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10 Things to Consider When Hiking in Bear Country

Updated on December 18, 2017
cam8510 profile image

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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    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Andrew, Bears are awesome animals to observe in the wild. The best thing we can do when hiking is to respect all wildlife and make adequate noise while hiking. Silence is probably the main cause of bear attacks because the bear is surprised and responds defensively. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      tlcs, I have never had an occasion to use my bear spray, thank goodness. But the makers of the products have spent a lot of money and time perfecting them. The one mentioned in the video above and the one advertised here were designed to produce a sizable cloud for the bear to enter when charging. My next can will be of this particular brand.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      You are a brave man! I've seen t.v. docs of naturalists and other people studying the grizzlies in Alaska - and I've seen Grizzly Man - and the bears generally seem to tolerate humans in their territory. Amazing really. Most bears just want to go about their business - eating, foraging, looking after the cubs - in peace! They are such impressive creatures, don't know why some hunters want to shoot them especially out in the wild. I can understand the need to protect human life in towns and such.

      I'm glad you survived. Thanks for telling the story and for the advice.

    • tlcs profile image

      Trudy Cooper 3 years ago from Hampshire, UK

      Wow! Very interesting hub, I never new you could buy bear spray! I wonder if it works?

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Lorenzo, that is a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I'm glad you didn't doze off while munching on a bucket of fried chicken. Then you might have had real problems.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Marie, the things naturalists will do. Have you read about or seen the movie about Timothy Treadwell. Now there's a story that will keep you confined to your house for a while. Thanks for reading.

    • Loreva13 profile image

      Lorenzo M Vasquez III 3 years ago from El Paso, TX

      Great hub Chris and useful information! Reminds me of my bear encounter 12 years ago. I went trout fishing in the Lincoln National Forest early (to beat the crowds). I was sitting on my little stool and dozing off when I caught a glimpse of a black figure on the upper west shoreline (I was in the middle of the south shoreline). I figured it was a dog and thought nothing more of it.

      I dozed off again and when I awoke the black dog was some 50 feet away from me wobbling right at me! I had to do a double take to realize that was no black dog but a big black bear. I panicked and stood up, then grabbed my fillet knife. He stopped and we faced off. I was so temped to run but luckily my uncle was approaching with his fishing gear making a ruckus. The bear caught a glimpse of him I guess and bolt out of there. Needless to say, I never tried to beat the crowds again. I can only imagine what of have happened had I stayed asleep.


    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      This article reminds me of the tale of John Muir hiking in the Yosemite. He was under the (false) impression that bears were shy. So, what did he do when he a bear appeared in his vicinity? He screamed, yelled, and ran up to it in an attempt to have it skidaddle.

      Well, was he ever surprised when the bear didn't budge an eyed him over! He gulped and thought for sure he was going to be the bear's dinner.

      Fortunately, there was a stand off and the bear eventually lost interest. Mr. Muir NEVER tried that trick after that!

      Useful article for hikers and campers.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Gordon, thanks for stopping by and reading. I'm with you on your comment. It's good to have an idea about what to do, but better to never have to try it out.

    • Gordon Fisher profile image

      Gordon Fisher 3 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Crossing my fingers hoping I'll never have to seriously consider these options... Very informative article though!

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Christine, I'm glad you are looking at this issue this way. Nobody expects to ever be confronted by and aggressive wild animal. A college student in New Jersey, just a couple of months ago, went for a walk with friends in one of the State Parks in northern Pennsylvania. A bear attacked them and killed the young man. There hadn't been a fatality from a black bear attack in 150 years. I believe it is a good idea to have a basic idea about what to do if this happens. Thanks for discussing this further.

    • profile image

      christinemariezzz 3 years ago


      I now took the time to look up the ad, read the comments there. Actually, I have seen bears here two times in the Manistee forest. Fear began to set in when I would take familiar paths down to the river. Thinking:"maybe a bear? "How will I outrun it? Your article highlights the cloud this stuff creates: "Okay, I may consider the spray, even though, the bears I saw at both times were running away from where I was, at a distance.


    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Christine, But that pepper spray is 30x more potent than mace. Watch the wind direction. ;)

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      I agree, Frank. You know you're in trouble if you're only option is to fight the bear. Thanks for reading.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      Valuable information.. bear country like Montana could be frightening.. but they say Bear attacks are relatively rare, but frequent enough to be of concern for those who are in bear habitats. Bear attacks can be fatal and often hikers, hunters, fisherman, and others in bear country take precautions against bear attacks. If a black bear attack.. fight back? wow LOL thank you for the share Cam...:)

    • profile image

      christinemariezzz 3 years ago


      Truly a hub of valuable, healthy information, menfolk in my family hunt...expecting the grandsons will too- I already shot this one over to one whose been hunting already this season...and seems to live in wild places so to speak....but as for me:

      I'm joining Ruby from Southern Iilinois on this one:" ...don't want to ever..." At the beginning of the video, I thought Huh, pepper spray...then I watched what happened...yes it works, but no exploring chances for me anymore! .....I shall only pass pepper at the table.


    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Will, that story is more than just a little unnerving, since Montana was my stomping ground for six months in 2013.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Will, a rifle would work, but if I had a handgun, it would be worthless to me. I've been to the shooting range a number of times, and I have trouble hitting the target in those conditions, let alone being scared witless and shooting at a moving target. I'd be better off with bear spray.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Eric, I've heard about Polar Bears going into towns. I can just imagine a big old Kodiak wandering into an alaskan village. Scary. Yes, it was a mule deer that I had seen up on that mountain. We were surrounded by them. There were also mountain lion tracks near where we camped. Those were exciting days.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      They think the bears have learned to follow hunters to steal their kills. However, a bear will attack to get at a kill, so hunters need to be aware in bear country.

      Anyone in bear country ought to carry a firearm large enough for bears. Chances are you'll never have to use it, but if you do need it and don't have it...!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I have seen a bunch of them in and around Flagstaff, yes in. They are pretty bold creatures. I don't think I ever lost any sleep over worrying about them though. Wow to be attacked would be horror. I think I am just too loud for them to be attracted.

      Great hub, really interesting and your ending is funny indeed.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Ruby, the first video makes me wonder if the bear was curious or even playing. If they do anything like play. If that bear was angry or hungry, the biker would not have survived. I have no doubt that the article you mentioned is correct. Look at Will's comment just before your own. In Montana, I'd be more surprised if I wasn't stalked. There were simply too many tracks.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Roni, and good thinking that will be. Thanks for stopping by and it's good to meet you.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Will, I assume you were camping and got no sleep whatsoever. I think that the wild animals, at times, are just curious. Most of the time, they do everything they can to avoid us. Four Peaks. I'll keep that in mind in case I get out that way. Thanks for reading Will.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Please believe me, I don't want to EVER see a bear anywhere. The first video has some amazing other videos included. Interesting adventure...

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Many years ago, a friend and I were deer hunting here in Arizona on Four Peaks, a mountain. A fresh snow had fallen and we made a big circle, finally coming back on our own tracks only to discover bear tracks following ours.

      An article recently published said that when in bear country, be aware that you are probably being stalked.

    • roni thorhill profile image

      roni thorhill 3 years ago

      I think to not run away


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