On an intense backcountry hiking or camping trip you can expect to spot and smell bears native to the area. With all the recent incidents regarding bear attacks, it’s important to exhibit cautious and responsible behavior while out of doors to keep yourself and your companions safe. Improper action around a bear could result in uncomfortably close encounters, or in rare circumstances – attacks. In North America there are only three types of bear: black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears. I spoke to Chris Servheen, Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and together we laid out three potential bear encounter situations and how to handle them.

The situation: You’re hiking in thick brush, into the wind, or near a noisy stream that reduces a bear’s advantage of sensing you.

Preventive actions: Make noise while you hike. Talk, clap your hands, sing. You want to let the bear know you’re there to avoid surprise encounters.

Reaction: If you see a bear in the distance, make him aware of your presence. Speak to him in a strong voice, without yelling or screaming, and wave your arms. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the bear is going to get off the trail and get away from you, if he’s given the opportunity,” says Servheen.

The situation: You’re at your campsite and a bear comes nosing through your site.

“This is a bear that’s probably received a food reward through their interactions with humans,” Servheen begins. “He’s lost his normal fear response to people. That’s not good.”

Preventive actions: Keep a clean campsite. Hang your food properly in a tree – in a bear bag at least 100 yards away from where you sleep, 10 ft. off the ground and 4 ft. away from the trunk. Clean up after yourself, don’t leave dirty dishes or other food-scented items around the campfire.

Reaction: If you are in backcountry, Servheen recommends spraying the bear in the face with bear spray. It’s an efficient way to debilitate and deter bears in a non-lethal manner. “Bear deterrent pepper spray” is different from pepper spray used on the street for self-defense against other humans. The cans are larger and emit a large cone of spray that is effective up to 20 to 30 feet between you and the bear. Bear spray cans typically cost about $40, but as your strongest defense they can be well worth it considering the cost of medical care, or even your life.

If you are in front-country, retreat to a vehicle or a nearby building. Be very cautious and alert the rest of the night.

If the bear comes back, build up your fire and check again to make sure you have a clean camp where absolutely no food is left out for the bear to get.

The situation: You’ve taken all preventive measures yet a bear is aware of your presence and is heading toward you in a predatory manner.

Reaction: Do not sit back passively or hide. This could encourage the bear to take advantage of you and attack further.

Make yourself as big as possible to the bear. Stand on a chair, lift a chair above your head, throw sticks or rocks at the bear. Make noise. As always, use bear spray if you have it available. “Make sure the bear gets the idea that you are not a passive thing to encounter that you’re something that is risky and dangerous to him,” Servheen says.

If you do get attacked, the bear will likely maul you to the point where he no longer feels that you are a threat to him. Then, it’s best to play dead and wait it out until the bear leaves.

The “play dead” conundrum.

Servheen doesn’t advise playing dead if you are in a situation where the bear is pursuing you. That means he’s coming toward you, to your campsite or for some reason following you on the trail. In such situations you fight back as mentioned above.

The time to play dead is when you are in a surprise-encounter situation with the bear. For example, you’ve come around a corner and there he is looking at you and you’re looking at him. Don’t run, don’t scream or yell or you will agitate the bear. Lie down on the ground, curl into a ball, put your hands on the back of your neck, keep your pack on and lie as quietly as you can. He may come over to check you out and lift you by your pack, paw over you a few times, but he’s more likely to run away when he figures out that you’re not dangerous to him. “When neither one of you wanted to be that close, that’s a situation where you can play dead.”

Additional notes:

Keep bear spray in an easy to reach area: outside of your pack on a strap, a holder on your belt or in the pocket of your pants. Bears will more than likely not be more agitated when hit with bear spray, but debilitated and forced to retreat back into the woods to recover for a few hours with the memory that your site is an unpleasant place to avoid.

Avoid getting between a mother and its young. Their motherly defensive instincts will be heightened and it may be extra sensitive to your presence.

Avoid approaching a bear’s food source. “If you’re hiking in the woods and you smell something decaying and you think ‘something must be dead around here, I wonder what it is,’ that’s the kind of situation that you don’t want to find out what it is that’s dead because it’s probably already been found by a bear,” Servheen explains. Additionally, avoid hiking at dawn or dusk.

Make sure any food items tossed into the fire are burned completely. Keep all food and other attractants in a bear bag. That means no midnight snacks such as granola bars in the tent where you sleep. Attractants (something that emits a potent smell) such as deodorant, peppermint toothpaste, cologne, etc. should also be kept in the bear bag that’s hanging 100 yards away from your campsite.

Black bears tend to be timid around people. When they see you they could hide their young in a tree and then run away. Grizzly bears are more aggressive and defensive. They are more likely than black bears to take a bite or swipe at you.

Hopefully this guide will help inform you of your options. Adequate prevention in a situation decreases the likelihood of attracting bears and is the best way to decrease your chances of getting attacked. Think ahead of plausible, potential situations and how you would react.

External Resources:

Here is a list of external resources recommended by Servheen to fully inform you of other precautionary methods and bear sightings in the area you plan to hike/camp.

Bear Activity
Bear Activity and Programs
Bear Deterrent Pepper Spray (Caution: Graphic content on website)

Photo: National Park Service

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