Stop! Are you doing everything you can to prevent bear attacks?

Momma bear with cubs - ©️  Arend Vermazeren

Momma bear with cubs - ©️ Arend Vermazeren

Bears get a bad rep. Long gone are the days of Smokey, Yogi, and Winnie the Pooh. Now you typically hear about bears when they’re involved in nefarious activity.

The truth is, most bears prefer to eat their berries and romp the woods in peace. Bear attacks are rare and usually human inspired. When an attack does happen, it's usually Momma Bear protecting her cubs, or Mr. Bear interrupted mid-supper. Can you blame a bear for sneaking into camp after picking up the delicious aroma of your gourmet Mac and Cheese? 

For every bear attack that happens, there are thousands of harmless encounters. When a bear sees you on the trail they usually don't care you’re there, as long as you mind your own business. They usually saunter past, on their continued quest for spiritual enlightenment. Or lunch. Whichever suits your personal narrative.

That said, preventing bear attacks is good practice. For your safety, and theirs. This comprehensive guide is a step-by-step manual to being bear smart while you’re in their territory. You’ll learn how to:

  • Differentiate species

  • Pack appropriately

  • Store attractive items

  • Identify tracks and scat

  • Avoid bear attacks

  • Bear-proof your campsite

  • Survive a bear attack

  • Buy and use bear spray

How To Prepare For A Trip

Before you even step foot in bear country, you’ll need to do your due diligence. Educate yourself, pack smart, and make the necessary arrangements to keep yourself - and the bears - safe.

Step 1: Educate yourself

I know it sounds obvious. But, you’re going into bear land, learn about bears.

Find out which species frequent the area. There are many great websites, books, and eBooks about bears. We live in the age of information, take advantage of it. 

Learn to tell the difference between bear species. The two most common species in North America are the Black Bear and Grizzly Bear (or, brown bear). How you handle yourself in a bear encounter depends on the species you’re dealing with. It’s critical to know the difference. Look for identifiable physical characteristics.

Bear Characteristics - ©️  Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife

Bear Characteristics - ©️ Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife

Some key distinctions:

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear - ©️  NPS

Grizzly Bear - ©️ NPS

  • A hump on their shoulders. Their hump, their hump, their lovely Grizzly hump.

  • Cute, rounded ears. Like a terrifying teddy bear (named after Teddy Roosevelt).

  • Back is sloped downward past the shoulder hump.

  • “Dish” shaped facial profile. A concave between the eyes and nose.

  • Large claws, resulting in a bigger gap between the claw and pad in their tracks.

  • Larger, block-shaped head. Doesn’t like to be teased about it.

  • Often (but not always) larger than a Black Bear.

Black Bear

Black Bear
  • No hump on their shoulders. Bro, do you even lift?

  • Large, tapered ears. All the better to hear you with.

  • Straight, pointed facial profile. A better fit for the honey jar.

  • Dark, smaller claws. Resulting in a close gap between the claw and pad in tracks.

  • The muzzle is usually lighter in color than the rest of their body.

  • Often has a white chest patch. Not to be confused with a soul patch.

  • Often (but not always) smaller than a Grizzly Bear.

Know what’s fact, and what’s fiction. For example, despite popular belief there’s no evidence that bears are attracted to period blood. That sweet nectar is saved for the allure of the Homo sapien.

Familiarize yourself with bear tracks. It's helpful to know the species and size of a bear.

Avoid a bear attack by learning to identify bear tracks - ©️  Western Wildlife Outreach

Avoid a bear attack by learning to identify bear tracks - ©️ Western Wildlife Outreach

While you’re at it, get cozy with their poop. You’ll be the most interesting person at dinner parties, and it helps you gauge how recently a bear crossed your path. Is the scat fibrous or runny? Light or dark? That tells you what the bear was eating. Is the grass underneath yellowing? Are there flies circling? The poo may not be recent; you’re safe. No need to dig your finger into the middle of it like an oven fresh brownie. Unless you’re into that sort of thing. 

Step 2: Pack appropriately

As you pack for your trip into bear country, one of the most important things to consider is food. It’s pungent and can attract the attention of nearby bears. Several companies make sturdy, scent proof bear canisters to store food. As a bonus, most canisters double as a chair. If you’re not ready to invest in a canister, many national parks and outfitters rent them for a reasonable price. 

Bear Canisters - ©️  Bear Vault

Bear Canisters - ©️ Bear Vault

If you don’t want to carry a canister you can opt for a bear sack. A few companies make them but Ursack’s are probably the most reliable.

Make sure your canister or bear sack is approved before going into a government regulated park or wilderness area. You can find out by calling or checking their website.

If you’re on a day hike, you can store food in lightweight, scent proof bags.

