When hiking in bear country there is always some risk of an encounter, but those risks can be reduced by following proper safety measures. Bears can be unpredictable and are dangerous if they feel threatened or provoked. To reduce the chances of a dangerous encounter, hikers need to be aware of safety precautions and be prepared with the necessary equipment. By following these guidelines, hikers can feel more confident and enjoy their time in bear country without as much fear of getting into a dangerous situation.
Both of us grew up in Kansas so when we moved to New Mexico we had no idea how to deal with bear encounters. Since we love camping and hiking in the mountains where there are plenty of black bears we knew we had to learn fast. The information in this post is from our own research and conversations with locals, park rangers, and the studies and talks of bear biologist Dr. Tom Smith. Now when we spend time in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado we feel much more comfortable.
If you don’t have time to read the whole thing here is the short version. Be alert at all times when in bear country, always carry bear spray, and understand bear behaviour by reading the rest of this article lol. While that’s the short version, there is a lot of important information below so I recommend taking the time to read it through if you can. If you can’t, just don’t forget the bear spray and have a fun and safe time out in nature.
- Understand bear behavior and conservation for safe hiking
- Carry bear spray someplace you can get it quickly. It’s non-lethal and more effective than a gun (Source).
- Follow hiking safety tips to avoid bear encounters
- Take additional precautions for children and pets
- Know what to do if you encounter a bear
Bears are big, dangerous, alpha predators and every encounter with one, regardless of breed, has a chance of being deadly, even if every bear safety tip is followed perfectly. Sometimes bears are gonna be bears, and the only thing that will stop them is a strong deterrant. Bear spray is the best deterrant available and there is no reason for you to have it on you. Not only do you need it on you, you need to be able to get to it because an angry bear isn’t going to give you time to go digging for it.
That said, bear attacks are rare and the odds of being killed by a bear are very small. Most years, with millions of hikers out in bear country across North America, there are only a couple of fatal bear attacks. Many years there are none. By educating and preparing yourself you can swing the odds in your favor and just like wearing a seatbelt, carrying bear spray and knowing what to do will give you the best chance possible if you do have an encounter.
“Bears are remarkable creatures that deserve our respect and protection. By gaining a deeper understanding of their behavior and actively participating in their conservation, we can coexist harmoniously with these magnificent animals.” - Tom Smith
Carry and Trust Bear Spray
Never go into bear country without bear spray. Not even once. This goes right up front because every hike in areas with bears will always have some risk of a dangerous bear encounter. When it comes to preventing bear attacks, one highly effective tool stands out: bear spray. Studies conducted by renowned bear behavior expert Tom Smith have shown that bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent that significantly reduces the risk of injuries during bear encounters. In fact, out of 133 encounters where bear spray was used, only three people suffered minor injuries.
Compared to incidents involving firearms, which unfortunately resulted in the loss of lives for both humans and bears, bear spray proves to be a much safer option. By using bear spray, hikers not only protect themselves but also condition bears to associate the deterrent with negative experiences, leading them to avoid future encounters.
To ensure its effectiveness, it is crucial for hikers to carry bear spray in an easily accessible location, ready to use in case of an encounter. By following recommended guidelines for usage and proper storage, hikers can have peace of mind knowing they have a reliable and humane means of protecting themselves in bear country.
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Safety Tips to Avoid Bear Encounters
You have probably heard this before, but it bears repeating (see what I did there) “bears are more afraid of you than you are of them”. Ok, that might be a stretch but bears will naturally avoid humans if they get the chance. By following these hiking safety tips, you can stay safe and enjoy your outdoor adventures with peace of mind.
Plan Your Hike In Advance
“Proper planning helps prevent you from being mauled by a bear”
Albert Einstein (probably)
Rangers will often post warnings or close trails when there is an increased danger of bear encounters. They will usually post these notices both at the trailhead and online. Check the website before you head out and make alternative plans in case you see a posted notice when you arrive. You should also make sure that someone back home knows where you are going, and when you should be expected to return. That’s not a bear safety tip, just common sense.
