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The Basics of Bears and Safety

Updated on October 12, 2014

It is not a simple matter of going into a campground, setting up camp and being lackadaisical about it

Bear Safety is not Common Knowledge

When it comes to bear safety, it is important to educate yourself on how to deal with them and prevent bad encounters from happening. While it is impossible to prevent all encounters from occurring, bad ones can be circumvented by following the instructions here in this hub. Whether you're hiking, back country camping or even on the common campground it is not a simple matter of if you're going to encounter a bear, it's when. While it is also important to keep in mind that bear safety is not common knowledge. It is a precautionary skill that must be taught and instilled into outdoorsy folk, because for one thing bears are smarter than they look and they have adapted to humans and their habits. It is not a simple matter of going into a campground and setting up camp and being lackadaisical about it. Many habits learned at home, need to be left at home. Now let's take a closer look at bears. It is important to know what bears you may encounter on your camping or hiking excursions.

Map of Bear ranges

All about Bears.

To give you a better idea about bears, you should know where they live and what they do. Bears are mostly omnivores, which means they eat both meats and vegetables. But when given opportunity, they'll go after human food. All bears display this behavior, but there are different species. Below is a description of the different types of bears and their whereabouts.

  • Black Bear
  • Grizzly Bear
  • Polar Bear

It is also important to note: bear identification cannot be determined by fur color alone. So instead, there are key physical and behavioral characteristics that you should know. We will go over those here in detail.

Depending on where you are camping, you may encounter one or more of these kinds of bears. I have provided a map for your reference.

Black Bears

The North American Black Bear is the smallest of the bear species with their average weight of 300lbs fully grown. Their range is extends from the Colorado rockies to clear up in Alaska. In a large part of Canada they are mixed in with Grizzly Bear territory, but rarely do they ever actually mix.

Black Bears are mostly docile and curious and rarely do they attack unless threatened. But don't take your guard down. They are a common nuisance at campgrounds. Their keen sense of smell allows them to sense aromas upwind, up to 20 miles away. Leaving food out is just like asking bears to join your for dinner, except they'll come and eat up everything you've got, and perhaps even you if haven't changed clothes after a steak dinner. That's right, if you cook a steak dinner a black bear may mistake you for food and you could get mauled. So be sure to always change clothes after cooking meal with red meat. But this only happens to people who truly are unprepared for such an encounter. This issue becomes even more dangerous in a drought season, because bears have become more dependent on humans for food. During a drought season, they will often hang around campgrounds waiting for any opportunity that presents itself. Putting you, the common camper, on the bear's wish list hoping that you'll leave the campground with everything left out and ready to eat.

Grizzly Bears

Now Grizzly Bears, they are a different animal. They are larger, more aggressive and territorial. This means that you are more apt to be their lunch if you get stuck in the wilderness. Encounters with these big bears happen more commonly in northern central Canada.

Hunters and hikers encounter Grizzly Bears with more frequency than campers do, because of they generally don't stick around larger campgrounds. But they will go after unsecured food anywhere if given the opportunity. Much caution should be used to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. If you find yourself in Grizzly Bear territory, keep these precautions in mind.

  • Do whatever is possible to not startle a Grizzly Bear. A calm Grizzly is a good Grizzly. But if you use poor judgment and accidentally sneak up on one, your chances of being mauled are almost a grantee.
  • When in Grizzly territory, make your presence known by making noise by telling the bear that you're in the area. Even though bears don't know human speech, they are smart enough to steer clear of whatever is making that racket.
  • Carry bear spray and/or a weapon with you for in the event of a bear attack. In some cases, no matter what you do a Grizzly Bear may be threatened by your very presence.
  • Never travel alone
  • If you are wilderness camping, keep all food tied up and off the ground at least 10 ft, or out of a Grizzly Bears reach.
  • Again, don't smell like meat. Unfortunately, Grizzlies don't understand why you are smelling like a nice juicy steak dinner, just after you have cooked one. They won't realize how bad you taste until they get a few chunks out of you.

The good thing is, if you are camping or hiking in places like Colorado, Wyoming or Utah; the chances of encountering a Grizzly Bear are very slim. But as you travel northward, your chances increase. But in all cases, it pays to be prepared but never scared.

Polar Bears

In the frigid arctic is the behemoth polar bear. Fortunately for most campers and hikers, encounters with these bears is virtually impossible unless you travel to the Arctic circle. However, due to the lack of human interaction with these bears makes them dangerous and unpredictable.

Polar bears are the most carnivorous of the bear species, with their primary food source being sea lions and whales. They spend most of their lives on the Arctic ice shelves, hunting and communing with their fellow polar bears. Every now and then however, your do hear stories of human encounters with bears. Unfortunately, people who find themselves in close proximity to a polar bear are already in imminent danger.

Because polar bears are carnivorous and have little knowledge of humans, humans are nothing more than a good looking meal. And that theory that carnivores won't eat other carnivores; it doesn't apply to polar bears since their main food source is sea lions. Polar bears are the only bear known to eat people when given the opportunity. So all those stories about how bears eat people are not true with the exception of the polar bear. So realistically, your best option for dealing with a polar bear is being aware. Worst case scenario lethal force could be necessary.

Basic Bear Identification

Key Description
Black Bear
Black Fur: Sometimes Off Black or Brown
Grizzly Bear
Rusty Brown Color
Polar Bear
Off White Fur

Basic Bear Safety

To summarize: Here's an easy to read list of things to follow regarding bear safety.

While in the camp:

  • Never leave food unattended
  • Store food items in bear proof enclosures and if possible out of reach.
  • Never store food items in tents. (Really dumb idea )
  • Keep a clean campsite
  • Change or clean clothing after cooking red meat.
  • Keep coolers covered in your cars, don't let them be visible.

While hiking:

  • Hike in groups of 2 or more, never hike alone unless you're armed
  • Don't smell like last night's steak dinner
  • Carry bear spray: 75% effective
  • Stay at least a 100 yards away from any bear

Bear encounters:

Your reaction to a bear should depend on the species you're dealing with. Since Black Bears are generally less aggressive and startled easily, they are simpler to scare off. However if you come upon a Grizzly Bear, you should take a more passive approach and not intimidate the bear. Just quietly walk away, never run! You will be seen as prey to the bear. But if the bear decides that you just look absolutely delectable, or just a threat , prepare for the fight for your life. You will need to be prepared with a weapon to fight off the bear. If you don't have a gun, you need to find something that will knock it out cold or even kill it. Remember, you can always resort to primitive tactics if you need to. Because at the end of the fight, it's either you or the bear and it better be you.

Let's see if you are bear safe.

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