12 Tips For Hiking Safely In Bear Country

Respect the wild and stay safe.

By: Jen Weir
September 2, 2015

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While most bears do their best to avoid the people traipsing around their back yard, every time you embark on an adventure into bear country you’re opening the door for a bear encounter. Bears are naturally afraid of humans, but as the lines between bears and humans become less defined, bears become more audacious in our presence. This is especially true in areas where they’re accustomed to seeing us, like hiking trails. Aside from always packing your bear spray, there are a few other precautions you can take while hiking in bear country. Reduce your chance of a bear encounter by following these 12 tips:

Photo: Ryan McKinney

1. Avoid hiking alone if possible. A group makes more noise than a single hiker, increasing your chances of giving any bears in the area a heads up.

2. Never let your small children run ahead or wander.

3. Make a lot of noise by talking, clapping and singing to avoid startling a bear. Chances are a bear isn’t going to linger on the trail if he expects a circus to crest the hill at any moment. Despite what you may have heard, bear bells may not be enough to alert a bear of your presence so don’t rely on them.

4. Stick to the trail. It may take some of the adventure out of your hike, but by staying on the trail you’ll minimize potential bear encounters.

5. Avoid bear food. If you smell something dead or see birds circling overhead, avoid the area. You don’t want to encroach on a bear food source.

6. Be aware of your surroundings. Headwinds, running water, a curve in the trail or dense vegetation all increase your chances of surprising a bear. Use caution and make plenty of noise before approaching areas where a bear may not hear, smell or see you coming.

Photo: Conor Barry

7. Hike during the daylight hours. Bears are most active during early morning and late afternoon hours in the spring and summer. We all love hiking at sunrise or sunset, but in bear country, this can increase your odds of coming across a bear.

8. Avoid areas known to have a high bear population. Research the location you plan to hike and find out if it is known for bear activity.

9. Keep your food packed up tight and don’t leave food bits or garbage along the trail. Bears have a very strong sense of smell and even a small amount of food can attract one.

10. Watch for signs of bear – tracks, scat and markings on trees are all good indicators. Find out what kind of bears might be in the area you plan to hike and what kind of specific signs to look for.

11. Avoid wearing scented lotions or perfumes on the trail. The same rule with keeping your food tightly packed applies here. Don't test a bear's nose.

12. Don’t leave your packs unattended. Chances are there is something in your pack that might smell interesting to a bear and if it's lying alone without all the noise you would be making with it on your back, a bear will be all the more likely to investigate.

Photo: Ryan McKinney

You’ve probably heard it before, but if you encounter a bear while hiking, fight the urge to run away. Your attempt at flight could trigger the bear’s predatory response and, even if you’re Usain Bolt, you are not going to out-run a bear. Instead, stand calmly and assess the situation.

If the bear doesn’t know you’re there, quietly and calmly leave the area – no harm, no foul. Please, don’t take the opportunity to get closer to snap a selfie with said bear.

If the bear sees you, talk to the bear and slowly wave your arms up and down to identify yourself as a human without making eye contact. On a good day, the bear will just walk away or go back to what he was doing. If that’s the case, slowly back away from the bear in the opposite direction from which he went or just away from the situation. Continue to talk and move your arms as you retreat.

Photo: Conor Barry

If lady luck isn’t with you and the bear decides to approach, it's important to stand your ground. A bear protecting cubs, food or territory will have an aggressive defensive manner and may chomp its teeth, growl, swing its head around and even charge. Continue to remain as calm as possible. When the bear stops charging, continue to slowly back away.

If the encounter escalates and the bear attacks, it’s best to play dead by lying face-down with your hands over your head. Do your best to stay in that position even if the bear rolls you over. Once the bear perceives the threat as neutralized, it will likely leave you alone. Be sure the bear is gone before you move again to prevent another attack. Grizzlies generally attack out of a defensive nature. Black bears are known to be less aggressive than grizzlies but when they do attack, it’s generally with a predatory motive. If a black bear charges you, it would be wise to fight back as it is probably not acting defensively and won’t stop.

If a bear is acting aggressively toward you, charging or attacking, it would be a fine time to use your bear spray and hope for the best. A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that individuals who used a firearm to protect themselves from a bear attack were 50% more likely to accrue injury compared to those who used bear spray. So, please, always pack your spray and know ahead of time.

Photo: Ryan McKinney

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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.