Dangerous bear encounters often happen when a hiker surprises a bear or accidently gotten between a momma and her cubs. Staying alert will greatly reduce the odds of either happening. First, take out your earbuds so you can hear what’s going on around you. Then you will want to be on the lookout for signs that a bear is nearby (see below). Finally, avoid areas with thick underbrush or anything else that limits visibility.
Bears typically want to avoid humans and will recognize human voices when they hear them. So talk within your hiking group as you walk. If you aren’t in a group, or if keeping a conversation going is difficult, just say “hello bear”, clap, or otherwise make noise every few minutes. It will feel silly at first but it really helps to prevent running into a startled bear.
Note: Bear bells are a common product, and there are many who swear by them, but their effectiveness is doubtful. In fact, many argue that the new sound can attract curious younger bears. I wouldn’t put my faith in them to keep my family safe.
While hiking we want the bears in our area to know that we are nearby and that we are human. Talking is one way to do that but another way is to smell like a stinky gross human. This means skipping sweet-smelling perfumes, deodorants, and soaps. Sweet smells can attract curious bears looking for something delicious to eat.
Follow the Leave No Trace Guidelines
A common saying is “A fed bear is a dead bear”. The reason is that when humans are careless with food scraps and trash they learn to associate humans with food. When that happens the bear will get more and more aggressive in it’s attempts to get food from hikers and campers. Sadly this usually leads to the bear’s destruction. This is a tragedy that is preventable by following the Leave No Trace Philosophy. While hiking, be careful to pack out all trash and food scraps. Doing so can save a bear’s life, and make the trail safer for hikers and bears.
Hike In Groups
We love solo and partner hiking, but hiking in larger groups (with everyone carrying bear spray) is safer. Fatal bear attacks on groups of 3 or more are almost unheard of. Even hiking with a partner will greatly reduce the danger of a bear attack. This is probably due to the fact that groups are both louder and smellier than a single hiker. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that a group of humans is much more of a threat than a single hiker and bears are normally risk averse.
Keep Young Children Close
Young children are naturally curious and may wander off, increasing the chances of a bear encounter. Ensure their safety by keeping them close and within sight at all times. Encourage them to walk quietly and avoid running or making sudden movements that may startle a bear.
Avoid Hiking During Peak Bear Hours
Bears aren’t nocturnal but are most active around sunset, sunrise, and at night. They are active during the day but tend to find a shady spot to nap to avoid the heat. For many reasons, it is best to avoid hiking during these times. If you have to hike during these times, be extra vigilant and keep your bear spray at hand.
Avoid Bear Habitats and Feeding Areas
Bears hibernate about half the year so they spend a lot of their time awake looking for food. With a little research, you can find what the bears in the area eat the most. Your odds of encountering a bear are much higher around their preferred food sources. By learning what those are you can either avoid the area or be extra cautious. Bears are opportunistic omnivores so fresh carcasses will often attract bears. If you come across one be extra careful and leave the area. While bears don’t often attack humans they will defend a prized food source.
Stick to the Trails
Hiking on the trails is a good practice from a “Leave No Trace” standpoint and it will reduce your chances of encountering a bear. Bears are smart and learn to associate humans with hiking trails.
Keep Pets on Leashes
Human hikers have some protection from bears simply because we are human. Sadly, our pets don’t have that protection. Bears, and other predators, see our pets as either a threat or lunch. Either way, a bear encounter ends badly for our pets. You should always have your dogs on a leash when hiking, especially when you are hiking in bear country.
What Not To Do
In addition to the safety tips above, there are a few things you just shouldn’t do in bear country. Doing these things will increase your odds of having a dangerous bear encounter.
- Don’t Approach bears: Bears are wild animals and should never be approached, regardless of how cuddly and docile they appear. Maintain a safe distance and give them their space.