Pro Tip: The odor proof packaging at cannabis shops makes a great scent proof hiking bag.

Bring bear spray. This is such an important step that an entire section is dedicated to it. Bear spray is your top defense in a bear attack. Buy it. Bring it. Know how to use it. 

How To Avoid Bears

You’re out in the wild, enjoying the sights; awesome. But you’re a visitor in someone else’s home. Being a respectful guest means you can enjoy yourself while ensuring everyone's safety.

Step 1: Exercise Caution on the Trail

Bear Claw Marks - ©️  Glacier NP

Bear Claw Marks - ©️ Glacier NP

  • Watch for signs. Looking out for tracks and scat lets you know how close a bear might be. Besides, who doesn’t want to drop and shove their face in bear poop? Take a big whiff of that dung, my friend. Getting up close and personal can save your hide. Also look for signs of digging, and bite or claw marks on trees. Bears use tree bark to pillow-top their den mattress. You may notice fur hanging from tree branches, or loose bark. It’s from a bear scratching its back on the tree. Scratching their back helps them shed their winter coat, and leaves a scent for other bears.

  • Hike in groups. It’s easier to make noise with more people, and you have safety in numbers. Make sure to shout each time you change direction, so the bear knows which way you’re going and they can avoid you.

  • Make noise. Introduce yourself. You wouldn't walk into someone's house without knocking. Make lots of noise when you’re hiking to let the bears know you’re nearby. The last you want to do is sneak up on a bear, startling them. Who among us hasn’t wanted to pop someone in the face for ambushing us? And let’s be clear, bear bells are useless. They’ve proven to be ineffective, except to annoy other hikers. Clap your hands or poles together, whistle, sing, or shout phrases like, “hey, bear!” Or, like this guy, channel your inner Fonzie. No bear will mess with the Fonz.

  • Stay away. If you do see a bear, give it space. Don’t go closer to get a better look, or take a photo. If you desperately need a photo, invest in a telephoto lens. Especially if there are cubs. There’s a reason defensive moms are called “momma bears.” Bitch will cut you. Stay away from her babies. And, DO NOT EVER FEED A BEAR. The last thing you should do is toss bread at it like a mallard duck (who you also shouldn’t feed).

  • Hike on trails. Bears will cross trails (how dare they), but wandering into thickets of brush is a reliable way of sneaking up on a bear and ending up in a bad situation. It’s also easier to see bear tracks and scat on or near trails and (and other packed surfaces).

Step 2: Bear Proof Your Camp

You’re ready to set up camp, wolf down dinner, and slumber. With the right preventive action you can rest at ease, knowing no bear will make your camp their next breakfast nook.

  • Camp strategically. Choose a camping spot that doesn't interest bears. Don’t camp next to a river, berry patch, or fresh carcass. Tempting, I know. Select an open area, ideally upwind from where you're cooking (and storing) food.

  • Only cook certain foods. You can minimize enticement by cooking food that isn't really pungent. If you eat garlic for dinner, you’ll smell like garlic all night. And we all know how the scent of bacon gets into everything.

  • Store food away from camp. Don’t be that jack hole who leaves food in the tent and gets eaten with your beef jerky. At that point, you’re inviting the bear to your table and offering yourself for dessert. If you’re using a bear canister, move it away from camp. If you’re using a bear sack, hang it at least 10 feet off the ground. There are several methods you can use. The PCT method is popular if you’re using one bear sack. The counterbalance method works well if you’re using multiple sacks.

PCT Hang Method - ©️ The Ultimate Hang

  • Put ALL scented objects into your canister/sack. Anything that can attract a bear. Food, pet food, trash, dirty cooking utensils, even the clothes you wore while cooking. Toothpaste, sun block, lip balm, deodorant, cleaning wipes, feminine products. You get it. Stuff it all in the canister/sack and seal that bad boy up.

  • Follow the 100 yards rule. Cook your food 100 yards from your tent. Store your canister/sack 100 yards from your tent. If you need to go to the bathroom, walk 100 yards from your tent. All these locations should be in opposing directions (like a triangle). If you’re in a confined space, compromise with 200 feet.

How To Handle A Bear

Avoiding bears is about 75% prevention, 25% luck. If you follow these steps, you’ll know what to do if you see a bear. But there’s always that chance Yogi is around the corner enjoying an afternoon picnic. 

In the off chance you encounter a bear, how do you avoid a bear attack?

Step 1: Assess the scene

Look around. Is there a carcass? Are there cubs? Is there a tree you can climb? What species of bear is it? Gather as much information as possible. 

