When I started camping and hiking, I was terrified of bears. I wouldn’t sleep all night because I was worried every sound and every bush was a bear. More experienced hikers and people who live in the mountain towns I love would tell me not to worry, that bears are actually quite magical creatures when you see them in the wild. But I didn’t believe them until I saw my first bear in the wild. That completely transformed how I not only viewed bears but also allowed me to release the fear of bears.
The first time I saw a bear in the wild, I was day hiking Mt. Whitney (my second attempt) alone. I was putting food and scented items away at Whitney Portal into the bear lockers in the parking lot when a man walks up to me and says, “Don’t freak out, but there is a bear right behind you.” I turn around, and there’s a bear a couple of feet away from me. I backed away slowly, and the bear was more interested in the truck I was next to than me. After that experience, I now think bears are such amazing creatures, and it’s really a wonder to see them in the wild.
But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful around bears and know what to do when you encounter one in the wild. You should always be prepared so, with that being said, let’s dive in on everything you need to know about bear safety and become more confident and limitless hiker.
What Bears Can You Expect In Different States
There are two main types of bears that dwell in the North American wilderness and trails: black bears and brown bears.
If you’re in California like me, you’ll only see black bears. Unfortunately, all the brown bears in California were killed off by hunters, but there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 black bears in the state.
Don’t let the name fool you, black bears vary in color from tan to brown to black; most of them generally sport a dark brown coat with a lighter brown muzzle. The American black bear is the most common type of black bear in North America. It can range from four to seven feet from nose to tail. American black bears mainly dwell in forested areas (they are fairly good climbers), but can adapt well to a variety of habitats. I’ve seen them in trees around Mammoth Lakes before!
Are also known as grizzly bears, brown bears can be found in Alaskan fishing spots and areas like Northwestern Montana, Yellowstone National Park, Northern Utah, and a small section of Northwestern Washington.
Brown bears are typically seven feet when standing and up to four feet on their paws. They are known to be speedy creatures (able to travel 30 miles per hour) and are known to be more aggressive, especially mama brown bears that are protecting their cubs. Though there are more black bears than grizzlies, grizzlies are known to “kill about twice as many people”.
Hiking in Bear Country
Before you go on your hike, check to see what bears are in that area so you know what to expect.
Once you’re on the trail, be alert and be on the lookout for bears and signs of bears nearby. Look for fresh tracks, scat, torn up logs, digging, fresh claw marks on trees, or even carcasses in the area.
Look for bears in areas with thick brush, heavy tree stands, plants with berries on them, or near water sources. Bears will also be around popular campgrounds where people are more likely to leave food out at night.
Bears are more active at dawn, dusk and at night. So if you’re hiking during those times, be more mindful.
Food Storage Regulations
Then check any food storage regulations. If you’re backpacking in bear country, you’ll most likely need a bear canister and if you’re camping, you’ll need to store your food in a bear locker at the campground. Most trailheads in bear country also have shared bear lockers so you can store all scented items. In places like Yosemite National Park, bears have been known to break into cars if food is left, even if you’re just day hiking.
Storing your food correctly helps prevent unnecessary interactions between humans and bears. It also helps prevent bears from becoming aggressive towards humans. Usually, when bears start getting into human food, they start associating us with food, and that’s when the attacks start. Once a bear attacks (or even charges) at a human, it gets put down. So to protect yourself, other hikers and campers, and bears, please store your food correctly and don’t feed wildlife.
Make Some Noise
On the trail make some noise! It alerts wildlife that you’re nearby. Believe it or not, bears are actually more scared of us then we are of them.
Cling your hiking poles together, clap, talk to the people you’re hiking with, sing to yourself, etc. Just be mindful of following trail etiquette and other hikers and avoid things like blasting your music.
What to Do If You See a Bear on Your Hike
So, you’re on your way to see an amazing view of the valley when you suddenly see a bear in your path. STOP and remain calm. You might be super stoked to see one and feel enticed to snap a photo for the gram, or you might be scared out of your mind and want to scream and run away—do NOT do any of these things; they’ll only push you into more dangerous territory.
Remember not to surprise a bear! If you see it before it sees you, don’t startle it.
Depending on how the encounter unfolds, there are various approaches to take to help you move towards a safe zone:
- If the bear doesn’t notice you, quietly and carefully leave the area.
- If the bear notices you, slowly back away while keeping your eyes on the bear. The bear will probably retreat as well.
- If the bear persistently follows/approaches you even when you’re backing away slowly, change your direction; try moving towards higher ground. If it’s a black bear, and if it still keeps coming your way, stand your ground and talk loudly while waving your arms. You want to look as large and intimidating as possible.
Whatever you do, don’t run or turn away.
Be especially careful if you encounter a mama bear with her cubs. Don’t approach them—the chances of an attack increases if she perceives you as a threat to her cubs. Be alert and follow the guidelines above.
What to Do If a Bear Attacks You
The chances of getting attacked are slim, but even so, you should be prepared just in case.
How you react depends on the type of bear you’re up against. This is why it’s important to know what to expect in the area that you’re hiking in.
