Safety Tips for Hiking in Bear Country
Hiking or camping in bear country? Here's how to avoid an encounter, identify different species, protect your camp, and even survive an attack.
When you decide to go hiking or camping, there is a chance that you’ll run into a bear or that one will run into you. By scoping out the area you’ll be traveling in on a map, you’ll be able to determine the likelihood of encountering a bear.
- There are three types of bears in North America: black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears. Black bears live in forests and clearings near to forests throughout North America. They can be found in at least forty American states as well as Canada and Mexico.
- Grizzly bears (also known as brown or Kodiak bears) live on high slopes, wetlands, or avalanche chutes — narrow conduits down steep slopes that were created by the force of an avalanche. They’re found in British Columbia, the Yukon, and the Northwest territories in Canada as well as the U.S. states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.
- Polar bears live in the northern areas of Canada and Alaska. They like areas where there is year-round ice, but will sometimes venture as far south as Newfoundland, Labrador, or the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Mothers will also commonly den in Manitoba, near Churchill.
If you’ll be in one of these areas, though, there’s no need to panic. This information about bears will help you understand their behavior, protect your food and campsite, and protect yourself if you’re hiking in bear country.
First, you should understand the basics about these three types of bears:
- There are an estimated 600,000-700,000 black bears in North America. They are the most common bear on the continent.
- About 55% of black bears live in Canada, 40% in the United States, and 5% in Mexico.
- Between 1900 and 2009, at least 63 people were killed by black bears. 81% of those fatalities involved a male bear (a mother bear with cubs is far less dangerous).
- There are only about 53,200 grizzly bears in North America: 1200 in the continental U.S., 31,000 in Alaska, and 21,000 in Canada.
- They have been exterminated from 97% of their original habitat in the lower forty-eight states.
- Grizzly bears are more than 20 times more dangerous than a black bear due to their increased likelihood to charge and attack; however, between 2000 and 2009, there were only 10 fatal attacks by grizzly bears. This shows that with the proper knowledge, you’re pretty safe around grizzly bears!
- The worldwide polar bear population is 20,000-25,000.
- About ⅔ of the polar bear population lives in Canada.
- Wild polar bears could be extinct by 2100 due to loss of sea ice.
- The only population of polar bear on the rise is located in the M’Clintock Channel.
- Even though polar bears are the most dangerous of the three species, over a five-year period (1980-1985) in Alaska, there was only one recorded injury related to a polar bear, and no deaths. This might help you feel more comfortable when traveling in their habitat.
The takeaway here is that the chance of being injured or killed by a bear in North America is not as high as you may have imagined. All the same, you should know how to identify different species and predict their behavior just in case you’re one of the few hikers or campers to run into one.
How to tell the difference among bear species
Knowing how to tell the difference among bears is crucial. The three species behave quite differently, and you should behave accordingly if you come in contact with one. The first step is to know what they look like:
Black bears are generally one color, with the exception of a brown muzzle and perhaps some light markings on their chest. In the East, they live up to their name and have black fur, but in the West, they can have tan, cinnamon, or brown coloring too. There are also Kermode bears (aka spirit bears) with blue-white fur, but they live only along the coast of British Columbia, lest you confuse one with a polar bear.
Their rear is higher than their front shoulders, their head presents high and forward, and their ears are tall and slightly pointed. Adult males weigh about 250 pounds and females weigh about 140. Both sexes are about 5-6 feet long and 2-3 feet tall at the shoulder.
Grizzly bears can have fur that ranges from tan to black, which can make it hard to distinguish between them and black bears at first glance. However, they have a shoulder hump, a rear that’s lower than their shoulder, a head that hangs slightly low, and short round ears — all of which black bears do not.
Adult males are about 400-600 pounds while females are 250-300 pounds and they’re about 4 feet tall at the shoulder.
Polar bears are well known for their white fur, but they actually range in color from silver-white to straw yellow. As a male ages, its fur turns more yellow. They have long bodies, low shoulders, and their necks are long and thin. Their rear is well-developed and their profile is straight.
