Bear Safety Tips: How to Avoid Bears While Hiking and Camping

by wheretheroadforks

Spotting a bear while hiking is both a beautiful and terrifying experience at the same time. On one hand, bears are absolutely incredible creatures to view in the wild. On the other hand, bears can be dangerous. Luckily, attacks are rare. This guide explains how to avoid bears while hiking or camping in bear country. I’ll also share some bear safety tips to help you stay safe if you do encounter a bear. This guide covers trip planning, food storage, different types of bears, bear behavior, and much more. This guide focuses on bear safety in North America.

Grizzly bear

Table of Contents

  1. Planning a Trip in Bear Country- Research to do before your trip and gear to pack.
  2. How to Avoid Bears- Safety tips for hiking, cycling, and camping in bear country.
  3. How to Store Food in Bear Country- Food handling and storage safety.
  4. What to do if you Encounter a Bear- How to reduce the likelihood of an attack and what to do if you are attacked. This section also includes info on the different types of bears.

Planning a Trip in Bear Country

While planning your hike, you’ll want to take some time to research the bear situation in the area that you plan to visit. While the general bear safety guidelines stay the same, each region has slightly different rules depending on the types of bears that are present, the level of risk, local bear habits, the type of ecosystem, etc.

Local regulations tell you how you should store your food. For example, some parks offer bear boxes or poles at the campsites where you can safely stash your food so bears can’t get to it. Sometimes you are required to use a rigid bear canister.

Local regulations also tell you which bear safety gear is allowed or recommended. Bear spray is prohibited in some parks and encouraged in others. You’ll want to check the legality before you go. For example, Yosemite National Park does not allow bear spray while Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Teton National Parks recommend it. Generally, you only need bear spray in areas where Grizzlies live.

You’ll want to research the local regulations at your destination to ensure that you pack the proper food storage and safety gear. Sierrawild.gov is an excellent resource for this if your trip is in the US. Occasionally, rules vary within the different parts of a single national park. Make sure you research each place you plan to hike or camp before your trip so you have the most up-to-date information and don’t accidentally break any park rules.

You also want to know which types of bears are present. Grizzly bears, brown bears, black bears, and polar bears all behave differently. Your reaction in the event of an encounter depends on the type of bear you’re dealing with. We’ll look at some species-specific bear safety tips later on in this guide.

grizzly bear and cubs
A Grizzly bear with her cubs

How to Avoid Bears While Camping or Hiking

In some parts of the world, bears are surprisingly common. If you camp or hike often enough, you’ll eventually spot one. The following tips will help to lower the likelihood of a dangerous encounter.

  • Hike in a group- Avoid hiking alone in bear country. Bears are less likely to attack a group of people. Particularly groups of four or larger. There is safety in numbers when it comes to bears.
  • Make noise while you’re hiking- You don’t want to surprise a bear. Talking, shouting, clapping, or singing every once in a while lets the bears know you’re coming. Many hikers shout ‘hey bear’ repeatedly. Alternatively, you could use a bear bell or air horn or knock your trekking poles together. Keep in mind that bear bells may or may not be effective. You should also consider your surroundings when making noise. If you’re hiking near a loud river or in the wind, a bear may not be able to hear you. Increase the volume of your noise in these situations.
  • Don’t make the wrong kinds of sounds- Avoid whistling, blowing a whistle, or screaming bear country. These sound like an animal in pain. This can attract bears and trigger a predatory response.
  • Avoid walking around in the early morning or late evening- This is when bears are out and about looking for food. Particularly during the spring and summer. If you’re hiking in a high-risk area, you might want to skip the sunrise or sunset hike.
  • Ask park rangers about bear safety- These people are experts on the area. They can tell you about recent sightings, things to look out for, places to avoid, food storage, and more. Park rangers are an excellent resource for information. They know the region better than most anyone else. They’re usually friendly as well.
  • Carry bear spray- This capsaicin-based aerosol spray deters charging bears by irritating their eyes and respiratory system. Carry it in a holster on your person at all times. Never in your pack. The reason is that you may only have seconds to pull the spray out and use it. Before your hike, consider testing your bear spray out by quickly pulling it out of the holster and disabling the safety. You can also spray a bit downwind to get used to the feel of using it. Chances are you won’t need it but it’s best to be prepared.
  • Be extra cautious around blind curves in the trail, near running water, in dense vegetation, and in the wind- These are all situations where you could accidentally surprise a bear because they may not be able to see, smell, or hear you coming. This could trigger a defensive response if you surprise a bear. Exercise caution in noisy or low visibility areas.
  • If you see or smell a dead animal carcass, get out of there- Bears could be nearby. They sometimes feed on the same animal for multiple days. Also, keep an eye out for circling birds overhead and avoid the area if you spot any.
  • Avoid hiking and camping in areas that bears frequent- Stream beds and berry patches attract bears. Avoid these areas if you’re hiking in an area with a high bear population. If you have to hike through these areas, move quickly, keep making noise, and stay alert.
  • Use proper food storage technique- Keep your food, fuel, and anything with an odor packed away. Bears have a strong sense of smell. I’ll talk much more in-depth about food storage in the next section.
  • Watch out for fresh signs of bears- Footprint, scat, dead animals, and markings on trees are all signs that bears have been in the area. If you see these, stay alert and keep moving.
  • Control your children and pets- Their noises and movements can trigger a predatory response in a bear. They are also smaller so the bear could consider them easy prey. If you spot a bear, pick up your child or pet, no matter how far away the bear is.
  • Avoid wearing smelly perfume, sunblock, lotion, deodorant, etc.- If you must use cosmetics, use unscented options. Bears aren’t just attracted to food. They are attracted to anything with an odor.
  • Stay alert and aware of your surroundings- Keep on the lookout for bears at all times while you’re hiking. Also, try not to zone out too much or listen to music through your headphones.
  • Avoid leaving your backpack or camp unattended- Odds are, there is something smelly inside your pack or tent that could attract a bear. When you’re around making noise, the bears will be less likely to approach to investigate.
  • Stay on the trail- In heavy traffic areas, bears may avoid the trails because people are constantly passing through. If you run into problems, help is closer as well. Someone is likely to pass by sooner or later.
  • Never approach, sneak up on, or surprise a bear- This should go without saying but bears don’t like surprises. They can trigger a predatory or defensive response. If you must take a photo, do so from as far away as possible then back away and leave until the bear goes away.
Be sure to keep talking or making noise while hiking through bear country. Be extra loud when you’re hiking near a noisy river