Look for body language. If the bear stands up on its hind legs, it's probably just curious. If it starts chomping, snorting, growling, swinging its head from side to side, or screaming bloody murder, it’s moved past the point of curious into the realm of aggravated.

Step 2: Keep your distance

What to do when you see a bear - ©️  NPS

What to do when you see a bear - ©️ NPS

Once you’ve sized things up, create distance. Pause and give the bear a chance to leave. Most of the time, they will. If they don't, slowly back away, keeping them in sight. If you can get about 300 feet you should be able to retreat safely. Whatever you do, DO NOT RUN. If the bear follows you, stop. Continue, slowly, if/when you can. 

Step 3: Stay calm

If you can’t get away, say something in a calm, low tone. I don’t care if you tell them they smell like ass, or you spill your darkest secrets. The point is to let them know you’re human, not prey. You can slowly wave your arms around to drive the point home. Avoid making sudden movements or shrill sounds as it might invoke aggressive behaviors. 

Sometimes a bear will charge, to bluff. They’re posturing and will usually walk away afterward. This is why it’s important to stay calm and stand your ground. Charging doesn’t always precede an attack. It’s important to stay calm and avoid panicking.

Step 4: Be Prepared

Make sure you have bear spray, at the ready. You don’t want to be 10 feet from a scared or angry bear when you say, “pardon me, Sir. I must first remove my pack to retrieve my pepper spray.” 

If you’re in a group, stay close. Form a Spartan shield so you look larger. Hide the children (and pets), as they'll likely be the first to make sudden movements or shrill sounds. This is one reason it’s important to keep your pets on a leash (and maybe your children).

Step 5: Fight or flight

This is where species distinction is really important. Whether you fight or flight is going to depend on the type of bear you’re dealing with. 

A fun mnemonic I like to use: If it’s black, fight back, If it’s brown, lie down.

Black Bear

If you’ve encountered a Black Bear, the first plan of action is flight. Black bears are skittish and will usually run away. If they don't, try to slowly escape. Keep in mind they’re great climbers so a tree isn’t the best route. 

If you can’t escape, you’ll have to fight. 

Hand-to-hand Combat with Bear - ©️  Bearmageddon

Hand-to-hand Combat with Bear - ©️ Bearmageddon

Make noise. You want to let that bear know you’re the boss. Smack some pots and pans together, scream, slap your hiking poles together, use a whistle. Be big. Put your pack on your head, wave your arms around, jump up and down. You’re Hulk Hogan with a temper! Yell at the bear, tell them to shove it.

If none of that works, try throwing (small) sticks or stones. Sticks and stones won’t break its bones but they might persuade it to leave. 

In very rare occasions, even that might not work. Maybe the bear is having a bad day, who knows. I hate to say it, but, you’ll have to combat. Push those sleeves up and grab your hiking (or tent) poles. If the bear charges, fight for your life and hope that 25% luck is on your side. 

And bring some damn bear spray next time.

Grizzly Bear

If you’ve encountered a Grizzly Bear, the plan is simple. Play dead. As with any bear, do not ever run from a Grizz. You’ll get mauled faster than a teenage boy's first orgasm.

Leave your pack on. It will protect your organs and create an extra layer between you and the bear. Lay down on your stomach, spread your legs (so it's harder for the bear to flip you), and put your hands over your neck. Stay very still and go to your happy place. 

Most bear attacks only last a few minutes. If you’re attacked, wait until you know the bear is long gone before you seek help.

Pro Tip: Don’t try throwing food at the bear, thinking it’ll forget about you and eat the food. If a bear thinks you’re food, it’s going to want you over whatever you tossed at it. You’re bigger food than that granola bar. 

How To Use Bear Spray

You’re frolicking through the forest and you come upon a 500-pound Grizz. She’s practically foaming at the mouth. She turns, looks at you, and charges. 

What do you do?

a) Throw a Swedish Fish at her, hoping she thinks it’s the real thing.
b) Bust out your Smith & Wesson and show this sow how hard you are.
c) Whip out your bear spray and pepper her up like an overdone turkey.

You don’t want to end up in this situation. But if you do, let’s make sure you have the information to make it out with your skull intact.

The Debate: Bear Spray vS Firearms

It’s a divisive topic and there are two schools of thought. Rather than speculating, let’s look at the research.

Bear Spray

You make the choice. But make an informed one. If you’re going to carry a gun, make sure it’s legal, and know how to use it.

This video demonstrates a bear getting sprayed, so you can see the effects it has on the bear:

This video demonstrates a bear getting shot, so you can see the effects that has on the bear. WARNING: This video is graphic and may be upsetting to watch.

What Is Bear Spray?

Bear spray has three main ingredients.

