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Hiking & Camping Safely in Black Bear Country

Updated on July 7, 2019

It has been a year since the Coronado Monument Fire and there are mountain wildflowers everywhere but no berries. There has been a drought this summer and there have been bear sightings in residential neighborhoods of Hereford and Sierra Vista in Cochise County, Arizona that border Sonora Mexico.

There is a dirt road not recommended for passengers cars but don't need a 4-wheel drive neither. It is a six mile twisting turning road that climbs from 5,000 feet elevation to about 8,00 feet. There is one point near the top that is very rough and usually only 4 wheel trucks go past it. With my 2000 Kia Sportage high clearance and short wheel base – I managed to go past the rough spot.

I was planning to go hiking but my eyes felt like it was full of pollen, the back of my throat was sore as if I gargled with fiberglass and I had hive all over my skin. The wildflowers' pollen was kicking my Allergies into ultra high gear.

I had my little dog Chuggers with me a 12 pound ¾ chihuahua and ¼ pug. I opened up a can of soup and gave some of it to my dog by putting it on the ground. My allergic condition made me exhausted. I didn't even go hiking. I had all my windows down, the hatchback up and the back seat folded over with the spare tire closed and I went to sleep in my car with Chugs beside me.

I thought I heard hikers but Chuggers started barking and I woke up. About 25 – 30 feet away was a black bear walking towards to car. I felt somewhat safe inside the car even though it was all open. Chugs was barking and I was yelling at the top of my voice. The bear ran away. Chugs would've chased it if I didn't have a hold of his leash in my hand. The bear stopped about 50-75 feet away and so I started whistling as loud as I can “Hailing a NYC cab” style with my two fingers in my mouth. The bear continued about 150 – 200 feet away and I watched it as it walked between the pine trees of the Sky Island of the Huachuca Mountains.

Don't sleep where you eat!

Some bears may become used to humans and yelling and throwing rocks won't work. A couple of weeks previous to my close encounter with the bear in the same area of Carr Canyon a man hiking with his wife and two children, “worked to scare the bear away, and, while moving to ensure that the bear had left the area before continuing on the family hike, fell down a rocky embankment ...50 to 70 feet.”

Photo: Kevin Lorne 2010
Photo: Kevin Lorne 2010
bear proof food storage
bear proof food storage
portable bear can
portable bear can
Scat. No berries in this sample. Pick apart scat to see if there is bits of plastic and aluminum - that's a sign that the bear has been food-conditioned and will be bolder if encountered.
Scat. No berries in this sample. Pick apart scat to see if there is bits of plastic and aluminum - that's a sign that the bear has been food-conditioned and will be bolder if encountered.
Tracks of Ursus americanus, the American black bear, as seen in Brooks Peninsula Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada.
Tracks of Ursus americanus, the American black bear, as seen in Brooks Peninsula Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada.
Left front and rear tracks of black bear (Ursus americanus) in Book Cliffs of central eastern Utah Photo: K Young
Left front and rear tracks of black bear (Ursus americanus) in Book Cliffs of central eastern Utah Photo: K Young

Related Links By Ptosis

Dave Smith wrote the book "Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters" in 1997 who is an expert that dispels certain myths about bears surprised by hiking humans.The naturalist talks mostly about grizzlies that live in national parks. After reading this 100 page book, I feel better equipped to do the correct behavior to avoid a bear attack.

I was hiking September 7, 2010 at Fort Huachuca canyon when I turn a corner and spotted what I first thought was a dog. All I knew about bears was that mama bears will defend her cubs - and not to run. I didn't think I needed to know anymore than that because I truly felt I wouldn't ever see a bear in real life since I walk on well used trails.

I was hiking in Ft. Huachuca, turned a corner and I saw a 'big wooly mastiff' in the middle of the road. Hey - where it's leash? Where's the owner? Oh-uh - that's a BEAR! Less than 500 feet away. I'm 17 minutes from my car. Not being a bear expert - I assumed it was a yearling. Where's it's mama? Could be behind me for all I know! Later, found out that a black bear female is only 120 pounds. So it could have been a female bear and not a yearling. Still - should I have RAN AWAY instead of simply turning around & walked away? I did not stay to take pictures.........

I asked my Dad and he said pretty much what the book said. "Stand your ground, don't look away, if turn your body then keep eyes on bear at all times. The only different advice was my Dad said to, "make huff sounds." That's bear talk. Dave Smith said to speak softly in human voice because bears will stay away from humans unless the human is inside the "You're too close circle."

How far away must I be before a Mama Bear won't START running after me in the woods?

Since I saw a black bear, that is what this article is about. Grizzlies are rarely encountered and they are also way more dangerous. The first myth that Dave Smith busts is that the 'Mama bear will always attack in defense of her cubs.' On page 58 bear expert and author Lynn Rogers is quoted, "Unlike grizzly mothers, black bear mothers seldom attack people in defense of cubs ... The ferocity of mother black bears is one of the biggest misconceptions ."

Since the average person can't tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear if meeting up with one for the first time in their life then it is always to err on the side on caution when seeing any bear. A grizzly has a hump on it's back but unless you're used to meeting animals in the woods and not getting scared then I would think at the time of the encounter, most people would be too excited tp discern the differences.

RFox who wrote "How To Survive A Bear Attack" is correct that your reactions are have to be different according to which bear you just met up with. The do's and don't differ from each other. There is a huge difference in danger and behaviors between a bear bluffing and when it's hunting you down for dinner. Delores Monet has some good tips to avoid attracting bears in your campsite on her hub-page, "Tent Camping - Pest Proof Your Campsite Prevent Insects and Bears From Invading", although she doesn't mention storing food in 'bear cans'.

In short, keep your distance. In Dave Smith's book he talks about the 'magic circle of personal comfort zone' which is much larger for a grizzly than a black bear. Just like humans who enjoy a little bubble around them - if people get "in your face" then this will cause discomfort and cause a person to react to that violation of personal space.

A food-conditioned bear that is used to raiding campers food storage will be human tolerant and will approach much closer. Never feed a bear because that will only further embolden the bear to get too close in the future with other humans. Menstruating women do not attract bears according to Dave Smith. He says to stored used tampons and pads as carefully as you would odorous food. He also recommends simply eating cold food when camping. A bear-resistant food storage container is call a 'bear can' that can be used at the campsite. If live near bear country a bear-proof garbage can are also available. Having a bear-proof trash can if bears live in near your home is good for both your family and the bear. "A fed bear is a dead bear" means once a bear becomes conditioned to getting food near where people reside will eventually get shot down in the future.

On page 57 of his book, Dave Smith tells you what to do if a grizzly invades your tent while you are sleeping. Number one advice?, "Fight the urge to quietly shrink down in to your sleeping bag." Dave Smith doesn't like the use of 'bear bells' but instead says to clap your hands and make some noise.

So how close is too close?

According to Dave Smith on page 71 of his book, he says if you're sure that you are unseen and are more than 150 yards, (450 feet) away then if can avoid - do . If closer than 100 yards, (300 feet) then make noise . He then says "Once the bear is no longer moving towards you and ignoring you", then retreat in a sideways manner and do not directly retreat backwards.


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