How to Hike & Camp in Bear Country
Worried you might encounter bears on your next hike or camping trip? Camping and hiking expert Connor Hult is here to help you prepare.
The largest predators in North America, gazed upon by a small, fortuitous population, are a remarkable sight to behold, yet one that deserves respect. When you step foot in bear country, you are vulnerable. You are no longer the apex predator. Proper preparation and precautionary measures are essential to help prepare for a bear encounter – and hopefully, avoid one altogether.
Planning Your Hike in Bear Country
Whether it be a backpacking trip, a hike, quick run, or mountain bike, bring along bear spray for any outdoor endeavor. But while bear spray is an effective safety net, it’s important to be prepared and plan ahead. There are specific regulations or food storage orders you must abide by depending on where your ventures lay. Some areas, such as Glacier or Yellowstone National Park, stress the use of bear spray, while other national parks like Yosemite do not allow it and instead encourage proper safe practice whilst in bear country. Although you’ll most likely be carrying protection with you, it is negligent to rely on using it just because you have it, your main priority should be to avoid seeing a bear in the first place.
Make your presence known. Make a lot of noise, stay on the trails, and hike during the day. Bears are not fans of surprises; a startled bear is more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior. Bears will avoid areas where people are present, so making yourself known by hooting and hollering in regular intervals will keep them distant. Be conscious of wind, rivers, or densely-wooded areas that may drown out your noise.
Shoot for daylight on less-travelled trails. Bears are most active at dawn or dusk, which is also when there are fewer people around making noise to ward off any unwanted attention.
Hike in a group. More people, more noise. There have been only a handful of cases where bears mess around with groups of three or more.
While you’re in the backcountry without the cover of a car door, there really is no safe distance to view a bear from. A grizzly bear can cover ground at breakneck speeds reaching up to 30mph, or over 40 feet per second. Your goal is to utilize the above to avoid encountering one in the first place, but an aloof bear or one defending a carcass or territory might not run away from your regular calls. It is also important to know how to navigate these rather dangerous situations.
Signs That You're in a Bear-y Area
Bears are solitary animals by nature, but when with cubs, in pairs for the mating season, or startled they are not to be trifled with and will most definitely exhibit aggressive behavior in these situations. Bears typically shy away from established trails; they are intelligent beasts and despite what you may think, they don’t want to run into you just as much as you don’t to want to run into them. Although they are aware of trails and typically avoid them, they frequent areas where food is readily available. This includes areas like berry patches, open meadows, or farmland.
Tracks are an obvious indicator that a bear has been around. Although it is not easy to tell how recent the tracks are, you at least know there has been a bear around. Tracks are an obvious sign of a bear, but just because you don’t see any doesn’t mean they aren't there - bears will only leave tracks in muddy or snowy areas. The same here also applies with bear scat. If you want a better look at tracks and scat differences between black and brown bears, there are plenty of detailed guides out there.
Straddled and marked vegetation is another strong, more timely indicator of a bear's presence. Bears will urinate on plants or bushes as they walk to leave their scent behind. Bears will also mark their scent on trees referred to as bear posts. These are evident by claw and bite marks or fur about two to six feet up a tree.
Summer beds are another indicator typically around spring or early winter of bears. They will rake up leaves, branches, and dirt into a flattened ground beneath a tree to insulate themselves from the cold - leaving behind an obvious bed.
Bear Encounters: What to Do
While bears typically flee from the first sign of humans, they are large, erratic, and threatening animals. Keeping your distance from bears is your first priority, but in the event of an encounter, it is important to know what to do.
Remain calm and ready your bear spray.
Group together closely. Even aggressive bears are much less likely to attack an obvious group of people.
Do not run! This triggers a predatory instinct in a bear, instead back away slowly or go around the bear and keep a wide berth, but always keep an eye on it as you do so.
Your first line of defense is always your bear spray when a bear is aggressive and intent on making contact.
If you encounter a bear defending a carcass, get far away, ideally back in the direction you came. There are plenty of trails, and this one can belong just to the bear for a bit. In this situation, if the bear charges, do not play dead and do not get aggressive. Use your bear spray and aim to get as far away from the carcass. If you see a carcass with no signs of animals nearby still turn around and retreat. A bear, mountain lion, wolves, or any other predators could have fled from the sound or smell of you, but still may linger nearby to get back to the cache.