A Note About Bear Spray

Bear spray is a capsicum-based aerosol pepper spray that is used to fend off aggressive or attacking bears. It is designed to irritate the bear’s eyes and respiratory system to a point that the bear is temporarily incapacitated. It works just like mace you would use on an attacking human. When hit with the spray, the bear cannot see or smell, giving you time to escape. Best of all, bear spray does not permanently injure the bear. It is just an irritant.

Most bear sprays have a range of 15-35 feet and spray for 5-10 seconds before the can is empty. To use it, you pull a safety clip, point the nozzle at the bear’s face, then depress the lever. The attacking bear should back down or run away.

When hiking or camping in a bear country, make sure your bear spray is quickly accessible. Store it in a holster on your hip and next to you when you camp. When using your spray, make sure you’re spraying downwind. This way, it won’t blow back into your face.

When buying bear spray, make sure the one you buy is EPA approved and made for bears. If you’re looking to buy a canister of bear spray, I recommend Sabre Frontiersman Bear Spray. It offers a good price-to-quality ratio. This 9.2 oz bottle offers an incredible 35 foot range.

Before your trip, make sure you know how to use your bear spray properly. Read the label for instructions. Practice removing the canister from its holster. You don’t want to be fumbling around with it while an aggressive bear approaches. You may even want to practice spraying a little bit so you know what to expect if the time comes to use it.

Note: Bear spray does not work like bug spray. You can’t spray it around camp or on your gear preemptively to keep the bears away. In fact, the smell of bear spray could attract bears. Use it only in defense in the event of an attack. Also, bear spray is not permitted in some parks. Be sure to check the rules to see if bear spray is recommended before you hike or camp.

How to Store Food in Bear Country

The most important safety precaution to take while camping in bear country is to properly store your food. Bears are omnivores. They have an excellent sense of smell. In fact, it is believed that a bear’s sense of smell is as good or better than a bloodhound. The smell of your food can attract bears into camp. Bears are also opportunistic. They will eat almost anything they can get their paws on. They aren’t picky eaters.

Items that can attract bears include:

  • All food- even foods that are unopened, canned, sealed in a package, and pet food.
  • All beverages- even canned drinks like soda.
  • Cookware and utensils- including pots and pans, knives, and eating utensils. Even if they appear clean they can still carry food residue and odors. Particularly porous materials like plastics and wood.
  • Toiletries- toothpaste, soap, bug spray, deodorant, sunblock, wet wipes, medication, hand sanitizer, etc.
  • Garbage- it could have food residue.
  • Fuel- camp stove fuel, for example.
  • Oils- vegetable oil or lantern oil, for example.

Basically, anything that has an odor could potentially attract a bear. To be safe, you must properly store your food and odorous items in a way that bears can’t get to them.

Bear Safe Food Storage Options

Before setting up camp, you should securely store all of the above-listed items in a way that that bears can’t easily get to them. The storage location should be at least 100 yards away from your campsite.

