Let’s just be honest – there is a TON of information on the internet about bear attacks while backpacking/hiking/camping, and a lot of it has not been scientifically verified. This is a life or death situation, so we want to make sure we are following the most accurate information available.
I have compiled the most consistent information available for you to prevent and deal with bear attacks in the great wild.
The truth is, the bear population is growing rapidly since the 1970’s. This is a good thing for the bear species and can be a good thing for us if we are smart and respect that this is their home.
Should I wear bear-bells while hiking?
The idea behind bear bells is that most bears are not in the business of attacking you just for sport – or even dinner. Most bears would rather know you are near so they can avoid you and go on with their business. This is actually true. The manufacturers of Bear Bells, however, would like for you to think that by constantly ringing a bell, the bears will know you are near-by and will leave you alone.
Bear Bells have not been proven effective in deterring bear attacks. The truth is, they are often too quite to be of any use if a bear is more than say 20 or 30 yards away. For me, they are just plain annoying. Some people suggest the bells intrigue the bears and may cause them to come closer out of curiosity, but this has not been proven.
Instead, a better practice is to make noise while hiking by talking loudly throughout your hike and clapping your hands or yelling when you encounter a region you suspect a bear may be lurking (blind spots). This is how other animals in the wild communicate their pack is near-by, and it is a smart thing to do when you are in bear country.
Look up and at your surroundings while hiking (not at the ground!). This will help you spot a bear from a distance and plan your route accordingly.
Lastly, stay close together – bears are less likely to attack multiple people.
Is bear-spray really necessary? I don’t want to carry the extra weight.
Yes, yes, and YES. I actually had this same argument before, and I was very stupid. The 8-10 oz is the only thing proven to effectively deter a bear attack, so carry it at all times when in bear country!
Carry your bear-spray in easy-to-grab place like your hip canister or one of the side pockets made for water bottles. You don’t want to encounter a bear and then panic because your spray is packed snugly at the bottom of your pack.
A good bear spray will have a range of at least 25 feet. Trust me, you will want this distance.
What kind of bear-spray should I get?
This is up to you, but I personally will buy the “Counter Assault” brand as it is approved for use in Canada and is EPA Certified. If I’m going to drop $50 on something, I want to be able to use it in Canada (if we ever travel there). I am also an REI member, and this is the brand REI carries so I will get 10% back.
There are many brands of bear spray, but these are the only ones certified by the EPA (which I trust to know what chemicals are best for deterring bears):
*I have not been paid by or even contacted by Counter Assault to mention them in this blog. I honestly just use that brand and was offering my opinion on why.
Where should I buy the bear spray?
You can NOT fly with Bear Spray checked or unchecked according to TSA regulations: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/prohibited-items.
For this reason, I suggest waiting to purchase your bear spray at your destination if flying. The spray costs about $50, so I personally mail mine home for use in other locations that are drivable from home (or you could always mail to a hotel or friend in future airplane-required destinations).
You CAN mail bear-spray home but you MUST declare it as a hazardous material and it will ship in a special ground service for hazardous materials. (http://www.usgs.gov/usgs-manual/handbook/hb/445-2-h/ch46.html); ONLY USPS can ship bear-spray – Fed-Ex or UPS is not licensed to do so. This will cost a couple of bucks, which is much cheaper than buying a new bottle of bear spray.
Most outdoor stores will carry bear-spray. I suggest researching outdoor stores at your intended destination first and calling ahead to see if they stock bear spray.
If I encounter a bear, should I avoid eye contact?
The thought behind this is that bears will view this as a sign of submission and will be more likely to retreat. This is a myth that has not been proven scientifically.
If you encounter a grizzly bear, do not look away! This doesn’t even make any sense and has not been proven. If a bear is 30-40 feet away from you, I highly doubt they will be paying attention to the retina of your eyes.
According to leading biologist Tom Smith who has studied hundreds of bear attacks, what you should be focusing on during a bear encounter is your surroundings while you slowly reach for your bear deterrent. A simple “hey bear” yell will probably be sufficient to let the bear know you mean no harm. If he still tries to attack you, spray him. If he still tries to attack you, read below…
When do I “play-dead”, and is this even effective?
Hopefully you won’t ever have to do this because storing your food properly, talking loudly, and (if necessary) spraying bear-spray should prevent any bear attacks. If you happen upon a rogue black bear that is determined to attack, follow these directions:
- If a bear charges, do NOT run. They WILL out-run you.
- Spray your bear-spray. Don’t not have bear-spray.
- Spray again. If he still doesn’t retreat, now is the time to play dead.
- Keep your pack on for protection.
- Lay down on your stomach with your hands over your neck and your legs sprawled out wide. Remain motionless for several minutes while the bear goes to town on your pack.
- Remain motionless for several more minutes after the bear has left as they may come back if they think you are only wounded.
Yes, this is effective, because your only other option is to run, and that is sure death.
Should I carry my gun?
I live in Texas and get asked this question a lot.
NO, do NOT carry your gun for protection against a bear. You will most likely break a ton of laws doing so, and a 9mm will not kill the bear like you think it will.
According to a study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management:
- Out of 133 defense encounters involving bear spray, only three people suffered injuries, which were all minor.
- Out of 269 defense encounters involving guns, 17 people died.
Your odds of surviving a bear attack with bear spray are higher than with a gun.
In addition, this will teach the bear that encounters with humans make their eyes burn for a short while, and they are less likely to bother another human in the future.
What do I do about my food?
You have 2 options in bear-country with your food:
1) Learn to hang a bear-bag.
(http://www.backpacker.com/learn_how_to_hang_a_bear_bag/videos/22) – there are several other methods online and through YouTube.
2) Carry a bear canister.
Notice this did not include keeping the food in your pack un-canistered under any circumstances. Don’t be stupid.
A few notes:
- I personally use the Opsaks to place my food in before I hang it from a tree. These are similar to Zip-Loc Freezer Bags except they lock in odor much better. The bear is less likely to smell your food and attempt to break down your bear bag. They are expensive, but I would rather be safe than sorry when it comes to my food.
- Bear canisters are heavy, so I don’t like them. They are required in Yellowstone, however, but you can rent them for a fraction of the cost of a new one. They are required in some other popular locations (such as Rocky Mountain National Park). Do your research before you travel.
- The Ursak’s, which are often toted as a lighter alternative to a traditional bear canister, are not yet approved as an acceptable method of food storage in all places, so be careful.
- I’m sure you all know, but this is worth repeating: Don’t smell like a giant berry! Bears eat berries, and they can smell like 600 times better than a dog. Use unscented deodorant, do not spray any body spray or perfume, use unscented/biodegradable shampoo, etc.
- Do not cook or wash near your sleeping quarters (at least 100 feet away). Similarly, tie your bear bag at least 200 feet from these other locations. See image below. Some people say to not even wear your cooking clothes to bed. This is probably smart practice, but I do not follow it because I only carry one set of clothes with me. I make sure I am not sitting in line with any smoke while cooking.