Don’t spray right away. Bear spray should only be used when needed. Bears will “bluff charge” to scare you off - this is a behavior that does not warrant spraying. Instead, just back away in a calm manner, which is exactly what they want you to do. Bears will snap their jaws, make a “huffing” noise, pound the ground, lunge forward, or even charge a few feet and stop. These behaviors are the bear trying to get you to get out of their territory. Do so and only spray when you’re sure the bear is intent on making contact with you.
Certain scenarios warrant fighting back. At night or any time a bear is in your tent, stalking you, or is clearly following you and has its attention on you. This is not just a curious or defensive encounter. Have your bear deterrent and be ready to use it and or fight back.
Deploy your bear spray. Bear pepper spray is the most effective tool you have against a bear. Start to deploy in two-second bursts as soon as the bear is 30 feet away. Aim more at a downward angle, just below the bears head. If this is the only can in your party, try not to use all the contents at once, as multiple applications may be needed. Typically you have eight to 10 seconds of continuous spray in a full canister. If the bear approaches a second time, spray again but aim directly for the nose and eyes. While the bear has run away or is shaking the effects off, get away from the bear and ideally back to a safe place such as a vehicle.
Awareness of bear behavior and how to react is the key to avoiding potential danger! Bears have good vision up close, but cannot discern large objects from 30 yards away. Their hearing is twice as strong as a humans, and they will typically hear humans and get out of the area before they are seen. Smell is a bear's strongest sense though, and they are able to pick up a distinct smell from over a mile away. Odds are, a bear will detect you before you even see them.
Dealing with a Black Bear Encounter
Black bears live throughout much of the country, and it is much more common to encounter one. Black and grizzly bears are not as intuitive to pick out to an untrained eye. They are not distinctly black or brown always, and a younger grizzly can resemble a black bear from a distance or a quick glance. Black bears do not have a shoulder hump, their face comes more to a point, and their ears are stick out taller. They grow to be smaller than a grizzly, but judging solely on size is not as reliable.
Black bears are curious by nature and typically more sociable and bold when it comes to getting food from a campsite or bag (although any species of bear will do this too when they have been recently weened off of their mother). It is crucial to never let a bear get your food. Try to pack up or lock all food in your campsite and bring it with you as you back away from the bear.
Black bears are more timid than grizzlies. If one is coming towards you, get big and tall by raising your arms and yelling at it to get away. Bang on pots or toss sticks at it to scare it off. If the bear continues to pursue you drop the food as a last resort. After that the most important distinction between a black bear and a grizzly is if they continue to pursue you, fight back and do not submit or play dead.
Dealing with a Grizzly Bear Encounter
Grizzly bears have a defined shoulder hump and a broader face. They also grow to be much larger than a black bear at maturity. Although they can be more dangerous than a black bear if aggressive, they are not the voracious predators they are made out to be, and are typically more reclusive. Grizzlies most often frequent old-growth forests with high productivity, higher elevation slopes or meadows, avalanche chutes, wetlands in lower elevations, and more open areas than black bears.
A grizzly bear on its hind legs is sizing you up. Do not provoke it or act intimidating. Instead, remain calm and back away slowly. If the bear continues to pursue, watch it closely. A grizzly bear will lower its head and pull its ears back if it is planning to attack. Use your bear spray to deter it. In the event that your bear spray fails or you don’t have it, lie down stomach first and cross your arms around your neck. This is your best chance to get a provoked grizzly uninterested.
So You Made It to Camp - Now What?
If you are car camping, any developed campsites will have bear boxes for you to store any food in when not using it. If not, any food can be stored securely in your car. You still want to follow the necessary steps to keep a clean camp, but the proper food storage is made easier for you on your camping trip.
When it comes to food storage and practices you must get the following right or nothing else matters.
Food smells are what you want to avoid. As previously mentioned, bears have a keen sense of smell, and they will know when and where you are if not careful. Snacks in the sleeping bag are a no-go in grizzly bear country. Store food in a bear-proof container, one that is also ideally sealed to keep in smells.
Make your cooking area away from your tent or where you will be sleeping. Wash dishes here too and pack everything up once done. These should be stored with your food when done.
Bear hangs are necessary in the backcountry when you do not have a bear container or not enough room for everything that a bear would be interested in, including any food, trash, dishes, and your stove. Your bear hang should be at least 10 feet up from the base of a tree trunk, and suspended six feet out as well (bears can climb trees too), so they cannot reach the goods. If you want to be extra cautious, you can store the clothes you cooked in in the bear hang too.
Bears are no reason to avoid camping and backpacking. Just stay cautious and aware, and your trip should stay bear-free!