Wandering out into the woods soon and don’t know what to do if you see a bear? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything you need to know when trekking through bear country.
But before we dive into the tips, let’s talk about bears for a bit. (And below are quick navigation links to sections within this article)
What to Know About Bears
- Types of Bears
- Where are bears located?
- Where do most bear attacks happen?
- What to know about hibernation
Bear Country Essentials
Camping/Backpacking In Bear Country
When A Bear Does Attack
What to Know About Bears
What types of bears live in North America?
There are several types of bears in the North American wilderness that you may see when exploring through their neck of the woods.
There are only three types of bears found in North America. They are Black, Brown (which includes grizzly bears), and Polar bears.
Black bears are the most commonly seen bears throughout the continent. They are the smallest of bears in North America and are active both during the day and at night. Black bears usually avoid confrontations with humans, but you should still give them plenty of space if you see them in the wild.
Brown bears are the second-largest bears in North America. They are known to be slightly more aggressive towards humans. Grizzly bears, in particular, are not great tree climbers and often ward off danger by standing tall. Mother bears are known to be the most aggressive and will more likely attack than males or females without cubs.
Polar bears are the largest bears in North America and rarely interact with humans. Most often, Polar bears will run away from a confrontation unless they are very hungry, in which any attack on a human is almost always fatal. But there are very few attacks as finding a polar bear and getting close enough to it is very unlikely.
Where are bears located?
Black, Brown, and Polar bears can be found throughout the continent. According to Discover Wildlife, the Black bear population sits at around 800,000 in North America and there are roughly 55,000 wild grizzlies left in North America, most of which reside in Alaska, while a few handfuls live in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. While the National Park Service estimates the Polar bear population is between 4,000-7,000 that are all found in Alaska.
When and where do most bear attacks happen?
Since 1900, bear attacks have become less and less common. The most common places bear attacks happen are where more people cross paths with bears like state and National parks. Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks have experienced the most bear attacks with 12 and 8 deaths, respectively. According to Vox, nearly half of all bear attacks have happened between 6 parks in the United States.
Vox’s data concludes that most attacks included grizzly bears during the summer season in July and August. Most of these deaths happened in the backcountry while individuals were hunting or fishing.
Fun Fact: Only one polar bear related death has been recorded in Alaska back in 1990.
What should you know about hibernation?
We know that bears hibernate, but when does hibernation start and what should you keep in mind?
Depending on where you are wandering, bear hibernation can last a few days or weeks in warmer areas up to 6 months in colder climates. Bears spend these months, mostly sleeping, away in dens to keep their body heat up enough to ensure that they can respond quickly enough when danger is nearby and food sources are unavailable. The higher up a bear den, the more likely a bear inside that den is pregnant as females showing signs of pregnancy tend to den at higher altitudes.
Humans should still be vigilant of bears during hibernation as skiing, hiking, or camping near a den can easily awaken a bear and cause it to attack. Bears that are caught off guard are more likely the ones to attack, so you should always be aware of any dens nearby.
Dens can be found in rock cavities, brush, and hollow trees which can be hard to find unless you stumble upon them. Just to be safe, you should always keep an eye out for any openings near your surroundings during the winter months.
Good news is bear spray doesn’t freeze, so keep it with you no matter the season!
What happens after hibernation?
As hibernation ends, male bears will leave the den to look for food first. Shortly after, females and females with children will leave their dens. This is the time of year when bears are the most hungry, so it’s important to know when bears usually head out of their dens after winter in your area.
During this time of year, it’s super important that you follow food storage rules and bear country etiquette to keep you and your food safe. The essentials and tips below will help you navigate bear country when bears are most active and likely to be encountered.
Bear Country Essentials
If you find yourself in bear country, it’s important that you have all the essentials to keep you safe. Whether you’re camping or hiking, there are a few things to carry with you to prevent any unwanted contact between you and a bear.
Choose Bear Spray Over Guns
According to a Bear Biologist and authors of this study, research found that out of 133 bear encounters involving bear spray, only 3 people had minor injuries. Of the 269 incidences where individuals encountered a bear and used a gun, 17 people and hundreds of bears died.
Also, if you shoot a bear in the lower 48 states, most state governments require you to hike the bear carcass out and/or you will be fined for shooting a bear. Not only do the bear laws differ from state to state, gun regulations also differ which is why it’s important to understand what gun laws are in effect in any area you choose to carry.