Male polar bears are about 8-8.5 feet long and generally weigh 880-1300 pounds, making them the largest land carnivore in North America. Females are about half the size of males. They weight markedly less (330-550 pounds) except when pregnant. Then, they can weigh between 880-1100 pounds. They’re about 5 feet tall at the shoulder.
Tracks, but no bear?
If you’ve seen tracks, you should also know how to identify which type of bear they belong to. While each of the bear species has a distinct habitat, there are areas (especially in northern Canada) where all three types can live. In this case, it’s important to know who’s around.
- Black bear tracks are about 5” long and 5” wide at the forepaw and longer (7”) at the hindpaw. They walk on the soles of their feet, so you usually won’t see tracks of their claws unless there is soft mud or snow around.
- Grizzly bear tracks are about 7” long and 5” wide at the forepaw and 11” long and 6” wide at the hindpaw. Their claw-marks will almost always show in a print.
- Polar bear tracks are about 5.75” long and and 9” inches wide at the forepaw, while the hindpaw is longer: about 13”. The track may have ‘fringes’ due to their hairy paws. You’ll usually only see their tracks in soft snow, and claw marks usually won’t be visible.
The habitats of black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears do overlap in some areas, but their behavior can be quite different:
Black bears are likely to be found alone, but they’re not territorial animals. They do have an area of personal space that they don’t like to be invaded, but other than that, they’ll happily leave each other alone. The exception is when mothers are raising their cubs, or if there’s a place with a plentiful food source — then you may see black bears in groups.
They’re able to navigate better than humans and their whereabouts depend on which type of food is available in which season. They have remarkable memories, especially when it comes to food, and will return to places they know to be reliable — including campsites. They eat insects, bumblebee nests, bird eggs, amphibians, grasses, and berries — 85% of their diet is plant-based and the remaining 15% is animal protein. But if there are other sources of food available (dead animals, baby deer/elk/moose, etc.), they’ll happily take advantage.
They can see in color, with some difficulty in the red-orange-yellow spectrum, but they’re a near-sighted species. Anything beyond 30 yards will be blurry to them. Their hearing is about twice as acute as ours is, so they’ll hear you before you hear them and usually move away as a result. Their strongest sense by far is smell. It’s about seven times better than a bloodhound’s and they can pick up a scent from over a mile away.
During the fall, black bears will forage up to 20 hours per day to prepare for winter hibernation. Generally, they’ll make a den in holes in trees slightly above ground, in a cavity at the base of a tree, or under logs, boulders or brush. Avoid these areas during the winter so that you stay safe from a territorial bear, especially since it doesn’t take much to wake up a black bear.
Mating season happens in the summer and cubs are born in January or February. Mother and babies come out in the spring and they all stay together for 16-18 months.
Black bears are good swimmers and can run around 30 MPH. They wake up about half an hour before sunrise, take a couple naps during the day, and generally go to sleep a couple hours after sunset. However, some bears will be active at night to avoid humans or other bears.
Grizzly bears can get a bad reputation for being vicious and predatory, but they’re reclusive animals and like to keep to themselves. They’ll even alter their behavior to make sure they avoid humans, but if food is scarce, they’re more likely to invade human spaces. They’re also intelligent and curious animals with a good sense of sight and smell.
They eat a wide variety of food, including seeds, berries, roots, grasses, fungi, deer, elk, fish, carrion, and insects. They also try to pack on the pounds in late summer and early fall to prepare for winter hibernation, and, like black bears, they’re easy to wake up, so beware of their dens, which are dug into the sides of hills. Their mating season runs from May to July with a peak in mid-June, and cubs are born late January or early February. They remain with their mother for 2-3 years.
Grizzlies are active night and day, but they will rest in vegetated areas when it’s hottest, often in willow or alder trees, in dense forest, or in tall grass. Be especially wary of these areas around midday or else you could wander into a sleeping brown bear.
These bears have excellent memories and are good swimmers. They can also run as fast as 35 MPH and can climb trees, though they’re best at it when they’re cubs.
