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Bear Safety Tips for Hikers and Backpackers

by Karen Ung

Learn how to stay safe in bear country.

Bears are out and about from early late winter to late fall, so it’s important to be bear aware whenever you’re in bear country. During warm winters, we’ve seen bears in the mountains in January and early March! Discuss these bear safety tips with your hiking buddies before you hit the trail so you can stay safe.

Black bear seen on the Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park

1. Travel in a group

Groups of four or more are safest, but you only reap the safety benefit if you hike together. Stick together and don’t get spread out. The only times I’ve seen a bear at close range (5 metres) was when I was hiking solo or with only one other person.

2. Make some noise! 

Holler “Yo Bear!” periodically, or teach your kids some camp songs. If you’re hiking in a large group and one group is hiking faster than the other, play Marco Polo! 

Remember to pump up the volume when:

  • the trail is overgrown/has low visibility to announce your presence so bears know you aren’t trying to sneak up on them;
  • you are in prime feeding areas like avalanche slopes where bears dig up roots, and meadows with berry bushes;
  • the trail is narrow and winding (bears can’t see you coming);
  • you are near streams (bears may not hear your coming and be startled); or
  • the wind is blowing in your face (bears cannot smell you coming).

If you see signs of bear activity (see point #9 below), you should also be extra vigilant and noisy – and consider returning the way you came if scat or footprints look fresh.

3. Carry bear spray YEAR ROUND

Bear attacks on groups of five or more are extremely rare, so if you follow the first two bear bear safety rules, you should hopefully never have to use your bear spray.

This said, you should carry bear spray on every hike – year round – as your insurance policy. Did you know our local grizzly bears are often active until mid-January (in warm winters) and only “hibernate” until late March? Young bears will leave their dens if disturbed, so it’s possible to see bears any time of year.

Tips on carrying/storing bear spray:

  • Keep it handy (on your hip/in a chest holster, NOT in your pack)! In the recent bear attack in Waiparous, the couple had one canister of bear spray but couldn’t get it out in time. 
  • Every adult in your party should carry their own bear spray. Bearsmart.com recommends having at least 2 canisters per group. 
  • Note your bear spray’s expiry date and replace it if necessary to ensure it will work when you need it to. The bear spray maintains its potency for a long time, but the propellant eventually loses effectiveness.
  • In winter, keep bear spray warm (in an inner jacket pocket or ideally on a chest holster) so it will work in the event you must use it. Bear spray will not shoot as far in temperatures below 0F/-17.7C and loses potency when repeatedly exposed to the cold.
  • Since it is hard to remove the safety in some models and most of us are a poor gauge of distance, I encourage you to test your bear spray so you know how it comes out. Test an expired bear spray canister on a calm day in a remote location and keep children away, or purchase an Inert Bear Spray Training Canister that has no active ingredient in it (just make sure you bring the real stuff hiking!). Manufacturers have detailed instructions on how to use bear spray; read them carefully.

FAQ: Is Bear spray effective?

Bear spray is effective in deterring and stopping bear attacks and is even more effective than firearms. A man was attacked by Bryant Creek Shelter some years ago and would have been killed has his friend not used his bear spray on the attacking Grizzly (who was concerned about her two cubs). In a recent bear attack in Canmore, a woman saved her friend with bear spray.

5. Never, ever approach a bear or cub. 

Keep your distance. Parks Canada recommends staying at least 100 metres away from bears. If you are driving and see a bear on the side of the road, stay in your vehicle. Ideally, keep driving (slowly as other vehicles may be stopping). Stopping for a photo habituates bears. When bears are used to humans, they no longer fear them. 