It’s safe to say that using bear spray is not only better for humans, but also for the bears as you are entering their home uninvited.
Bear-Proof Food Storage
If you are bringing food with you, you should bring a bear canister or sack with you. Storing your food away from where bears can smell keeps from attracting them to you, the trail, or the campsite you’re staying at.
Not only do these containers keep food smells at bay, but they also prevent your food from being eaten in the case that a bear or other animal stumbles upon it. The animal, bear or not, will struggle to get the case or sack open and soon be too bored to continue on.
How to Store Your Food
There are several ways to store your food to keep it safe from bears and other wildlife.
Carry a Locking Bear Canister or Box
A bear box or bear canister usually comes with a locking mechanism that requires you to unscrew or unlock the box with a key or coin. You can also choose to use a locked box provided by the campsite, if available, but ensure that you lock it each time you leave or when you do not need access to your food.
Once your food locked away safely in your bear canister,
- Walk 100 yards downwind from your campsite.
- Find a good place to hide your canister in brush or rocks.
- Don’t place your canister on a hill, cliff, or water source as bears may knock it down and away from your site.
Hang a Bear Bag or Sack
A bear bag that hangs on a tree is another option, though it does require a little more work. It is much lighter than a bear canister, but you will have to accommodate space for 20-30 feet of rope or cord to hang the bag, and also two stuff sacks if you don’t have a premade bear sack.
- Look for a branch that is load-bearing and roughly 25-30 feet above the ground.
- Tie a heavy object, like a rock, to one end of your rope or cord and hoist it over the other side of the branch. Always step on the other side of the rope to avoid it going over with the rock, too.
- If you are using two stuff sacks, divide your food up into the two bags.
- Attach one stuff sack or bear sack to the cord and push it up to the top of the branch.
- Attach the second stuff sack if you have one to the cord and push it up as high as the first.
- Don’t forget to stuff the end of the rope or cord into one of the sacks to prevent it from dangling down off the branch.
Pro Tip: In bear country, you should never store your food in your car or tent. If you have no place to store your canister due to lack of trees or brush, you may want to consider using a park’s bear wires (much like hanging a bear sack) or bringing a portable electric fence with you into the backcountry. Storing your food away from your camp, the 100 yard, downwind rule, and placing it inside a tiny electric fence or on bear wire will help you keep your food safe.
What to Do While Camping in Bear Country
When wandering through bear country, here are a handful of tips to help you and your camping partners keep the bears away:
Always hike with a group: Don’t hike in bear country without a few friends. The more people you have with you, the less likely you are to encounter bear friends along the way.
Be thoughtful about the signals you put off: Brightly colored clothing, strong perfumes and colognes, and other less-seen in the backcountry “signals” will encourage bears to take a peek at what’s going on. Stick with neutrals, unscented deodorants, and less intriguing items to stay out of trouble.
Know your surroundings and carry a deterrent: No matter where you are in the backcountry, you should always know your surroundings and keep a good eye out as you hike along the trail. Don’t forget your bear spray in the car either!
Make noise as you go: Just because you think you’re alone in the forest, doesn’t mean you are. Always make noise when walking in the backwoods, especially as you come around corners, to avoid surprising any bears nearby. Clapping, whistling, and chatting with your friends is encouraged.
Watch from afar: If you do cross paths with a bear, always keep your distance. Never try to engage in a friendly pet or even get within a 100 yards of the bear. Even if the bear seems friendly and appears to be alone, the bear may be watching its cubs from afar. If you see a bear before it sees you, back away slowly while keeping your eyes on the bear. In other words, don’t poke the bear!
What kind of camping is best in bear country?
Usually, there are some restrictions on the type of camping that can be done in the backcountry, but whether you are car, tent, or hammock camping, you should know a few things about each to help you make the best decision.
Tent camping is probably the most common type of camping when you’re in the middle of bear country. When you decide to tent camp, any trace of food or water can lead a bear right to your campsite. You should always carry proper food storage with you and hang or secure it a good distance away from your tent. Your tent doesn’t provide you with much protection, but keeping any crazy scents or smells away from your sleeping area will help.
