Bear Safety Tips: A Backpacker’s Ultimate Survival Guide

Bears are not cuddly, gentle or tame creatures but are unpredictable and potentially dangerous – which is why you need the bear safety tips discussed here. Bear attacks happen as fast as lightning. Most situations where you will need to protect yourself will be in close surprise encounters.

If you are worried about staying safe when camping or hiking in bear country, you should know that bear attacks in the wild are quite rare. However, it is important to know some bear safety tips to minimize risk when travelling in bear country.


Know Your Bears

Bears Found in North America and their Territories

The three bear species found in North America are black bears, brown/grizzly bears, and polar bears. Here is a detailed description of each of the species:

Black Bears

The black bear is the most commonly seen species in North America and has the largest geographic range. It can be found as far north as most of Canada and as far south as central Mexico. Black bears are commonly found in parts of Alaska, in the Rocky Mountains, along the West Coast, and in the East. Black bears are also found in some areas in the Southeast and Southwest.

Brown/Grizzly Bear

The brown bear and the grizzly bear belong to the same species. When they are inland, they are referred to as grizzly bears. They are generally known as brown bear in the coastal regions of Alaska and Canada. The grizzly bear is far more aggressive than the black bear. The best way to identify a grizzly is the large hump on its shoulder most visible while they are walking.

Polar Bear

The polar bear is the largest of the North American bears. They usually range between 700 and 1500 pounds. Polar bears are not only the largest North American bear, but also the most dangerous to humans. You can easily identify a polar bear by its white fur. It also has a hump on its shoulders. It is common to find polar bears in the northernmost areas of Alaska and Canada.


How to Prepare for a Bear Encounter

It can be quite exciting to travel in bear country. While it is possible to avoid most bear attacks, there is always the risk of encountering one. Wildlife specialists compiled the bear safety tips provided here. They will help you prepare for a bear encounter.

Bear encounter preparation is absolutely essential to avoid causing harm either to the bear or you and your loved ones. Practice what to do in different attack scenarios. Rehearse with your family and friends about various potential scenarios to be ready for an actual life-threatening scenario.

You should always have bear pepper spray in its holster ready for immediate use. Avoid burying it in your pack. Be alert when you see recent bear activities documented by park officials. You should also be extremely cautious when traveling on trails either at night.

Be particularly careful with food smells and never cook close to camp. You need to store all the food in bear bags if the camp is unattended at night. It is advisable to store these not less than 100 yards from camp. You should also hang it not less than 14 feet up a tree and not less than 4 feet away from the trunk. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is the best method for hanging your bear bag containing all your food.

It is generally important to be careful with how you handle your food in bear country since it is what attracts the bears. Like what Scott Jackson from the U.S. Forest Service National Carnivore Program Leader said, it is important to be aware of our surroundings, to maintain a clean camp, and provide bears with sufficient space. If we do these bear safety tips, we will be able to avoid conflict with these amazing creatures.

Bear Danger Signs to Watch For

Park officials may document any recent bear activity, but you should still know the bear danger signs to watch for. How do you tell whether bears have been frequenting a particular area? Bears usually leave many signs behind. Learn to look out for the grizzly and black bear signs to avoid potential problems. You should also learn to distinguish black and grizzly bears from a distance.

Here are the key bear danger signs to watch out for:


One of the most obvious indicator of the presence of bears is the tracks. Black and grizzly bears have different tracks. The length of the claws is the key difference in the feet of the two bear species. You can easily identify black bear tracks in the mud. Their toes are slightly separated while grizzly tracks show toes joined together.


Bear scat is another good indicator of bear activity. It is not advisable to touch scat with your bare hands when examining it. Scat varies dramatically depending on what the bear is feeding on at that particular time of the year. Examining the scat will help you determine how fresh it is. If you see signs of garbage in the scat, you may want to consider moving on since you may have a habituated bear in the area.

Territory Markings

Bears often scrape, bite, or scrap trees as a way to mark their territory. One or more bears will mark some trees repeatedly in succession over the years. If you see bear scratches on tree, you can tell whether a bear is in the area depending on how fresh it is. Black bears are good climbers, so watch out for any black bear claw marks on the barks of trees.


Bear Safety Tips During an Encounter

You may still encounter bears even after following the bear safety tips discussed here. It is good to be prepared if you do find yourself in such situation. Once the bear has noticed you and started paying attention to you, the following tips will prevent escalation of the problem:

Identify Yourself: Talk calmly so that the bear knows that you are not a prey animal but a human. Stand your ground and wave your arms slowly. The bear might stand on the hind legs or come closer to get a better smell or look. However, a standing bear is usually a curious bear and not threatening.

Stay Calm: Don’t forget that bears don’t wish to attack you and actually prefer to be left alone. Continue talking to the bear in low tones. Doing this helps you stay calm and won’t be threatening to the bear. A sudden movement or scream can trigger an attack.

Travel and Hike in Groups: Group of people tend to be smellier and noisier than just one person. Bears thus often become aware of groups of people at greater distances. Groups are also intimidating to bears due to their cumulative size.

Be particularly cautious if you encounter a female bear with cubs: You must never place yourself between a mother bear and her cubs and never try to approach them. If you have any young children, pick them up immediately.

Carry Bear Pepper Spray: Carry bear pepper spray with you when hiking in bear country. Bear pepper spray is a highly concentrated capsaicin spray that produces a large cloud. It is enough to stop a bear in its tracks. Bear safety tips such as this have saved the lives of many.

Bear Safety Tips During Encounter

Bear Myths Vs Facts

Bears have fascinated humanity for a long time. There are still many misconceptions that surround them.

Here are 5 popular myths about bears and facts dispelling those myths:

Myth: Bears Have Poor Eyesight

Bears don’t actually have poor eyesight. Most people think that the bear’s amazing sense of smell makes up for a lack of vision. They have excellent vision even at night due to a reflective membrane on the back of the eye.

Myth: Bears are Carnivores

Bears are not carnivores but rather omnivores. Black bears and grizzly bears are both omnivores (they feed on both animals and plants). The diet usually depends on the foods available in their habitat in a particular season.

Myth: Bears Cannot Run Downhill

If a bear chases you, don’t run downhill. A bear can run as fast as 35mph and can do it uphill, downhill, or a flat area. A bear is capable of outrunning you no matter what. If you encounter one, don’t run away. Stand tall, talk loudly but calmly, and follow the rest of the tips described above.

Myth: Rifles Are Safer than Bear Pepper Spray

The risk of sustaining serious injury from a charging bear increases significantly when you use a firearm versus when you use bear pepper spray. Injured people who defend themselves with bear pepper spray usually sustain less severe injuries and shorter attacks compared to those that use firearms.

Myth: Bear Attacks Are Quite Common

The fact is – bear attacks are incredibly rare. While there are thousands of encounters between humans and bears each year, only a handful result in personal injury. Bears will generally retreat before you are even aware of their presence.


The Bottom Line

Bears are amazing creatures and if you want to avoid confrontations with them in the wild, follow the bear safety tips discussed here. The key takeaways from this article is that you should always store food properly and always carry bear pepper spray with you when hiking or camping in bear country.



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