Next summer we are hoping to go on a 2-month packraft expedition in the Yukon / Alaska. A region inhabited by black bears and grizzlies. Fortunately we have some experience in dealing with bears ever since we encountered a polar bear during our kayak expedition in Spitsbergen. But still, dealing with grizzlies might prove to be something different…
It could just happen to you while walking in one of the US national parks or when adventuring in the wilderness regions of North America: suddenly you come face to face with a grizzly or black bear. What are you doing then?
Here is what you need to know when hiking in bear territory.
Avoid contact with bears while hiking / camping
Prevention is better than cure and that certainly applies to dealing with bears. You want to avoid encounters with bears or grizzlies as much as possible.
Tip 1 – Only hike on commonly used paths and trails.
The trails in the national parks are used by multiple hikers every day. The chance that you will bump into a bear along such a path is much smaller than when you deviate from the regular hiking trails.
Tip 2 – Walk in a group
The risk is even smaller when you walk in a group. Bears rarely attack groups of four or more people.
Tip 3 – Make noise
Let the bear know you are coming by talking and making as much noise as possible while walking. In remote mountain areas, hikers often hang bells from their backpacks. However, these are not always sufficient in the vicinity of streams and rivers. A tin with stones that you shake with, clap your hands loudly from time to time or blow a whistle regularly is much more effective. When a bear hears a noise, the animal will move away from the noise. Most confrontations with bears happen when the animal is surprised. You also want to avoid unexpectedly ending up between a mother and her young.
Tip 4 – Keep your eyes open
Keep your eyes peeled for signs of the presence of bears such as fresh footprints or feces. Be especially careful around rivers and streams. Bushes with berries are an important food source for bears. So don’t stay around too long.
Tip 4 – Keep food away from your tent
Especially when you go camping it is important to take your precautions. Bears are attracted to many things, but of course mainly to food. Keep food scraps away from your tent and eat fifty or a hundred meters away so that there is no food odor in your tent. Store food in the car or hang it from a tree at least twelve feet from the ground. (Read: How to hang a bear bag)
Tip 5 – Avoid odor of sex, perfumes, deodarants and more..
The smell of sex also attracts bears. So watch what you do in your tent if you want to avoid a drastic interruption of intercourse. You should avoid using products such as perfumes, deodorants or lotions when staying in a tent because strong smells attract bears. Also avoid wearing the same clothes to sleep that you wore to eat.
Tip 6 – Choose your camping spot wisely
Are you going camping in the backcountry (so for example on multi-day hikes?). Make sure you camp about 100 yards (91 meters) from cooking and food storage areas. Also, don’t camp on trails or near dead animals, fresh bear signs (watch for footprints and bear poo), and near blueberries.
Face to face with a bear: now what?
If you consciously try to avoid contact with bears, the chance that you will cross a bear in your path is very small. If it does happen, don’t panic but hope for the best. There is a lot of debate about the right approach and tactics because bears are very unpredictable animals. What works for one bear does not work for another animal. You should know some general guidelines:
Tip 1 – Stay calm and don´t run
When suddenly a bear is in front of you, you have to stay calm. The bear may just leave you alone. Bears don’t really want to attack but want to see if you are a threat. Stay on the spot and don’t move. Under no circumstances should you turn around and run. This instinctively triggers the bear’s reaction to see you as prey. You don’t stand a chance: a bear can reach speeds over thirty kilometers per hour and even the fastest Olympic athlete cannot. Slowly and gradually, try to move sideways and backwards from the bear in small steps.
Tip 2 – Give it space
When you notice a bear in the distance, it is best to turn around or make a big turn past the animal. After all, it is very important that the bear has enough space to run away.
Tip 3 – Distract the bear
Place your backpack or carrying bag on the ground in front of you. That way you increase the chances that the bear will be distracted by this and will focus on your backpack rather than you. Others claim it is best to hold on the pack as it will offer protection in case of attack (see below).
Tip 4 – Avoid direct eye contact with the bear
Under no circumstances should you look the bear straight in the eye. The animal sees this as a sign of aggression and it can trigger a response in which it attacks.
