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10 Things to Consider When Hiking in Bear Country

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

What To Do If You See a Wild Bear

Here are 10 suggestions for steps to take if you are ever confronted by a bear that you feel may attack or are simply in close proximity to a wild bear.

Glacier National Park Juvenile Grizzly

When I saw this juvenile Grizzly in Glacier NP in the summer of 2013, he was the size of a Saint Bernard dog.  Now, 18 months later, he is a massive, dangerous wild animal.
When I saw this juvenile Grizzly in Glacier NP in the summer of 2013, he was the size of a Saint Bernard dog. Now, 18 months later, he is a massive, dangerous wild animal. | Source

How Many Grizzlies Are There, And Where Do They Live?

  • Lower 48 States of the U.S.-1500. About 800 of those are in Montana, mostly in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. About 600 are in Wyoming in the Yellowstone/Teton area. Up to 100 live in eastern Idaho.
  • Canada-25,000 occupy British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the northern part of Manitoba.
  • Alaska-30,000

What are your chances of being attacked by a bear? If you visited Yellowstone National Park, your chances of being attacked by a bear would be 1 in 2.1 million. So I suppose we should all just relax and enjoy the great outdoors, right?

In 2013 I spent six months in the beautiful U.S. state of Montana. The city of Missoula was where I lived and worked, but virtually every weekend I was backpacking in canyons, wilderness areas and in Glacier National Park where there were, without a doubt, black bears and grizzlies. I know this because I saw their tracks on the very trails I was hiking.

During that entire time, I encountered bears only a few times. I actually only saw two bears. I heard a few others foraging in the forest. They can be noisy when looking for food. One time a bear sniffed me through the side of my tent. A couple of minutes later, I was able to identify my visitor by the distinctive huffing and blowing sound.

Where is Bear Country in North America?

Historically, the range of black bears covered nearly all of North America. Today, the area in the eastern U.S. from Virginia to Louisiana and south, has very few black bears. In this region bears are usually found along the Appalachian Mountain corridor and coastal areas. Also, in Canada, black bears have been absent from Prince Edward Island since 1937, when they were exterminated.

The brown bear in North America can be broken down into two subspecies which are defined according to location. The inland brown bear is commonly known as the Grizzly bear. The coastal brown bear is found in Russia, the United States (mostly in Alaska), Canada, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Balkans, Sweden and Finland. Kodiac bears are found only on the islands in the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska. They are the largest of the brown bear subspecies and have been isolated from the rest of the species for the last 12,000 years.

Watch This; Keep Your Eyes on the Right Side of the Trail

Preventing a Bear Attack

What would you do if you were attacked by a bear? In the National Parks of the western United States, you can get pamphlets that give some basic instructions regarding bear attacks. When I hiked into the backcountry of Glacier National Park, I was required to watch a very informative video before setting out. The State of New Jersey has information available online and in a pamphlet called Know the Bear Facts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a pamphlet and online information available called Keeping Bears Alive and You Safe.

The most important preventive measures are to not prepare or eat food in your campsite. I personally move about three hundred feet away to prepare my food and eat when I am in bear country. If there had been the smell of food on me and my tent the morning that black bear visited me, the outcome may have been very different.

The other preventive measure is to hang all food and cooking utensils in a tree at least ten feet high and four feet from the nearest tree trunk.

12 Year Old Girl Survives Bear Attack

Ten Things to Consider During a Bear Encounter

1. You spot a bear 300 or more feet away and it does not seem aware of your presence. In other words, you spotted the bear before the bear spotted you. In this situation, you have the opportunity to quietly leave the area without the bear ever knowing you were there. After getting away, begin talking, singing or whistling to give the bear plenty of warning that you are around. His natural instincts in this nonthreatening situation will be to avoid you.

2. You spot a bear more than 300 feet away and it has spotted you. The opportunity to leave undetected is gone. In this situation, it is helpful to identify yourself to the bear as being human by speaking in a low, calm voice. Normally, the bear will try to avoid you. If possible, continue upwind of the animal so that the wind will carry your scent toward the bear. This way he will be able to continue moving away from you. This action is based on the belief that under normal circumstances bears want to avoid contact with humans.

3. You encounter a bear that is aware of your presence and is becoming aggressive. Now it becomes helpful if you know whether it is a black bear or a brown bear. There are different strategies depending on the species. Here are some other helpful things to consider. Are there cubs around? Is there food the bear is protecting? Are there climbable trees around?

Don't Try to Outrun a Bear

4. Don't run from a bear. Both black bear and Grizzlies can run about 35 miles an hour. Take a look at this video and see if running seems like a good idea?

Try backing away slowly and speaking quietly and calmly so that the bear can identify you as human. Keep your backpack on. If there is an attack, it can protect your back from more serious injury.

5. Some people say look for a tree to climb, while others say don’t try it. First, you have to have time to get up the tree. Second, bears can climb trees. So why would climbing a tree ever be a good idea when running from a charging bear? Experience has taught that if you can climb to at least 10 meters/33 feet, there is a good chance the bear will give up.

6. Often, a bear will bluff charge, turning away before getting to you. This is their way of trying to scare you off. Continue moving slowly backward, reducing the sense of being a threat.

7. If the bear attacks, use bear repellant. Bear spray is designed for use at close distances of 30 feet/10 meters and closer. The optimal distance seems to be about 15 feet/5 meters. Bear spray or bear repellant is designed to be sprayed in front of the charging bear so that it moves into the cloud created. The spray takes away the two most important senses of bear, smell and sight.

Here is the story of one man who was attacked by a Grizzly. If you spend any time at all in bear country, whether black bear or brown, I encourage you to watch this video. It demonstrates the importance and effectiveness of bear repellant. I personally do not hike without carrying bear spray on the belt of my backpack.

8. If a black bear attacks, fight back with every available weapon. Branches, rocks even your own fists and feet may be enough to convince the black bear that you are not easy prey. Whether the attack is defensive on the bear’s part or predatory, whether day or night, fighting back is your only option.

9. If a brown bear/Grizzly attacks in the daytime, it is likely a defensive attack and therefore the response should be to fall to the ground and play dead. Keeping your backpack on will help protect your back and the back of your neck from more serious injury. A nighttime attack by a Grizzly would most likely be a predatory attack and the response should be to fight back with everything you have.

10. Once the attack has ended, wait until you are certain the bear has moved out of the area. Then get to help as quickly as possible.

A Personal Example

It is difficult to know how you will react if you are attacked by a bear. When I first arrived in Montana, my sons visited and we camped out on top of a remote mountain top. During the drive up, we spotted a black bear along the road, so we knew they were around. That night, we were enjoying our campfire but needed more firewood. I took my headlamp and went in search of more wood. The beam of my headlamp caught a pair of eyes. I froze in place and watched. the head of the animal moved low to the ground, from side to side. I couldn't make out the identity of the animal. What did I do? I ran as fast as I could in the darkness back to the campfire. That is an example of what not to do. Plan ahead if you are going into bear country and, if the worst happens, try to do the right thing. Oh, by the way, the eyes belonged to a mule deer.


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