Like black bears and grizzlies, polar bears like to be alone. The only times they meet with other bears is to mate and when they’re raising cubs. Unlike the other two species, though, they do not hibernate during the winter.
Polar bears are strong swimmers. This is crucial for hunting their prey: seals, and walruses. They will also eat eggs and dead whales. Females eat quite a bit during the summer and fall to prepare for their time in dens. These are located in accumulated snow along the coast of the ocean or rivers or pressure ridges on sea ice. Cubs are born between November and January and the family will come out of the den in March or April.
In the spring and summer, polar bears will nap often during the day because their prey is more active at night and they’re not picky about where they sleep. Make sure you look out for bears during the daytime, since their fur blends in well with their environment.
Bears and people
Black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears all behave differently when it comes to people. Black bears tend to live alongside humans, so they’re generally less aggressive and more tolerant of your presence. Grizzlies live at a distance from civilization (in some cases, they’ve even been wiped out near towns, villages, and cities), so they’re more wary of people and potentially more aggressive.
The situation with polar bears is complicated — their preferred habitat is sea ice, but because of global warming, they spend more time along Arctic coastlines, where their sense of smell will draw them to city garbage, human food storage, and dogsled teams. However, unlike black bears, the increased contact with humans doesn’t make them any less aggressive. Keep these differences in mind when in bear country.
Precautions and Prevention
There are measures you can take to make sure that bears stay away while you’re hiking or camping:
- Hike in groups. Bears are more likely to approach a solo hiker.
- Avoid using scented personal care products, like shampoo, deodorant, lotion, etc. Bears have a great sense of smell, so they’ll investigate a peculiar scent. Bears are also attracted to the smell of toothpaste, so make sure that’s hung at night along with food and trash.
- Choose your tent wisely. Bright, solid-colored tents are more likely to attract a bear’s attention. They’re especially drawn to the color yellow. Choose something in a camouflage print or another natural color.
- Make noise. While ‘bear bells’ are well-known, talking loudly and clapping every so often are better ways to let bears know of your presence.
- If you’re menstruating, use tampons. They mask the smell of menstrual blood, which can draw bears. You should also hang used period products when you’re sleeping in the same manner as you would food.
- Learn how to set up your campsite. Your sleeping area should be 200 feet from your cooking area and 200 feet from your washing area. This makes sure that if a bear decides to investigate either area, they’ll stay away from where you sleep.
- You should also set up camp away from trails and regularly used campsites. Bears have great memories and are more likely to visit these areas in the hope of snagging a free meal.
Protecting your food from bears
When camping, it’s important to know how to store your food so bears won’t come to investigate a free dinner at night.
- Change clothes after you cook and hang them at night.
- Never leave your food out and unattended. Even if you’ll only be back in a second, that’s more than enough time for a bear to wander into camp. This also applies to pots, pans, cups, and anything that may smell of food.
- Do not keep food in your tent. Even if you’re only eating in your tent, the smell can linger and draw a bear while you sleep.
- Try not to cook anything that will draw a bear. Freeze-dried food may not seem the most appealing, but cooking food (especially meat) over a fire will pique a bear’s interest.
- Wash your dishes immediately after cooking and dump the water at least 200 feet from the camp.
- Keep empty food containers out of sight. Bears that live near campsites have gotten used to associating coolers and backpacks with food. Hang these containers if you can, especially if they smell of food, otherwise keep them completely hidden in your vehicle or away from camp. If they’re outside, leave them open so the bear can see there’s nothing edible inside.
How to Hang your Food
- To hang your food, you’ll need a rope that’s 75 feet or longer and at least a quarter-inch thick. You’ll also need two carabiners as part of your essential camping gear.
- Hang your food before night falls. There’s a good amount of effort that goes into this process, so you want to make sure you’re doing it by the light of day.
- Find a tree at least 200 feet away from your tent. Don’t use the same tree as other people to avoid making it a mark for bears.
- Bag all your food and trash in a silnylon stuff sack, double-bagged trash bags, or odor-proof resealable plastic ziploc bags.
