What to do when you meet a bear in its home
Typical bear encounters are usually connected to bears protecting their food, cubs, and territory. Regardless the reason for the interaction, being mentally ready and properly educated can prepare you to have a smart and safe reaction.
At BearVault® we have learned that practicing bear safety while adventuring into the wild is an integrated approach including knowledge, equipment, and scenario. 100% safety is never guaranteed in the wild, however, preparation in each of these facets contribute to putting your best response forward in every situation.
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Purpose to protect and preserve wild outdoor adventure. More adventures and people adventuring, inevitably mean more bear and wildlife encounters. BearVault® seeks to support the outdoor community and keep adventures going.
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Avoiding bear invasion of your space includes stashing food and trash in bear-resistant containers. It is required in some locations for hikers and backpackers to store their food in air-tight bear resistant containers. Hikers and campers alike should always take advantage of the safety benefits of bear proof containers (at a minimum, campers should keep their food and trash in the trunk of their vehicle).
Using a bear resistant container is a smart way to protect not just your food but bears as well.To Hang or Not to Hang?
Bag peaks not food. There are multiple issues with hanging your food in a bag from a tree, typically called a “bear hang”. We highlight some word of wisdom from Andrew Skurka’s article, Ineffective & Outdated: Six Reasons to Not Hang a Bear Bag. In this article, he states that a bear hang is an improvised system of cord, sacks (or bags), and sometimes carabiners and pulleys used to suspend food in a tree, primarily to protect it from black bears, as well as from rodents (especially in high-use campsites) and grizzly bears (in select areas only). Bear hangs are less effective, less foolproof, less reliable, less efficient, and less safe than bear-resistant canisters.
Skurka goes on to express that sometimes, it is simply impossible to get a good bear hang as it is recommended that the bag is positioned 12-feet off the ground, 5-feet away from the trunk, and about 5-feet below the closest limb. In addition, if you are hiking above tree line or in arid areas, there will be no trees available. Regardless, achieving a good bear hang takes lots of practice to do it correctly; so why risk it if you are not proficient. Besides, bear hangs are rarely effective against a hungry and determined bear.
Yes, if you are in bear country.
Common sense, being smart, aware, and following tips, like not hiking alone, making noise so as not to surprise a bear, keeping the 100-yard rule (distance of food from your campsite), remembering you cannot outrun a bear (of any type), and you cannot climb your way to safety as most bears can climb trees better than you, are some of the best pro-active safety steps a hiker, backpacker, or camper can take. Still there are times when you might need more.
It is advisable by experts to not go into bear country without a deterrent, like bear spray. According to Ted Alvarez, writer for backpacker.com, “You can’t outrun them, you can’t outwit them, you can’t out-anything them. You need a way to say to the bear ‘this far; no farther.’” With that said, the likelihood of a bear attack is beyond negligible for most people.
Bear spray works a lot like a personal pepper spray device except that a bear spray canister contains a super dose of immensely powerful pepper spray.
According to the NPIC Utilizing capsaicin bear spray is a potent deterrent option. The effect of capsaicin is different for humans and animals. For humans it can lead to irritation of the mouth, stomach, and intestines as well as vomiting and diarrhea. Whereas in animals, a healthy dose of capsaicin causes burning to the skin, coughing, difficulty breathing, temporary blindness, and prevents the vocal cords from working for a short time. It can also cause severe eye irritation.
The most potent bear sprays contain 2% capsaicin, which is the strongest allowed by law. Products containing this percentage provide the highest level of non-lethal protection in the backcountry.
It is recommended to always practice to be ready for the real situation. Put on your backpack and your bear spray canister, imagine seeing a bear in the distance, position yourself up wind, pull the spray canister out of its holder, and ready be read to pull the trigger. Practice, until all the movements and thought processes are second nature! Remember to always consider the wind direction to avoid having the bear spray inadvertently blow back at your face.
Each canister of bear spray will specify the range from which it should be fired, some say within 10 to 20 yards, but there are other products that deliver a strong and consistent spray up to a 40-foot distance. DO NOT try and preserve some spray for the next time. Continue to spray until the bear leaves or until it the canister is empty.
In the unfortunate event that you must utilize this deterrent, it is good to aim for the face as best as you can, right at the nose and the eyes. Most bears will tend to retreat if they get hit with the spray, but that does not mean that they have left the area. Therefore, do not stick around. Leave as quickly as possible in a direction opposite from where the bear went.
Check the shelf life of your bear spray to ensure that it is not expired. Keep your bear spray fresh and store it according to the manufacturers’ recommendations. Check for information on product performance variation in extreme temperatures as well.
Attention to wind direction before spraying will help in preventing you from spraying yourself or others on accident.
According to the National Rangers (the Yellowstone National Park Bear Safety Brief), the following protocol should be used in cases of accidental exposure.
