How to Stay Safe Around Bears

Keep yourself safe on your next hiking or camping trip

Flickr/Abhishek Chhetri

With the constant stream of news on bear attacks lately, it seems that these wild creatures are completely vicious. Truth be told, bears are usually more afraid of you than you are of them, and very rarely attack unless provoked. Most attacks are caused by the reactions and behaviors of the human involved.

According to the Center for Wildlife Information, human injury occurs when a bear responds to a threat with their instinct to “fight or flight”.

1. Know your hike.

Know what type of wildlife is native to the area you are hiking or camping in. Certain bears are more dangerous than others. Also knowing your hike well, before you start, will help you stay on trail and keep away from areas with higher densities of wildlife. Carry bear pepper spray and the necessary essentials for bear protection.

2. Set up a safe camp.

Setting up camp is very important to your protection against wildlife. Find an open area and be aware of any bear advisories on site. Never store food or items with strong odors near, and especially within, your tent. Bear proof containers are available at many camping stores and there is an extensive collection on Amazon. Strong odors include the clothing you cooked in. Make sure to store any smelly clothing and keep your dishes clean. Burn any trash in a hot fire.

Related: How to Choose a Campsite

3. Avoid getting too close.

If the bear never sees or smells you, you won’t have to worry about what to do upon confrontation. Keep a good distance between you and a bear, more than 300 feet, and calmly and quietly retreat while avoiding any eye contact.

4. Don’t run.

As hard as it may be, you should never run away from a bear if it starts to move towards you. Always stand tall and try to make yourself look as big as possible. Again, avoid eye contact, but keep an eye on the bear’s movement. Often, bears will charge as a bluff, and then turn away. Also, don’t try to climb a tree. Bears are very good at that, too. Use bear pepper spray if you have it, and begin spraying before it gets close.

5. Prepare for attack.

This is when knowing the type of bear you are dealing with comes in handy, as your reaction depends on its type. In North America there are black bears, brown bears (grizzlies) and polar bears. Grizzlies and black bears sometimes look alike, but grizzlies can be distinguished by the extended hump over their shoulder blades, and their larger claws. Also, black bears are much less aggressive than grizzlies and polar bears. Usually, the only time a black bear will attack is if it is a mother bear protecting her cubs. But, to be prepared, there are two different types of responses you should have based on bear-type.

a) Play dead. If a grizzly or polar bear attacks you should play dead. Lie completely flat with your hands behind your neck, stay quiet and still. When the bear leaves stay still for several minutes until you are absolutely sure that the bear is far gone.

b) Be aggressive. If a black bear attacks, you need to try to scare it away. Be loud, wave your arms, and use any object you may have to fight back.

It is extremely rare for a bear to attack, especially a predatory attack, but just in case, be prepared to react accordingly. Many parks and trails recommend leaving your dog at home as dogs tend to annoy bears and therefore initiate an attack. Not all bears are violent, in fact most aren’t, but you should always be prepared and take necessary precautions to stay safe.


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