When car camping, just like tent camping, you should avoid leaving any food inside your vehicle as you sleep. If you have no other option, you should always close it in a sealed container and ensure that all of your car windows are rolled up all the way. If you are in a vehicle that has a separate trunk you can also put your food and used utensils inside, too.
Hammock camping allows you to hang your sleeping quarters higher off the ground, which is good for preventing wildlife from interacting with you as you sleep. You should do your best to never sleep in the open air and have some type of covering for your hammock as you sleep. Bears are quite inquisitive and will use that curiosity to explore your open hammock with ease.
Pro Tip: You should avoid brightly colored sleeping quarters, like tents and hammocks, as science has shown that bright colors often attract curious bears.
What about bringing dogs into the backcountry?
When hiking or camping with dogs in bear country, you should never leave your pet unattended. Your dog should always be on a leash as any interaction with a bear, near or far, could be escalated if a dog is loose and antagonizing wildlife.
Though dogs can be an issue in bear country, they can also be helpful as they have senses humans do not and can alert you to any danger you may be unaware of. Just like you would your food, secure any dog food or treats away with your human food to prevent any temptation for bears.
Anytime you want to take a dog into bear country, be sure to check local regulations and park rules to ensure they are allowed to explore with you.
What To Do When A Bear Attacks (Which is Rare)
Bears don’t often attack, but when they do, you need to know how to handle the situation and (hopefully) get yourself to safety. Keep this in mind in case a bear attack is imminent.
Black Bear Attack Protocol
- Keep your eyes on the bear.
- Find a big stick or some kind of pots, pans, instruments to bang together. The more noise and the bigger you can make yourself the better.
- Try to keep the bear out of your food if at all possible, but if the bear is coming after you, you should leave the food behind if you feel like the food is what the bear is after.
- If a bear continues to attack and you are in imminent danger, DO NOT PLAY DEAD.
- Try bear spray or fight back using anything you can reach nearby such as rocks, sticks, and punching. Focus on the eyes and nose if you can. You do not want to pretend to be dead as a Black bear will continue to hurt you, as death is its only goal for its prey.
Pro-Tip: If you are cooking alongside the trail or find yourself outside of your tent at the campsite, you should always have your bear spray near you while you wander.
Grizzly Bear Attack Protocol
- Instead of appearing as a threat, you should calmly talk to Grizzly bears who are inspecting you or your campsite. Do not yell.
- The best thing to do is to avoid eye contact while backing up slowly. No need to rile up the bear at all.
- Understand what the bear is trying to do. If the bear appears to be charging you or is making any huffing and puffing noises, do your best to not panic. NEVER RUN. Running will only encourage the bear to come after you.
- Stand your ground and remain calm, while talking in a neutral voice.
- If your bear spray is nearby, prepare to use it if the bear comes within 30 feet of you. Don’t spray before then and aim low to avoid missing the bear entirely.
If Your Bear Spray Fails
- If your bear spray fails or the bear continues to attack, PLAY DEAD. Unlike Black bears, you have a chance here to play dead and save yourself.
- Hopefully, you have a backpack or some other equipment on your back at this point. Lay on your stomach if so, and allow the bear to attack the back that is between the two of you.
- Always cover the back of your neck with your hands and keep your arms and legs spread out. This will make it more difficult for the bear to roll you over.
- If the bear does manage to roll you over, just keep rolling until you’re on your stomach again. DO NOT RUN.
- The end goal is to have minimal injury during an attack, which results in the Grizzly bear leaving since there is no more chase to be had.
Bear Safety is Key
We all know how jaw-droppingly awesome seeing a bear is in the wild, but bear safety is key to keeping everyone safe in your camping group, as well as the bears themselves. Each time we step out into the wilderness and encounter wildlife, it is not only our responsibility to keep us safe, but to keep them safe, too.
As much as we love exploring the outdoors, we must always respect that the backcountry is their home. Doing your best to be prepared and safe will do wonders to keep our outdoor spaces and wildlife the way we like them, wild.
Erin prefers the outdoors no matter where she is. She travels far and wide with her dog, Rory, and has traversed the desert, mountains, and plains. Type 2 fun is her middle name when it comes to doing things outdoors and she’s always up for the challenge. From muddy, cliffside hikes in Hawaii to backcountry camping in White Sands National Park, there’s nothing she won’t do to see a good sunset or summit. Follow her adventures at @withdogshetravels to see where they’re headed next!