Bear populations are on the rise in America. More bears means more bear-human encounters. While grizzly and black bear attacks remain infrequent, they can prove fatal. Most negative bear encounters can be avoided if humans take the time to learn about bears and practice a few bear safety tips.
This article covers some basic information about the bears that live in North America (black bears and grizzly bears) and provides guidance on bear safety from wildlife experts Jennifer Fortin-Noreus, a wildlife biologist with USFWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Program, and Greg Lemon, Communication & Education Division administrator for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Some of the information gathered here comes from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Parks Service, and other trusted resources. Read on to learn more about bears, how to avoid them in the backcountry, and how to handle an encounter so you can prepare yourself and minimize risk.
Black Bears and Grizzly Bears
There are two species of bear native to North America: the black bear and the grizzly bear, also known as the brown bear. Black bears are more widely distributed than grizzlies, with populations spread across wooded areas in the United States and Canada—even as far south as Florida and Mexico. Grizzlies are found in Alaska, Canada, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington.
The two species can look similar, says Fortin-Noreus, but they do have some key distinctions.
As the name implies, black bears usually have black fur, but they can also have brown, blue-gray, and even white coats as well. Look for the black bear’s straight face profile and relatively tall, straight ears that can look quite prominent on the head. Their rumps reach higher into the sky than their front shoulders. According to the NPS, black bears measure about three feet high at the shoulder and weigh up to 600 pounds.
Black bears have short, curved claws that are less than two inches long. Their toes are separated and claw marks are not always visible in their tracks.
Grizzlies, on the other hand, have black, brown, or even blonde fur, measure three to five feet high at the shoulder, and can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Compared to black bears, grizzlies also have much longer claws, a “dish-shaped” face, and a notable hump between their shoulders.
Grizzlies’ front claws are slightly curved and two to four inches long. Their toes are close together in a straight line. Claw marks often appear in their tracks.
Despite their size, bears are surprisingly agile, and they’re highly adapted to their environments. Both species can charge at speeds of 30 miles per hour or more, are excellent swimmers, and can climb trees. They also have a strong sense of smell, which makes proper food storage critical when spending time in bear country (see below).
Bears have an omnivorous diet, and their food sources vary widely depending on the season and what’s available, says Fortin-Noreus. In early spring, they feed on tender grasses and the carcasses of animals that didn’t survive the winter. Later in the year, ripe berries become another important food source. Bears will also feed on insects, fish, plant roots, and elk and deer calves.
Hibernation forms another key bear trait. Although hibernation happens in the winter, bears go dormant in response to low food availability, not cold weather, says Fortin-Noreus. Generally, grizzlies and black bears hibernate for up to six months, though the exact hibernation period will vary depending on conditions and the individual bear. Hibernation season begins around October and can last as late as May for some bears, she says. Yet hibernation isn’t necessarily a months-long block of inactivity, says Greg Lemon. Hibernating bears do occasionally leave their dens.
“Just because it’s winter time doesn’t mean bears aren’t going to be out,” Lemon says.
Avoiding Bear Encounters While on the Trail
When traveling through bear country, give bears plenty of warning and watch out for signs of their presence. First, make a lot of noise—clapping and loud talking work best. Bear bells usually aren’t loud enough. Second, travel in groups whenever possible. One recent study found that between 2000 and 2015, 63 percent of worldwide bear attacks happened to people who were alone. Bottom line: if a bear hears you coming, it will likely move away from the area.
“Bears are really good at avoiding people,” says Fortin-Noreus. “They don’t want to encounter you any more than you want to encounter them.”
Some recreational activities carry additional risks in bear country. Fortin-Noreus points out that trail running and mountain biking increase your risk because you move more quickly and quietly than you would while hiking, and that gives bears less time to react. Fishing and hunting add risks because the smell of entrails can attract bears, among other potential issues. Hiking with a dog off-leash also brings added complications. In that scenario, the dog could run off and surprise a bear.
“If the dog gets chased and runs back to you, you’ve got problems,” Lemon says.
If you bring your dog along, make sure you keep them under control and close to you (or on a leash).
No matter how you spend time in the backcountry, always stay aware of your surroundings. That includes watching for signs of bears’ presence. Common indicators include bear scat, paw prints, trees with scratched bark, turned over logs, and dug up anthills. Lemon says that if you see fresh signs of a bear, you should turn around and move away from the area immediately.
In addition, consider how wind direction, visibility, and ambient noise level will affect bears’ ability to detect you—and vice versa. Hiking into a headwind will make it harder for bears farther up the trail to smell you, for example, and the sound of a nearby creek can drown out your footsteps and voice.
“If there’s a particular area that has poor visibility or a lot of ambient sounds,” says Fortin-Noreus, “slow down so that you have more reaction time.”
It’s also a good idea to know what kind of bears you might encounter in your area. Bear ranges are expanding, so Fortin-Noreus recommends talking with a local park ranger to get the latest information on bear activity. That way you can avoid places the animals frequent.
Camping in Bear Country
Camping in bear country mainly requires handling food, waste, and scented items carefully. Always maintain a clean camp, and keep food, cooking supplies, and garbage at least 100 yards away from your sleeping area. Pack your food in a bear-resistant container (the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has helpful guidelines on packing a canister) and avoid especially smelly foods like bacon or tuna. Remember that anything with a smell—shampoo, toothpaste, cookware—can attract bears. Never leave these items in your tent or sleeping area.
