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Bears get a bad rep. Long gone are the days of iconic spokes bears like Smokey, Yogi, and Winnie the Pooh. Now we only hear about bears when they’re involved in violence or nefarious activity.
Truth is, most bears prefer to eat their berries and romp the woods in peace. Bear attacks are rare and usually human-inspired. There are exceptions to every rule, but most often it's Momma Bear protecting her cubs from predators, or Mr. Bear surprised in the middle of dinner. 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 you hear about, 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. After seven bear encounters, I’ve only once looked a bear in the eyes for more than a few seconds. They usually saunter past, on their continued quest for spiritual enlightenment. Or lunch. Whichever suits your personal narrative.
Even so, avoiding bears is a good practice to be in. 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 everything you need to know.
- How to tell the difference between bear species
- How to pack for your trip into bear country
- How to store food and other scented items
- How to identify bear tracks, scat, and other signs
- How to avoid bears while you’re in their territory
- How to bear-proof your campsite
- How to handle yourself if you do encounter a bear
- How to buy, store, and use bear spray
So get to learning. Make all the mental notes you need. Soon enough you'll be meandering the woods like a pro.
How To Prepare For A Trip To Bear Country
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.
If you’re going into bear-land, learn about bears. A novel approach, I know.
Find out which species frequent the area. There are lots of great websites, books, and eBooks available with the information you need. 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. How you handle yourself in a bear encounter depends on the species of bear you’re dealing with. So, it’s critical to know the difference.
Some key distinctions:
- 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.
- 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 what size a bear is, and whether it's a cub or adult.
While you’re at it, get cozy with their poop. You’ll be the coolest 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’s been eating. Is the grass underneath yellowing? Are there flies circling? The poo may not be recent and 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, one of the most important things to consider is food. Several companies make sturdy, scent-proof bear canisters to store food in. As a bonus, most canisters double as a camping chair. If you’re not ready to invest in a canister, many national parks and outfitters rent them for a reasonable price.
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 to a government-regulated park or wilderness area. You can find out by calling or checking their website.
If you’re on a quick day hike, you can store your food in lightweight, scent-proof bags.
Bring bear spray. This is such an important step that an entire post in this series is dedicated to it. Bear spray is your number one defense against bear attacks. Buy it. Bring it. Know how to use it.
How To Avoid Bears While Hiking & Camping
You’re out in the great wild, enjoying the sights. Awesome. But be aware you’re a visitor in someone else’s home. By being a respectful guest, you can enjoy your time in the great outdoors while ensuring everyone's safety.
Step 1: Exercise Caution on the Trail.
- Watch for signs. Keeping an eye on tracks and scat let you know how close a bear might be. Besides, who doesn’t want to drop and shove their face in bear shit? Take a big whiff of that dung, my friend. Getting up close and personal can save your skin. Look for signs of digging, and bite or claw marks on the trees. Bears use tree bark to pillow-top their den mattress. You may also 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.
- Make noise. If you’re in bear country the polite thing to do is introduce yourself. You wouldn't walk into someone's house without knocking. Make lots of noise while you’re hiking to let the bears know you’re nearby. The last you want is to sneak up on a bear unsuspectingly, startling them. Who among us hasn’t wanted to pop someone in the face for ambushing us? Let it be known, 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.
- Hike in groups (if possible). It’s easier to make noise with more people, and you’ll have safety in numbers. Make sure to shout each time you change direction, so the bear knows which way you’re going and can avoid you.
- Stay away. If you do see a bear in the distance, give it space. Don’t go closer to get a better look, or take a photo. If you need photos that bad, invest in a telephoto lens. Especially if there are cubs. There’s a reason defensive moms are “momma bears.” Bitch will cut you. Stay away from her babies. DO NOT EVER FEED A BEAR. The last thing you should do is toss some bread at it like a Mallard duck (who you also shouldn’t be feeding).
- Keep on the trails. Bears will cross trails (how dare they), but wandering off into thickets of brush is a much easier 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 packed surfaces.