Suitable food storage locations include:

  • Bear canister- This is a rigid, bearproof container. You put your food inside then lock the lid on. While you hike, the canister fits in your pack. At night, you store the canister 100 feet away from camp. In some locations, a bear canister is mandatory. If a bear canister is necessary for your hike, make sure you choose a model that is approved for the area that you plan to visit. Ask the land managers for more information on approved canisters. We’ll talk more about bear canisters in the next section.
  • Bear proof food storage box- These sturdy metal lockers are often installed in campgrounds in areas with a high concentration of bears. There will be a separate bear box next to every campsite. The box features some kind of locking mechanism on the door to keep bears out.
  • Hanging from a bear pole- Some campsites have built-in bear poles where you can hang your food bag so a bear can’t get to it. Bear poles are 10-15 foot tall poles, usually made from metal, with hooks or smaller poles sticking out of the sides of the top. You lift your food bag onto the hooks with either a pully system or a long stick. In order to use a bear pole, you’ll need some kind of waterproof bag to store your food in. A dry sack works well. Bear poles are generally shared. You’ll find them centrally located within the campsite.
  • Bear bag- If a bear canister is not required where you plan to camp, an alternative is to carry a bear bag. These durable soft bags are designed to protect your food from bears, rodents, raccoons, and other critters. They perform the same function as a bear canister. The main benefit of a bear bag over a canister is the fact that it’s much lighter and takes up less space in your pack. One of the more popular options is the Ursack Major. Keep in mind that bear bags are not as secure as a bear canister and usually cannot be used in place of a bear canister if they are required. The biggest drawback to bear bags is that bears can chew on them and eventually taste the food inside as it mashes through the fabric.
  • Suspended off the ground from a tree- Ideally, suspend your food 10-15 feet off the ground and at least 4 feet away from the trunk of the tree. You’ll need some kind of bag and some cordage to hang your food with. A dry bag and paracord work well. Many campers use the counterbalance method for hanging food in trees. Hanging your food should be your last resort if you have no other option. To find out why, check out this great article from andrewskurka.com.
  • Your vehicle- Bears usually won’t try to break into your car to get food except under extreme circumstances or if the bear has grown accustomed to humans. Large bears can break windows or get into your car if they really want to.
Camping in bear country
Remember to store your food and any other smelly items at least 100 yards away from your campsite.

A Few Food Storage Tips for Camping in Bear Country

  • Never sleep with food in your tent- A bear can easily tear through thin tent walls to get to your food if it’s hungry. While this is not common behavior, it’s not worth the risk to sleep next to your food.
  • Keep your camp clean- If the campground has trash cans, use them. Otherwise, you can burn your trash if you have a campfire. When you’re done cooking and eating wash your cookware and utensils. Properly store your food and other smelly items after you’re done using them. Don’t leave food or trash scattered around camp.
  • In high-risk areas, avoid cooking or eating at your campsite- Keep food odors as far away as possible. At least 100 yards is recommended. You don’t want to draw bears into your campsite with the smell of food near where you sleep. Admittedly, this one is hard to avoid. Most campers like to cook and eat in camp. This is really only necessary in high risk areas. Usually, you’re safe storing your food 50-100 feet from your tent.
  • Never leave food out in the open or unattended- Properly store all of your food when you leave camp. Even if you’re just leaving for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. Once a bear develops a taste for human food, it can begin to crave it. If this happens, the bear may become bolder and begin entering campsites in search of more human food. At this point, the bear will have to be killed for the safety of humans.
  • Remember to properly store non-food items- The smell of your toiletries, fuel, garbage, cookware, and beverages can attract bears.
  • Never eat inside your tent- The smell can remain long after you’re done eating. This attracts bears. You could also drop some food which leaves an odor.
  • Try not to sleep in the clothes that you cooked and ate in- The smell can remain in the fabric long after you’re done cooking. This can attract bears. To be safe, you should change clothes before going to sleep. Store your smelly clothes away from your tent.
  • Avoid packing foods that have strong odors- Examples include fish, cheese, and bacon. Bears can smell them from a long way away.
  • Pack your food in an odor-blocking bag- These prevent bears from smelling your food from far away. LOKSAK OPSAk bags are a popular choice.
  • Never feed bears- If they develop a taste for human food, they’ll have to be killed for our safety. If they aren’t killed, they may approach other camper’s sites seeking human food.
  • Be extra careful during the late summer and fall- Bears are particularly hungry this time of year as this is when they prepare for hibernation.
  • Put your pet’s food away between meals- Don’t leave a food bowl sitting around camp.
  • If bear boxes or poles are available, use them- These things are there for a reason.