Bear Spray - ©️  Guard Alaska

Bear Spray - ©️ Guard Alaska

  1. Capsaicin. The ingredient in cayenne peppers that makes your face melt off. More specifically, Oleoresin Capsicum (an oily extract of capsaicin). It’s an irritant that causes temporary burning.

  2. Base fluid, or “carrier.” An oil base that mixes with the capsaicin, allowing it to release from the can without needing to shake it.

  3. Aerosol propellant. It pushes the spray out in a fiery hot mist at 70-80mph. Ironically, most brands use the same propellant that’s used in asthma inhalers.

What Does Bear Spray Do?

It burns, baby. It burns real good.

The capsaicin creates a chemical reaction that causes the bear’s mucous membrane tissue to swell. Its eyes, nose, and lungs burn in a fiery rage, cutting off its ability to see, smell and breathe. What a rush!

Since bear spray is oil-based, it’s sticky and takes a few hours to wear off. Most often, the bear will retreat in confusion, rubbing its eyes. The spray lasts long enough for you to sneak away. Make sure to practice bear safety on your way back to the car.

How To Buy Bear Spray

You can get bear spray at most sports and outdoor retailers. You can also find it at many gas stations, park and hotel gift shops, hardware and grocery stores, or online.

A typical can of bear spray costs about $40 to $50 (USD). That’s chump change for something that can save your life. And make sure to snag a holster, for quick access. 

Popular brands of bear spray are Counter Assault, UDAP, Guard Alaska, and Frontiersman (Sabre).

Things to look for when shopping for bear spray: 

  • Does it have an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration number?

  • Does it say "for deterring attacks by bears" (or something like it)?

  • Does it have at least 1%-2% of the active ingredient (capsaicin)?

  • Does it have a minimum spray duration of 6 seconds?

  • Does it have a minimum spray distance of 25 feet?

  • Does it have a minimum weight of 7.9oz (225g)?

  • Does it come with a safety clip?

  • Does it have an expiration date?

  • Does it have good reviews?

Replace your bear spray when it’s expired, has been in extreme temps, or has been used. If you can’t buy bear spray, you can rent it at many national parks. 

Rent bear spray at your local national park - ©️  Yellowstone NP

Rent bear spray at your local national park - ©️ Yellowstone NP

How To Store Bear Spray

Bear spray is in a pressurized can so don’t leave it in a hot, enclosed environment (like a car). Store it between -5 degrees and 120 degrees (F).

Always store bear spray away from children, animals, and drunk people.  

Bear Spray Holster - ©️  UDAP

Bear Spray Holster - ©️ UDAP

While hiking, don’t keep your bear spray in your pack. Carry it in a holster, strapped to your chest like a total bad ass. Ideally, on the strap of your pack. You can also carry it in a belt holster like a modern cowboy. It should be easily accessible.

At least two people in your party should have bear spray. Even better, a can for each of you. 

When the time comes to dispose of your spray, don’t just toss it in the trash like a used candy wrapper. There are recycling programs to take your cans, whether you’ve used them or not.

How To Use Bear Spray

It’s a good idea to practice so you’re confident you can use it in a rushed situation. With a bear charging you at 30 mph, you’ve got about three seconds to grab that can, release it from the holster, pull the safety tab off, and spray. Don't EVER use bear spray on another person (not even your ex). Bear spray is not the same as pepper spray. If you practice, do it in a remote area with no people around.

Only use bear spray during an attack. Don’t spray it on your clothes and gear, like bug repellent. Don’t even spray it at a curious bear standing too close. Wait until the bear is declaring war.

How to use bear spray - ©️  Yellowstone NP

How to use bear spray - ©️ Yellowstone NP

To discharge bear spray: 

  1. Remove the safety clip by pressing down with your thumb.

  2. Aim for the bear (adjusting for the wind if possible).

  3. Start spraying when the bear is about 25-50 feet away.

  4. Create a wall of spray the bear must pass through.

  5. Keep spraying until the bear bitches out.

  6. If the bear is stubborn, spray into its eyes and nose.

  7. Once safe, calmly leave the area.

Try to be upwind if possible. If you can't, be mindful of where the spray is going so you don't blind yourself in the process.

You can use bear spray on other animals too. Mountain lions, moose, elk, dogs, mothers-in-law, etc.

Check out this video to see it in action.

What To Do If You Spray Yourself

Rub lots of soap and water in the affected area (if available). The next best thing is water. Don’t splash it around unless you want to spread the burn. Submerge your face for 10-15 minutes - into a creek, lake, or bowl. If you have contacts, remove them. Avoid any lotion, as it can activate the capsaicin. Sit tight and reflect on the fact that you’re alive. 

Well, there you have it. By now you should be an expert on bears. Now get out there and have some fun!