The Bear Page
I created this page to summarize some information about coping with bears out on the trail. Most of this information is specific to grizzlies, some pertains to both grizzly and black bears. If you want to learn more, I'd suggest the book: "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" by Stephen Herrero
- I always tried to make noise when walking through areas where visibility wasn't good & seemed like good grizzly land. I started out singing, but that quickly got old… then it was just more of a "NUP!!!". every now and then. If you feel embarrassed making funny noises in the woods, I can't help you. I only saw a couple "probable" grizzlies when in north Montana, neither were in places a bear could've heard me (by a waterfall & in the rain). Bells are said to be rather ineffective as they aren't very loud & not at a good pitch for bear's hearing. Bears don't have good eyesight & need clues as to what you are. If you're sneaking around in the woods, they may think you're a deer or something. Of course, making noise will reduce your chances of seeing other wildlife, but that's just how it goes I guess.
- I never cooked where I slept in griz country.
- I never "slept out" in griz country. That thin nylon might not seem like much protection, but to a curious bear in the middle of the night, it's another obstacle - would you rather have a bear sniffing around your tent/tarp, or your head?
- I hung my food when I could. I know a lot of lightweight backpackers shiver at the thought of carrying 4oz's of perlon, but it made me feel better. Plus, hanging kept my food away from mice - a problem in northern MT. It only takes a couple minutes to hang food… what else are you so busy doing out there? The rope came in handy for a few other things too.
- I carried a small can of pepper spray. It was not the standard "Lysol-can-sized" monster, just a little "lemon-spray-sized" thing ($7 at an army surplus store). My theory was that although I didn't have much range with the thing, it might be effective if a bear was right on top of me… If I had been attacked, I'd have had to wait for the bear to get very close, possibly knock me down first & get its head down close… I don't know how effective it might have been, but it made me feel better. If you do carry pepper spray, make sure the safety won't go off accidentally! (I used some duct-tape to make a secondary safety), and make sure it's accessible at all times - I wore mine on my chest harness - it's worthless buried in your pack. If nothing else, the pepper spray at least gave a "final proactive option"… of course, I would have felt safer & had more options with a larger can.
- I often slept with the pepper spray in my chest pocket, so I wouldn't need to reach out of my sleeping bag to get it.
- I almost used the pepper spray on a couple stray dogs… Plus, it made me feel safer when hitching.
Bear Encounter Decision Matrix
- If it's a mother & cubs, try to back away slowly & avoid a direct stare. If she charges, stand there, she may bluff 10 feet before she reaches you. If she knocks you down, play dead, laying face down, forearms over your head, legs together, pack ON. The bear will likely leave once it no longer sees you as a threat (you may still wind up injured though)
- If it's just a random solo bear, try to back away slowly & avoid a direct stare. If it charges, stand there - don't even take one small step back, as the bear may consider this a cue that it can "take" you. The bear may bluff just before reaching you. If it knocks you down, you'll have to make a judgement call. If you play dead, the bear may loose interest, or the bear may see you as food & start eating you. My plan was to go to pepper spray before that happened… right around the knock-down stage. (my personal natural instinct is to try and intimidate the bear at first, but that's just me, I'm probably stupid)
- If you encounter a bear feeding on a carcass, back away. If it sees you and comes your way - climb a tree (at least 20 feet to be safe), use pepper spray, try to keep a tree between you and the bear, fight back if attacked… do not play dead!
- If you're being followed by a solo bear, then it already knows you're there & is curious. You have to do something, you can't just keep walking, because it will keep following. Confront the bear & treat like a "random solo bear". Your best bet may be to try and intimidate the bear as it gets close.
- If at any point, a bear tries to eat you - fight, climb, run, anything…
Some thoughts on grizzlies and bears in general
- Grizzlies tend to have a "buffer zone" of around a hundred yards or so. If you're outside this zone, it's a lot easier to avoid a bear. A grizzly will rarely kill someone instantly (it does happen though) - in fatal attacks, it's much more common for the bear to bat the person around a lot, leave them alone, then maul them repeatedly when they try to run. That said, the bear may do significant damage in an initial rush - rip a scalp off or something.
- I have had some luck intimidating black bears with hiking poles & "threatenting" postures & loud noises. The jury is out as to whether this is as effective with grizzlies - in some cases it may backfire.
- If you see a big sandy bear in grizzly country, don't try and figure out if it's really a grizzly, just treat it like one. The differences are not always immediately evident, even to experts.
- The grizzly is expanding its range in the northern US rockies by quite a lot in recent years (according to a biologist I met who was studying bears in the Bob)
- Standard procedure for dealing with "problem bears" (in GNP and in most fish & game jurisdictions) is now to release them near where they were trapped & shoot them with pepper spray & bean bag guns & sick dogs on them - all in an effort to give the bears a negative association with humans. They don't just relocate problem GNP grizzlies into the Bob, no matter what the locals say. If a bear causes repeated problems, it is destroyed. (I think they only get 1 strike… maybe 2?)
- In very rare cases, there just isn't anything you can do. It's your time to go.
- If you encounter a Chicago Bear… try to scramble out of the pocket, they're not very good at catching slippery quarterbacks, and would likely have trouble with a nimble-footed hiker.