- Choose a branch at least 20 feet off the ground, one that’s strong enough to hold your bag, but that’s too thin to support a bear. Make sure that the bag hangs at least 8 feet out from the trunk and is at least 8 feet away from other trees.
- Throw one end of the rope (end A) over the tree branch. If you can’t toss it over on your own, attach a weight to the end. Then test the branch to make sure it will hold the weight of your bags (note: don’t stand under the branch when you do this in case it breaks).
- Now tie a trucker’s hitch knot about 6 feet up from the ground. Start with a slippery hitch:
- Use the other end of the rope (End B) to form a loop.
- Wrap End B around the main line three times in the direction of the loop, then wrap the it around both lines of the loop.
- Take End B and pull it down through the last loop you made by wrapping the main line, then pull the end tight. This will create a secured loop (a slippery hitch).
- To finish the trucker’s hitch, wrap End B through the first carabiner, then bring it up through the secured loop of the slippery hitch.
- Wrap the end of the rope around the front of the line you brought up through the loop to the back, then through the loop you just made.
- Pull tight and repeat one more time to create a double-half-hitch. This will tie off your trucker’s hitch securely so your food won’t fall.
- Clip the second carabiner to the bight (the slack part) of the trucker’s hitch knot.
- Run End B of the rope through the second carabiner and up through the one attached to the trucker’s hitch knot.
- Pull End A of the rope to move the trucker’s hitch knot as high up as possible. Then tie End A to the tree.
- Clip or tie the food bag(s) to the second carabiner (at End B) then pull on End B to haul the bag(s) at least 15 feet off the ground.
- Tie End B to the tree as well. When you want to get the bag(s) down, untie End B and lower them.
If you’re camping in an area without trees handy (tundra, open fields, etc.), you obviously won’t be able to hang your food. Instead, you’ll need to invest in bear-proof containers. Although canisters are bulky, heavy and expensive, they’ll mask the smell of food and ensure that it’ll be safe.
Close encounters with bear kind
There are some facts that you should know about bears in order to know when you might see a bear and what to do if that happens. For example:
- Bears are usually active during daylight hours, but people see bears at any time of day or night. Some bears that live in close proximity to civilization have been known to become nocturnal so as to avoid people, but others have gotten used to people and will take advantage of food sources like garbage or food that you bring on a hike or to a campsite.
- Bears are not always aware of what’s going on around them. If they’re following the scent of food, or if there are surrounding sounds of water or wind, a bear might not realize you’re there and almost stumble into you. Because of this, you should be aware of your surroundings.
- Never intentionally get close to a bear. All bears have a “critical space,” a space around them that will cause them to take action if you enter it. The size of the critical space differs among all bears. So does their reaction to the critical space being invaded. It’s best to be safe rather than sorry and stay 100 yards away or more.
- Bears will often be frightened of new objects in their environment — including you and anything you may have brought with you. After being initially startled, the bear will want to investigate.
In order to know how you should react, you have to know what type of behavior is aggressive and what isn’t. Bears are curious by nature. They’ll want to investigate anything that could be food or something to play with. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it’s just trying to see, smell, and hear you and your campsite better. Grizzlies have good eyesight, but black bears don’t see well in the red-orange-yellow spectrum, so human fleshtones won’t be clear to them. Either way, a bear standing on its hind legs is a sign of curiosity.
What if a bear feels threatened?
A bear’s usual first response to a threat is to retreat, regardless of the species. However, black bears are less likely to be aggressive in general. They’ll generally climb trees when threatened and send their cubs up a tree as well. On the other hand, grizzly bears can climb trees, but they aren’t very good at it. For this reason, they’ll generally defend themselves on the ground if they don’t retreat. However, it’s equally important to know what is a sign of aggression.
If a black bear feels threatened, it will make huffing sounds or blow air through its nose sharply. It may also snap its teeth together. If this doesn’t work, a bear may do a bluff charge, running at you to try to scare you off. The bear will usually break off a charge a few feet away from you and then stamp its feet. When a black bear stares, protrudes its lower lip, and flattens its ears, it’s truly aggressive and may be about to attack.