6. What if I see a bear on the trail? 

If you are on the trail when you encounter a bear, announce your presence in a calm voice and back away slowly while talking to it in a calm voice. Do not shout, do not panic, do not turn your back on the bear, and do not run; bears can run as fast as racehorse, you cannot outrun (or outswim) them. Black bears can climb well and some grizzlies can too. If grizzlies are too big to climb, they can reach up to 10 feet high when standing on their hind legs (source: http://www.udap.com/mm5/Bear-Safety-Tips), so climbing a tree isn’t recommended unless you are certain it is a grizzly and you are confident in your climbing abilities. In most cases, the bear will run away. Try to avoid eye contact so you don’t further aggravate the bear. 

7. What if the bear stands it ground and doesn’t leave? 

If the bear doesn’t leave, this could mean it has cubs or a fresh kill nearby, but sometimes it might just have a good berry patch/roots to dig. If the bear stands up, it is curious about you and trying to get a better look. Continue to back away and then go back the way you came. Don’t head into the bush looking for a way around the bear in case cubs are hanging out there, or the bear’s kill is stashed in the woods.

8. What if the bear becomes aggressive? 

If the bear starts huffing and charging towards you again, do not run but try to put something between you and the bear; trees, picnic table, boulders.  Keep your children and pets close. Make yourself big – stay close together, shout loudly, bang hiking sticks together, and take the safety off your bear spray and hold it in front of you. Often bears are bluffing; they will charge at you and turn away at the last moment but be prepared with your bear spray. The bear is telling you to get lost and you should – quickly – but stand your ground until you are sure the bear isn’t going to attack. DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON THE BEAR! You should use your bear spray when the bear is about a car length away.

9. Know the signs of bears in the area

Signs of a bear in the area include bear scat, scratchings, diggings, and footprints. If they look fresh, stay alert, be extra loud, and consider going back the way you came. If you come across a fresh kill or fresh bear scat, go back the way you came immediately.

Bear in area signs, bear warnings, and bear closures should be taken seriously (i.e. choose another trail).

10. Keep dogs on leash. 

Offleash dogs can aggravate wildlife, including bears, and lead them back to you. Even where not designated by law, it is safest to keep dogs on a leash.

11. Keep a bare site.

A bear’s sense of smell is 7x better than a bloodhound’s or 2,100x better than a human’s.

The Sense of Smell. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences,

Since bears can smell so well, it’s important to keep a bare campsite. Here’s how:

  • Store everything with a smell (food, dishes, lip gloss, sunscreen, dirty clothes) in your vehicle when you leave your campsite or go to sleep.
  • Never eat or cook in your tent!
  • Dump grey water (dirty dish water, drained water from pasta/vegetables) in the outhouse; NEVER at your campsite. It can attract insects as well as animals, and is also unsightly.
  • Sleep in clean clothes.

When backcountry camping, store food and items with a smell in a bear canister or dry bag in a bear locker, or hang them from a bear wire. If bear lockers or bear wires are not available, hang your food in a tree at least 100 feet (300′ in grizzly country) from your tent. Leave No Trace has good instructions on Hanging a Bear Bag here.

Also, do not litter, even if waste is biodegradable. Leaving food by campsites/trails attracts wildlife.

12. Travel on official trails during daylight hours & know where bears hang out at different times of year

Bears are most active at dawn and dusk, and during the night.

*Knowing where bears like to hang out at different times of year is also helpful. Typically, bears are in the high country in summer and in the lower lying areas (valleys, riverbeds) in spring and fall. Bears also frequent avalanche chutes and meadows with berry bushes.

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Play Outside Gal September 16, 2015 - 7:13 AM

Thanks Dan! I agree, you're exactly right! One can never be too cautious. I'm fortunate to have never had a bad bear encounter as I kept my distance and didn't get between Mama Bear and her cubs.

DaggerDan June 14, 2015 - 9:06 AM

Very good information to learn and follow. I might add that when scat is found, steaming, you are right near the bear. If not, place a tissue or the like on it to check for warmth. If warm proceed very cautiously. Also bears frequent berry bushes and can't be unseen until it's too late. Watch for cub tracks with a mother bear's tracks. If present, get away quickly, since she will be much more aggressive and alert.

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