Tip 5 – Make yourself as big as possible
You want to convince the bear not to attack you. Therefore make yourself as big as possible. Stand on the tips of your toes and gently spread your arms. Another tip is to raise your arms very slowly above your head and gently wave your hands. Monkeys and humans are the only species that can do this. That way you let the bear know that you are not another animal. Do not make sudden movements
Tip 6 – Do not shout or yell
Don’t start yelling or screaming. The bear will experience this as aggressive and may decide to attack.
Tip 7 – Speak to the bear softly and in a low voice
This seems ridiculous, but it often works. You must make it clear to the bear that you are not a threat and do not want to harm him. You do this by speaking softly to the bear. It doesn’t matter what you say, but a phrase like “calm, I won’t hurt you and don’t want to hurt you” that you repeat all the time is good. Contrary to what many people think, an animal is indeed capable of understanding and feeling a lot. Animals cannot speak but communicate instinctively and sometimes almost telepathically with their kind or other creatures. You often calm the bear by speaking softly to it.
Help, the bear is attacking!
A bear standing on its hind legs is a terrifying sight but no reason to panic yet. Often times, the bear is just trying to gauge the situation and find out if you are a threat to him.
You will notice that the bear plans to attack when it makes blowing noises, clicks its teeth or hangs its head, shakes it back and forth between its shoulders, and moves towards you. When it comes to that, there’s little you can do except hope for the best. With luck, it’s just a mock attack or bluff. The bear then rushes towards you but stops halfway, turns around and leaves again. Such behavior has often been observed in bears.
Opinions differ widely on what to do if an attack comes on. Fight back or lie for dead? In most cases, the second strategy is the best.
First strategy: fight back (best for black bear)
A bear does not usually see humans as “food”. But when a bear attacks at night, it may be out for food. Also, if you are walking during the day and it appears that the bear is “stalking” you by repeatedly appearing and disappearing again, its attack will be a “predatory attack.” Fighting back or scaring the bear by throwing stones at it might be your only chance. A bear that does this is usually young and inexperienced and can therefore be chased away quite easily.
In most cases, however, you shouldn’t try to fight back. You will always lose out against a strong and powerful animal like a bear and the more you hit back the more aggressive the bear becomes. It is true that there are people who fought back and where the bear slipped on the face after one good blow. However, the danger of this strategy is that you do not know in advance how the bear will react. Every animal is different.
Another way to defend yourself is by using bear spray. Bear spray has been proven to scare away aggressive bears. Research has shown that people survived a bear attack by defending themselves with bear spray. The spray is said to be very painful for bears, but is recommended by the local authorities if you are in bear territory. Do not use pepper spray. You can buy the spray in the country where bears occur.
Strategy 2: Lie on the floor and pretend you’re dead (best for grizzly)
The other strategy is to lie on the floor in a fetal position and make yourself as small as possible. Especially if you are dealing with a grizzly, it is best to choose this strategy. Protect your head and neck with arms and hands and pull your elbows under your body to keep the bear from turning you over. Chances are the bear will give you one claw and then leave you alone. Stay down as long as the bear is around. If you don’t resist, the bear usually gets tired of it after a while. The animal then no longer finds you interesting and leaves.
Reading bear signals – What does the bear want to tell me?
Bears can display certain behavioral patterns that can tell you something. However, these patterns are limited and primitive and their meaning largely depends on the context of the situation.
Here is a description of the different behavioral patterns and a general interpretation to help you understand what a bear means. Mind you, each bear is an individual in itself, and each encounter is unique.
Stand on the hind legs
When a bear stands on its two hind legs, it does not want to express aggression, but simply to acquire more information, both in terms of sight and smell.
Stationary lateral position
This position is often assumed by the bear to ensure its safety. In human encounters, this position is often interpreted as a demonstration of its size.
Stationary frontal position
A bear standing right in front of you and looking you in the eye does not want to be submissive. On the contrary. This is an aggressive position and can be an attack. He is waiting for you to withdraw.
When the bear yawns, it means that it is tense because there may be another bear or human presence nearby.
A clear sign of tension. When a bear is drooling, white foam can be seen around the bear’s mouth.