Most of the backcountry is also bear country in North America. Black bears and brown bears, also called grizzly bears, are very intelligent creatures that by and large tend not to disturb humans even in the areas of bear country that have the highest bear populations. As cuddly as they may be in teddy form, black bears and grizzly bears always hang in the mind of worried campers and hikers who are traversing Yellowstone National Park, British Columbia, Alaska, or Glacier National Park in Montana, all of which are home to high and growing bear populations and thus have the highest frequency of bear encounters and bear attacks. Hikers’ forums are chock-full of wise sayings and age-old preventative measures against bear attacks, but modern research has afforded us more information about black bears and grizzly bears than ever before and disproven some of these superstitions.
Hikers can learn tons about black bears (Ursus amricanus) and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) by taking information by such academic studies as the recent study led by Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, which sits right in the middle of bear country in North America, in Canada’s Alberta province. This study revealed findings that may disprove the common perception that mama bears are the most likely to attack hikers in the backcountry, in addition to many other findings that are quite instructive in terms of how hikers should approach bear encounters and think about black bears and grizzly bears in general. The number of actual bear attacks that have taken place in North America in the last 110 years are surprisingly and comfortingly low, as Stephen Herrero’s study indicates.
Close encounters with grizzly bears and black bears are truly terrifying, which is why it’s so important to know what you should do if you see a bear at close range when you’re out in the backcountry. Most of what hikers can do to prevent a bear sighting from spinning out of control and becoming a full-bore fatal bear attack has to do with understanding black and brown bears and why they behave the way they do.
The impact of humans on bear populations cannot be understated, just as the difference between brown and black bears that have not come into contact with human hikers and those that have cannot be minimized. It’s not that we should always be completely at ease when hiking through bear country, but the whole point of hiking in the backcountry is enjoying the splendor of mother nature, and that includes black bears and grizzly bears.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about bear behavior, bear safety, bear encounters, and bear attacks, all based on information from Stephen Herrero’s recent study. For our safety as well as bear safety, it’s we hikers’ responsibility to know all we can about bears. When you finish this guide you should feel much more prepared for a bear encounter, knowing as you will what to do if you see a bear while hiking.
Black bear or grizzly bear?
Being able to spot the difference between a grizzly bear and a black bear is an important skill for hikers because the two types of bears have unique behavior and so hikers will have to react differently in a bear encounter depending on whether they see a black bear or a grizzly bear. Many hikers may think they already know how to spot the difference – it would seem that a black bear is black and a brown bear is brown and that’s all there is to it. Unfortunately for us hikers, black bears can be black, brown, black-blue, cinnamon, dark brown, and in rare cases even white. Grizzly bears can be brown or more of a blond-yellow color and anything in between.
So how can you tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear? For one thing, their claws are different. Grizzly claws can be up to twice as long as those of a black bear. You can also see a shoulder hump, one much like the shoulder blades on a human, on a grizzly but not on a black bear. Claws and a shoulder hump are useful if you’re at a safe distance, but if you come across a bear at close range you may not have time to make the distinction. You’ll probably prefer not to see a grizzly bear’s claws at all in close encounters. Luckily, black bears and grizzly bears have some marked differences in their faces that hikers can quickly identify in close encounters where a visceral reaction to the sight of a bear has prompted panic.
The first place you should try to look when you see a bear is at the ears. A grizzly bear will have short, rounded ears while a black bear will have tall, pointy ears. A black bear’s face is a straight, uninterrupted line from the forehead to the snout. A grizzly bear’s face has a sudden scoop at the nose. If it’s hard for you to imagine, look up a few photos of each and see if you can easily tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear.
Hiking through bear country
The best way to avoid a bear encounter is to avoid crossing through a bear habitat by yourself. Larger numbers will help your group appear larger and more intimidating. Black bears and grizzly bears have a great sense of smell and the most likely scenario is that hikers will pass by a bear without ever knowing it. In the rare case where you encounter a bear, it’s unlikely that the bear will be in a predatory mode toward you, so don’t panic. To avoid such a bear encounter, make plenty of noise as you move to help any nearby black bears or grizzly bears figure out that you’re in their habitat. Clapping your hands from time to time or singing a song will work just fine. There is some hiking gear that can help you in this endeavor such as bear bells, which look just like sleigh bells and fasten to your hiking boots or rucksack to keep a constant noise sounding as you traverse bear country.
