Hiking and Camping in Bear Country

What follows is my two cents worth in regards to the do’s and don’ts of hiking & camping in bear country. The ideas expressed below are by no means foolproof or conclusive and there are exceptions to every rule.

Three Bears

Three Grizzlies | Glacier National Park, CDT, 2012.

Precautions in Bear Country

  • Don’t cook where you camp:  Bears sense of smell is seven times better than a bloodhound and approximately 100 times better than a human. By cooking in the same place you intend to sleep, you may as well ring a dinner bell for any bruins that happen to be in the vicinity. When backpacking in bear country, cook your main meal either at lunch or at least 30 minutes before setting up camp.
  • Avoid popular campsites: Whenever possible try to avoid camping at popular campsites or campgrounds. Bears aren’t stupid. It doesn’t take them long to make the association between lots of careless campers and a potentially easy meal.  By far the majority of bear “encounters” (all estimates I have heard are over 90%) occur at park campgrounds. When it comes to bears, the expression “safety in numbers” is definitely off the mark. If you do stay at popular campsites, utilize bear lockers or poles whenever available.
  • Wild Camping: The alternative to camping at popular sites is known as wild or stealth camping. Basically camping in an unused spot, away from the trail, water sources and other hikers. If you choose to wild camp, the onus is even greater to practice no trace camping principles. Both your’s and the bears safety may depend upon it.
  • Noise: When walking in thick forest or bush, be sure to make some noise. Sing, talk, recite poetry, whatever floats your boat. My personal choice is the traditional “hey bear” mantra. The objective is to negate the element of surprise. If bears hear you coming, chances are they will want to avoid an encounter as much as you do.  That being said, I do not recommend bear bells. Quite frankly they are overkill. Their continuous jingling detracts from the sounds of the natural environment, which constitute a significant part of why I am out in the wilderness in the first place.
  • Bear-proofing a campsite: Through a combination of using pristine/stealth sites and not cooking where you camp, you greatly minimize the chances of a bear encounter occurring. The next step is to bear-proof your campsite by protecting your food and any other items in your kit that may give off unnatural odours (e.g. toothpaste, sunscreen, insect repellent, even the clothes you cooked in). Methods for doing this include Ursacks, Loksakshanging your food and bear canisters. It is worth noting that black bears are extremely good climbers, so if you choose to hang your food be sure to select a branch which is thin enough that it won’t hold the weight of a bear.

Grizzly at Dusk | Great Divide Trail, Canada, 2011.

Bear Encounters

  • Observe & Stay calm: If you see a bear from a relatively close distance stay calm and observe its movements. If it doesn’t runoff the moment it spots you, speak to the bear in a strong, calm and even tone. Crying and whimpering are not recommended. Raise your arms to make yourself look bigger and (in theory) more intimidating.
  • No Eye Contact: Avoid making eye contact, which bears may take as a sign of aggression.
  • Slowly Back Away: If the bear stands its ground but otherwise seems disinterested, slowly back away not losing sight of the bear and definitely not turning your back on it.
  • Don’t Run: In the event that all your precautions fail and you find yourself being charged by a bear, whatever you do don’t run. Bears can move at 37 miles (60 km) per hour. By running you are making a less than ideal situation immeasurably worse.
  • The Bluff Charge: Most bear charges are bluffs. A bear will run towards you and at the last moment veer off.  I know what you are thinking. It would take balls of steel to stand your ground in such a situation. Nonetheless, by doing so you improve your chances significantly. If you wear undies whilst backpacking, I hope you brought an extra pair.
  • Bear Spray:  If it becomes apparent that the charge is not a bluff, use bear spray as a last resort. Wait until the bear is within 10 to 15 metres (32-49 ft). Make sure you are not aiming the spray into the wind.

Heading down for an afternoon drink | Pacific Crest Trail, 2012.

  • Last Resort – Grizzly Bears: If a grizzly bear charge proves not to be a bluff and you are not armed with bear spray, drop to the ground and lay on your stomach. Spread your legs, tuck your head in, clasp your hands behind your neck and leave your pack on as this will protect your back. Be as still as possible. If the bear immediately loses interest, continue “playing dead” until you are sure that the bear has left the area. Except in very rare cases, grizzly bears will only attack if they feel threatened. By lying as quiet and motionless as possible, the bear will soon realize that you present no threat and continue on its way. Fighting back against a grizzly usually makes a bad situation worse. However, if the attack persists, you may have no choice but to defend yourself (see below).
  • Last Resort – Black Bears: If you are being attacked by a black bear the protocol is quite different. If escape is not possible, your best option is to fight back as hard as you can. Use any object at your disposal. The sharper and harder the better. Aim for the nose and eyes.

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