Questions around bear safety are inevitable for any intrepid hiker off on their first hikes in bear country. Never fear. Bears should not detract you from enjoying a hike, but they require respect and knowledge.
Most bears and wildlife, for that matter, do their best to avoid human interactions. However, every time you go on a hike in bear country, there is the chance for a bear encounter. Naturally, bears are fearful of humans, but as they become more accustomed to humans, the risk of interaction increases. This means hiking trails are a prime location to come across a bear.
It’s essential to remember that a bear is not hiding in the woods waiting to pounce on unsuspecting hikers. Hiking in bear country is about mitigation and preparation. Bear safety is about reducing your chances for interaction and being prepared in case of a negative interaction.
Bear Safety Tips — Hiking In Bear Country
Respect Closures And Notices
The first tip is to avoid a negative bear interaction altogether. Often wardens of the park institute trail closures to help mitigate potentially harmful bear interactions. When a bear is seen frequenting an area or a mother and cub are denning near the trail, wardens will close the trail.
When the trail or area is closed, notices are posted online and at the trailhead. You should always adhere to warnings and closures. It’s a good idea to check trail conditions the night before and keep an eye out for any notices posted at the trailhead. I like to head to the trailhead with backup plans for another hike or summit.
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
Always be aware of your surroundings when hiking in bear country. First off, no earbuds. Yes, I have seen this numerous times on the trail. When you’re hiking, you need all your senses. You’re there to enjoy nature.
A startled bear is at its most dangerous. It’s best to see a bear before you surprise the animal. Keep your eyes open for fresh tracks, scat, or feeding sites (more on that below).
Watch how the trail progresses and think about headwinds, running water, trail bends, or dense vegetation. A hiking trail is the easiest way to navigate thick vegetation, and bears will use hiking trails too! Exercise caution when your chances of startling a bear increase. This is best done by making noise when a bear may not hear, smell, or see you coming along the trail.
Do not assume that bear will see you first. Bears sleep for half the year, so they have a limited time to eat a massive amount of food. You may not break a bear’s focus from a food source.
Make Noise On The Trail
While you’re alert, you should make noise in areas where a surprise bear encounter is possible. Of course, if you’re on a crowded or busy trail, this is likely not necessary. However, it’s good to shout, “Hey bear,” to alert any potential bears in the area on a quiet path.
We don’t say this all the time on the trail but pay extra caution to the areas noted above where a surprise bear encounter is possible. We always make noise or carry on a conversation loudly.
If you’re not sure what to yell or talk about, we suggest you play a game. It’s helpful after a long day on the trail, and conversation can feel a little difficult. You can also do this yourself; granted; you might seem crazy if you pass anyone.
Utilize Bear Spray
Bear spray is proven to be effective at stopping aggressive bear behavior. Always carry bear spray and have it readily available in bear country. Carry the bear spray in a belt holster, backpack strap, cargo pocket, or hip belt.
Aggressive behavior will likely occur from startling a bear in which you may only have seconds to react, not a minute to reach into your backpack. The U.S. National Park Service has excellent advice and a video on how to best use bear spray. Most outdoor stores or rental locations will be happy to demonstrate how to effectively use bear spray.
Should you deploy bear spray, be sure to clear the area. Then alert any relevant authorities to the encounter. Bear spray can attract bears as it is pepper spray and smells sweet. The information can help park authorities assess the situation with the bear, which may involve trail closures, animal relocation, or on rare occasions, destruction.
Mind Your Gear
You should never leave your packs or bags unattended for even a few minutes. Bears are intelligent and learn new food sources fast. If a bear receives human food even once, it will often become more aggressive towards people and attempt to loot other packs for food.
This applies to all of your time in the park. Never litter and always utilize bearproof trash cans when disposing of food. When a bear receives human food, it may result in a destroyed bear as it becomes habituated to humans. Keep in mind the classic mantra, “a fed bear is a dead bear.” This applies to all wildlife.
Use Caution Around Bear Food
The most crucial food source for bears in the Canadian Rockies is buffaloberry. This bush thrives in low-lying sunny areas along trails and is the most likely reason for interaction. When the bushes come into season from July to September, it’s a feeding frenzy for the bears. You can recognize the bush from its oblong leaves and dark red berry with tiny white dots.
