How to Be Bear-Savvy When Hiking and Camping

Grizzly Bear© Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

While bear attacks get lots of media attention, most of them are actually caused by inappropriate human behavior, according to the Center for Wildlife Information. Indeed, bears are generally afraid of people and rarely attack unless provoked (you are 67 times more likely to be killed by a dog than a bear). To avoid unwanted confrontations while hiking or camping, brush up on your bear etiquette.

The most common types of bears are grizzlies and black bears. Grizzlies are most common in Canada and the northwest United States, including Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Washington. They are usually at least 6.5’ in height. Black bears are more common and can be found in all 50 states. They are slightly smaller, with shorter claws. Here are some tips for dealing with both varieties:

Make noise while you walk. Clapping your hands, singing, ringing bells, or speaking loudly will keep you from surprising a bear. Surprised bears are more likely to react aggressively.

Do not take your dog with you. A dog can provoke a bear and send it your way.

Carry bear pepper spray. This should be your first line of defense if a bear attacks. It creates a large cloud that will usually stop a bear in its tracks.

Never ever feed or approach a bear.

When you see a bear stand up, it is not attacking but trying to see, hear, and smell you better. Talk firmly in a low-pitched voice while backing away. Avoid direct eye contact, as bears may perceive this as a challenge or threat.

Keep children with you on the trail at all times. If you see a bear, immediately pick up small children while you assess what to do.

Mother bears are very protective of their cubs. A startled black bear will often send her cubs up a tree while she stands guard at the bottom. This gives you a chance to walk away without a confrontation. Never come between a mother bear and her cub.

If attacked by a bear, do not run. The bear will think you are prey and will chase you.

Do not climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers.

If a bear touches you, drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. Stay still and do not struggle or scream. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels you are not a threat. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area.

When camping, make sure to set up camp in an open area away from dense vegetation.

Before you set up camp, look around for discarded food or for signs that bears have been around, such as bear tracks, poop, or scratched trees. If you see these signs, look for a new campsite.

Be scentless. Bears are attracted by smells, so use fragrance-free shampoos and soaps. Insect-repelling citronella candles actually can attract bears.

Keep all food, even wrapped food, in bear-proof containers at least one hundred yards from your tent. Garbage and the clothing you wear while cooking should also be stashed this far away. Wash all utensils immediately after use.

Clean up after yourself. Don’t jeopardize campers who follow you by leaving food around.

Plus: Tips for Camping and Cookouts


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