“You want to do all of your cooking, eating, brushing your teeth, dishwashing—all of that stuff around where your food storage is,” Lemon says. “You don’t want to have anything in your tent but you and maybe a bottle of water.”
If your campsite has them, use food lockers to store your food and immediately dispose of your waste in recycling and trash bins. If you don’t have access to lockers, you’ll need to hang your food and garbage 10 feet off the ground and four feet away from the tree or pole it’s attached to (again, follow local guidelines). That way, you’ll discourage bears from searching your campsite.
Check with rangers to learn about food storage regulations in the area you plan to visit. Each area maintains specific food storage requirements that address its unique bear population. For example, in many places in the Sierra, where black bears have become quite sophisticated around humans, food must be stored in hard-sided containers like a bear canister or a metal bear box. In some forests, land managers allow food to be stored in a bear-resistant bag, like an UrSack. Some parks provide a place to hang food from a high pole or beam with a metal cable. Check with land managers to make sure you’re in compliance with regulations.
What to Do if You Encounter a Bear
By following the guidelines above, you’ll lower your chances of a surprise bear encounter. If you do see a bear, however, you need to respond carefully. First, make sure you give bears at least 100 yards of space, especially if you see a mother and cubs. If the animal doesn’t notice you, or sees you and ignores you, calmly move away from the area, Fortin-Noreus says. If the bear does pay attention to you, the NPS recommends speaking calmly to identify yourself as a human. Immediately pick up any small children in your group, and make your group look as big as possible by slowly waving your arms.
A bear might stand up on its hind legs to get a better look at you—this is usually not a sign of aggression. According to Fortin-Noreus, an aggressive or agitated bear might hop, sway its head, pop its jaws, or paw at the ground. Regardless, if a bear watches you, make sure you have your bear spray ready and slowly move away from the area. If the bear follows, stop. Running, yelling, or making sudden movements can provoke a bear to attack.
If a bear charges, use bear spray (see below). If the bear makes contact with you, the traditional advice varies based on the species of bear.
Black Bear Attacks
Attacking black bears are more likely to be predatory, says Fortin-Noreus. If a black bear attacks, you should vigorously fight back.
Grizzly Bear Attacks
If a grizzly makes contact with you, however, you should play dead. Keep your pack on, cover your head and neck, and spread your legs to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over. If the attack persists, fight back.
If possible, Fortin-Noreus recommends assessing the bear’s behavior and differentiating between predatory and defensive actions. If you notice a bear following you from a distance in the woods, for example, it’s most likely acting out of curiosity or predation. If you stumble on a bear eating berries and the animal charges, it’s likely acting defensively to protect its food source. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has some good advice on how to respond to defensive and predatory bears.
How to Use Bear Spray
When used correctly, bear spray allows you to stop a charging bear without causing lasting damage. It works in much the same way that pepper spray does with humans, Lemon says. Bear spray irritates mucus membranes, causing pain and discomfort around the bear’s eyes, nose, and mouth. This sends a strong signal to the bear to stay away, but it doesn’t cause any lasting damage (unlike a firearm, which will kill a bear or injure it, making it even more aggressive). In addition, Lemon notes that pepper spray could have a lasting deterrent effect on bears who encounter it.
“The bear that gets hosed with pepper spray probably will forever associate humans with that experience,” he says.
Always keep your bear spray accessible—don’t bury it in your pack—and if you see signs of a bear, carry it in your hand. If do encounter a bear and it charges, remove the safety clip from the canister and aim toward the bear, adjusting for the wind direction. Begin spraying when the bear is about 30 to 60 feet away, and create a cloud of spray in between you and the animal (this how-to video from Yellowstone National Park provides a good overview of the process). Lemon recommends spraying in a sweeping “z” pattern to create an effective cloud.
Continue spraying until the bear turns around or changes direction. If it doesn’t, spray into the bear’s face. Once the bear runs away, slowly leave the area. Most bears will react immediately to the bear spray, Lemon says.
“It has a very dramatic effect,” he says. “It’s very effective in protecting someone from an attack.”
Remember to only use EPA-approved bear spray and check the expiration date on your canister before you head out. Some national parks, like Yellowstone, encourage the use of bear spray and even have it available for rent. Others, notably Yosemite, don’t allow visitors to carry bear spray, so always check local regulations before you pack it.
Keeping Yourself and Bears Safe
Of course, bears aren’t just a nuisance to avoid. They form a critical part of the ecosystems they inhabit, and by keeping yourself safe, you protect the animals, too. Bears that overcome their natural fear of humans (either through unsecured food or people getting too close) can become aggressive toward people, and wildlife officials may have to remove them from the area or kill them—an unnecessary tragedy, especially for a threatened species like grizzlies.
If you follow the correct bear safety guidelines and practice awareness, you likely won’t have any issues with bears, and they won’t have any issues with you.
“If you take the responsibility to educate yourself,” Lemon says, “you’re very likely to have the magical trip that you are dreaming of, and not have any problems with bears.”