If you’re hiking and come along the bushes, it’s best to practice caution or consider an alternative hike if it’s a seldom-used trail. Another source is to avoid any animal carcasses. If you smell something dead or see birds circling overhead, it’s good to avoid the area. Encroaching a bear’s prized food source is not advised.
Limit Hiking Solo
There have been very few bear attacks on groups of four or more. Some sources site that there has never been a death from a bear attack in groups, but we could not verify that with a reference. However, stats back up that 91% of bear-related injuries have occurred to solo or two hikers while only 9% occurred to groups of three or more in Yellowstone. Groups certainly detract from the chance of a bad interaction with wildlife.
If you’re a group of three or more, it is intimidating for a bear. In addition, since a group is louder, smellier, and larger, they’re far less likely to startle a bear. Hiking in bear country is about dozens of decisions to reduce the chance of a negative interaction. It’s rarely just one decision.
Bear Active Hours
It’s best to avoid or be aware of bears’ most active hours. During the summer, grizzly bears are most active at dawn, dusk, or night. Not that we’d advise hiking around the wilderness at night anyways.
If you have plans to hike around the hours, you need to be especially mindful. The best advice is to avoid hiking during these hours altogether. It’s especially true if you’re new to the area and still learning to navigate.
Stay On Trail
Visitors should stay on the trail as it reduces the chance of bear encounters and it’s a good “leave no trace” rule. Bears are intelligent and know areas frequented by humans, so they often avoid busy trails.
Animals Should Remain On Leash
If you like to hike with your dog, it should always remain on a leash. It is the law in parks that allow animals to enter. It’s about safety. A running or barking dog can trigger a predatory or defensive response from a bear or other predator. Proper bear safety requires a pet to stay on a leash.
In my first year living in the mountains, I can recall the anger locally when a cougar was destroyed by two hikers and their off-leash dogs. The result was two dead pets and a dead cougar. It’s a negative interaction that was unnecessary.
Notify Parks Authority
This goes along with what to do once bear spray is discharged. However, that is not the only reason to contact the relevant parks authority. It’s a good idea whenever the bear displays notable behavior such as curiosity, bluff charges, or any human interaction. If you see a bear rummaging through a pack or trash can, alert park authorities.
This does not only apply to bears, but any animal that may be a problem for visitors, such as wolves, cougars, or an aggressive elk. If you see a cougar, it’s probably best to alert parks no matter the circumstance, as tracking the animals is incredibly difficult.
I’ve experienced only a handful of notable encounters with wildlife in years of hiking in bear country. I’ve seen plenty of animals, but only two were cause for concern, and that’s the case for most people. The most likely scenario is you see an animal, and it carries on with its day at a distance.
All visitors are advised to practice the bare campsite policy. This means no food is left unattended, and all campsites are clean to reduce conflicts with wildlife.
Food should be stored appropriately in bear lockers and away from the campsite. It’s advised to never keep or eat food in your tent. There have been multiple instances in history of habituated bears entering tents searching for food.
You can read more tips and information about camping in Banff National Park, here. Your approach to visiting the wilderness is the most important step in bear safety.
How To React When Confronted With A Bear
Bear In The Distance
This is how the vast majority of bear interactions will occur. It’s an incredible encounter with a bear and extraordinary to see the animal in its natural habitat. However, distance should be maintained. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and want to approach the bear for a photograph. However, there have been multiple instances of photographers approaching a bear and being mauled or killed.
If the bear doesn’t see you, it’s best to remain out of sight and downwind. You should detour as far as possible around the bear. A detour may involve leaving the trail as bears are often seen on the trail as it’s an easy path. If a bear is blocking your exit from an area, keep a considerable distance and make yourself known to the bear by yelling or moving upwind to allow the bear to catch your scent.
If a bear spots you, it may stand up on two legs. This is not aggressive behavior. The animal is likely using the higher stance to gain information, do not panic. It is never good to run away or move quickly away from a bear. Make your intentions clear and move away slowly and straightforwardly. It’s important that you always leave the bear an escape route.
If a bear sticks out its lips, huff, barks, clacks its teeth, or slaps the ground, it is a warning sign that you are too close for the bear’s comfort. Listen to the bear and back away slowly. Do not run, play dead, shout, or make sudden movements. You do not want to challenge the bear or trigger a predatory response.
Continue to face the bear and back away slowly. It is important that you stay calm most bears do not want to charge you, but react because they are defensive. Pick up any small children or animals.