Before an attack, grizzly bears will almost always growl or make huffing, barking, woofing, or moaning sounds. They’ll also swing their heads, ‘pop’ air by bringing in air while moving their cheeks, lower their head, and lay their ears back. If a grizzly lunges toward you and slaps the ground, take it seriously — the bear is hostile.
There are many sounds to listen for when encountering a polar bear. A chuffing sound is a sign of agitation, whereas an angry or uneasy bear will hiss or let out a rumbling growl. Roaring or bellowing is a sign that the bear is hurt or otherwise provoked. If it’s upset, the bear will shriek, squall, or whimper. Pay attention to what the bear is “saying” to you. You’re only truly safe if it’s silent (a sign of respect) or “purring” (a sign of contentedness).
How to survive a bear attack
If you are attacked by a bear, knowing what to do — and what not to do — could save your life. Much like the rest of the information here, it all depends on the type of bear.
If you see a black bear, stand your ground. Do not run or climb a tree. Black bears will chase anything that seems to be running away and they’re excellent climbers. Instead, wave your arms and make as much noise as possible. There are also wildlife deterrent horns made for this purpose.
If you have other objects handy, like a stick or tent pole, use those to make yourself look bigger. You can shake a tarp, bang your cooking gear together, or swing a garbage bag as long as there isn’t food inside.
If you have bear spray, use it when the bear is 40-50 feet away. Aim for the bear’s face. This will impair its sense of sight and smell and cause irritation to its eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. The bear will generally retreat out of discomfort.
If you see a grizzly bear and it doesn’t see you, don’t startle it. Wait for the bear to either leave or notice you. If it notices you, stand tall and reach slowly for your bear spray so it’s handy if you need it. Back away slowly. If the bear follows, stop and stand your ground.
If the bear charges, use your spray when the bear is 40-50 feet away. This will create a wall of pepper spray between you and it. If it keeps coming, hit the deck. Cover the back of your neck with your hands and either lie flat on the ground or curl into the fetal position to protect your stomach. Don’t move from that spot for at least twenty minutes. The bear may linger to see if you’re “really dead.”
Only fight back as a last resort. You’re much smaller and weaker than a bear, so it can easily overpower you, but if it comes to that, box its nose or eyes. If the bear lets you go, don’t run. Back away slowly.
The best bet with polar bears is to avoid them at all costs. Out of the three species, polar bears are least likely to want to scare you off and are more likely to see you as a meal. If the bear doesn’t see you, don’t draw attention to yourself. The same goes if it sees you, but stays silent or “purrs.”
But if a polar bear does seem interested in you, don’t run. Instead, stand tall, speak loudly, and behave like it should be scared of you. A good example is to bang a large stick or something similar on the ground. If the bear continues to pursue you, use bear spray, but make sure to spray it when the wind isn’t blowing. It won’t be effective if a gust blows it away.
If neither intimidation nor bear spray works and the bear insists on attacking, fight back with all you’ve got. Aim for their nose and eyes and avoid their paws at all costs; one hit can kill you.
Bears and Guns
A final note: It’s understandable that bringing a firearm with you on a hike or camping trip could increase your sense of safety in the outdoors. However, regulations vary among states, regions, and parks, so make sure you do your homework before adding a gun to your pack.
It’s also important to note that the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) encourages making noise while hiking and safely storing your food and other scented belongings as your first line of defense, and using bear spray should you need to. These basic skills have been reiterated by many seasoned hikers and campers, as well as bear experts, and studies printed in the Journal of Wildlife Management. However, if you’re confident with a firearm and it’s permitted in your area of travel, there’s nothing wrong with an extra line of protection.
There is a lot to keep in mind when it comes to hiking and camping in bear country, but don’t let the amount of information here intimidate you. Consider this to be your one-stop guide to dealing with bears — no matter the species, the environment or the circumstance, you’ll know how to keep yourself safe.
Next: Learn more about hiking safety.