- Don’t Leave food or garbage unattended: Leaving food or garbage unattended can attract bears to your campsite or hiking area. Always clean up after yourself and dispose of waste properly.
- Don’t Wear fragrant hair products or use scented products: Bears have a keen sense of smell and may mistake fragrant hair products or scented products for food. Opt for unscented products when in bear habitat.
- Don’t Get between a mother bear and her cub: If you come across a mother bear with cubs, never get between them. Be aware of your surroundings and give them a wide berth to avoid any potential confrontations.
Video Guides on Bear Safety
We know that not everyone likes to read as much as we do so we recommend these videos on bear safety. Some of them are quite long but we strongly feel like they are all worth watching. The first one is the longest, but also the best.
Signs of Nearby Bear Activity
- Footprints: One of the methods to identify the presence of bears in an area is by looking for footprints, especially around loose soils or muddy areas. In fields, grassy patches, or areas of frequent activity, bear trails can often be seen. These footprints can vary in size depending on the bear’s species and age. By examining the footprints, experts can discern valuable information about the bear’s size, movement patterns, and recent activities.
- Scat: Large scat piles can be easily found, especially near a food source, providing evidence of bear activity. When analyzing the scat, one can estimate the bear’s size, as larger scat usually indicates a bigger bear. Black bears’ scat reflects their changing diet and may contain remnants of vegetation, leaves, seeds, beechnuts, and acorn shells. If the bear’s diet mainly consists of fruits, nuts, or vegetation, the scat may appear black but won’t have an unpleasant smell. Scat analysis can offer valuable insights into a bear’s feeding habits and health.
- Tree markings: Bears, particularly mature ones, often mark their territory by rubbing their scent on trees, including wooden signposts and utility poles. The bark of softwood trees like pine, fir, and spruce may show visible scratches or black hair embedded in the sap. For beech trees, which have smooth gray bark, claw marks may be evident in the bark or sap. These tree markings serve as important territorial signs and can aid in identifying the presence of bears in the area.
- Signs of feeding: Bear “nests” are clusters of broken branches left behind after feeding. Contrary to their name, these nests are not where bears rest but are the result of bears sitting in a tree’s crotch and pulling food towards them. Additionally, an abundance of ravens or crows in an area may indicate the presence of a carcass, which could attract numerous bears. The smell of the carcass may also be noticeable, especially if the wind is blowing towards you, serving as a warning sign to leave the area immediately to avoid potential encounters with feeding bears.
- Tracks: Identifying bear tracks can be challenging as bears walk on the soles of their soft feet, leaving less distinct impressions. However, in soft mud or snow, it becomes easier to spot their tracks and distinguish between black bear and grizzly bear tracks. Analyzing these tracks can provide insights into the bear’s direction of travel, activity patterns, and potentially their mood or behavior at the time of leaving the tracks.
- Scent: Bears often leave scent markings by straddling saplings and bushes as they walk, depositing their urine on the vegetation beneath them. This behavior is part of their territorial communication with other bears. The scent serves as a warning to other bears that the area is already claimed, reducing the likelihood of conflicts over territory. By recognizing these scent markings, experts can better understand the bear’s territorial boundaries and movement patterns.
Handling Bear Encounters
The first part of this guide was about avoiding bear encounters so now let’s talk about what to do if/when you do encounter one. How you handle bear encounters greatly depends on what type of bear it is. If you are in an area with multiple types of bears I strongly recommend checking out our bear identification guide.
Despite taking all precautions, bear encounters can still happen. If you come across a bear, it is important to know how to react. The key is to remain calm and follow these steps:
- Assess the Situation: Determine if the bear has seen you or if it is exhibiting aggressive behavior. If the bear is unaware of your presence, you can quietly back away and leave the area. If the bear has noticed you, it is essential to stay calm and not make any sudden movements.