You can talk in a low assertive manner, but do not yell. Putting distance between you and the bear may calm the animal. However, draw your bear spray and remove the safety tab as you do so. You should be prepared to discharge the deterrent if the bear charges.
Do not run and do not climb a tree. Bears, especially black bears, are skillful climbers and have pulled several people from trees in attacks. You’ll likely not reach a height out of a bear’s reach before it catches you. The last bear death in the Canadian Rockies occurred when a local woman ran and climbed a tree.
Stand your ground if a bear does charge you after a surprise encounter. Most charges are a bluff, and the bear will stop the charge or veer away. If you turn and run, the bear will likely give chase. A bluff charge usually follows defensive behaviors. It may charge with its ears and head up to appear more intimidating.
This is the time to use your bear spray. Start spraying when the bear is around 15-20 meters. You want to create a cloud of spray about 10 meters away. When the bear enters the cloud, it will disorientate the bear and hopefully cause it to leave the area. Bear spray is 98% effective, so the encounter will likely end there.
Should the bear continue its charge, or you fail to use your bear spray, do not drop to the ground and play dead until contact with the animal or a moment before. To play dead, lie belly on the ground with your backpack up and clasp your hands around your neck with your elbows protecting the face. Stay still and silent to convince the bear you are no threat.
After the bear leaves, remain still for several minutes before you start to move again. Stay vigilant and cautious to ensure the bear has left the area. A grizzly sow may stay in the area as she gathers her cubs. If you get up too soon, she’ll likely attack again. Once you are sure it is safe, leave the area slowly, do not run.
When the bear reacts defensively in a surprise encounter, you should never fight back. A fight will only prolong an attack that you stand little chance of winning. People who have played dead during a surprise bear encounter have only received minor injuries 75% of the time. While those who fought back received severe injury 80% of the time.
Curious Or Predatory Bear
This is the least likely bear encounter, but it is vital to note. A curious or predatory bear may persistently approach with its head up and ears erect. It may not give any warning signs like a startled bear. It moves directly towards you in a calm manner.
If you’re approached by a curious or predatory bear, grab your items, especially food, and move away from the animal. DO NOT RUN. Stay facing the animal. If a retreat is not an option, gather in a group and yell at the bear. It may still turn around. If a bear is slowly approaching, prepare your bear spray and discharge when the animal is much closer approximately 7 to 10 meters.
A predatory bear will charge with its head low and ears back ready to charge. It is no longer attempting to appear big and intimidating. If you are attacked by a curious or predatory bear, you want to fight back with everything. Your life depends on this fight, so utilize everything you have, rocks, sticks, a hiking pole, or a knife. Predatory attacks will continue until the bear is scared away, injured, or killed.
There is a caveat to grizzly bear attacks as there is little chance to win a fight against the animal. Your best bet is to play dead. However, if the attack continues then fight back with everything you have.
If a black bear attacks and makes contact you should fight back. Throw punches and kicks to the animal’s face and inflict as much damage as possible. There is a chance to scare off a black bear attack.
Myths Around Hiking In Bear Country
Bear Spray Is Not A Deterrent
This has to be said because a mistake is made every year, but the bear spray is not like insect repellent. Do not spray it on yourself. It is a powerful pepper spray. Anyone who has sprayed the repellent or accidentally discharged it can attest to how powerful and painful the product can be on the skin and eyes.
Food For Day Hikes
You don’t need to worry about packing certain types of food in your pack on a day hike. Bears are opportunistic omnivores. They will eat whatever food source is most bountiful and easy. They require a vast amount of calories, and they sleep for half the year, so most of their activity centers around food, which is not necessarily human food. A sandwich in a backpack is far less appealing than a large thicket of ripe berries.
Bear Bells Or Speakers
There is a debate whether bells may be attractant or ineffective, either way, they’re useless in most settings. A slight ringing bell does not carry noise far, and it’s easy to be drowned out by a creek or wind blowing in the forest. There is debate about whether the unnatural sound may attract curious young bears. Bears are predisposed to avoid the human voice, not the sound of a small ringing bell.
Speakers are obnoxious to other hikers and drown out the nature you’re there to enjoy. Like the bear bell, the noise carries far less distance than the human voice. Of course, you could turn the volume up, but that makes a point of not enjoying nature and annoying everyone else on the trail.