Bear spray and other deterrents
Bear spray is a must-have in case you encounter a bear at close range. Bear spray usually comes in a canister about the circumference of a water bottle, so you can keep it in an easily accessible place like a rucksack side pocket or the water bottle holder on a bicycle. If you see a bear at a distance, be ready to take the bear spray out of your pocket. If a black bear or grizzly bear approaches, you should have your bear spray out and at the ready to spray. Bear spray is meant to work at close range, so within about 18 to 30 feet. Bear spray and pepper spray are very similar, as both burn the eyes and nose of bears that walk into the mist created by spraying the bear spray or pepper spray container. Bear spray is very effective – about 90% by some estimates – at deterring bears during close encounters and preventing bear attacks.
One important thing to note is that bear spray only works if you hit the bear in the eyes with it. Bear spray does not work as a preventative measure that you can use to treat your clothes or other hiking gear. In fact, it may attract black bears and grizzly bears if you spray it when they aren’t around. Make sure you aren’t standing downwind if you’re going to use bear spray, as that could cause the burning mist to blowback on you, making the already-tense situation of a bear encounter significantly worse.
Firearms are claimed by some hikers to be the best bear deterrent, and they are indeed the only way to lethally stop a bear attack. But, according to a study co-authored by Stephen Herrero, firearms have about the same success rate as bear spray, which is unfortunately not 100% although it is very high. Interestingly, the study found that firearms holders suffered the same rate of injury from black bears and brown bears (though mostly grizzly bears) whether they used their firearm or not. In the end, those proficient in firearm use and safety can consider firearms a viable option to deter a bear attack. But for bear safety and the safety of other hikers, only those who are experts in firearm use should bring one onto the trail.
What to do if a bear approaches
If a black bear or grizzly bear approaches or you inadvertently approach a bear, the most important thing to do is remain calm. It sounds difficult and it is. If you see a bear at close range, everything in your body is probably going to tell you to run away, but that is the worst thing you can do in close encounters with grizzly bears or black bears. Sudden movements could cause the bear to see you as prey and begin to chase you. If a black bear or a grizzly bear wants to catch you, they can, so running accomplishes nothing. Try to discern whether there are bear cubs nearby and whether the bear that’s facing you is a black bear or a grizzly bear.
Do not approach a bear if it is at a distance. Try to go back the way you came, giving the bear a wide berth so it doesn’t feel you’re encroaching on its space. If there is no way to back away from it or the bear starts to follow you, simply cut off the trail in an opposite direction, cutting sharply and keeping an eye on the bear to see if it is following you. Have your bear spray, pepper spray, or firearm ready all the while.
Defensive and non-aggressive bears
The tricky thing about a black bear or grizzly bear that is acting defensively is that for most hikers the bear’s mannerisms will seem very aggressive and are easy to mistake for a predatory bear. Especially in a surprise close encounter, a bear will often slacken its jaw, swat the ground, blow and snort through its snout, or even bluff charge you to get you to leave it alone. A bluff charge is a sudden movement that looks like the bear is going to rush you.
If a bear charges you in this manner, the most important thing to do is to remain still and calm. This may go against all of your instincts in a close encounter with a black bear or grizzly bear, but staying still and calm is key to communicating with the bear that you don’t want to fight it and you are not prey. In a defensive close encounter, the bear also doesn’t want to fight you. It merely wants to demonstrate that you are too close and that it would like you to leave.
Take any safety lock off of your bear spray if you are near to being within range to use it. Speak calmly to the bear and slowly back away. There is no need to make eye contact with the bear, but continue speaking calmly and walking backward. Leave the area immediately. If you can see that there is some food the bear has been eating such as a carcass, or there are bear cubs nearby, get as far away from those things as you can as quickly as you can. If the bear approaches you and gets within range of the bear spray, then go ahead and use it. Don’t fall to the ground, don’t play dead. As long as the bear is about 20-30 feet away, you can rely on the bear spray, a calm voice, and backing away slowly.
When to play dead in a bear encounter
Every hiker has probably heard that the thing you should do if you encounter a bear is to play dead. There is in a fact a time when you should, but up to now, meaning as long as the bear is not aggressive and has not come closer than 20-30 feet, you really shouldn’t play dead. If a bear approaches and gets close and the bear spray either doesn’t work or you don’t have the chance to use it, and then the bear touches you, then you should play dead. Playing dead only works if the bear touches you in some way. Hopefully, it won’t be in an injurious way, and it shouldn’t be as long as the bear hasn’t been aggressive up to that point. If you are going to play dead, try to fall away from the bear and not into it. Don’t unlock your knees and just fall straight down. Try to fall back without kicking out and hitting the bear.
If you want to play dead, here’s how:
- Roll over onto your stomach and use your hands to cover the back of your head and the base of your neck.
