Bear Smart, Bear Safe - How To Avoid Encounters With Bears

Bear Smart, Bear Safe - How To Avoid Bear Encounters

Tripping is an inherently dangerous activity.  This statement is not made to scare people away from getting outdoors, but it is a reality.  Regardless of how well prepared you are, things can always go wrong.  Bad weather, broken or faulty equipment, injuries and of course encounters with wildlife. 

After the recent bear attacks in Alberta we thought that it would be a great time to talk about bears and bear safety in the backcountry.

Even though the media has a tendency to sensationalize bear attacks and in some instances vilify the bears, it is important to keep in mind that bear encounters are fairly common occurrences.  Bear attacks make up a small percentage of these encounters and fatal bear attacks are even more rare.  Algonquin Park sees over 800,000 visitors a year and the last fatal bear attack was in 1991.  The last fatal attack prior to that one occurred in 1978.  With the proper knowledge and understanding of bears, you can ensure that bear encounters are rare and uneventful.  

I confess that for years I was not diligent about bear safety.  That was until I had a very close encounter with a bear (Read: Bear Scare).  As I am by no means an expert when it comes to bear safety I took to researching more about bears, how they interact with humans and how best to avoid encounters.   

Preventing Bear Encounters:

“Prevention is the best medicine” so let’s discuss how to avoid bear encounters altogether. 

Keeping a clean campsite is one of the most effective ways to reduce bear encounters.  This means putting food away after eating, keeping garbage packed away, and not throwing food in the fire.  It is also worthwhile selecting campsites that are clean to start with.  A site that is messy is an invitation for bears.  Try to avoid sites that would naturally be inviting to bears.  This would include sites near berry patches or close to rivers with high fish populations or any sites with signs of bear activity such as scat and paw prints.    

Properly hanging both food and garbage is essential.  Notice that I said ‘properly’ hanging food.  The general rule for hanging food is 10 feet off the ground and 10 feet away from the tree.  Some campsites offer bear boxes to lock up your food, use them!   For more details check out this useful article by Mark Highfield: Hanging A Food Pack  

Always remember to check your pockets.  Remember that Clif Bar that you threw in your pocket earlier that day?  Probably not.  Always check your pockets before you hang your food and get all of your remaining snacks and garbage out before retiring for the night.   

As an extreme measure it is also recommended that you have a change of clothes for cooking and eating in.  These clothes should also be hung with your food and garbage.  The thinking with this measure is that clothes can absorb the scent of cooking food and spills and messes happen from time to time.      

Generally bears don’t want anything to do with us humans and making noise is a great way to prevent encounters.  Bear bells are a great idea to place on your packs and essential for your pets.  Feel free to carry on conversations with your buddy and maybe belt out a few tunes if you’re so inclined (Roll On 18 Wheeler by Alabama is a personal favourite of mine).     

What To Do If You Encounter A Bear:

Sometimes encounters with bears are unavoidable, regardless of how careful you have been.    

Do not approach the bear; keep your distance.  As excited as you may be to see a wild bear and to get a picture, or even a selfie (seriously, this is a thing:, for the love of God, do not approach the bear. It’s a wild animal.   

Avoid running away and always remain calm.  Bears may react negatively to screaming, yelling, sudden movements or running away.  This has the potential to trigger a defensive attack (which you don’t want).   

Making yourself big can ward the bear off.  If you have a canoe, packs, paddles, anything that can increase your size, use it. 

Start to slowly back away from the bear and get out of its way.  Stepping off the trail and out of the bear’s line of sight will be an indication to the bear that you are not a threat.  Keep an eye on the bear though so you know where it is and what it is doing.    

The use of items like bear bangers and bear spray should only be used as a last resort to thwart an attack or if an attack is occurring.  I repeat, these are last resorts and should only be used in the defense of a bear attack.   

What To Do In The Unlikely Event Of A Bear Attack:

I almost feel bad speaking about attacks because they are so rare and unlikely. I don’t want to scare anyone or sensationalize attacks, but I having the knowledge and not needing it is better than needing it and not having it.  Here’s hoping that no one ever has to use this information.

Bear attacks are broken down into 2 types: defensive attacks and predatory attacks

Defensive attacks are the most common form of bear attacks and generally occur if the bear feels threatened or frightened.  It is only considered an attack if a bear physically makes contact with you.  This is a great time to use your bear bangers and/or bear spray.  Just a little note about bear spray.  If you use it, you will most certainly be cross contaminated.  Trust me, it’s no fun getting cross contaminated.  Playing dead by laying on your stomach is another option in the event of a defensive bear attack. 

Predatory Bear attacks are rare, but they can be deadly.  Predatory bears attack out of aggression and their intent is to hurt or harm.  Getting to safety is the best options, but this is unlikely if you are in the woods.  If you are unable to get to safety, fight for your life.  Yell, scream, use bear spray, throw things, hit the bear, stab the bear, do whatever you can to survive at all costs.         

If you are looking for more information and details on bears, bear encounters and bear attacks here are a few great resources:


***Cute little bear drawings provided with ethusiasm by Mark Highfield***