If a bear does manage to eat some of your human food, report it to the park ranger. The reason is that a bear can begin to crave human food after getting a taste. At this point, the bear’s attempts to get more may grow bolder. This makes the bear more dangerous. It may wander into camps in search of food. In some cases, the bear has to be put down. For this reason, it is important that you take every possible precaution to keep your food away from bears while hiking and camping.

A Note About Bear Canisters

Bear canisters are portable lockers that are designed to protect your food and other smelly items from hungry bears as well as rodents and insects. The sides are made from rigid plastic that bears cannot break or bite through. The top locks in place.

During the day, you store your bear canister in your backpack. At night, you should stash it at least 100 feet away from your campsite. You should keep your bear canister closed and locked at all times while you’re not accessing something inside. Makes sure you know how to use your canister properly before you head into the backwoods. Bear canisters are not foolproof.

The use of a bear canister is mandatory in many national parks and wilderness areas. For example, you may need one if you plan to hike in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Sequoia National Park, Denali National Park and several others. For a map of food storage requirements, you can download the map from sierrawild.gov here. This just gives you a general overview of bear canister requirements. To find out exactly where you’ll need a bear canister and which canisters are allowed, you’ll have to check with the land managers or wilderness area administrators.

Most bear canisters range in size from 7-12 liters. They are designed to accommodate 4-5 days worth of food and toiletries. I like BearVault Bear Canisters. They are clear so you can see where your food is inside. You can also use them as a seat around camp.

For more info, check out this awesome guide to bear canisters from Andrew Skurka.

A Few Bear Canister Tips
  • Store the canister upside down during the night- This prevents rain from leaking in.
  • Put some bright paint or stickers on your canister so you can find it- Reflective stickers make it easy to find your canister in the dark.
  • Don’t store the canister near a cliff or body of water- A bear could push the canister somewhere you can’t retrieve it.
  • Don’t store the canister next to hard surfaces like rocks or roots- A bear could crack the canister open by putting too much weight on it.
  • Repackage food so it takes up less space- Space is limited in your bear canister. Remember, you need to fit your fuel and toiletries inside along with your food. You can fit more by removing bulky packaging and removing air from sealed bags.

A Bit of Info About Bears

8 species of bears exist including the brown bear, polar bear, American black bear, Asian black bear, sun bear, sloth bear, spectacled bear, and the giant panda. They are all members of the Ursidae family. Bears live across a wide range of habitats throughout much of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.

The most common bear species for hikers and campers to encounter are brown bears and black bears. These species are omnivorous. Their diets normally consist of grasses, berries, roots, insects, fish, as well as animals, both living and dead.

Bears are mostly solitary animals with the exception of mothers and their cubs. Cubs stay with their mothers for the first year and a half of their lives.

Bears can be active at any time of day. They are the most active during dawn and dusk. During the winter, bears hibernate for up to 100 days. They are particularly hungry in the late summer and fall while preparing for the winter as well as the early spring when they come out of hibernation.

Bears are surprisingly athletic creatures. They can run up to 35mph, climb trees, and swim. Bears also have an incredible sense of smell. Possibly even better than dogs.

When it comes to temperament, bears are typically shy creatures. They tend to avoid humans. At the same time, they are curious and opportunistic. If a bear happens upon your camp, they will search for food. Bears are also surprisingly intelligent. For proof, you can read about a bear named Yellow-Yellow who learned how to open a bear canister without breaking it.

Types of Bears You May Encounter While Hiking and Camping

It’s important to be able to tell the difference between different types of bears because each species behaves a bit differently during an encounter. They also have different temperaments. Some types of bears are more dangerous and aggressive than others. The most common types of bears to look out for while hiking include:

  • Black Bears- Black bears are the most common bear species in North America. They inhabit most of Canada and the US. They have even been spotted as far south as Mexico. You can identify black bears by their tall, pointed ears and lack of shoulder hump. Black bears range in color from black to blond. They can even appear cinnamon color or white. They often have a lighter patch of hair on the chest. On average, black bears weigh 100-300 lbs but can grow up to 600 lbs. Black bears measure 2.5-3 feet tall at the shoulder or 5-6 feet tall while standing. Black bears have short claws that measure around 1.5″. The claws usually do not leave marks in the footprints. The toes also sit further apart.
  • Brown Bears- Brown bears are found across much of Northwestern Canada and the United States. They are also found in much of Russia, Scandinavia, Central Asia, China, and a few pockets of Europe such as Romania and the Caucuses. You can identify brown bears by their shoulder hump. Most brown bears stand 2.3-5 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 300-600lbs. They can actually grow larger than grizzly bears at over 1000 lbs. Brown bears have long claws that measure 3-5″ in length. You can see the claw mark in the bear’s pawprints.
  • Grizzly Bears- Grizzlies are most commonly found in Alaska and Western Canada. They are also found in a few parts of the Northwestern United States in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington state. Particularly in the North Cascades and the Rocky Mountains. You can identify a grizzly by the distinctive large hump on the shoulders. Their fir can range in color from almost black to almost blond. The hair tends to be a bit darker on the tip. Their claws measure 3-5″ in length. You can identify their prints long claw marks and close toes. Most grizzlies range from 350-500lbs but they can grow up to 800lbs. They stand 3.5-6.5 feet tall at the shoulders. Grizzly bears are considered a subspecies of brown bears. The main difference between the two is that brown bears live near the coast and eat fish where grizzlies live inland and do not have access to seafood. When it comes to temperament, grizzlies behave similarly to brown bears. Some believe that grizzly bears are a bit more aggressive than brown bears. They may react to humans who are at a great distance away.
  • Polar Bears- These are the most dangerous bears. They are also the largest, sometimes weighing upwards of 1700 lbs. Luckily, they only live in the extreme north where only the most hardcore outdoorsmen camp. This guide does not cover polar bear safety. For more info on polar bears, check out this article from Bearsmart.com.
  • Bear cubs- Bears give birth in their den in January. They can have anywhere from 1-6 cubs. The average litter size is 3. Bear cubs are identifiable by their small size. Regardless of the species of bear, you don’t want to get between the mother and her cubs. This could trigger a defensive attack. If you spot bear cubs, it’s safe to assume that the mother is nearby. Stay alert.
brown bear with cub
A brown bear with her cub

How to Avoid Bear Encounters

If you spend enough time hiking and camping in bear country, you will experience an encounter sooner or later. Luckily, most encounters end peacefully. Bear attacks are rare. Your ideal response depends on the type of bear you encounter and its behavior.

What to Do if the Bear Hasn’t Spotted You

If the bear isn’t looking in your direction, quietly and slowly back away. There is no reason to make the bear aware of your presence or approach. Just stay calm and get out of there. While backing away, keep your eyes on the bear but don’t make eye contact. Do not turn your back on the bear and do not run.

If you are carrying bear spray, slowly and quietly get it ready just in case the bear notices you and decides to charge. Remember, bears can run fast. If the bear spots you and decides to attack, it could be on top of you in a matter of seconds.

What to do if you Encounter a Bear

  • Stop walking and stand your ground- You don’t want the bear to begin following you or approaching you. If you stop walking, the bear will usually just look at you for a few moments. It may stand up on its hind legs to get a better look. Generally, this behavior means the bear is just curious.
  • Identify yourself by talking to the bear- Speak in a low, monotone voice. Say something like ‘hey bear’ or ‘I’m walking away now.’ This helps the bear see that you are a human. Most bears who live in natural parks are familiar with humans. Do not yell, scream, or make any high-pitched sounds. These can make you sound like prey. Do not attempt to imitate the bear’s sounds by growling. The bear can interpret this as a threat. You want the bear to know that you mean no harm and that you are not food.
  • Slowly raise your arms up and down- This shows the bear that you aren’t another bear or a prey animal. You also want the bear to know that you aren’t a threat. Don’t make any fast movements. Some experts disagree with this recommendation. They claim that raising your arms could make you look like an animal with antlers, like a deer, which is a bear’s prey.
  • Pick up your dog or small child- Pets and kids can react to the bear in an unexpected manner. This could trigger an attack because the bear could also consider them prey.
  • Slowly take your bear spray out of the holster and remove the pin- If the bear decides to charge or attack, you want to be ready when it gets within range (15-30 feet).
  • Don’t run- Bears are natural predators. Their instinct tells them that you are prey if you run. They will chase you and most likely catch you. Grizzly bears have been caught on video running at 35 miles per hour. Olympian Usain Bolt can run 27 miles per hour. You cannot outrun a bear.
  • Make yourself appear as large as possible- Spread your jacket open. Slowly move to higher ground. The bear may think twice before attacking if it thinks you’re larger than you actually are.
  • keep your backpack on- It can provide protection for your back and neck if the bear decides to attack. It also prevents the bear from getting to your food.
  • Try to back away- If the bear is not moving toward you, slowly begin backing away. If you prefer, you can move sideways. This way, you can keep an eye on the bear and glance at the trail to make sure you don’t trip. If the bear follows, stop moving and stand your ground.
bear staring

At this point in the encounter, one of three things will happen:

  1. The bear runs away- Bears are pretty timid animals. Under normal circumstances, they don’t want to fight you or eat you. If the bear runs off after spotting you, walk in the opposite direction. You want to put some distance between yourself and the bear. If this means you have to backtrack or take a detour, so be it. You don’t want to risk another encounter in case the bear changes its mind and wants to take a closer look at you.
  2. The bear looks in your direction then continues on with whatever it was doing- This is the most likely response if you didn’t spook the bear or enter its territory. In this case, back away slowly while continuing talking to the bear. You shouldn’t turn your back to the bear until you are out of sight of each other. You may have to take a detour. If this is impossible, back away then wait for the bear to leave the area. Make sure you always leave the bear a way to escape.
  3. The bear stops what it’s doing, sits up and stares at you, or starts walking toward you- In this case, stop and observe the bear. You want to determine what type of bear you’re dealing with before you react. Your response depends on the behavior that the bear is displaying and the type of bear that is approaching. The approaching bear’s behavior will fall into one of two categories: defensive or predatory. I’ll explain each in the following sections.

How to Avoid Bear Attacks

Bear attacks are rare. I’ll start this section off by sharing a statistic that will hopefully put your mind at ease. While researching for this article, I was surprised to learn that there have only been 180 deaths by bear attack in North America since the year 1784 according to this article.

When you consider the millions of people that go hiking and camping in bear country through North America’s national parks each year, that number seems incredibly small. As long as you take some simple precautions, the risk of an attack is very slim. Most bear encounters end with the bear and human simply walking away in opposite directions.

That said, bears do occasionally attack. Usually to protect their cubs, food, or territory. On rare occasions, bears treat humans as prey and attack. In this section, I’ll explain how to deal with aggressive bears that are acting defensively predatory.

Defensive Bears- Usually Grizzlies or Brown Bears

A defensive bear feels threatened by your presence. It probably feels the need to defend its cubs, food, space, or itself from you. Grizzly bears and brown bears are most likely to act in a defensive manner. Most encoutnters with defensive bears end peacefully. Signs indicating that a bear is defensive include:

  • Growling or woofing
  • Scratching the ground
  • Yawning
  • Salivating
  • Moving its head back and forth
  • Popping its jaw
  • Beating on the ground with its paws
  • Laying its ears back on its head
  • Bluff charging

If you observe any of the above behaviors, stand your ground and get your bear spray ready. Pick up your child or pet if they are with you. Continue talking to the bear in a deep and monotone voice. Slowly wave your hands up and down or open your jacket to make yourself appear larger. If the bear gets within range, spray it in the face with your bear spray.

When the bear stops approaching, slowly begin walking backward away from the bear. You can also walk sideways. Try to walk in the direction of higher ground. This can help you by making you appear larger to the bear. It will be less likely to attack. Once the bear stops following, continue walking and get as far from the bear as possible. You don’t want to risk another encounter.

What to do if a Defensive Bear Charges

Oftentimes defensive grizzly bears or browns bears bluff charge. They run at you and veer off at the last second or stop short. They may do this many times. Possibly from different angles. This is done to gauge the level of threat that you pose. If the bear begins to charge, aim your bear spray and spray the bear in the face when it gets within range of your bear spray (usually 15-30 feet).

The charging bear may knock you down. This could be done on accident or on purpose. If the bear charges you and knocks you down, the best thing you can do is to play dead.

Playing Dead During a Bear Attack

If a brown bear or grizzly bear is acting in a defensive manner and attacks the best reaction is to play dead. If a black bear attacks, you should not play dead. Only play dead if you absolutely can’t walk away from the bear or it knocks you to the ground while charging.

When you play dead, you should:

  • Lay face down on the ground with your hands covering your neck- Bears kill their prey by biting on the neck. You need to protect your neck.
  • If you’re wearing a backpack, keep it on for added protection- This prevents the bear from clawing or biting your back.
  • Spread your legs so the bear can’t flip you over- If the bear manages to roll you over, continue rolling until you’re on your stomach again.
  • Remain as still as possible until the bear goes away- Try not to scream, move, or fight back. This can prolong the attack or make it worse.

If the bear attack continues, you’re only remaining option is to fight for your life. Use whatever tools you have to fight the bear off or scare it away. Hit the bear with sticks or rocks. Aim for the face and nose. Use your flashlight or camera flash to temporarily blind the bear. Anything goes at this point. The odds are against you. This is a worst-case scenario type of situation.

A large black bear sitting up
A large black bear

Predatory Bears- Usually Black Bears

A predatory bear considers you food. It is not afraid of you. The main indication that a bear is predatory is that it will be quiet. It won’t show any signs of fear or agitation as outlined in the previous section. It may also put its head up and point its ears forward. The bear may slowly approach or stalk you for a while. If you try to back away, the bear will follow. Essentially, the bear is hunting you. You are the prey.

