive siren with you or at least make plenty of noise on the trail. You won’t scare the bears, but you will make them behave more cautiously.

​How to Avoid Bears

How to Avoid Bears

​There’s a reason even the zoo tells you “Don’t feed the bears!” Wild bears will either see you as competition or an alternative food source. Bears can find their own dinner so don’t go out of your way to be a part of it.

Whether you’re camping overnight or not, securing your food storage is important if you don’t want to attract hungry bears. Either bury your food underground, put it in a bear canister, or tie it high up on a tree. Even if the bear smells it and circles the area it will lose interest if the food is out of reach.

The easiest way for you to avoid bears is by staying away from large bear populated areas. Of course, if you can’t do that, there are a few other tactics you can employ.

Keep Your Distance

​Whenever you see a bear from a distance, it’s wise to either turn back or wait for it to leave. It’s very rare that a bear will come towards you from far away. If turning around is not an option, consider taking a detour and create more space between you and the bear. Try to look back from time to time and check if your paths might intersect again.

​Check for Tracks, Cubs, and Carcasses

Check for Tracks, Cubs, and Carcasses

​You don’t have to be a hunter to familiarize yourself with what bear prints look like. The hard part is spotting them with an untrained eye. The places you want to pay closer attention to are riverbeds and bushes.

If you happen to see a cub, go ahead and smile at how cute it is and then find another path. Mamma bears are very protective and become aggressive when they spot someone approaching their cubs. Make no mistake, in most cases you won’t even hear her coming for you.

If you stumble upon an animal carcass, try to figure out if an animal recently fed off it. If you see ripped flesh and large tracks near it – leave. There is a chance that a bear would come back to feast some more and it won’t like it if you’re in the way.

 

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​Bear Encounters

Bear Encounters

​Grizzly bears and black bears react differently to humans. Both are curious, but the black bear is also aggressive at times without provocation.

What to do when it Attacks

​The first action you have to take when a bear approaches you is to stand your ground. Not moving should give you time to take out your spray. Once you start running you’ve put yourself in a deadly situation.

Bears aren’t predators, but they will charge after you if you flee. They will consider you prey, so all bets are off. If you think you can outrun a bear, it’s a good thing you’re on this page.

If for some reason you see a bear already charging at you from a distance, stay put and start making as much noise as you can. Scream, shout, use a defense siren, and anything else that can scare the bear. At the same time get your bear spray ready and hope that it’s enough to deter it.

Playing Dead

​This advice is given left and right but there’s more to it than just two words. When you play dead, you should lie down on your stomach and use your hands to protect the back of your head and neck. Since you’re hiking, you should also have a backpack on your back. Depending on how packed and strong it is, it might help against some clawing and biting.

Grizzly bears stop attacking once they feel comfortable the prey is dead. For no reason whatsoever should you immediately get up and run once the bear is off your back. Give it some time as some bears still roam around their kill to make sure the job’s done.

Grizzly bears stop attacking once they feel comfortable the prey is dead. For no reason whatsoever should you immediately get up and run once the bear is off your back. Give it some time as some bears still roam around their kill to make sure the job’s done.
bear safety

Fight Back

​The best course of action against an attack from a black bear is to fight back with everything you have at your disposal. Once a black bear sees that his pray is not an easy target, they might have a change of heart and retreat.

​Bear Spray vs. Gun

Bear Spray vs. Gun
The best course of action against an attack from a black bear is to fight back with everything you have at your disposal. Once a black bear sees that his pray is not an easy target, they might have a change of heart and retreat.

​Although Europe has stricter laws against shooting bears, you can face legal action in the US too. Expect a severe fine if you get caught shooting an animal on the endangered species list, which the rarer types of bears.

This is one of the reasons bear spray is often recommended instead of firearms. It saves you money and prevents unnecessary bear deaths. Bears are curious creatures, but they are far from notorious predators. A spray deterrent is enough to force them into losing interest in you or your belongings.

The effective distance of bear spray is between 12 to 30 feet, depending on the brand and composition. If you’re an amateur shot, you have a better chance of stopping a bear with spray instead of firing a poor shot from that distance.

 

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​More Do’s and Don’ts of Bear Safety

More Do’s and Don’ts of Bear Safety

Do’s:

  • ​Use your bear spray at the recommended distance. Try to stay calm and not waste it all when the bear is too far.
    Use your bear spray at the recommended distance. Try to stay calm and not waste it all when the bear is too far.
  • ​When fighting a black bear, use everything to fight back. The more you throw at it, the more it makes you look like a challenge.
    When fighting a black bear, use everything to fight back. The more you throw at it, the more it makes you look like a challenge.
  • ​If you have a choice between fighting and playing dead against a grizzly, chose the latter. While you might be able to deter and survive a black bear attack, you are no match for the massive size and strength of the North American Brown Bear.
    If you have a choice between fighting and playing dead against a grizzly, chose the latter. While you might be able to deter and survive a black bear attack, you are no match for the massive size and strength of the North American Brown Bear.
  • ​If a brown bear flips you while you’re playing dead, roll over until you’re back in a defensive position.
    If a brown bear flips you while you’re playing dead, roll over until you’re back in a defensive position.

​Don’ts:

Don’ts:
  • ​Don’t raise your arms up when faced with an angry bear as it will accomplish nothing. Bears are not impressed by height.
    Don’t raise your arms up when faced with an angry bear as it will accomplish nothing. Bears are not impressed by height.
  • ​Don’t try to be friendly to wild bears. Even if they fake an attack you should respond by either making loud noises or using a bear spray. Better to be safe than sorry. Soothing a bear has little effect.
    Don’t try to be friendly to wild bears. Even if they fake an attack you should respond by either making loud noises or using a bear spray. Better to be safe than sorry. Soothing a bear has little effect.
  • ​Don’t play dead for black bears. Unlike grizzlies, they are vicious and will tear you to pieces before it leaves.
    Don’t play dead for black bears. Unlike grizzlies, they are vicious and will tear you to pieces before it leaves.
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    ​If you’re out hunting, avoid washing, prepping and cooking your prey near your camping spot. The bear can smell that from miles away and you can become a target without realizing it.
    If you’re out hunting, avoid washing, prepping and cooking your prey near your camping spot. The bear can smell that from miles away and you can become a target without realizing it.
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    ​Don’t use your bear spray as a repellent. Using it on yourself or your tent has no effect.
    Don’t use your bear spray as a repellent. Using it on yourself or your tent has no effect.
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    ​Don’t buy a pepper spray and expect it to have the same effect on bears. Human spray deterrents are not as effective because of their lower concentration of pepper extract.
    Don’t buy a pepper spray and expect it to have the same effect on bears. Human spray deterrents are not as effective because of their lower concentration of pepper extract.

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