Black Bear Attacks
If a black bear attacks, fight back with everything you have. DO NOT play dead. Punch it, kick it’s face, and use any weapons like rocks, branches, or bear spray (if allowed in the area, some national parks like Yosemite and Sequoia don’t allow bear spray).
Brown Bear Attacks
If a brown/grizzly bear attacks you, play dead. DO NOT fight back. Cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Lay flat on your stomach and spread your legs apart. Keep your pack on, it will help add some protection. Stay still, and don’t make noise so you show the bear you’re not a threat. Once the bear leaves you alone, don’t get up right away. The bear might still be in the area. If the attack continues, fight back with everything you’ve got.
6 Ways to Avoid Bears
Thankfully, there are precautions you can take to reduce your chance of a bear encounter. Here are six bear safety tips:
1. Hike with a Group
When you’re out with a group, you’ll create more noise, which will give bears a heads up and help them avoid you. If you decide to hike solo, that’s awesome, I have many times in bear country, make sure you just make some noise on the trail. Cling your hiking poles together every so often, sing to yourself, clapping, etc.
2. Stay on the Trail
Not only will you reduce the changes you’ll get lost or trip and injure yourself over something hidden under bushes, by staying on the trail, you’ll minimize your chances of bear encounters.
3. Avoid Bear Food
If you see dead animals or birds circling overhead, avoid the area. This can easily and quickly become a bear zone, and you don’t want to be around for that!
4. Hike During Daylight Hours
Bears are most active during early morning and late evening hours during the spring and summer months. So it’s wise to hit the trails in bear country during daylight hours. If you decide to hike at dawn, dusk or, at night, be more mindful and alert.
5. Do Your Research
Before heading out to the trail, research the location to find out if there’s been any recent bear activity. Trust your instincts and decide on another trail/location if need be. Also, research what food storage requirements are in that area and know what bear to expect in the area you’re hiking in, so you know what to do to defend yourself if it comes to that.
6. Don’t Tempt a Bear’s Nose
Bears have an excellent sense of smell; black bears are known to be able to detect animal carcasses 18 to 20 miles away! Be mindful and DO NOT:
- Leave food bits or garbage on the trail. Always pack out all of your food and trash, and follow Leave No Trace Principles.
- Leave your backpacks unattended.
- Leave food unattended, even in camp.
4 Ways to Camp in Bear Country Safely
As much as we want to avoid bears, when visiting and camping in places like Yosemite, Glacier and Yellowstone National Park, this is out of our control. Quite frankly, we’re heading into bear country. But don’t let this detract you from fully experiencing all the awesome backpacking trips and destinations your home/region has to offer!
It’s very much possible to camp and backpack in bear country safely. The key is in understanding how to properly prepare. In addition to using the advice above, here are four tips on bear safety while camping to consider:
1. Use Bear Canisters or Lockers to Store Your Food
If bears are attracted to food and have an acute sense of smell, what in the world are you supposed to do when you’re carrying a bucket load of food for your weeklong camping trip? Hanging food in trees has been the traditional method for storing food while camping, but the better alternative is using bear canisters.
Bears can’t open bear canisters, but they can climb trees. In some areas like Yosemite National Park, bear canisters are required and hanging food isn’t allowed. So check with the area you’re backpacking in.
These are a portable and hard food locker that secures your food and other scented items (toiletries, trash, toilet paper, etc.) from bears and other wild animals that are attracted to human food.
If you’re camping, put your food and scented items in the lockers in camp. Don’t leave it out at night.
It’s important for bears not to get into your food, not only to protect yourself, but it also helps avoid a bear becoming a problem bear. Once they get into human food, they start attacking humans. Please store your food correctly and don’t feed wildlife.
2. Never Keep Food Inside Your Tent
Wanting to snack on a Kit Kat while kicking back in your tent? Sounds blissful, but think again. You shouldn’t bring any kind of food or drink (other than water) into your tent at all. You’ll be leaving a scent that’ll have bears gravitating to where you sleep.
It’s important to keep your sleeping and eating areas separate. A good rule of thumb is making a triangle of three points—your tent/sleeping station, cooking station, and bear canister station—with at least 100 yards of separation between each.
3. Don’t Sleep in the Clothes You Cooked In
You devour a delicious omelet, the food coma hits, and you pass out in your sleeping bag. By doing this, you could attract a bear to your tent. After cooking, wash up, and change your clothes.
You also shouldn’t sleep in your hiking clothes because you want your clothes to air out and dry out from sweating all day. It’ll keep your sleeping bag cleaner and dry.
4. Keep Bear Spray Close
If you’re hiking in an area that allows bear spray (some national parks like Yosemite don’t allow it), carry your bear spray in a holster—not in your pack (it can get knocked out or it won’t be accessible during emergencies). That way, you’ll have immediate access to it in case unforeseen circumstances come your way. Be sure to keep it in your tent at night along with a flashlight. Also, understand how to use it. Before your trip, practice pulling it out of your holster and removing the safety clip at home.
Stay Confident. Stay Updated.
I hope these bear safety guidelines keep you fully prepared for your next camping trip. I’ll keep inspiring and empowering you to overcome fears and step into becoming a confident and self sufficient hiker. If you want to dive deeper into it and step into becoming a limitless hiker, find out more about my new program, Limitless Hiker.