The two biggest roadblocks to hiking that I hear about the most are lack of hiking companions and bears. I of course want to see everyone out hiking – enjoying nature, reducing stress and generally having a good time. While finding the right hiking companion can be tricky, everyone should know how to stay safe in bear country – wherever that might be.
In western Canada and some parts of the western United States as well as parts of Alaska and northern Canada you can expect to find both black and grizzly bears. In eastern Canada and the eastern US you won’t find grizzlies. This blog doesn’t deal with polar bears as that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
Tips for Staying Safe in Bear Country
Learn to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear. Size and colour can vary greatly in both types of bears so those features in themselves will not help you. However, grizzly bears are usually medium to dark brown in colour and the average size is 160 kg (350 lbs) to 225 kg (500 lbs) though a male grizzly can weigh up to 360 kg (800 lbs). Black bears average 50-140 kg (110 – 300 pounds). From afar the biggest distinguishing characteristic is the distinct shoulder hump found in the grizzly bear. It is entirely absent in the black bear. Also, the claws of a grizzly are much bigger and can be seen in most grizzly bear tracks.
If you see an enormous bear, it’s a grizzly.
Tips on what to do when you see a bear
There are a couple of scenarios. You may see the bear but it doesn’t see you, the bear sees you but you don’t see it (in which case ignorance may be bliss) or you see each other at about the same time. The reality is that most bears take off the minute they see you.
If a bear sees you but doesn’t run away then:
- Keep an eye on the bear but don’t make direct eye contact.
- Provide the bear with an escape route.
- Try to figure out if there are any cubs. A bear can have anywhere from one to three cubs. Getting between a female bear and her cubs is never a good thing and leaving the area is of paramount importance – but never run.
- Speak in a calm voice. Up at Great Bear Lodge in British Columbia they’d keep repeating in a very soothing voice – Hey bear. Modulating the tone of your voice is also helpful.
- Remain in a tight group with four people being the magic number to avoid a bear attack. There are some hikes in Banff National Park where you are required to hike as a group of four, even if it means waiting to collect random people to form the group, as the park’s research has indicated that there has never been an attack on a group with a minimum of four people. Use some common sense and make noise in areas frequented by bears.
- Make yourself look bigger.
If the bear heads in your direction it may just be curious and trying to figure out what you’re all about. It doesn’t mean they are going to attack but still – follow these safety tips.
- Yell and speak loudly and authoritatively.
- If the bear charges stand your ground as it’s usually a bluff. One book I read described a bear that charged – and bluffed four times.
- Never run away from a bear. They can clock 40 km/hour in short order and they are incredibly strong swimmers. If your dog is off leash, get them on a leash immediately. You don’t need an agitated bear.
- Bear spray is incredibly effective – BUT ONLY AT CLOSE RANGE. Up at Great Bear Lodge (where they see bears multiple times a day) they recommended the following to me.
“Fire the spray when the bear is about 20 feet away, to create a cloud that the bear will run into. And we only suggest spraying for a second or two. You don’t want to empty the whole can in your first shot, as you may need to use it a second time on the bear.”
I have also been told to fire for six seconds at six feet. Personally I would rather shoot a bit of spray and hope like hell the bear turns away.
Please note. Bear spray has a shelf life of between two to three years. Eventually it’s the repellent that goes.
In the VERY rare case that a bear continues towards you or even attacks remember the following.
- If it’s a black bear DO NOT CLIMB A TREE but back away slowly and DO NOT PLAY DEAD!
- If it’s a grizzly bear back away slowly and TRY to CLIMB a tree. But you need to get high in the tree (more than 4 metres up) or the bear can pull you down. If it attacks protect your head and stomach area and PLAY DEAD!
For both types of bears there are times where you have to fight for your life. In very rare circumstances both grizzly and black bears can become predatory and fighting is the only way to go. That’s a big reason to carry bear spray. According to a post in Alaska Life, two to five people are killed by bears in North America every year. Although that statistic captures our imagination in the worst way possible, there are more common ways of dying outdoors (hypothermia, falls, snake bites…) that don’t get nearly the press. We’re all probably hardwired to fear bears but again common sense, making noise, avoiding areas well-traveled by bears and carrying bear spray will go a long way to avoiding any sort of incident.
How to avoid bears altogether
Short of staying home there is always the possibility that you’ll see a bear or inadvertently cross paths. But for me, despite all the hiking and biking I’ve done in bear country, it is a rarity that I see a bear. Your chances of seeing bears will decrease if you make a lot of noise – and by noise I mean using your voice – where you vary the tone and volume. Ditch the bear bells people. They won’t help you, their noise will drive you nuts and they may even give you a false sense of confidence.
Avoid avalanche slopes as bears like to hang out there. Hike between late morning and early afternoon when bears aren’t as active.
If you see a steaming pile of bear scat or some young cubs then make heaps of noise and leave the area as fast as you can.
If you looking for a reason never to hike in bear country then look no further than the book, The Bear’s Embrace. It is a thoughtful and very well-written book written by Patricia Van Tighem who writes about her attack by a grizzly bear.
There are a few rogue bears that give all bears a bad name. Most bears do not have any desire to engage with humans unless they or their cubs are threatened. If you stay bear aware on a hike, the odds are overwhelmingly in your favour that you will be just fine. Now go find yourself some great hiking companions, perhaps through a local club or university outdoor program, and plan a hike you’ve always wanted to do.
A final note on bear spray: You cannot take bear spray on planes. You’ll find bear spray in camping and outdoor type stores. A can in Canada typically runs about $40. You must be 18 years of age to purchase it. Keep your bear spray out of reach of children.
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Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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