Updated: Aug 10
Bears usually pose little threat to humans. However, being unprepared can be a mistake. If you live in bear country, always be ready for an encounter.
I live in black bear country, but I am less than three hours from grizzly bear country. If you cracked open my gear box, you would find five to six canisters of bear spray. Why? I spend many hundreds of hours each spring, summer, and fall in areas that grizzly bears frequent. If the day comes that I have a negative encounter with a bear, I hope to be mentally and physically prepared for that moment. It could save my life and the bear's life.
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Bear Safety in the Rockies & North America
If you see a bear:
Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. If you are with a group, keep your party-members calm. Have a group plan for bear encounters. Communicate with your group throughout the encounter. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by wooﬁng, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won't be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal. I mean, does anyone really think they'd sound intimidating to a bear?
Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening. That's right, all those Hollywood movies do not accurately display animal behavior. Who knew...
Pick up small children immediately.
Make yourself look as large as possible (for example, move slowly to higher ground).
Do NOT drop your pack as it can provide protection for your back and prevent a bear from accessing your food.
Do NOT let the bear access your food. Also, do NOT attempt to use the food as a distraction. Gather your food quickly if you encounter a bear, and get it into your bear safe.
If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase ﬂeeing animals. Do NOT climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees. If the bear follows you, it is time to stand your ground and fight.
Leave the area or take a detour. If this is impossible, wait until the bear moves away. Always leave the bear an escape route.
Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs; never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. The chances of an attack escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.
Avoid direct eye contact with the bear. Some suggest that eye contact may be seen as a signal of aggression. Be safe and do not do it. I mean, do you really want to win a staring contest with a griz?
Prepare your bear spray by unholstering your spray and detaching your trigger lock. Have your bear spray at the ready in case your encounter progresses. If you leave your vehicle in bear country, your bear spray should be easily accessed on your person. If the bear charges and is within 60 feet, this is when you deploy your spray. This is your last tool for a typical bear encounter.
If you are traveling in bear country:
Be aware. Keep alert for bears and signs of bears like scat, tracks, feeding evidence, etc.
Know bear habitat. Think of the things bears need like food, water, and shelter. Areas that have any of those resources can hold bears. Be extra alert in these areas or avoid them if possible.
Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
Make noise. Surprising a bear is never a good thing. If bears in the area know you are there, they will likely move away from your position. Some people may recommend bear bells, but your voice will carry better than a bell. Yell and clap to alert any bears in your vicinity. If you are a naturally quiet person, the bear bell may be a nice piece of equipment for your backup noisemaker.
Don't be active when bears are. This is tough. Wildlife lovers, hikers, and other recreation-lovers prefer to be active at dawn and dusk. However, bears are also active at dawn, dusk, and night. The decision to recreate at these times will be one that requires much thought. You should also discuss with wildlife professionals in the area you will be in.
Carry bear spray. Keep your bear spray on a belt holster or on a chest holster at all times. Never keep it in your backpack while hiking—you won’t be able to reach it in time if a bear charges or attacks you.
Store food in an approved portable bear container. For more food storage and safety, see below.
Bear Prevention and Deterrents
Food storage is critical in bear country. Hygiene products are often forgotten. Make sure these go into your bear safe or bear canister. Clean your cooking gear away from camp. Make sure to collect all food scraps and get them into your trash bag, which also should go into your bear safe. Most campsites that are maintained in bear country have bear boxes provided, like the one below. However, it is still never a bad idea to carry additional gear.
Bear safes, like the two below, are often required in some National Parks. Place the canisters in an open, flat area 100 feet from your campsite with the lid down. Never place them near a ledge or body of water. Consider sealing items inside the canisters in odor-blocking bags like the OPSAK Reusable Storage Bags from Amazon.
Bear Spray is critical in bear country. Some national parks have bear spray rental stands. These are usually an inexpensive option if you do not frequent in areas with bears. However, if you purchase and/or bring your own spray, make sure it is BEAR spray. Normal pepper spray/police spray are NOT effective against bears. Eat the cost, protect yourself, and get real bear spray. You want spray that comes with a way to attach it to your belt, vest, or chest strap. Make sure everyone in your party has bear spray. I personally use the UDAP Magnum Bear Spray & Hip Holster from Amazon. Why? The plastic holster is my favorite to pull my bear spray from. It is fast and smooth. However, get a spray that you are comfortable with and it approved.
You can see the plastic holster in the image below. This is what I carry when out in bear country. I also carry a backup spray and holster, as a precaution. I usually carry a different brand as my backup, such as SABRE Bear Spray from Amazon. I have a lot of bear spray in my house...
Bear bells are occasionally recommended, but your voice carries better. I won't make a recommendation for a bear bell, because your wonderful voice is FREE!
Feeding birds in bear country is tough. Bears are attracted to bird food, and it frequently creates problem bears. If you have a black bear problem at your bird feeders, my first recommendation is to take the feeders down during the active season. However, if you refuse to take your feeders down, you can try two options. Hang your feeders out of bear range, or try peppering the food with A LOT of cayenne pepper. Whatever you choose, do what is best for the bear, the birds, and then you.
How to Use Bear Spray
This wonderful video from Yellowstone Forever shows the correct way to use bear spray. If you own a tool, you should know how to use it, right? Right. Learn how to use your bear spray. Some national parks even provide training on training spray canisters. Double-check your area to see if you can get trained on using the spray correctly.
What to do if a Bear Attacks
If a black bear charges and attacks you, FIGHT BACK WITH EVERYTHING YOU HAVE! Do not play dead. Direct punches and kicks at the bear’s face, and use any weapon like rocks, branches, or bear spray to defend yourself.
If a grizzly/brown bear charges and attacks you, PLAY DEAD. Do not fight back! Cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Lay flat on your stomach, and spread your legs apart. Keep your pack on, it will help protect you during an attack. Stay still and don’t make any noise—you’re trying to convince the bear that you aren’t a threat to it or its cubs. Do not get up right away because the bear may still be in the area. Wait several minutes until you are sure that the bear is gone.
Fighting back during an attack from a grizzly/brown bear will usually worsen the attack, but if the attack persists, then fight back with everything you have!
If you surprise a bear, do not run or fight back. Unless the bear is acting predatory, you can worsen your situation by fighting a surprised bear.
HOWEVER, if you encounter a bear that is curious or stalks you like a predator, your situation is very different. You need to be prepared to FIGHT. Running won't help. Shelter can help if it is a vehicle or building but few other places provide adequate shelter. Use your bear spray when the bear is within range. Use any other available weapon.
These tips may sound counterintuitive to you and me, however, the people who recommend and practice these tactics are those who encounter bears far more often than the average outdoor "recreationer."
Grizzly Bear Range Map
Most US residents do not live in grizzly bear country. However, a few states in the west, and a large percentage of Canadian provinces and territories exist in the grizzly bear range. You may also hear grizzlies referred to as brown bears. Currently, 'brown bear' is the species name for all large brown bears in the northern hemisphere, around the globe. In North America, our main subspecies is the grizzly bear. So, a grizzly bear is a brown bear, but a brown bear is not necessarily a grizzly bear.
Black Bear Range Map
Black bears are found across North America. While these bears have frequent interactions with humans, the interactions are usually based around trash cans or food. While this map shows where most of the sustaining populations are, you can find black bears across the map. They are often prone to wandering.
If you want further reading material on bear safety, visit the National Park Service! Please, whatever you do, if you are in bear country, be prepared. Be smart. Be diligent. CARRY BEAR SPRAY!