Bear Country Safety
Traveler & Creator
Bear country safety is important whether you’re venturing out for a day hike or a multi-day backcountry expedition. Fear of bears shouldn’t stop you from exploring the wild frontier. Equipped with knowledge about bear country safety, you can greatly reduce your risk of a dangerous situation.
Seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is an exciting experience, and while not all bear encounters end in tragedy, a close encounter with these furry beasts shouldn’t be at the top of your national park bucket list. Bears are powerful apex predators that should be treated with respect and caution. Knowing how to avoid a bear encounter and what to do if it does happen is vital in protecting yourself as well as the bears.
Where is Bear Country?
In North America, bear country encompasses all of Canada and Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, midwest, mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States. Though bears are encroaching further south as they search for new food sources and habitats due to climate change and deforestation, they’re less common in places like Georgia, Florida, and other areas of the deep south.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the surrounding region is known for its healthy black bear population. Meanwhile, grizzly bears can be found in the American West, from Colorado to Alaska. Polar bears are exclusive to Alaska and Canada’s arctic landscapes.
When are Bears Most Active?
Knowing when bears are most active is a key part of bear country safety. In general, bears are most active in the morning and evening. As for seasons, they are on the move most during the fall while preparing for hibernation. Winter is the least likely time to see a bear, since they hibernate.
What are the Most Dangerous Bears?
To be clear, “dangerous” is a problematic description of bears. Many bear encounters can be prevented, and bear behavior has been deeply affected by human interference. Wild animals all present varying risks to humans, from birds to bugs to bears. In the wilderness, you’re in their home. Remember to respect them and their house rules.
All species of bears should be treated with caution. In North America, polar bears and grizzly bears are most commonly involved in fatal encounters with humans. Polar bears are the biggest bears in North America. Since they’re uniquely unafraid of humans, they can be difficult to deter. grizzlies are particularly territorial and protective of their young, leading to increased aggression over the years as explorers trek deeper into their undisturbed habitats.
Bear Safety When Camping
If you’re camping in bear country, especially during the active season, here are a few things you can do to keep yourself safe:
- Always cook away from your campsite and change your clothes after cooking
- Don’t store your food or toiletries with you while you sleep
- Sleep in a shelter, whether that’s a tent or a car
- Lock your car doors
- Camp in open spaces, avoiding trails or brush bears might frequent
- Camp in groups
- Have an emergency plan
What to Do if You Encounter a Bear
If you do see a bear in the wilderness, how you react may mean the difference between a life or death situation. Depending on the nature of the encounter, it’s important to know how to react.
If you come across a bear at a distance, don’t approach the bear. Allow it to wander off, or pass it giving it a generous berth, walking sideways and keeping your eyes on the bear. If you stumble upon a bear at closer proximity or it seems to be moving towards you, calmly make some noise by talking or singing. “Hey, bear,” is a common phrase used by backpackers. Slowly wave your arms and stand tall, clearly signaling that you’re a human. Don’t make any loud or sudden noises or movements. Never throw the bear food or your pack. Food acts as bait, and encourages the bear to get closer and follow humans. Your pack can also be used as protection. Lastly, don’t run. Like dogs, bears will chase fleeing animals regardless of threat.
If a grizzly bear attacks, keep your pack on and lay flat. Avoid making any noises. If a black bear charges, fight back immediately using any defensive object you have. If any bear attacks while you’re in your tent or stalks you then attacks, fight back right away. Escape to a vehicle or building as a last resort. Keep bear spray or a weapon handy to protect yourself against one of these rare attacks.
Bear repellent or bear spray is highly potent pepper spray. Only deploy it when absolutely necessary. You can find bear repellent at most camping and outdoor stores. Check the expiration date on your bear repellent regularly, and keep it handy when hiking or camping in bear country.
How to Use Bear Spray
While a bear attack is unlikely, it’s important to know how to use bear spray during such an emergency. Always keep bear spray handy on your belt or in your hand while you hike or sleep in your tent. If you keep bear spray in your pack, you might not get to it in time in the event of a bear attack. A standard canister deploys a mist for roughly 6-10 seconds. As the bear approaches, spray the mist in a side to side motion at eye level with the bear, creating a wall of pepper mist. The mist reaches roughly 8-12 feet, so only use it if you know you’re close enough to reach the bear.
More Wildlife Safety Tips
Regardless of the animal, wildlife encounters gone wrong are all over the internet. While some videos seem comedic, people and wild animals are killed every year in preventable situations. Wildlife watching is educating and exciting, but know some rules and general best practices before heading out on your next wild adventure.
1. Never Approach Wildlife
Just because it’s not a bear doesn’t mean it’s safe to get closer. What seems like the most obvious rule is also the one broken most often, leading to serious injury and even death. You’re in a national park, not a petting zoo. Wild animals can carry diseases and viruses, and by getting closer you’re making the animals more acclimated to human interaction. Your camera has a zoom option, so use it.
2. Don’t Feed Wildlife
Wild animals have a wild diet. While the apple in your bag might seem natural enough, you don’t know how an animal might react to a certain food. In addition, you’re encouraging wildlife to approach humans with the expectation of receiving a reward. Don’t leave treats, leave no trace.
3. Remain Calm
Whether you come upon wildlife or they stumble upon you, remain calm. If you do need to make a sudden decision, it’s important you are prepared and able to think clearly.