- Stand Your Ground and Ready Your Deterrant: If you run bears will easily run you down and they view backing away as a sign that you aren’t a threat. When you stand your ground the bear will most often determine that you aren’t their next meal and will retreat. Regardless get your bear spray ready just in case.
- Call out “Bear” to Your Fellow Hikers: When you do this your fellow hikers should stand with you, putting kids and pets in the back, and prepare their own bear spray. Bears are significantly less likely to attack a group of hikers who are standing their ground.
- Wait for the Bear to Process: Bears are risk averse and will almost always choose not to attack. The bear will likely snort and stomp before retreating and may even make a false charge. That’s normal bear behaviour and you shouldn’t react.
- If The Bear Doesn’t Retreat After 30 Seconds: it’s time to start slowly backing away. The bear may not be willing to retreat but if it hasn’t attacked you should be able to back away safely. Keep your bear spray ready just in case.
- Use Bear Spray: If the bear approaches you in an aggressive manner use your bear spray. Aim for the bear’s face and spray in short bursts.
- Don’t Play Dead or Fight Back: In extreme situations where bear spray is ineffective and your being attacked, your response may vary depending on the bear species. Generally, for grizzly bears, it is recommended to play dead by lying flat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck and your legs spread apart to make it harder for the bear to flip you over. For black bears, however, it is usually more effective to fight back using any objects or tools you have at your disposal to fend off the bear.
Remember, every bear encounter is unique, and there may be situations where these guidelines may not apply. If you have any concerns or doubts about bear encounters, it is always recommended to consult with local authorities, park rangers, or bear safety experts.
How To Survive A Freakin’ Bear Attack: And 127 Other Survival Hacks You’ll Hopefully Never Need
Curiosity vs Aggression
Bears are intelligent and curious about new things and are always looking for food. Most close interactions between hikers and bears are because the bear is curious, not aggressive. Recognizing the difference is very important to ensure that you react properly. Watch for signs of stress and speak in a calm voice.
The difference can be subtle but watch the head and ears. When curious the head will be up, ears forward, and nose sniffing rapidly. Their movements will typically be slow and cautious as well. The video below is a great example of a curious black bear (and an exceptionally brave hiker). The encounter is handled perfectly and ends peacefully but if the hiker had reacted poorly it could have been very dangerous.
Identifying Black vs Brown Bear
Despite the names, you can’t reliably use fur color to distinguish between black and brown bears. Use the following infographic by the National Park Service instead. See our bear identification guide for more tips.
Black Bear Encounters
Black bears are the most common type of bear in America. In most states, they are the only kind of bear you will encounter. Black bears are notoriously shy and timid so if you are following the tips in this guide you often won’t see them at all. Most encounters with black bears are very quick, with the bear attempting to get away (often up a tree) as fast as possible.
When black bears are aggressive it is usually because they are either starving, food-conditioned, or protecting their cubs. Start by backing away slowly, while speaking in a calm voice. However if the bear persists stand your ground, look as big as possible, and speak calmly but forcefully to the bear. This will typically deter it but if attacked, fight back with everything you have at hand.
Grizzly/Brown Bear Encounters
Brown Bears, commonly called grizzly bears, are only found in Washington State, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Brown bears are larger and more aggressive than black bears. Brown bears don’t tend to be skittish like black bears and will usually go on about their business when they encounter humans.
If you encounter an aggressive or startled brown bear speak to it calmly while slowly backing away. Pick up children and small animals and avoid making loud noises or quick movements. You want the bear to understand that you are not a threat and that you are going to leave it alone.
If attacked by a brown bear, and you don’t have bear spray, you have no if you try fighting back or running. Instead, your best chance of surviving is by playing dead. Lie flat on your stomach and cover your head and neck with your hands. If you are lucky the bear will leave you alone once it is convinced you are no longer a threat. After the bear stops, wait a while before getting up to ensure it is no longer in the area.
