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.

Black bears can range in color from black to brown to even blonde. They prefer to roam in forests with access to nuts and berries.
A black bear roams through the forest

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.

On the left is a grizzly bear with a prominent shoulder hump. On the right is a black bear with no shoulder hump. This is one easy way to identify the difference between the two types of bears.
Left: Brown bear with prominent shoulder hump. Right: Black bear with no shoulder hump.

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. 

Black bears have a straight facial profile from between their eyes to the tip of their nose. This is one easy way to identify a black bear.
Black bears have a straight facial profile from between their eyes to the end of their nose.

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. 

One way to tell brown and black bears apart is by their claws or tracks. Brown bears have long claws while black bears have much shorter and rounded claws.
Left: A grizzly or brown bear with long claws. Right: A black bear with shorter more round claws.

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.

Make noise

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.

Be Scent-Free

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.

An up close view of a grizzly bears face.
Did somebody say food?

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.

Bears can run incredibly fast across really any terrain. Do not try and outrun a bear!
Think you’re fast? Don’t try and 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. 

Me standing at Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park practicing using my bear spray.
Always carry bear spray when you’re hiking in bear country!

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!

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Headed hiking in bear country? Not to worry. These bear safety tips will have you trail ready in no time. Find out how to identify types of bears, how to avoid a bear encounter, what to do if a bear attacks you and more! bear aware | bear spray | grizzly bear | black bear | brown bear | hiking safety | hiking tips

14 Comments

  1. This is really one of the blogpost I loved reading a lot <3 thank you so so much! And I have to say you said a funny fact: This means they can swim to island campsites! So funny that you called this a funny one 😉

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Ha ha, yes! I keep imagine myself kayaking or canoeing and seeing a bear just breeze past me in the water 🙂 Good to know bears can be found on islands, not just mainland locations!

  2. Such an important post! It’s so important to understand what to do in situations like these so you can avoid any harm coming to you or the bear!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks, Francesca! Hopefully we only ever have positive encounters with bears from a safe distance, but just in case its so good to know what to do.

  3. So helpful!! One of my first ever hikes, I hiked right past a black bear without even knowing it. I turned to look to my side and it was standing a few feet beside me. I swear I peed my pants. All I did was pick up my pace and get the hell away from it. It didn’t budge, but just watched me pass by. I am so so so glad that I got that lucky! Haven’t encountered one since, but definitely make a lot more noise on the trails now.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Oh my gosh, Stephanie! I would’ve peed my pants too 🙂 Lesson learned to make your presence known! Glad this experience hasn’t kept you from venturing out into bear country.

  4. Nice write-up! Having experienced seeing my first black bear in upstate NY, it was a rather heart pumping ordeal. I saw some trees moving over the cliffside, and out popped a small/medium sized black bear. He ran off of in the other direction, and my immediate instinct was to run. I had to take a deep breath in and remain calm. I decided to hastely move about in the other direction. That would be the last time I didn’t carry bear spray on me in bear country.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks, Ryan! Ha ha glad you learned your lesson to always venture out with bear spray. You hope to never have to use it, but if you need it you’ll be so glad you have it. Good for you for taking a deep breath and staying calm so you didn’t scare the bear!

  5. The first time I went camping in the US was right after I’d read a book about the Appalachian Trail that had a whole chapter on bears and bear encounters. I was a little freaked out. But it was fine, and I’ve only ever seen a bear once on my hikes and I stayed well back. So far, so good. Great tips here!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Glad to hear you’ve only encountered a bear from a good distance on the trail so far! They’re pretty amazing creatures when you get to observe them that way 🙂

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      That’s one option! I definitely saw hikers in Glacier NP carrying them, though I’m not sure I’d trust my accuracy if a bear was charging at me 🙂

  6. Great post Susan!

    This is the thing I was most worried about before we moved to Canada. Now I am mostly just excited to see bears (from afar). The thing that surprised me most was how small black bears can be. I have mostly seen juvenile bears, but I somehow expected them to be larger.

    I guess the other thing to add about avoiding bears is (if you’re in areas with Grizzly bears) hike in groups of 4+. One of the rangers in Banff told us they had never recorded an attack on groups of more than 4 people, so that is why on some trails, you have to wait at the trailhead for more hikers before you can go through the bear areas. Do they have rules like that in the States?

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Ha ha I agree, it’s fun to see them from a distance 🙂 I have read that hiking in groups can intimidate bears, so that’s good to hear it corroborated by a ranger! I’m not familiar with anywhere in the States that has a similar rule like that, but it makes sense (especially if there’s some data to back up that groups of 4 don’t get attacked!). Thanks for sharing!

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