Bears are the apex predator of North America—they're massive and powerful and incredibly fast, given their size. Though they don't generally seek out conflict with humans, sometimes, when you're traveling through their territory on a backpacking of hiking trip, encounters are unavoidable. In most cases, the bear will be startled and run. But when a mother and cubs are involved, a surprise encounter can quickly escalate into an attack and, in your case, a fight for survival. We asked Tony Nester, survivalist and owner of Flagstaff, Arizona-based Ancient Pathways outdoor survival school, for tips on how to stay safe when traveling in bear country, and what to do if you encounter a bear.
Black Bears vs. Grizzly Bears
"There’s a great book called Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, which was written years ago by a guy named Stephen Herrero. He’s a Canadian biologist, and he spent his whole career studying bears. He broke the book into two sections—one on black bear and one on grizz—in which he talks about how they’ve evolved these different response patterns.
"Black bears evolved in a forested environment, so when they’re threatened or faced with danger, mama bear will go to a tree, send her cubs up there, and she’ll remain at the base of the tree, in case the danger gets any closer. Black bears tend to be less aggressive. If you’re in a picnic ground in Great Smoky Mountains, those bears can be a little aggressive, since they’re so used to people and fighting over food, but generally speaking their less aggressive than grizzlies.
"Now grizz evolved in an open grassland environment, like you see in the tundra regions in Alaska. So when they’re faced with a threat, their response to that is to charge and be very aggressive, because they don’t have any place to retreat to. So two different response patterns, and that will determine your reactions."
Four Tips to Stay Safe in Bear Country
1. Carry bear spray.
"One of my buddies who is a bear tracker, and does a lot of work up in Montana, he said he’ll take a canister of bear spray any day over a firearm. Now, he carries a firearm with him, but he said that with the bear encounters he’s had, with both grizz and black bears, you don’t often have time to react and get out your pistol or rifle. And you might also be in a park where you’ve got hikers and kids around. So bear spray’s been proven to be effective time and again. It was actually developed by a survivor of a grizzly bear attack, and it has a range of about 20 to 30 feet. That would be one thing to carry if you’re going to be in bear country."
2. Get local information.
"I always talk to locals. I’m going up to Utah this weekend to do a scouting trip for a desert course we’re going to be running shortly, and I’m going to definitely be stopping in and talking to some of my friends up there, and asking them about the water holes and the rain and the roads this past month…there’s just no substitute for local knowledge. So if you can talk to locals—rangers, wildlife officials, biologists, nature photographers, even hunters—before you head into bear country, that’ll save you a lot of headaches."
3. Cook away from your campsite.
"With bears, too, the one thing I’ve always kind of religiously done is, whenever we’re out on a backpacking or survival trip, we’ll stop and prepare our dinner well before sunset (around 4:30 or 5pm, say) in an area where we’re not going to be camping. We have an early dinner, cooked on the stove or over a fire. Then we’ll clean everything up, stow it away, and continue on another two or three miles down the trail to where we’re going to camp that night. That way we don’t have the scent of food all over the ground and in the air, permeating everything. We’ve got a fresh camp to sleep out in that night."
4. Stow food away from your sleeping area.
"We’ll still hang our food or have it in bear containers, depending on the area. But that’s something we’ve always done, and we’ve avoided a lot of problems that way."
Still encountered a black bear? Act bigger and scarier than you are.
"Most of my encounters with black bears have been, like a lot of people’s, through sheer surprise. You’re coming through a willow thicket, and you can’t see what’s on the other side, and they can’t smell or see you, and you clear the brush and—boom—there’s one six feet away from you. And then you just scream like a little kid and hold your ground and make yourself look big—open your coat up, throw your arms up above your head—and shout and scream and, a lot of times, they’re as spooked as you are, and will take off."
Oh, it's a grizzly. Try this.
"As with a black bear, don't run. Avoid eye contact, which a bear will perceive to be a challenge. If the bear's not approaching, back away slowly. If it charges, simply stand your ground. There's no way you can outrun it. Don’t scream or act aggressively. Act human, if that makes sense. Speak in a soft monotone voice and wave your arms to let the animal know you are human. If you have pepper spray, be ready to use it… and pronto. If the bear charges within range—again, that's 20 to 30 feet—use it. If it makes physical contact with you, cover your vitals and play dead. Curl up into a ball on your side, or lie flat on your stomach, using your arms to protect your neck and the back of your head. Try to remain as calm and quiet as possible, until the grizz is convinced your dead, and ends the attack."
Tony Nester has taught outdoor survival courses across the desert southwest and Rocky Mountains for 20-plus years through his Ancient Pathways school.