IN THE EYES. Hold eye open and rinse slowly and gently with cold water for 15 – 20 minutes. People who wear contact lenses should remove the lenses after rinsing the eyes for 5 minutes. After removing contacts, continue rinsing the eyes for 15 – 20 minutes.
ON THE SKIN OR CLOTHING. Take off contaminated clothing. Rinse skin immediately with plenty of cold water for 15 – 20 minutes or more. A non-oil-based soap or detergent (Dawn Dish Soap) can be used to remove the bear spray from the skin. Pat dry with cloth towel. Do Not Rub! Do not use lotion, salves, or creams on the affected areas, as these trap the bear pepper spray against the skin. A wet towel or ice pack may be used on the affected areas to reduce inflammation.
IF INHALED. Move away from bear spray to an area of fresh air as soon as possible.
IF INGESTED. Do not induce vomiting.
POST EXPOSURE MONITORING. All effects should dissipate within 45 minutes. The individual should be closely observed for symptoms of physical distress (chest pain, cold sweat, or shallow breathing). Asthma sufferers may experience acute stress. If anything, other than a normal reaction occurs or the symptoms persist beyond 45 minutes, medical attention should be given or summoned immediately.
As a final safety tip, remember to keep up wind and to always keep the safety tab on the trigger until the need to spray is clear and certain.
Bear bells may be a popular item to put on your backpack, but according to the US National Parks Service typically do not effectively warn a bear you are in the area. There is a chance that bears will not hear the bells until you are too close. Yelling, clapping, and talking are more effective ways of alerting a bear to your presence.
Studies have been done that warn against introducing any novelty into a bear’s environment, as they are very curious animals. They are not used to seeing bright and solid colors. Therefore, if you telegraph your presence by wearing clothing that does not fit naturally into the environment, do not be surprised if you attract a curious bear. Mixed colors, and camouflage, help you blend into the surroundings. The same goes for lotions, perfumes, and even shampoos that have a strong smell that might attract their attention.
The first rule of thumb on the trail is to always be alert, always be aware, and always be on the lookout for bears. Awareness is your first line of safety. This means keeping a look out for fresh tracks, scat, and other signs of a bear’s presence, including torn up logs, digging, fresh claw marks on trees, and carcasses in the area.
If you come across such indications of recent bear activity, it is advisable to change your course and find another route. For the most part, bears tend to be on the shy side, but during mating season, birthing season, and when they are intense about gathering food for hibernation, they can be far more protective and assertive.
Take your canister out of your pack when you stop to camp. We have seen a bear drag an entire backpack away from camp only minutes after the hiker removed his pack.
Store your food properly (the 100-foot rule). Sleep, cook, and store your food in bear proof containers (bear resistant containers) at least 100 feet away from where you are camping. It is also good to know that bear-resistant containers are nearly 100% bear proof.
Cooking & Cleaning. Food choices that leave a lot of mess and are difficult to clean up are not ideal. Carefully choose where you will drain cooking water and dump scraps.
Scented Items: Bears are attracted to scented items. Consider this when brushing your teeth and spitting on the ground, using sunscreen, chewing candy, gum, mints, etc.
Bear’s are even more unpredictable when taken by surprise. If you notice a bear before it notices you, back away slowly and calmly, while keeping an eye on the bear. NEVER EVER approach a bear that does not see you.
Making noise on the trail can alert a bear to your presence before you have the chance to surprise it. Talk to your partners and occasionally sing loudly, yell “hello” or “whoop! whoop!” and clap your hands loudly to let any bears know you’re coming. Make extra noise when you are close to loud natural features, such as rivers, streams, and on windy days. Also make lots of noise when approaching features that make it hard for a bear to see you (such as a crest in the trail or a blind corner).
Trail running in bear territory is highly discouraged. Runners have surprised bears and provoked a negative reaction.
Do not hike in bear country alone. Hiking in a group will decrease your chances of surprising a bear. A group of three or more hikers is preferred as bears will be able to see, hear, and smell you more easily. Hiking in a group also increases the odds at least one person will be alert and notice a bear before a surprise encounter.
Watch out for mothers with cubs. If you happen to see a cub, leave the area right away. Their mothers are very protective and are likely nearby. If you happened to find yourself between a mother and its cubs, slowly back away in a non-threatening manner, and calmly reposition yourself while keeping your eyes on the mother bear.
Always keep your distance if you see a bear. DO NOT try to get close enough for a picture or a selfie with a bear in the background.
There is no exact formula to follow to navigate a direct encounter perfectly. The following is standard advice given by experienced parks and service experts.
Black Bear. If a black bear approaches you with aggressive intent, it is advisable to fight back. Black bears tend to naturally retreat and flee in the face of conflict. Stand tall, wave your arms, pick up sticks, and look tall.
