When you’re planning your next adventure, make sure you keep bear safety in mind.
Know Your Bears
There are three kinds of bears in North America: black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears. Black bears are the smallest and least aggressive and are identifiable by their straight muzzle, pointed ears, dark claws, and lack of a hump. Grizzlies are larger, lighter in color, and have rounded ears and a shoulder hump. Polar bears are the most aggressive but are only found in the Arctic regions.
When you’re planning your trip, research what kinds of wildlife you’re likely to encounter. Check with local experts and call local rangers or land management if you have any questions about the protocol. The locals will know their bears and are always happy to share advice on how to interact with them safely and respectfully.
Most bears are inclined to avoid contact with humans, and will often leave the area if they hear people approaching. Unintended encounters happen most often when bears are surprised and feel cornered or trapped—so tell them you’re coming! Tie a bell to your backpack, sing out loud as you’re hiking, clap your hands, whatever suits your fancy—just make enough noise so that they know you’re there.
On trails or in environmental conditions that might make it hard for animals to see, smell, or hear approaching parties, make sure to pay extra attention to making yourself known. For example: if you’re walking into the wind, bears might not smell you. Blind corners or trails that ascend hills might block their view of approaching hikers. Berry patches or rivers with fish might distract bears, and low light conditions at dawn or dusk can reduce visibility.
Keep a Clean Camp
When you get to camp, immediately coordinate with the rest of your party to establish a plan for keeping your campsite clean. Never leave food unattended and store all edibles, food containers, cookware, scented products (like lip balm, sunscreen, and scented wipes) and trash (including feminine hygiene products) in a bear canister, food locker, or in a stuff sack hung in a tree or bear wire at least ten feet off the ground (which is out of a bear’s reach.) Never throw garbage into toilets, and be wary of leaving anything that a bear might mistake for food in a locked car—they’ve been known to break windows in search of a snack.
Keep in mind that bear safety at campsites is a team sport, too. If the site next to you attracts a bear, it’s as much your problem as it is theirs. Communicate with fellow users, and don’t be afraid to ask local rangers for advice or assistance.
In Case of Encounters
If you see bears at a distance of more than 100 yards, observe them respectfully. Keep the animal’s line of travel uninhibited, and always make sure they have an escape route so they don’t feel trapped or cornered. Move away if they approach you—every bear has his own requirements for personal space, and you want to error on the side of safety.
If you’re close to a bear, back away slowly. Try to assume a non-threatening posture—turn sideways, be quiet, and act submissive. Don’t make direct eye contact, which might be interpreted as threatening.
Consider Carrying Bear Spray
If you travel frequently in areas where bear encounters are common, consider carrying an aerosol pepper spray designed specifically for animals. Sprays are effective, non-toxic, non-lethal tools to deter aggressive bears. Read the instructions carefully, practice with a dummy spray, and remember: carrying spray is not an excuse to get sloppy with prevention and good habits.