Black bears are the most likely species to hunt humans. More specifically, lone male black bears. Most fatal bear attacks are the result of a predatory black bear attack according to this interesting article. Polar bears are also known to hunt humans. Brown bears and grizzly bears are less likely to behave in a predatory manner.

What to do if a Predatory Bear Attacks

If a predatory bear attacks, your best bet is to try to escape. Grabe your belongings and look for a secure place like a car or building where you can get away from the bear.

If you can’t escape, gather with everyone in your group and yell at the bear. Oftentimes this will scare it away. If this doesn’t work, you must fight back using whatever is available to you. You want to show the bear that you are not prey. Try to act as aggressively as possible to scare the bear away. Aim your counter-attack at the face and muzzle of the bear. This is the most sensitive part of the animal. If you have bear spray, use it when the bear gets within range. Do not play dead during a predatory bear attack.

To fight off a predatory black bear you should:

  • Yell at the bear
  • Throw rocks at the bear
  • Kick and punch the bear in the face if it attacks
  • Pick up a stick and swing it at the bear or beat it against a tree
  • Shine your flashlight in the bear’s eyes
  • Use your bear spray when the bear gets within range
  • Smash things together to make loud noises. Metallic noises are best. Trekking poles work well for this. 
  • Use a bear horn

You want the bear to know that you aren’t an easy target. Do not attempt to run away if the bear is acting in a predatory manner. The bear will chase you down instinctively. Remember, in this situation you are the bear’s prey.

Black bear next to a car
Escape to your vehicle if possible

What to do if a Bear Enters Your Campsite

Encountering a bear at your campsite requires a different approach than a trail encounter. The reason is that a bear entering a campsite may not have any fear of humans. Bears that live in areas that humans frequent, like campsites, can grow used to being around humans and eating their food and garbage. A bear that has no fear of humans is one of the more dangerous types of bears that you could encounter.

The best thing you can do to protect yourself from bears entering your camp is to make sure that your food is properly stored. Always keep your food locked away in a bear canister or bear locker or hung from a bear pole or tree while you’re not actively cooking or eating. Make sure everything with an odor, including trash, is properly stored. If the bear can’t get any food, it will usually leave after a few minutes. Remember, bears are opportunists.

Campsite selection is also important. While camping in bear country, you want to avoid setting up camp near trails, berry patches, dead animal carcasses, or fresh signs of bears such as scat or footprints. This reduces the likelihood of a bear entering your camp in the first place.

If a hungry bear does wander into your campsite, talk calmly to the bear. This way, you don’t surprise the bear. You might also scare it away if you’re lucky. If you have bear spray, you should have it prepared at all times. If the bear gets within the range of your spray, use it.

Try to get away if the bear appears not to be afraid of you. Slowly and calmly back away to safety. If possible, get in your vehicle or in a building. Wait for the bear to leave. Don’t block the bear’s path, don’t make eye contact, don’t yell, and don’t run.

If you were in your tent when the bear entered your camp, the safest option is to get your bear spray ready, stay in your tent, and stay quiet. Usually, the bear will just sniff around and wander away. Bears usually do not try to enter tents, unless they smell food inside.

What to do if a Bear Comes into Your Tent

This is the worst-case scenario. Bears rarely attack sleeping campers inside their tents. Having said that, this behavior has been documented. If a bear attempts to enter your tent while you’re inside, chances are you’re dealing with a hungry predatory bear. This is a bold move on the bear’s part.

In this case, you have to fight back. Don’t lie still or play dead. Don’t scream. You should:

  • Use your bear spray
  • Knock gear together to make loud noises
  • Shine your flashlight in the bear’s eyes
  • Hit the bear in the face and nose with anything you have
  • Try to get out of your tent and make your way to safety

Can I Climb a Tree to Escape a Bear?

No. You should never climb a tree to escape from a bear. The reason is that bears can climb trees better than you. Black bears, in particular, are excellent climbers. Grizzlies and brown bears have also been known to climb trees to chase after prey.

The second reason you should not climb a tree to escape a bear is because it leaves you nowhere to go. If the bear starts climbing after you, you can only go up so far before you can’t climb anymore. Even if the bear doesn’t climb, they could wait around under the tree longer than you can hold on. Also, you can’t fight back or use your bear spray while you’re climbing.

Choosing a Shelter for Camping in Bear Country

When it comes to choosing a camping shelter for your trip into bear country, most campers agree that tents are safer than bivy sacks, hammocks, tarps, or cowboy camping. The reason is that, even though a bear can easily tear into a tent, they don’t know that. The tent confuses them. Because of this, bears rarely break into a tent while a camper is sleeping.

