Bear Safety Tips for Hikers
At some point, almost all hikers will find themselves hiking in bear country. As someone who grew up in a bear-free part of the US, I didn’t learn about bear safety tips until much later in life. I understand that hiking around bears can feel intimidating, but there are some simple steps you can take to hit the trail worry-free in bear country!
Where do you find bears?
Before you hit the trail, you first need to know if you’re hiking in bear country. In North America, the most common types of bears are black and brown bears, though polar bears can be found in northern parts of Alaska and Canada. This map shows you where bears live in North America.
Other types of bears are located in parts of South America, including Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. Also, bears are commonly found in parts of Russia, Asia and scattered throughout parts of Europe.
Pro Tip: Always research types of bears you may find in your hiking destination prior to your visit.
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Know your bear types
A bear’s a bear, right? Well, yes and no. It’s important to be able to identify which type of bear you encounter because they respond differently.
Technically, grizzly bears and brown bears are the same species. The primary distinction between them is where they live and what they eat. Grizzly bears are found primarily inland on mountainsides, tundra and forests. Because their food sources are more scarce than coastal brown bears, they can be more aggressive than brown bears. Brown bears are found primarily in coastal areas that are rich with salmon and other food sources.
The name “black bear” is a bit of a misnomer because they can range in color from black to brown to cinnamon and even white or blonde. Black bears prefer to live in large forests with access to lots of different types of nuts and berries as well as access to a lake or stream for water.
Fun Fact: Black bears can swim at least a mile and a half in freshwater, possibly further. This means they can swim to island campsites!
Depending on a number of factors, both brown and black bears can vary significantly in size and color. So, neither size or color are particularly helpful in identifying the type of bear.
There are three simple ways to identify the differences though.
1 | Is there a shoulder hump?
Brown bears, including grizzly bears, have a pronounced hump on their backs between their shoulders. This hump is due to their strong shoulder muscles used to dig and move rocks in search of food in the inland areas where they live. Black bears have no shoulder hump.
Pro Tip: The shoulder hump is most easily visible when looking at the bear from the side.
2 | Concave or straight facial profile?
A bear’s facial profile refers to the shape of the space from between its eyes to the end of its nose, when viewed from the side. Grizzly and brown bears will have a very clearly concave shape, meaning it’s shaped like a bowl. Black bears, conversely, will have a nearly flat or straight line.
3 | How long are the front claws?
Let’s hope you don’t get an up close and personal view of the claws, but you may see them from a distance or see bear tracks. Grizzly or brown bears are known for their long claws on the front paws up to four inches long. For comparison, this is a little longer than an average adult finger. Black bears have short, curved claws that are typically shorter than two inches.
How to avoid a bear encounter?
Before you even worry about what to do if a bear attacks you, let’s first focus on avoiding a bear encounter altogether. There are several simple and low cost bear safety tips you use to avoid a bear encounter on the hiking trails.
Bears aren’t seeking humans out. If they know you’re coming or that you’re there, they’ll leave you alone. So the absolute easiest thing you can do is to make your presence known. Clap, whistle or sing your way along the trail whenever you’re hiking in bear country. The point is that you want your voice to carry.
Some hikers swear by tying bear bells to your pack. I’ve been told that the sound from bear bells often doesn’t carry far enough or can be too consistent for a bear to recognize it’s a human. I wouldn’t rely solely on bear bells.
Pro Tip: When approaching a blind corner on the trail, make extra effort to make your presence known so you don’t surprise a bear. Also, be particularly cautious early in the morning if you are one of the first hikers on the trail.
Bears are attracted to scents, particularly food-related scents. Pack your food and food waste into bags or containers to prevent the scent from carrying. Consider carrying a bear canister but be careful not to touch the outside of the container with yummy smells on your hands! Also, try to avoid scented products such as lotion, hand sanitizer, and deodorant when you are hiking in bear country.
Pro Tip: Many US National Parks require the use of approved bear canisters when backcountry camping and hiking. Check the park website prior to visiting for the most up to date information.
Watch for Tracks
Before hitting any trail, I recommend doing some basic research on what types of animals you might encounter. While you’re on the trail, watching for bear tracks is an easy way to alert yourself to potential activity in the area.
Take Extra Caution Around Food Sources
I happened to be hiking in Glacier National Park during berry season. Many of the trails were lined with huckleberries, which is a favorite food source of bears in the park. Be on high alert when you’re hiking near their primary food sources.
Not sure what food sources you might encounter on the trail? Ask a ranger! I always recommended stopping into the ranger station before you hit the trail to find out about the latest trail conditions and animal encounters.
What to do if you encounter a bear on the trail?
Inevitably, if you are hiking in bear country, at some point you will encounter a bear or at least see one from a distance. My biggest piece of advice is to have a plan and know what to do!
Once you see a bear, even if it hasn’t spotted you, get out your bear spray and remove the safety.
Pro Tip: I highly recommend you carry bear spray and have it easily accessible clipped to the front of your pack. Don’t store it in your backpack where you can’t reach it!
If the bear spots you and seems curious about you, make it known that you’re a human and not a meal. Do this by talking calmly, remaining still and slowly wave your arms. The bear may come closer to you or stand on its back legs. This usually means its curious about you, not necessarily that it’s going to attack you.
I realize this is easier said than done, but do not shout or scream even if the bear starts making noises. Continue to speak calmly so that the bear doesn’t feel threatened or mistake you for prey.
Pick up any small children or pets in case you need to take further action.
If the bear still seems curious about you, try to make yourself appear as large as possible while not making any sudden movements. Whatever you do, do not run. Instead, try moving to higher ground or continue slowly waving your arms and stand up straight. Groups of people can often be intimidating to bears.
Pro Tip: Both black and brown bears can run incredibly fast across any terrain as well as climb trees. You will not outrun a bear.
Move slowly away from the bear without turning your back. This will make you appear like prey. Instead, take sideways steps. This also helps you avoid tripping over rocks and tree roots. If possible, make your way to a building or vehicle. If that’s not possible, try leaving the area and allowing the bear an exit path.
Always keep you backpack on to protect your back in case the bear decides to attack.
What to do if a bear attacks?
According to this study, there are 2.56 fatal bear attacks per year in North America. The reality is that hikers are far more likely to die from a slip or fall, but those usually don’t make for as good of a campfire story as a bear attack.
As I said earlier, not all types of bears attack in the same way. So, knowing what type of bear you’ve encountered will help you better respond in the moment.
In either case, use your bear spray as the bear approaches you. Be sure to not be upwind of the spray to avoid getting it in your own face. (Note: I got sprayed in the face with bear spray by a very nervous guy who encountered a bear in front of me on the trail near Seward, Alaska. It was unpleasant. 10/10 would not recommend.)
Brown or Grizzly Bear Attack
In short, play dead.
Keep your pack on, lay flat on your stomach and lock your hands behind your neck. This is to protect your vital organs. Spread your legs wide to prevent the bear from flipping your over. Lay still until the bear is gone. If, for some reason, the bear continues attacking, use whatever is available to hit it in the face.
Pro Tip: Be especially cautious if you see a mother brown or grizzly bear with her cubs.
Black Bear Attack
In short, take action.
First, try to retreat to a safe place like a vehicle or nearby building. If there isn’t a safe and secure place nearby, fight like hell using whatever is available. Focus your blows to the bear’s face.
Ready to Go Hiking in Bear Country?
Yes! You’ve totally got this. Remember, bears aren’t looking for humans to attack. Using these bear safety tips will help ensure you and the bears can enjoy the trail!