Brown Bear (Grizzly). If a brown bear approaches you with aggressive intent, do not fight, and do not challenge the bear. Drop to the ground in a fetal position, stay face down, legs spread, and cover your neck with clasped hands. Let your backpack protect your back. Stay still and DO NOT move until the bear leaves.
Dawn, dusk, and at night are the times when bears, as well as other predators, are highly active. It is their preferred foraging and hunting time.
Before leaving, take time to familiarize yourself with the types of bears that can be found in the area. At times, the wildlife authorities will post signs which warn of bears that frequent specific areas, but you cannot always rely on posted signage. Once again, it is always best to do your research on the area and know what to expect before you leave home.
Check with the wildlife or park authorities in the area you will be exploring. They will be able to give you advance notice of any specific, local area that you should increase your preparedness or avoid altogether. Call and see what conditions the seasons may have created. Ask questions like, are the bears going to stop hibernating early, will they wake hungrier than expected, what is the food resource condition, the history of encounters for the area, any problem bears, and where in the area do the bears find their food? The questions you ask should vary based on the time of year you are adventuring.
National Park Service Rangers are extremely knowledgeable about many of these questions including such detail as the age and number of area cubs, territory that sows and cubs are roaming in, and more. Checking with the Rangers is a priceless and smart step toward being prepared for your adventure and your overall bear experience and readiness.
Dealing with a habituated bear is completely different than dealing with an average bear in the wild.
Habituated bears have exposure and knowledge to humans that makes them behave differently. They have lost their natural fear of humans and largely ignore people around them. Habituated bears usually have a peaceful relationship with humans around them as long as they are benefiting from and not being harmed by the relationship.
However, habituated bears can become food conditioned, making them potentially dangerous. Food conditioned bears will seek out people to get at their food raiding campsites, shelters, trash cans, and vehicles (even damaging them). They find it difficult to go back to hunting for food naturally once they become accustomed to finding it easily. Food conditioned bears easily become aggressive if they cannot get to the food they want; constitute a considerable danger to people in the area; and have a significant chance of getting relocated or euthanized.
Unfortunately, habituated bears easily become food conditioned. According to welovebears.club, “There is a very thin line between the two conditions, and most times human carelessness and lack of education causes the problem.“
“It is good to remember that bears always go to easy food sources, and once they find them, they will keep coming back.” -JT Romatzke, Regional Manager for CPW’s Northwest Region
Bears favor habitats where they feel secure to feed, rest, and sleep—thick brush and dense trees, for example. When you are out hiking, be mindful of features that can easily hide a bear from open view, like boulder fields, tall bushes, gullies, and large rock outcroppings.
Extra caution should be taken in areas that are prime for bears to be feeding or drinking. Water sources will always attract bears. Large swaths of flowering plants and plants with flowers or fruit on them, like berries, are guaranteed to attract bears. During the late summer and fall, bears will be foraging, which can make it harder for them to notice you and easier for you to surprise them.
There is a seasonal time when bears are in a feeding frenzy as they try to gather enough calories prior to their fall hibernation. During this time, which is called “hyperphagia”, bears eat up to 20 hours per day to increase their weight. They can eat up to 20,000 calories a day and can add a layer of fat that is 4 to 5 inches all around its body. They will literally eat and drink almost nonstop, working to put on weight before they return to their dens.
Black bears typically hibernate from November to March, during which they will live off a layer of fat buildup, not eating or drinking for months. According to the Western Wildlife Outreach bears will increase their body weight by about 35% or more during hyperphagia, ahead of hibernation. In fact, adult brown bears can weight more than 1,000 pounds by winter.
If you are venturing out in the spring, research the territory patterns for mating and for awareness of baby cubs roaming the area. If you come across a bear on your adventures, it is best to leave the area or take a detour. If that is not possible, wait until the bear leaves the area.
If you see a female with cubs, be especially cautious. Never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. US National Parks state that the chances of a negative encounter escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.
Actual harmful encounters are extremely infrequent, but happen quickly, leaving a person little time to react. This famous video of a bow hunter being attacked by a bear is evidence. The most remarkable thing about this video is the ability of this bear to close distance. The bear’s speed is unbelievable.
A 600-pound male grizzly is capable of charging at up to 35-40 miles per hour.
If a bear begins to charge, you will need to act quickly. That means keeping your bear spray accessible. DO NOT put your bear spray in your backpack. Keep it in a pouch, on your belt, or secured to the shoulder straps of your backpack within easy reach. If you are a frequent trail runner, consider a bear spray holster belt that ensures you have protection when you need it.
If you are out in the woods and happen to surprise a bear, you will want to back away slowly, in effect let the bear know that you are not attempting to challenge it. If the bear begins to charge and you reach for your spray, consider the direction of the wind before you engage the spray. Spraying into the wind, may incapacitate you. This might provide some protection from the bear, but this is not how bear spray is meant to be used and you will learn about the potency of capsaicin in an unfortunate way.