(A close-up of a black bear. Photo: Canadian Wildlife Federation)
As humans increasingly encroach on bears’ natural habitat and as bears increasingly become habitualized to humans, it’s no surprise that bear encounters are on the rise. And it will also come as no surprise that many people are somewhat nervous about how to handle such an encounter.
What follows is adapted from a much longer article about how to handle a bear encounter (do check it out if you want to!). And it deals specifically with bear encounters in the backcountry. If you want more information on how to deal with bears that stray into your backyard, I definitely recommend you read this article on yellowstone-bearman.com.
Rule #1 for bear safety when out hiking or camping is to avoid an encounter altogether. This is surprisingly easy, because bears really don’t want to encounter you! Here’s a handful of tips for avoiding coming into contact.
Travel in Groups
Groups of 3 or more people are much more intimidating that people hiking solo or in pairs. An ongoing study in Yellowstone National Park says that of all bear attacks in the park since 1970, 91% of them occurred when the person was hiking alone or with just one other person. [Source: nps.gov]
Making noise can be an effective way to deter a bear, but don’t shout. Talking with your hiking companions, or even singing quietly, can announce your presence and help keep bears away.
Keep an eye out for signs of bears
When you’re out and about, get into the habit of scanning the horizon regularly with your binoculars. Look for a large shape in the distance. If you see them, avoid them! And don’t just look for bears; look for signs that bears are around. If you see signs of bear activity or food sources like berry bushes (or a fresh carcass), be more alert and make some noise.
Store your food wisely
You just don’t want to attract them with food! The best rule of thumb is to use “bear canisters” (bear-resistant food containers) when you can. Try not to store food in your your car (it can be OK as long as it is out of sight with the windows completely closed – but you should never do this overnight). And never store food in your tent!
What to do if you see a bear (but it doesn’t see you)
If you are keeping an eye out for signs of bears and regularly scanning the horizon, there’s a chance you might spot a bear before they know you are in the area. In this situation, you probably want to slip away quietly. Some folk might advise you announce your presence and hope to scare it off. But if you can, leaving the area is the most common-sense approach.
What to do if you see a bear and the bear sees you (but at a distance)
Again, if you are being aware of your surroundings and encounter a bear there’s a chance you’ll both notice each other from a distance. You have little to worry about. Most bear attacks are defensive in nature, so the greater the distance, the less threatened the bear will feel and the chances of an attack are fleetingly slim. (Fun fact: in the USA you are 25x more likely to be killed by lightning than by a bear!).
In this situation, you want to reduce the threat further by leaving the area whilst discouraging the bear to follow you. You should make your presence known by making some noise (not too much), make yourself look big and slowly back away. Whatever you do, don’t shout or run. And do not climb a tree! (There’s an old joke that goes: You can tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly by climbing a tree. If it comes up after you it’s a black bear. If it knocks the tree down it’s a grizzly!)
What to do if you surprise a bear (or it surprises you) at close quarters
This scenario is unlikely because bears generally don’t want to be near you and they have such good senses, most times they’ll leave the area before you even know they’re there.
However, they may be drawn to you because you have food (if they’re food habituated), or you might stumble into one of their feeding grounds, or any number of other reasons might result in a surprise encounter. This is obviously a very tense situation for all parties and the one most likely to result in a negative outcome if handled poorly. Your job here is to be assertive without being threatening and to leave the area without fleeing or showing fear.
- Speak assertively in low tones and ready your bear spray
- Wave your arms slowly to make yourself look big
- Make sure the bear has an escape route
- Retreat slowly and calmly
- Do not shout or make any sudden movements
- Do not look the bear directly in the eye and don’t run
If the bear follows you, or charges you, stop and stand your ground. Keep encouraging it to keep its distance by speaking and making yourself look bigger.
A few more do’s and don’ts
There’s quite a few common myths that stick around. Some useless kit and poor advice. Aside from not climbing trees and not trying to outrun a bear (you can’t), here’s a few more bits and pieces that should help you prepare.
A bear bell is a small bell attached to a velcro strap or carabiner that you attach to your body or backpack as you walk through the woods. These are designed to scare bears away by warning them of your approach, but unfortunately, they just don’t work. A book by bear expert Stephen Herreroeven suggests that far from frightening bears, they may actually attract them because they are curious about where the jingling noise is coming from!
Can You Use a Whistle as a Bear Deterrent?
Whistles should not be used for the same reason that you should avoid bear bells. First, bears may be curious as to what is making the noise, and second, because whistles are usually high-pitched, they can awaken a bear’s predatory instincts.
Bear whistles, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, can attract a bear to you more than they can repel it. It’s not unlike the effect of a dog that comes running when you squeeze his favorite squeaky toy! Instead, it’s better to make noise by singing, talking, or clapping as you move.
Why You Should Always Carry Bear Spray in Bear Country
One of the best ways you can protect yourself against a bear attack, particularly against a grizzly bear attack, is to use bear spray. Make sure you carry bear spray with you and familiarize yourself in advance with how it works. Practice outdoors and carry the spray on you when you are traveling in bear country.
Bear spray is a high-pressure extraction of capsaicin. It usually contains about two percent capsaicin, which is the chemical that makes peppers hot.
In a 2008 study conducted for the Journal of Wildlife Management, scientists found that bear spray was effective 92 percent of the time in preventing attacks. It was 98 percent effective in preventing injury. [Source: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks]
Some folk think firearms are effective. And it’s true. They are to a certain extent. But I can’t find a study that shows firearms have anywhere near 90% effectiveness.
What to Do if a Bear Charges
I’m not going to go into detail about how to fend off an attack, mostly because I think it’s a bit salacious. The reality is that you’re so unlikely to be charged by a bear that covering that eventuality is a bit unnecessary.
The other reason is that dealing with a charging bear is quite a nuanced thing to do is best done in a separate article. This piece on bear attacks is authoritative and covers all the main points in a good level of detail. Definitely worth a read! But honestly, if you follow the steps above, you’d be one of the unluckiest people in the world if you ever have to follow the advice in it!
So there you have it! Have you ever encountered a bear? What was it like and how did you react?
Ontario also has a toll-free Bear Wise reporting line (1-866-514-2327) that operates seven days a week from April 1 to November 30.
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