I got into a conversation on another site about bears versus sharks (we were talking about how sharks are vilified).
On average, three people are killed by bears every year on the North American continent. This is close to an even split between black bears and grizzlies, although people tend to worry more about grizzlies. (Having seen one…)
I’ve been in bear country more than once, black, grizzly or both. I’m not particularly afraid of bears. They’re more interested in eating your lunch than in eating you.
But a lot of people are worried in bear country; and a lot of people don’t know what to do.
Why do Bears Attack Humans?
There are essentially three reasons why a bear will attack you:
- They want your food. Or your beer.
- You got too close to a sow with cubs.
- They think you might be tasty.
The third reason is by far the rarest. Bears seem more inclined to see us as competition, not food.
(And no, I’m not joking about bears stealing people’s beer. It’s happened quite a few times, including bears drinking somebody’s entire stash and passing out in the middle of their campground!)
So, how should you behave in bear country?
The Rules of Bear Country
Remember: You are a visitor. The bears live here. You are in their home and should act accordingly.
But the basic rules are:
- Never feed a bear. Never feed a bear. Bears who have been fed become habituated, habituated bears become dangerous, dangerous bears end up being shot.
- Pack out or burn all food waste. Never throw away food in the wilderness. You’re likely to end up indirectly feeding a bear. I’ve packed food out, burned it in the campfire, or given it to a horse or mule (horses like apple cores).
- Make human noises. You don’t want to startle a bear. Bears will generally move away from humans, especially in areas where it’s legal to hunt black bear.
- Never run from a bear. Running makes you look like prey. They will chase you. Grizzlies can reach 35 mph. You ain’t getting away.
- Store food where bears can’t get it. In the backcountry, a good method is to hang your food at least 10–15 feet off the ground, four feet from vertical supports, and from the smallest trees that will support it. Official campsites have bear-resistant food storage. Use it. You can also store food in your vehicle as long as it’s not soft-sided. Never store food in your tent. In fact, don’t eat in your tent. Eat well away from your tent.
- If you meet a bear, calmly move in a different direction. Do not approach a bear for a better view. Back away. Don’t run, as already mentioned.
- Carry bear spray. It works. Most people who use bear spray escape injury. (Bears are also pretty smart; you spray a bear and you may well protect quite a few other people by convincing the bear that humans are not to be messed with). DO not spray a human with bear spray; it’s much stronger than self-defense pepper spray and you could cause injury.
- Camp a bit away from the trail, especially if there is bear “sign” in the area (scat or paw prints. And believe me, if you see a grizzly print, you will know).
Bears aren’t really all that dangerous, but you have to respect them. And the most important thing is never to feed them.
But I Want to See a Bear!
If seeing a wild bear is on your bucket list, the best way to do so safely is to go to Alaska during a salmon run. There are places (a local can tell you where) where you can watch bears. They won’t be bothered because they’re too busy fishing.
I mean, you don’t want to get too close or they might think you want their fish, but…it can certainly be done.
Always ask the locals! They know the habits of the local bears and can help you find a good viewing spot where there’s a barrier, such as a river, between you and the bear.