Understanding Bear Behavior
Bears are wonderful animals and are an important part of the natural ecosystem. They tend to avoid humans as much as possible but their natural curiosity, constant search for food, and our presence in their habitat make encounters inivetable. If we give them their space and follow these tips we can keep both ourselves and the bears safe in most situations.
To ensure our safety while hiking in bear country, it is necessary to understand their behavior and the importance of conservation efforts. Renowned bear behavior expert, Tom Smith, highlights the significance of relying on scientific evidence rather than conventional wisdom when it comes to bear encounters. In this section, we will explore the key aspects of bear behavior and discuss how we can contribute to their conservation.
Tom Smith’s research has provided fascinating insights into bear behavior, debunking myths and providing valuable knowledge. For instance, bears are highly intelligent and adaptable animals that primarily rely on their powerful sense of smell to find food and navigate their territories. They have an astonishing memory and can remember food sources for several years. Understanding these characteristics can help us better comprehend their behavior and take appropriate precautions.
- Hiking in Bear Country - National Park Service
- Bears in the mountain national parks - Canadian Government
- Our Bear identification guide
We are always finding more resources so as we come across new ones we will be adding them here. If you know of any on bear safety, especially bear safety for hikers, please let us know and we will add it.
I hope that this post has shown you how to hike in bear country with little risk, and hopefully reduced your own fears. Ever since we moved to New Mexico we have had to learn a lot about bears but now we feel much safer. If you have anything to add or see anything that needs improvement, please leave us some feedback below. We want this to be the best resource available. Thanks for reading and we look forward to seeing you on the trails.
Q: Is bear spray effective in deterring bears?
A: Yes, bear spray has proven to be a highly effective deterrent. Out of 133 encounters involving bear spray, only three people suffered minor injuries. It conditions bears to associate the deterrent with negative experiences, leading them to avoid future encounters.
Q: What should I do to prevent bear encounters while hiking?
A: To prevent bear encounters, make noise as you hike to alert bears of your presence, stick to established trails, avoid areas with typical bear food sources, hike in groups, be aware of wildlife travel corridors, and leave information about your hiking plans with someone you trust.
Q: What should I do if I come across a bear?
A: If you come across a bear, stay calm, back away slowly, speak in a low voice, use bear spray if necessary, and in extreme situations, play dead or fight back. The appropriate action will depend on the specific encounter.
Q: How can I ensure the safety of my family and children in bear country?
A: To ensure the safety of your family and children, keep young children close, hike in groups, use extra caution with food storage and cooking, teach children about bear safety, and be aware of the potential risks associated with bear encounters.
Q: What are some important dos and don'ts for staying safe in bear habitat?
A: Important dos include avoiding typical bear food sources, being cautious in travel corridors, making noise, and being aware of the signals you may unintentionally telegraph to bears. Don'ts include leaving food and garbage unattended and approaching or feeding bears.
Q: Are bear safety measures the same in different regions?
A: Bear safety measures can vary depending on the region. It is important to understand local bear behavior, follow park regulations and signage, and utilize regional organizations and resources dedicated to bear safety.
Q: Are there any other bear deterrents and measures I can use?
A: Yes, in addition to bear spray, other bear deterrents and measures include electric fencing, bear-resistant garbage disposal systems, and properly storing food and other attractants to keep bears away from campsites and hiking areas.
Q: Are there any specific bear safety tips for different outdoor activities?
A: Yes, specific bear safety tips for different activities such as hunting, working as a fire lookout, and engaging in agricultural activities include minimizing the chances of a bear encounter through various precautions and strategies.
By Summer and Bill
Summer and Bill are the dynamic duo behind Adventureite.com, a blog dedicated to inspiring others to explore the great outdoors. With a combined lifetime of experience traveling and adventuring across America, they have a wealth of knowledge to share. From hiking to camping, kayaking to travel, Summer and Bill are passionate about helping others discover the beauty of the natural world.