If you’re just sleeping out in the open in a hammock or bivy sack, the bear can see you laying there. They could walk right up and sniff you. If they are hungry enough, they could attack. In polar bear country, it is not recommended to camp out in the open without a tent for this reason. Sleeping in your vehicle or in a rooftop tent would be a safe alternative to a ground tent.

tarp and bivy camping setup
As you can see, a tarp and bivy don’t provide much protection from bears

Admittedly, I don’t have any evidence to back this claim up. I have read this claim multiple times while researching this article but can’t find any proof. It does make sense logically.

For help choosing a camping shelter, check out my pros and cons guides:

Should I Carry a Gun into Bear Country?

The short answer is no. You should not carry a gun into bear country for protection.

In 2012, a study by Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero was published by the Journal of Wildlife Management called “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.” Essentially they found that people who carried guns suffered the same injury rates whether they used the gun or not. They also found that bear spray has a higher rate of success than guns in most situations. You can read the abstract for free here at The Wildlife Society.

More reasons that bear spray is better than a gun:

  • Guns are much more highly regulated than bear spray- You can’t carry a gun everywhere that you could encounter a bear. Many countries highly regulate or prohibit guns. In some cases, you may need a license to carry a gun. In some national parks and wilderness areas, guns simply aren’t allowed. Bear spray, on the other hand, is available everywhere bears are a danger to humans.
  • Guns are harder to use- If you don’t know anything about guns, you can’t just pick one up and use it to defend yourself against a bear. There is a steep learning curve. Anyone can pick up a can of bear spray and learn to use it in a matter of minutes.
  • Guns are heavier than bear spray- A can of bear spray weighs around 11 ounces. A gun that is capable of killing a bear will weigh over 32 ounces. The extra weight can slow you down if you’re hiking long distances.
  • Guns are more expensive- A cheap gun costs hundreds of dollars. You’ll also need to buy a holster and ammo. A can of bear spray costs $20-$30.

For more info, check out this excellent article on the topic of firearms vs bear spray from outsideonline.com.

What to do After a Bear Encounter or Attack

If you are injured during the attack, you obviously need to make your way to the nearest hospital or clinic to have your injuries treated.

If you experience a bear encounter, you should visit a ranger station and report it. It doesn’t matter how minor the encounter was. The reason is that the bear could be a danger to other people. Park rangers can use the information that you give them to help other visitors avoid bear encounters and better understand the bears living in the park. This helps bears and people stay safe.

If a bear managed to eat some of your food or trash, it is crucial that you report the incident. After a bear eats human food, it can begin to crave it. The bear can then grow bolder in order to obtain more human food. This can lead to more dangerous encounters.

A Note About Bear Avoidance and Safety Techniques

While researching for this article, I found some conflicting information. Experts have varying opinions as to how exactly you should react to different types of bears and bear encounters.

In these cases, I tried to provide both sides and the reasoning behind it so you can make up your own mind. Most of these techniques just haven’t been properly researched. Instead, they come from observations from people who spend a lot of time in bear country. Unfortunately, we don’t have good scientific research to back up many of the techniques outlined in this article. This doesn’t mean that these techniques aren’t valid or useful. It just means that we don’t know what’s ideal for any given situation. it’s just something to keep in mind.

Also, remember that bears have a mind of their own. While there are some indications that they give us about their mood or intentions, you never know for sure how they’re going to react. Bears don’t act rationally or think through a situation. They are somewhat unpredictable.

Final Thoughts: How to Avoid Bears

The best way to avoid a bear encounter is to research the particular area that you plan to visit and follow the recommendations of the land managers or park rangers. Check for regulations regarding food storage. See if you need to carry a bear canister or if food storage options are available at the campsites. If it is recommended or required that use a bear canister, use it. Check to see if bear spray is permitted in the area. If bear spray is recommended, bring it.

The best tool that you can carry to defend yourself from an aggressive bear is bear spray. It’s fairly easy to use, affordable, easily available, and most importantly, effective.

Once you arrive, talk to a ranger and ask them about bears in the area. They can tell you about recent spottings or encounters and places to avoid. They can also give you some more safety tips that are specific to your destination. For example, maybe bear sightings are particularly common on a trail you plan to hike. That’s valuable information.

Remember, spotting a bear in its natural habitat is a beautiful experience. These are majestic creatures that usually just want to be left alone. They generally don’t want to attack you.

Millions of people spend a lifetime enjoying the great outdoors without ever experiencing a close bear encounter. There is no need to be paranoid. Attacks are rare. Having said that, being prepared and aware can help you stay safe while hiking, camping, hunting, or cycling in bear country. Hopefully this guide helps you stay safe.

Do you hike or camp in bear country? Share your bear stories and safety tips in the comments below to help fellow campers avoid encounters. 

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