- To prevent the bear from flipping you over, make your elbows and legs wide.
- When the bear attack stops, remain still for as long as it takes for the bear to leave the area. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has gone.
Aggressive bear attacks
In extremely rare cases, bear sightings in the backcountry turn into bear attacks where people and bears are injured or killed. These fatal bear attacks are exceedingly rare; in Stephen Herrero’s study, researchers spent five years collecting all the data they could and found that in the 110 years between 1900 and 2009, 63 people were involved in bear attacks. Of course, any one person involved in a bear attack is tragic, but for most people, 63 victims is likely much lower than expected. Contrary to popular belief, the same study also found that only about 8% of these attacks were by female bears. Mother bears with bear cubs are much more likely to behave defensively, in the manner discussed above. A predatory black bear or grizzly bear will follow you, watch you, and make as little noise as possible. Again, we don’t want to turn you off from visiting bear country at all, but in the most rare cases, a bear attack from an aggressive bear can happen. Here’s what you should do in that case:
- Get out of the bear’s way and see if it follow you.
- Shout at it. Think “Scat!” or “Get away bear!” You can even curse at it if you want to.
- Throw things at the bear. Throw anything you can find, from rocks and sticks to dispensible hiking gear. Do not throw your bear spray canister!
- Just as a defensive black bear or grizzly bear might bluff charge at you, you can also bluff charge at the bear. Make a short, quick run at it while you should and maybe throw something.
If you do not stand up to it if a bear approaches out of mere curiosity, it can then become predatory. It may seem scary, but hikers who want to traverse bear country need to be ready to get defensive with massive bears. Stamp your feet and take a step or two toward the bear. The more the bear approaches, the more aggressive you should be with it. Finally, if a bear attacks in your tent, you must fight it. If you don’t have a firearm, hit it with your fists or whatever you can find, concentrating your blows on its eyes, face, and snout.
Stephen Herrero’s findings
The most recent studies of trends in bear encounters with both black bears and grizzly bears indicates that there is really nothing to be afraid of about hiking through bear country. As we mentioned, the number of attacks in the last 110 years is extremely low. Bear attacks have been occurring at a rate of about 2 per year since 1960, but, according to Stephen Herrero, that’s not because bears are getting more aggressive. It’s actually caused by more humans striking out into bear country for work or leisure.
The most aggressive bear attacks will come in more remote areas with high bear populations that haven’t been exposed or haven’t been regularly exposed to human populations. The clearest predictor of fatal or injurious bear attacks according to the various conditions in which bear encounters occur is that periodic stress on isolated bears who haven’t had much contact with humans can cause black bears and grizzly bears (though almost always grizzly bears) to be more aggressive. Bears attracted to humans by their food or garbage are disproportionately involved in fatal attacks, but that is probably because bear and human interactions happen most frequently in places where bears and humans frequently interact. Generally, as long as you’re prepared for the worst-case scenario and act properly, you’ll have nothing to worry about while hiking through bear country.
Bear country has amazing forest vistas, mountains, ice, and some of the best fishing you can find. Rivers run through, creating rapids that are great for rafting and beautiful to watch from the banks. Bears themselves are a wonder to behold. But they can also be very dangerous, and hikers are right to be concerned about the possibility of a bear encounter before they hit the trail.
The good news is that bear attacks, especially fatal ones, are exceedingly rare, as demonstrated by the Stephen Herrero studies we mentioned. Research indicates that proper human behavior is the best way to prevent bear attacks. Storing food in bear canisters, making lots of noise, and hiking with a group are all good ways to prevent a black bear or grizzly bear from becoming aggressive. Hikers should always carry a canister of bear spray that hasn’t expired in a place where they can easily reach it in case of a surprise encounter with a bear at close range.
Ultimately, though bears are wonderful to behold, they can cause serious and fatal injuries to humans extremely quickly. If you know how and when to play dead, how to tell a grizzly bear from a black bear, how to deal a defensive versus an aggressive bear, and perhaps how to use a firearm, then the likelihood you’ll be injured if you encounter a bear is slim to none. It does take preparation, practice, and know-how to prepare yourself for a possible close encounter with a bear, but you’ll be glad you did if the skill ever needs using. If you have respect for bears and don’t go to a remote place without the proper tools and know-how, there’s nothing to fear. We hope you’ll be at ease on your next bear country trek now that you know what to do if you see a bear while hiking.
Bonus tip: Check out this bear encounter in Alaska to see how grizzly bears and their bear cubs behave in the backcountry!