Step 2: Bear Proof Your Camp.
You’re ready to set up camp, wolf down dinner, and snooze. With 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 right 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 reduce enticement by cooking food that isn't especially 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 jackhole 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 sack. The counterbalance method works well if you’re using multiple sacks.
- 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.
- 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. If you’re in a confined space, compromise with 200 feet.
How To Handle A Bear Encounter Like A Boss
Seeing a bear in the wild is about 70% prevention, 30% luck. Follow the steps laid out here and you should be fine. But there’s always that chance Yogi is around the next corner enjoying an afternoon picnic.
So what do you do in the off-chance that you encounter a bear? Easy.
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 curious.
If it starts chomping, snorting, growling, swinging its head, or screaming bloody murder, it’s moved past the point of curious.
Step 2: Keep your distance.
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 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 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.
Step 4: Be Prepared.
Make sure you have bear spray, at the ready. You don’t want to be 10 feet from an angry bear when you say, “pardon me, Sir. I must first remove my pack to retrieve my police strength pepper spray.”
If you’re in a group, stay close together. 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.
Step 5: Fight or flight.
This is where species distinction is especially important. Whether you fight or flight is going to depend on the type of bear you’re dealing with.
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 escape (slowly). 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.
Make noise. You want to let that bear know who the hell is 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 that bear 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. Still, do not run. 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 30% luck is on your side.
And bring some damn bear spray next time.
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.
Don’t try throwing food at the bear, thinking it’ll forget about you and eat the food instead. 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 gangsta 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 dividing topic and there are two schools of thought.
Bear spray is the safer option for protecting yourself during a bear attack. A firearm is the only dependable way to protect yourself against a bear.
Rather than speculating, let’s look at the research.
- Over 92% effective.
- No failures or malfunctions.
- Average can weighs about 8.5oz.
- It can take from < 1 to 1.5 seconds to deploy.
- May not bring a sense of security.
- Very unlikely to kill bear.
- Generally easier to aim.
- User rarely suffer injuries.
- Common reaction for bear is to retreat.
- Takes an average of one shot to stop bear.
- 76% effective.
- Regular failures.
- Average (loaded) handgun weighs almost 2lbs.
- It can take from 1.5 to 5 seconds to deploy.
- Can make people feel safer.
- Kills bear in at least 61% of cases.
- Requires precision accuracy.
- User suffers serious injury 50% of the time.
- Common reaction for bear is to become irritated.
- Takes an average of 4 shots to stop bear.
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 very upsetting to watch. If you’re sensitive, skip it.
What Is Bear Spray?
Bear spray has three main ingredients.
- Capsaicin. The ingredient in cayenne peppers that makes your face melt off. More specifically, Oleoresin Capsicum (an oily extract of capsaicin). Capsaicin is an irritant that causes temporary burning in people/animals.
- Base fluid, or “carrier.” An oil base that mixes with the capsaicin, allowing it to release from the can without needing to shake it.
- 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 with the bear’s sensory neurons. This reaction causes Bear's mucous membrane tissue to swell. As a result, his eyes, nose, and lungs burn in a fiery rage, cutting off his 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 avoid more bears on your way back to the car.
How To Buy Bear Spray
You can get bear spray at most sports/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 $40USD to $50USD. Chump change for something that can save your life. And make sure to snag a holster, for quick access.
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 in place?
- 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.
How To Store Bear Spray
Always store bear spray away from children, animals, and drunk people.
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. You want it somewhere you can easily access it.
At least two people in your party should have bear spray. Even better, a can for each pair.
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 in place 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 30mph, 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. 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.
- Remove the safety clip by pressing down with your thumb.
- Aim for the bear (adjusting for the wind if possible).
- Start spraying when the bear is about 25-50 feet away.
- Create a wall of spray that the bear must pass through.
- Keep spraying until the bear bitches out.
- If the bear is stubborn, spray into its eyes and nose.
- 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.
You can also watch this video:
What To Do If You Spray Yourself
Lots of soap and water 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!